Jayne Dowle: Fit for nothing after drive on roads unfit for purpose

I have just returned from a 12-hour journey. I wish I could tell you of the exotic places I visited, the amazing things I witnessed, the fascinating people I met.

Traffic on Good Friday on the A64 coastbound on the York bypass.

I could have been to North Africa and back in this time. But all I can report is a Bank Holiday round-trip to Caterham in Surrey from South Yorkshire, which started in Sheffield city centre at 11am and ended back home in Barnsley just before 11pm.

The purpose of this trip was to pick up my two children, who were visiting their father. I didn’t even get out of the car to load them in. Indeed, the only moments I spent away from the wheel were a quick “comfort stop” at Watford Gap on the way down, plus a mercy dash to Morrison’s in Caterham to purchase sandwiches.

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My Sheffield to Surrey ETA had been 2.15pm. My plan was to collect Jack and Lizzie and have a leisurely lunch before heading home for tea-time. This was before I finally got off the motorway at half-past-four, wild-eyed, wild-haired and starving, as if I had come through a portal from a disaster movie, not a semi-rural roundabout.

What happened? Well, I found myself stuck in slow-moving traffic at the bottom of the M1 for an hour and no discernible reason except the dreaded “variable speed limit”.

This was teeth-grindingly dull enough, but then I was held up for almost two hours on the M25 near Heathrow. No traffic alerts on the radio. Nothing. Except stationary traffic both sides of the central reservation and ambulances and fire engines flying down the opposite hard shoulder.

My irritation was tinged with guilt. What if there had been a fatal smash? Only that morning I had heard about the man killed when his car plunged into the River Don on the A1M in the atrocious conditions brought by Storm Katie.

At least I was alive, buoyed up by half a bag of Haribo (£3.99 for a sandwich at Watford Gap, don’t think so) and Classic FM (Bach providing a dramatic counterpoint to the sirens).

I settled myself in for the slow crawl forward, hoping I wasn’t about to witness some devastated family’s belongings strewn all over the outside lane, tinged with blood – many hours behind the wheel alone does weird things to the mind. Minutes ticked by. My life ticked by. I thought of my children, wondering where their mother was. I thought of the journey back. I thought I could still be here the day after. And then, suddenly a rush forward.

Had the accident been cleared? Was everyone safe? Dare I look? But, er, nothing to see, except a man in a cherry-picker mending a light. And this – this – had held up the traffic on one of Britain’s busiest motorways for all that time, throwing so many people’s Easter Monday plans into chaos.

I don’t know which irony struck me most. That the government’s Highways Agency had made the proud boast that more than 450 miles of roadworks would be ceased for the duration of the Easter Holiday weekend.

Or that there must be thousands of miles of motorways and major A roads in this country without any carriageway lights at all. This includes long stretches of both the M1 and A1M in our region, including the spot between Junction 36 and 37, where that poor man plunged into the icy depths.

I do not work for the Highways Agency. I am not a road engineer. I make no claim to understand traffic flow and the issues which impede it. I am just a motorist.

However, I would like to make a plea on behalf of all my fellow drivers. Please, please can someone look into the state of motorway traffic in the UK and do all in your power to sort it out?

This is a nationwide matter: in the last week alone, I’ve heard of a 12-hour journey between Winchester and Leeds, and a three and a half hour delay at Tintwistle near the Woodhead Pass – site of an endlessly debated bypass – which meant a missed flight to Spain from Manchester. We all have bad journeys, but these individual stories add up and suggest one thing; there is something rotten at the heart of our roads.

We cannot stop people getting in their cars and driving – there are now an estimated 30 million drivers now in the UK, according to the RAC. Given this rising number, could we though, ask a government-backed, independent task-force to find ways to stop things getting any worse? It might start by examining whether all those 50-mile-an-hour zones are necessary, why thousands of miles of motorways are unlit, and why diversions are not put in place sooner when accidents or hold-ups hit.

As I sat there on the M25, I observed the sinuous curve of a slip road, and stared at the optimistic arch of a bridge. It struck me that although billions have been invested in improving infrastructure in recent years, we’re still stuck with an actual motorway system designed and built in the 1960s. It’s no longer fit for purpose. And after a 12-hour round trip to Surrey, I’m fit for nothing.