King Canute may have had trouble stopping the tide, but not Tony. The Highways England traffic officer (TO) has simply to flick a couple of switches and the tide of cars pounding along the M26 in Kent slows to a crawl and, eventually, to a stop.
Minutes earlier, as we were travelling in the opposite direction, he’d spied the bonnet of a car – the remains of a recent accident – in the central reservation, just inches from the outside lane. There’s a strong wind and Tony reckons that it could blow the bonnet into the road.
So he’s going to move it, and to do that, he must stop the traffic. At the flick of the switch on the Land Rover Discovery’s ‘rolling road’ control panel, the LED message board at the rear of the vehicle displays ‘Slow down’. I turn around in my seat to see the few cars following us fall back. Tony wants to build up a head of traffic so that the lanes behind us become clogged, preventing an impatient driver making a break for it.
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.”