On average someone will crash on the A303 every six days. To find out why this figure is so high, and what is being done to reduce it, reporter Claire Smyth spent an afternoon with a police officer whose primary role is to ensure safety on the road...
Too many drivers think they are immortal. This is the view of PC Chris Dooley, a road policing officer with Avon and Somerset Constabulary.
There are many factors that can lead to road collisions, and unfortunately too many motorists tragically flout them under the false belief that nothing bad will ever happen to them, he says.
But bad things do happen, as the traffic officer knows only too well. Based in Yeovil, Mr Dooley has spent the past ten years patrolling more than 650 square miles of roads in south Somerset.
His primary focus are the main roads such as the A303, the A37 and the A30 but, at the beck and call of the police radio channel, he can be asked to attend any incident anywhere in the county. He says the Yeovil unit responds to an average of 90 calls a month.
Mr Dooley lists a series of offences which he describes as “causation factors” for road crashes.
Speeding, mobile phone use, alcohol and drug use, aggressive driving and unfamiliarity with The Highway Code can all make drivers a hazard. It just takes that one lapse of concentration and, not only can you put your life at danger, but others’ too.
He relays this advice to the driver of a 4x4 we capture on a laser speed gun doing 87mph down a dualled section of the A303 where the limit is 70.
“Speed takes away that most valuable of resources and that is time to react,” Mr Dooley says. “If I never went to another fatal collision in my life again that would be fine but I know I will because I know people will continue to drive recklessly.
“My job and mission is to go out there and stop the worst offenders and educate them.”
Tending to road collisions are a major part of Mr Dooley’s job. Although discovering someone has lost their life is a horrible experience, finding traumatised relatives in the vehicle with their dead loved one is much worse, said Mr Dooley who is also a family liaison officer.
He says: “Loss comes to us all. Sometimes we have time to deal with it, but with a road collision the results are almost instantaneous. Where yesterday you were holding hands doing the shopping, today there’s no one to hold hands with and that can be hard to deal with.
“Grief is a strange emotion. I’ve seen it in lots of different ways. I’ve seen people lying on the floor banging their fists. I’ve seen people coming to attack me. It’s all to do with grief. Eventually you can minimise the grief to some degree but you will never forget and you will never get over the fact part of your life is gone forever.
“It has a huge impact and if it was a result of somebody’s poor driving, behaviour that could have been avoided, it makes the tragedy all the more worse.”
And it is not only the victims’ families who suffer as a result of horror on the roads. Mr Dooley adds: “I’ve dealt with jobs where people of no fault of their own have come into conflict with other users.
“A few years ago, we had a man with dementia who went walking on the A303 in the dead of the night. Unfortunately he was hit and died at the scene. It wasn’t the gentleman’s fault, nor was it the driver’s. But the effect on him was horrendous. He’s killed someone and he’s going to second guess himself for the rest of his life.”
Mr Dooley said it can be frustrating when cyclists and pedestrians use the A303 at night. Although not illegal, as many parts of the road are not lit it may not be the most sensible thing to do. Recently, his unit found a young man in dark clothes walking along the road in the direction of the traffic at night. He was going to meet friends and still had another ten miles to go.
It is Mr Dooley’s responsibility to ensure safe passage for all those who use the road. This is why another aspect of his job is to keep an eye on the vast number of lorries that pass through the region.
Mr Dooley, a specialist in commercial vehicles, will check drivers are adhering to the law when it comes to having enough rest. He watches out for opportunists who may attempt to steal fuel or goods while a driver is sleeping. And he will offer assistance to broken-down vehicles, ensuring they do not pose a hazard to themselves or other motorists.
He is also conscious of drivers of left-handed vehicles with their impaired vision and lack of local knowledge.
Unlike the motorway, there are no restrictions on the type of vehicles allowed on the A303. So Mr Dooley takes care to check farming equipment and agricultural vehicles are travelling safely and have their loads securely strapped on.
Although measures such as redesigning a road and installing crash barriers can help minimise the number of deaths, it is ultimately driver behaviour that most contributes to the death toll each year, Mr Dooley says.
He adds: “Every day policing that road brings you into constant contact with people who are dangerous to others so anything that can be done to stop that can only be a good thing.
“Engineering a road can make a difference but no matter how much you engineer it, it’s the people driving along it that make the real difference.”
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