Magazine article The Spectator

It's Enough to Drive You Mad

Magazine article The Spectator

It's Enough to Drive You Mad

Article excerpt

LETS say you're stuck in a jam. It's not moving, or not more than a yard a minute, and you are slowly going out of your mind. That schedule of appointments is disintegrating, you are letting people down; and as you start to feel like biting the steering wheel and hammering on the fascia you become obsessed with the question: what is the problem? Just what is going on half a mile away, where you can vaguely make out some orange flashing lights and a row of bollards; what is happening to this road that necessitates ruining your life? And, as you finally creep up to the obstruction, this is what you see. You see a Turner Prize-winning essay in pointlessness. You see a hole in the road, surrounded by some red and white booms, and a couple of unattended machines. Nine times out of ten there is also a great strip of usable road which has been arbitrarily coned off by -- whom? It's hard to say, because the site seems deserted. No one seems to care about the hole, or to see any point in filling it in.

If you are seeking evidence that the motorist is part of the gallery of New Labour villains, along with smokers, hunters and hereditary peers; if you want to appreciate the mendacity of John Prescott's pledge this week that we are seeing 'an acceleration down the right road', it can be found in the state of our crumbling road network, riddled with cones and potholes, with lane closures and mains openings.

Despite the billions that motorists pour into the Treasury every year through road tax, fuel duties, company-car tax, VAT and insurance tax, the service provided through the highways of Britain is a national disgrace. Too much car travel today has become the equivalent of a slow-motion journey along a gigantic obstacle course. Imagine the outcry if Railtrack allowed massive engineering works to occur throughout its network even at peak commuting hours, making journeys take five times longer than they should. But that is exactly what happens in the roads system. The 'Men at Work' sign is now the emblem of modern British motoring.

As a driver travelling around 20,000 miles a year, I perhaps have an idea, a flavour, of the appalling frustrations of the nation as a whole. One recent journey from Essex down to Somerset, along the M25, M4 and M5, took almost ten hours because of the cone-induced hold-ups. At times during the summer the M40 towards Oxford resembled a massive pay-and-display car park, while the Al appeared to be a permanent construction site rolling very gently northwards. Angela Purno, whose work as a sales executive takes her all over Britain, has told me that she is 'exasperated to the point of insanity' by the closure of so many sections of road. 'Only this week, a journey on the M1 on to the M62, which should take only about three hours, lasted more than six. Journey times have become utterly irrelevant to the distance travelled.'

Is Angela alone in detecting that the plague of roadworks is getting worse? She is not. She is supported by the latest figures from the Highways Agency, which is responsible for all motorways and trunk roads. These show that the number of lane closures on the national roads network has gone up from 213 last August to 376 this month. The Agency says that part of this increase is the result of more efficient computer reporting systems (they always come up with that one, these days); and yet that hardly accounts for the pits, the potholes, the acne-like eruptions across the roads of Britain. On other roads, maintained by local authorities, the story is even worse. According to the AA, there are an astonishing four million digging operations every year, with no fewer than 400,000 taking place in London. One estimate puts the cost to British industry of traffic delays at 18 billion a year.

For all the ane that these-roadworks produce, there is strangely little demand for radical action. It is almost as if the congestion they cause is accepted as part of the fabric of modern British life, like sporting disasters or Chris Tarrant. …

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