Thursday, 19 September 2013

Sheppey's 130 Vehicle Pileup.

Mid-Kent Group of Advanced Motorist (MKGAM) Observer and Social Network Editor Graham Aylard was shocked when he learnt of the Sheppey Crossing incident on the way to work one foggy morning. Graham comments on the incident and puts aside the obvious question of 'who's fault it is', but asks “Is the Crossing safe?”

News picture of the incident showing 130 vehicles pilled up on the crossing and drivers without vehicles

It's been two weeks since the incredible incident on the Sheppey Crossing. I say incredible, in the sense that no one was killed. Having seen the pictures in the news and on TV, it struck me on how this incident happened.  Before I continue, and as of writing, the Mid-Kent Group of Advanced Motorist are not blaming any individual or organisation. But it did struck me that safety concerns about the Sheppey Crossing were expressed some years back. 
The Sheppey crossing was opened in 2006 after many years of rejected plans and ideas about relieving the Kings Ferry Bridge of most of the traffic volume. Often being held up as the bridge lifted for passing vessels. Indeed, when I was a teenager - I filmed and edited video footage that would later be presented to local government and planners on why Sheppey needed a second crossing. The bridge has become a great life line for many. Quicker journey times on and off the island has brought trade in and out of the country via Sheerness docks. As well as commuters  traveling to and throw to work each day.
The approach to the Crossing the day after the incident. 
On the 5th September a fog descended upon the island. Weather forecasters did forecast it. The island is no stranger to mist and fog patches throughout the year, yet that Thursday morning was to be different. Something happened in the dense thick fog. The scratching of brakes the thud of impact, the crack of plastic and metal coming together at speed. Reports suggest that crash after crash after crash carried on for ten minutes. Motorist reporting that you could only see no more then two car lengths on the bridge. Many motorist fled their vehicles. Some stayed and braced for impact. Some motorist were able to stop in time, only to be hit from behind. And as the fog cleared, all became clear. 130 vehicles, in two piles, one at the bottom near mainland Kent and the other right at the top of the bridge.  Many ambulances attended the scene. Fire brigade armed with cutting equipment released those who were trapped. Command units from all emergency services raced to the incident.  
Kent was besieged with the worst motoring accident ever, and the largest vehicle pileup to be seen in the UK for sometime. Yet thankfully no one was killed.

The cost to this would run into thousands, if not a million or so. Many motorist paying out sums to cover their excess cost. And police, fire and ambulance footing the bill for attending. Not to mention NHS cost for the injured and operations that were cancelled because the nearest hospital, Medway declared a state of emergency.  

How safe is the Sheppey Crossing? 

The police, highways agency and recovery agency done a fantastic job on clearing up, with the bridge reopened later that afternoon / early evening. And an unsung hero who passed the incident as it happened and blocked the entrance to the crossing at the roundabout with his lorry also gets a mention here. Preventing further vehicles entering the danger zone. Members of the public, most who were involved on the bridge helped though's who needed help.  
But as these costs are counted and insurance companies seek to clear up who hit who and so on, I asked myself a simple question. One that was raised when the bridge opened. How safe is the Sheppey Crossing?
Safety concerns were raised back in 2006, street lighting was one of them.
This question was raised by then the Chief Constable Mike Fuller  and Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson. I contacted Mr Henderson MP and asked what his concerns were on the Crossing. His reply was "My concerns in 2006 when the Sheppey Crossing was opened reflected those expressed at the time by the Chief Constable of Kent, Mike Fuller, which revolved around the lack of lighting, emergency phones and a hard shoulder on the bridge."
I know the road well, travelled hundreds of times across the bridge, and I think both Mr Fuller and Mr Henderson has a point. But let's look at other areas. The A249 between Sittingbourne and Detling for example has little street lighting, no hard shoulder and no emergency phones. It also has its fair share of heavy fog and mist, especially at the top of Detling. Yet their has never been a major pileup. 
Mr Henderson goes on to say "We were assured by the Highways Agency that the design of the bridge was safe." I can't help but think that he is correct, more so when one travels over to Sheppey on a nice day. You can see for miles. But in bad weather, speeds should be reduced. Not just on the bridge, but on all roads overall.  
A spokes person from the Highways Agency says "The A249 Sheppey Crossing was designed in accordance with standards set out in the design manual for road and bridges and has had a good safety record since its opening.” The question here is does the standards for bridge design need to be reviewed? The Highways agency continues “However the safety of motorists is a top priority for the Highways Agency and that is why it is continually monitored and kept under review.” 
Our very own chairman, Linda Davies believes that it is not down to the design of the bridge, but believes driver error was the main contribution factor. Although MP Gordon Henderson has concerns over the safety of the bridge, he does add ”Until the accident investigation report is released we have no way of knowing whether on this occasion the lack of lighting, phones or hard shoulder would have made any difference, on this occasion. I suspect not, because it seems fairly clear that the main contributory factors were fog and speed.”

“Drivers must SLOW DOWN and see and be seen.” 
Mid-Kent Group of Advanced Motorist Chairman Linda Davis

As I write the police are still investigating and the Highways Agency says  "We will continue to work with the police in their investigations into the cause of this incident and will consider any recommendations and further findings that are made by the police as a result of the outcomes of the investigation."
We asked the Kent and Medway Camera Partnership for their views, however, they declined to comment on the incident itself. But did go on to say it would be Kent County Council decision on where camera's are placed and any adjustments on spend limits after speed surveys are carried out.
A vessel passing underneath the Sheppey Crossing
MKGAM Chairman Linda Davies goes to comment about what drivers can do in poor weather conditions. “Drivers must SLOW DOWN and see and be seen.” Wise words we can all agree too. 
So while the police are investigating Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP says “I will be asking the Government to undertake a review of safety on the bridge with a view to taking steps to ensure a similar accident is not repeated.”
So while Mr Henderson takes safety concerns to Parliament we can do our bit by taking it a bit easier on the bridge in the future. After all it is driver responsibility to stay safe on the roads in Kent and indeed UK. How about driver education.? That's where we can come in. Even if its proven that you were not at fault, you were the one who stopped in time but was hit from behind. Or the insurance company goes in your favour or even if you were not involved. This might be a good time to review your driving habits. 

We'll review the police findings when the investigation is compete. Feel free to comment, we a interested in your views on the incident.

Further Links.

BBC News,

Kent Online

This Is Kent


Mid-Kent Group of Advanced Motorist can help drivers improve their technique, ability and safety. For more information please visit our website

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