Beyond the Red Lights: A Comprehensive Approach to Roadside Recovery Safety

Dr Shaun Helman responds to the publication of TRLs report which is behind the Government decision to permit red flashing lamps on breakdown vehicles.

Published on 02 April 2024

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The 'Plan for Drivers' policy paper from October 2023 outlined various measures intended to improve the safety of road users across England, Scotland, and Wales. Among these measures was the introduction of red flashing lights for breakdown vehicles. This measure aims to increase the visibility of recovery vehicles during roadside assistance, thereby reducing the risk of collisions.

The decision to permit red flashing lampss on breakdown vehicles is backed by research conducted by TRL, which has just been published. TRL supports the decision, although the anticipated improvements in driver understanding of and response to red lamps are modest, when compared with the orange lamps currently used. This raises an important question: what else can be done?

While the use of red flashing lamps is a step in the right direction, alone it is not enough to guarantee the safety of road recovery operators. These professionals face significant risks when assisting stranded motorists, often working in dangerous conditions close to fast-moving traffic. The introduction of red lamps should be viewed as the beginning of a broader safety improvement journey rather than a standalone solution. In addition to enhanced visibility, there are other measures that could significantly contribute to the safety of recovery operators. One such example is ‘Slow Down, Move Over’, championed on LinkedIn by Paul Anstee among others, and a movement based on laws present in the United States. Such laws require drivers to slow down or change lanes when approaching a vehicle stopped at the roadside, providing a safer environment for roadside assistance and emergency responders. The adoption of a similar law in England, Wales, and Scotland could be a game-changer. Technology solutions are also promising, with at least one cross-brand technology being demonstrated at CES 2024. (This is not an endorsement; this is just one I know about, and as ever independent evaluation will be important).

Focusing solely on red lamps is akin to advising cyclists to wear high-visibility jackets without addressing other road safety measures relevant to their safety (such as good quality segregated infrastructure and lower vehicle speeds around them). While visibility is crucial for roadside workers too, it is not the only factor in improving their safety. A multifaceted approach that combines visibility, legal protection, public awareness, technology, and driver education is required to create a safer roadside working environment.

Adopting an evidence-based approach in policymaking is commendable, and the decision to introduce red flashing lamps for recovery vehicles is a positive step. We need to do more, however; we must not assume that this measure will solve the problem by itself. The change is welcome, hopefully as the beginning of a system-wide set of improvements.

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