The mother of all traffic jams

James Rampton spent a day with the RAC at the notorious M5/M6 intersection in Walsall
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The Independent Culture
One of the coverlines on the latest issue of RAC Magazine asks: "What makes us really mad on the road?" The answer many people give is: motorway traffic. Why is it that despite the Cones Hotline, Trafficmaster route-finders and any number of whizzo initiatives to beat jams, our motorways are still so often turned into 10-mile car-parks?

Where better to travel for an answer than to the busiest stretch of motorway in Europe. The Walsall nexus of the M6 and M5 motorways is the most consistent traffic blackspot in the country. It's a 10-mile stretch, where the main north-south artery intersects with the principal route to the West Country. On weekday mornings, jams begin as early at 6.30am and last until 11am. There's often a brief breather at lunchtime and then the congestion starts again at about 3pm, sometimes not clearing until 8pm. Cars are estimated to pass along at an average rate of 800 per minute. Known as the "pinch- point" of the M6, this place is a vision of what Heathcote Williams' poem calls "Autogeddon": car hell.

The landmark which signifies your arrival in Gridlock City is the RAC's Bescot Control Centre, which stands hard by the junction like a huge hunk of blue-glass cheese on a piece of industrial wasteland next to Walsall FC's ground. "Spot our building and you know there's a tail-back ahead," laughs John Cadman, an RAC Incident Manager. The slightest thing can trigger off traffic; Mr Cadman recalls a snarl-up caused by a motorist going to relieve himself on the hard shoulder and returning to find that he'd locked himself out of his car.

Designed five years ago by Italian architect Gennaro Picardi, the Control Centre was intended to resemble a glass eye overlooking the motorway; it is known locally as "the ski slope on the M6". Like the Pompidou Centre in Paris, its blue tubular innards are fashionably displayed on the outside - a fact that no doubt helped the building pick up a regional award from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Artistic endeavours apart, it is there for sound commercial reasons. According to Andrew Wetters, regional public affairs manager for the RAC, it occupies that site because of the traffic numbers that pass it. "It was built there because of its high visibility. It wasn't anything to do with the number of breakdowns around here."

The Control Centre commands a bird's eye view of the Rolls-Royce of traffic jams. Its cavernous open-plan office, boasting more pot plants than Interflora, looks out at the road-rage-inducing stramash below. But, the RAC is keen to stress, they don't just sit back and watch others suffer; they are actively campaigning to do something about it. They are, for instance, calling for motorists convicted of violence against other drivers to receive "rage counselling" before they are allowed their licences back. The Lex Report found that more than 1.8 million drivers were obliged to pull over in road-rage incidents last year.

Richard Woods, RAC campaigns manager, explains: "Traffic jams are one of the key catalysts of the rage. There's no doubt that the pace of modern life and the fact that congestion is now an everyday occurence exacerbate the problem. Someone cuts in at a roadworks and you get incensed by that."

Getting into full campaigning flow, he continues: "We've got one of the worst transport systems in Europe. Kenneth Clarke cut investment in roads by 50 per cent in the last Budget. Transport has become a political punch- bag. the Hammersmith flyover is an emotive symbol of the general condition of Britain's roads. The fact it's going to have essential roadworks for the next 10 years is deeply disturbing." And, Woods claims, that's not all. "We estimate that six to eight thousand miles will need urgent work in the next four years. We're in for yet more cones chaos."

Both tolling and restricted peak-hours access to motorways are being investigated as solutions to motorway jams, but as Wetters points out, "you are just transferring the traffic to the local roads".

There appears to be little light at the end of the contra-flow. Motorway traffic seems to be doomed to enter the new millenium at a snail's pace. How will we deal with traffic deadlock? Over Christmas the RAC offered stressed-out motorists the services of a psychologist at various key motorway service-stations. Conrad King, the RAC's psychologist, says the idea was "to avoid any future 'hostile engagement mentality' ". So that's the answer: get out of the driving seat into the psychiatrist's chair.