Monday, 9 September 2013

Sheppey September Souper Smash Shows Safety Shambles?

Last Monday saw a 130 vehicle pile-up on the New Sheppey Crossing in Kent, which carries the A249 across The Swale between Sittingbourne and the isle of sheppey, then onto the port of Sheerness.

First, despite the frivolity of the title of this post, I am being serious. People have been hurt in this crash and I wish all concerned a speedy recovery - I am sure we will hear their stories as the police piece together what actually happened. I also issue a health warning; although I have used the bridge a few times, this is armchair punditry with a fair bit of opinion and flying with Google Streetview.

The bridge rises above the marsh.
Image from Google Streetview.
First, the bridge in question is a little bit of an unusual beast. The land on either side is flat, marshy and not much above sea level; and because the Swale takes marine traffic, it rises some 35 metres up into the air and so from the side it looks like a huge hump-backed bridge.

Driver's view of the bridge.
Image from Google Streetview.
Mind you, it is pretty damn long and so from the drivers' point of view it is no different than going over a long hill. Being a 4-lane dual carriageway with a barriered central reservation, head-on collisions are not an issue.

Opened in 2006, the bridge was built to divert traffic off the old road / rail Kingsferry lifting bridge; the problem being that every time the bridge was lifted to allow shipping to pass, it disrupted traffic.

The Kingsferry Bridge. The section between the concrete uprights
lifts vertically to allow shipping on the Swale to pass under.
Image from Google Streetview.
The Kingsferry bridge is still in operation because the new bridge has a prohibition for use by pedestrians, cyclists, equestrians and motorcycles with 50cc engines or less (mopeds essentially). My assumption is that those users would be very slow and vulnerable on the bridge as it is subject to the National speed limit (70mph for cars) and it is very windy out in the edge of the Thames estuary.

Turning back to the pile up. The crash occurred at around 7:15am last Thursday (5th September) and involved people leaving the island. People involved have suggested that the crash continued for 10 minutes with people driving into the back of others who had already crashed or stopped. The thing about Thursday was that there was heavy fog out on the Thames estuary and this stretched well into East London. This was round about the time I set off for work and despite the sun trying to get through the fog, I had my lights on for the first time this year for my cycle commute because of the fog.

Many years ago, I drove over the Dartford Crossing on a daily basis to get to work. Like Sheppey, the QEII bridge is very high and the land either side is flat. Towards the end of August and on into the Autumn, this part of the world often has foggy mornings funnelled in by the hills flanking the Thames to the north and south and in some cases reaching the City and beyond. Fog on Sheppey is not a surprise at this time of year.

As is often the case just after a crash of this kind, there has been all sorts of finger pointing. Chief Inspector Andy Reeves was asked if the fog was to blame and he said that the crash was over a protracted area with undamaged vehicles between others which had collided - to be fair, the police will not speculate early as they may prejudice any investigation or charges being brought.

Fortunately, the local MP, Gordon Henderson, was happy to raise his concerns about the lack of lighting, emergency phones and a hard shoulder on the bridge (as he did in 2006), despite initially saying he was more interested in what was happening to those involved - it didn't take much probing by the ITV reporter to tease his concerns out!

Kent Fire & Rescue at the scene.
Photo Chris Buckingham / Twitter.
The BBC has reported various opinions such as the need for matrix signs, a lower speed limit, queue detection and so on; with again, mentions of what should have been done in 2006. 

However, for me, AA president, Edmund King, sums up what I think happened. He thinks the crash may have been caused by "stupid driving". He said:

"It's really bad to travel too close to the car in front in good conditions and if you do it in foggy conditions it's an absolute recipe for disaster.

"In dense fog you cannot see the brake lights ahead. By law, you don't have to have fog lights on, although it's recommended."

"Unfortunately many people don't know how to turn their fog lights on. You may only need them once a year but it's vital they get used."

If you think about it, it was already daylight when the crash occurred, but even if the bridge was lit, the thick fog would have diffused the light to the extent that it would be useless to illuminate the road or traffic. A hard shoulder may have helped emergency and recovery vehicles, but would not have stopped the crash. Emergency phones would not have helped - they are for people who have broken down and I think those involved in this crash would not have had reaching an orange phone on the side of the road on their minds.

Queue detection might have helped as this would have been linked to warning signs, but of course this relies on people obeying them. No, the comments of Chief Inspector Reeves reveal the likely chain of events. This was not one crash, but a series of linked crashes. I imagine that this all started because someone had decided to slow down because of the fog as they couldn't be sure of stopping if there was a problem ahead. This sensible person was then rewarded by having an idiot who was going too fast for the conditions smashing into the back of them.

This mode of failure continued for the ten minutes after the initial incident (it was the start of the morning peak) with mixture of people managing to stop and further idiots smashing into them and other people who were either slowing down or who had already crashed. The visibility had been reported as down to 30 yards in some places - this is 6 or 7 car lengths and so I doubt a lower speed limit would have had much effect - in fact, when the bridge operates normally, who would enforce it? What would be a sensible speed limit?

No, for my mind this was the fault of some of the drivers involved who either thought they were far better drivers than they are; or just simply had no concept that they may need to be slowing to a speed where they could stop in the distance they could see. Edmund King's comments about lights is spot on as when driving in fog, you really need to be sure about the road ahead as otherwise, you are trusting the people in front of you to be using their lights. The trouble is that people like to blame everything else except their behaviour.

Not everyone is allowed to use the crossing.
Image from Google Streetview.
One aside has come out from my research and this comes back to those prohibited from using the bridge. Their alternative is the Kingsferry Bridge. While it would be nice in terms of the view to use the other bridge, it would be a very windy climb up there. The Kingsferry Bridge is flat, although you would need to stop for a rest if it was up!

