The traffic bulletin on BBC Radio 2 warned of northbound congestion on the M5 motorway. The tailback stretched from Junction 20 for Clevedon to Junction 27 for Tiverton, some forty-five miles. The presenter said that there was not more than half a mile in the entire length of road when a car could be driven in top gear. It seems madness, and it is not a recent phenomenon.
The M5 motorway was not completed until the mid-1970s and the tailbacks on the A38 trunk road from Devon through Somerset would run for miles and miles. On the first Saturday of the school summer holidays, a reporter from BBC West would stand in the village of North Petherton, between Taunton and Bridgwater, and talk about how many hours it would take to make even the most modest progress. Local people would look at the traffic jams and shake their heads at such madness.
Forty years later, the roads have improved considerably, but the traffic has grown heavier. Progress on the motorway on days like today is often at a speed no greater than one might have managed on a country road, sometimes it is slower, much slower. It is not for want of investment, it is just that every increase in road capacity seems to bring forth a corresponding increase in the number of cars on the road. Anyone who suggests that the solution lies in leaving the car at home should try travelling around the West Country on public transport. Dr Beeching stripped the region of most of its railway lines in the 1960s and buses are a rarity in many communities – and even if public transport is available, the prices of tickets for an entire family make the cost prohibitive.
The answer to the problems experienced by those driving through Somerset today would seem to lie in better traffic management. In a secular country, the French example of staggering holidays region by region could be followed. Allow people two days of public holiday, but allow them to take them in the context of the school holidays for their region. And make use of technology. Highways England could produce a traffic management app. Intending travellers could be asked to log their journey plans, to assist with planning, and then receive updates as to the optimum journey times. Highways England could also make much better use of smart motorway technology, reducing the maximum speed to stop bunching and monitoring distances between vehicles to prevent the accidents that can cause major delays on already congested routes.
It was a delight, today, not be be driving home from Devon.