Mike, his colleague and our driver, positions the car in the middle of the motorway and, as the abandoned bonnet comes into view, he slows to a crawl before swinging the wheel and pulling up at an angle. Tony flicks the switch marked ‘Stop’.
I look behind again. The two lanes are thick with cars and trucks, all of them at a standstill. Tony jumps out and drags the discarded bonnet to the nearside verge, from where it’ll be retrieved later by a recovery crew.
It’s hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the drivers behind us. There you are, late for a business meeting and here, in the words of one popular pundit, is one of those ‘motorway Wombles: a fat bloke with facial hair and a Napoleon complex’, holding you up and ruining your day.
True, Tony has a beard, and both he and Mike are not exactly svelte (an hour earlier, we stopped for what they called a ‘strategic Greggs’ at Clackett Lane Services) but both deny they have a Napoleon complex.
“We’re not frustrated coppers,” says Tony, who used to work in the control centre at Southern Water (Mike is a qualified advanced driving instructor), after he has climbed back into the car and extinguished the ‘Stop’ message. “In fact, sometimes, we get frustrated with the coppers.”
Mike steers the Discovery to the hard shoulder, and the M26 grand prix resumes. I scan the passing cars for a raised finger. Not one.
“We do get abuse,” says Mike. “They know we have limited powers [TOs have no powers of arrest and cannot drive above 70mph, but they can stop a vehicle if they believe it is unsafe] but occasionally they thank us for getting them away safely.”
And for the TOs, it is all about safety. A few minutes later, as we’re heading towards the M25 at the TOs’ preferred 60mph cruise (“We don’t get in the way of slower trucks or faster cars and can spot things”) that instinct for safety is pressed into action when the TOs spot a broken-down Porsche 911 on the opposite carriageway. There’s no hard shoulder and the car has come to a halt, half on the verge, half in the road. Last December, in England, 16 vehicles stranded on the hard shoulder were struck by passing vehicles, so the TOs are keen to get it on its way.