The trouble is, that this bridge is still open to all traffic and is subject to a 40mph speed limit. As a cyclist (and an equestrian for that matter) you are left on the narrow carriageway on the bridge. Leaving Sheppey, you are cycling right next to a concrete barrier separating the road from the railway.

The cycle track fizzles out before the bridge.
Image from Google Streetview.
Some effort has been made to accommodate cyclists with cycle tracks, but they are shared with pedestrians and very narrow. 

There is a need to be able to access Swale railway station which is right next to the bridge and I assume that the operator of the bridge might need to get to work (plus maintenance teams). If the smaller and more vulnerable users are banned from the 4 lane highway, why wasn't that traffic then banned from the old bridge?

This has happened as long as bypasses have been built in the UK. A tonne of money is thrown at building new roads, but the old routes being bypassed are never changed to the point where vulnerable road users have priority. Sure, the bypassed area may get a lower speed limit or a bit of traffic calming, but essentially the car is still king.

With Sheppey, £100m was spent improving the A249 between the M2 and Sheerness (for traffic) and so why couldn't some of the budget have been used to make the route better for those not allowed to use the new bridge? There is a road running parallel to Sheppey Way (the road over the Kingsferry Bridge) and this could have been rejigged to provide access to Swale Station and released the bridge for use by cyclists, pedestrians, equestrians and mopeds. 

Of course, in an emergency or maintenance situation on the new bridge, the Kingsferry Bridge is there for emergency traffic or as a diversion route, but such situations are under firm control. Now, I have no idea what demand there would be for walking and cycling across this link, but if we had a UK policy of changing old routes when new are built for traffic, then surely we create the option for people to leave their cars at home?


  1. When prohibitions on who can use a bridge are put in place, attention has also to be put to actually enforcing that prohibition. This is kind of an aside, but I live near the Avonmouth motorway bridge on the M5. There is a cycle path which passes over the bridge, with a big solid metal fence between the motorway lanes and the cycle path. The 'cycle' path is restricted to bicycles, pedestrians, mobility scooters and motorcycles under 50cc (so, essentially, anyone not allowed to use the motorway). Unfortunately, since these restrictions are not enforced, it is not uncommon to be cycling or walking over the bridge and be passed by a speeding (large) motorcycle which just coulcn't be bothered to use the road network and the motorway...

  2. D.

    And here is one end

    I must have basted past on the M5 during my summer holidays! Clearly the diversion would be massive for banned people and so this looks reasonable, although it could be wider from what I can see.

    Enforcement is key and I would have thought ANPR would deal with most motorcycles (the M5 is getting "managed motorway" treatment and the odd extra camera would be nothing). But, it would need the odd police patrol or trap to be effective as number plates can be covered!

    1. I live at the other end, and there are the same signs - (don't use this cycle path unless you are a pedestrian, on a bicycle, on a mobility scooter or a motorcycle under 50 cc). I can't show it as Google streetview vans aren't allowed to drive anywhere near it as it is at the end of a lane - location here , where the lane starts to curve up toward the north - but nevertheless people on much larger motorbikes or scooters go over there regularly. Bit of a pain, really.

  3. The lesson I take from this episode is:
    The activities of highway engineers and vehicle engineers has been to idiot proof the motoring environment to produce idiots (or at least exacerbate their tendency to idiocy).

    Sorry guys, but you engineers have been part of the problem here. Would the "human error" of so many drivers have occurred without such efforts over the last few decades? Society would have refused to tolerate such carelessness/rule or law breaking/criminal negligence, whether by more careful driving or greater sanctions against the errant.

    Dr. Robert Davis, Chair, Road Danger Reduction Forum

  4. Robert,

    I agree to a certain extent (yes "we" are part of the problem), especially where engineers are car centric themselves and not open to a wider argument. However, leadership is the issue for me as engineers are often doing the bidding of others - often politicians.

    With Sheppey, there is a debate whether or not Sheerness needed a dual carriageway from the M2, but a decision was taken to build it and what was built is not unsafe in terms of layout. But, the perfect storm of heavy fog and some drivers who frankly were ill equipped to cope or plan arrogant about their abilities caused the series of crashes and this was my main point.

    For me, the issue facing engineers is their willingness to challenge the brief as in the cut-throat world, if you don't want the work, the next person or firm does. The brief is the client's and this is where the leadership flows from.

  5. "However, leadership is the issue for me as engineers are often doing the bidding of others - often politicians."

    As a local authority employee of a couple of decades standing - tell me about it! However, you do have to stand up to them, otherwise it is just "we were only obeying orders".

    It isn't just car-centric ones either, I think there are problems that run deep in the engineering mind-set - but I won't go into that now.

    What I can say is that the "idiot-proofing" bit - which applies just as much to vehicle engineers - has to be recognised.

    Robert Davis, RDRF

    1. Not a fan of Vision Zero and its hippy-dippy forgiving roadsides (or indeed recognizable roads - that's a Dutch idea after all)?


  6. We (engineers) must strive to be objective and give advice independently, without that, how can we be professionals?

  7. Sure.
    That might mean telling the powers that be that they are wrong: e.g. supporting cycling may be a lot more likely to ruffle feathers than they think.

    More important, how do you square your conscience with working for people who are committed to a car-centric status quo?

    Robert Davis

  8. Robert - yes, a good point - I do get votes at committee going against the advice, but that is "their" job - not mine to recommend what I think they want to hear.

    An excellent question - I think a good one to answer with a blog post!

  9. These motorists, driving too fast, not using fog lights, too close to the car in front. They should all be made to take a test before they drive. Oh, hang on, they do. Alright then, until they behave we should not build them any more roads.