Motoring: Coming to a screen near you: nightmare on the M5: Trafficmaster is streets ahead of radio in providing information that helps you to steer clear of tailbacks, says Phil Llewellin

THREE o'clock on a Friday afternoon and I am heading north on the M5. Traffic is light as my Citroen ZX cruises past Bromsgrove. Then a discreet beep draws attention to the Filofax-sized unit on the dashboard. A flashing square warns that traffic is oozing along at 10mph where the M5 merges with the northbound M6. A few minutes later, another beep draws attention to an update: a four-mile tailback has developed.

The situation is exacerbated when the screen flashes news of more trouble between the M5/M6 and M6/M54 junctions. Traffic is moving at 10mph on that part of my intended route. These 'real time' reports paint a picture bad enough to merit a change of plan. I leave the motorway, take a quick look at the road atlas and follow a dual-carriageway detour. It takes me to the M6 a few miles north of Wolverhampton, clear of all the trouble.

The system that has made my motoring much easier for the past two months, and 6,000 miles, is called Trafficmaster. Having covered the London area since September 1990, pumping out round-the-clock information about the M25, it was this week extended to more than 1,000 miles of motorways. My enthusiasm is based on an exclusive trial of the new network, bounded by Dover, Portsmouth, the Welsh side of the Severn Bridge, Telford, the M6 north of Stafford, the M1 north of Leicester and the M11 to Cambridge.

Trafficmaster's data comes from hundreds of 'black box' detectors on bridges and gantries about two miles apart. Sensors use infrared technology to measure the speed and volume of traffic in each direction. A microprocessor calculates average speed over a 'rolling' three-minute period. Radio signals alert the control centre in Luton when the average speed drops below 30mph. Then a radio-paging frequency sends the news to the in-car Trafficmaster unit. Information is updated until a 'Reports Clear' message appears on the screen.

Trafficmaster is easy to work. Eight buttons flank a screen measuring about four inches by three. Pressing the right button reveals a clear map that gives an overview of the whole system. Three more dabs of the appropriate button or buttons enable you to focus on a specific area, such as the 25 miles of M4 west of Swindon.

Providing on-the-spot information never more than three minutes old is Trafficmaster's greatest strength. Radio reports, in my experience, are never received until you have been stuck in a jam for ages, and they are not comprehensive. In contrast, the fully portable Trafficmaster unit, which is on my desk as I write this, is providing detailed information about chaos on the M25's western rim, very slow going on the northbound M5 near Worcester and at the M1's junction with the M6. It tells me that clockwise would be the way to tackle the M25 if I were heading down the M1 with Gatwick as my destination.

Problems are often explained by shorthand messages that appear either in a corner of the map or on one of the text pages. This service takes in London itself, so the messages include a warning that the A13 flyover in Canning Town is down to one lane in each direction, due to roadworks.

'The service gives you a chance to choose an alternative route,' says David Martell, whose company, General Logistics, has invested more than pounds 3m in Trafficmaster and is introducing it in the United States. 'You can tell at a glance which way to go round Birmingham and, if you're heading for London, whether the M40 is a better bet than the M1.'

The Confederation of British Industry says traffic congestion costs the nation more than pounds 15bn a year in wasted time and fuel. The figure helps to explain why Trafficmaster's big-name users include British Aerospace, Kodak, Ford, Esso, Barclays Bank, Sainsbury, Virgin Atlantic and ICI. Mr Martell expects the extended coverage to attract between 50 and 100 per cent more customers every week. There are now about 3,000.

I faulted it only once, when heading east along the M54. The screen suddenly indicated traffic down to walking pace on a stretch where only three other vehicles were in sight.

A unit costs pounds 199, but to that must be added pounds 19.50 a month for the information service without which it is useless. Installation takes about two hours, makes no mess - the unit even has a built-in aerial - and costs between pounds 50- pounds 100 (excluding VAT).

Disadvantages are hard to spot. The main one identified during this real-life test is that Trafficmaster attracts a small but not insignificant part of your attention, particularly until the novelty wears off. There is a risk of running into the back of a lorry while reading a message or switching maps to see what is happening in other parts of the country.

When news of a problem ahead hits the screen, it is often tempting to take a quick look at the road atlas while driving. The ideal system would combine traffic information with an element of route guidance.

General Logistics, Luton International Airport, Luton, Beds. LU2 9LU: (0582 484414).

(Photograph omitted)

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

    £40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

    Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

    Day In a Page

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before