Anyone who has driven a reasonable distance in mainland Britain will have spent much of that time staring blankly at three lanes of fast traffic, speedometer pegged at 70, occasionally swearing at middle-lane hoggers, periodically being asked if we’re there yet, and wishing for it to be over soon. And if you’ve spent more than a couple of hours doing that, you’ll have given in to hunger, thirst (whether yours or the car’s) or bladder pressure and visited the most British of hell’s circles: the motorway service area.
Motorway service areas (hereinafter MSAs) are, for the most part, bloody awful places. Originally designed to stop people trying to have picnics on the hard shoulder, the earliest ones have observation towers to marvel at the big empty road and open countryside beneath. The tower at Forton even had a waiter-service restaurant where one could sit on the ‘sun deck’ and admire the 1960s. Of course that’s now closed to the public, and we’re left with (at best) a big shed and (at worst) a cramped and claustrophobic blockhouse containing the very worst of Anglo-American cuisine, dirty and inadequate toilets (and the only place I ever have to queue for the gents), a generic, overpriced and greasy café, a coffee shop, a newsagent, and some stalls selling cheap mobile phone accessories. So the apparent purpose of an MSA is to give you something edible, take away your waste, wake you up a bit, and send you on your way with a copy of The People’s Friend and some mobile bling. Can that be right?My recent trip to the Edinburgh Fringe got me thinking about all this. It’s a proper schlep from where I live—about 350 miles—so always involves a couple of stops. In both directions I stopped at Annandale Water, a relatively new service area on the M74. I visited the necessary facilities, got a flat white, and went for a walk: a leisurely stroll past a little waterfall and round the man-made loch, chatting to the resident geese, playing with other people’s dogs grateful for some time out of their cages, stopping to admire the peace of the landscape. This is actually really, really nice, I surprised myself by thinking. Walking back to the car I felt relaxed and invigorated. This is what MSAs are for.
What really needs fixing?
A couple of years ago, Mark Goodge (the maintainer of the excellent Motorway Services website) wrote a piece called What really needs fixing at MSAs. He picks up on the most common complaints: cost, cleanliness and parking charges. He’s right of course—he should know, he has a website’s worth of comments at his fingertips—but I see a more fundamental problem.Shortly before each MSA, a sign reminds drivers that ‘Tiredness can kill’ and implores us to ‘take a break’; the big orange matrix boards periodically tell us the same thing. Accidents on the roads aren’t investigated with the same rigour as those in aviation, where human factors are treated as seriously as mechanical failures. These can appear unrelated to the job at hand; for example, some pilots have commented that intrusive security procedures cause stress that accompanies the crew to the flight deck. By the same token, it is undoubtedly true that events surrounding a car journey can affect the driver’s state of mind, and taking regular breaks is a way of mitigating stress and fatigue. But on a long slog up the M6, is it really possible to take a meaningful break?
In most MSAs, I would suggest that it is not. If a driver and his passengers want to relax, where do they go? The
restaurants eating areas are cramped and noisy, and full of dirty looks if all that’s wanted is to sit and chill out for a bit. Apart from that, there are very few options. MSAs are no escape from the stress and fatigue of the road: a noisy, crowded building full of other strung-out drivers and their weary families will only serve to force everyone back into their cars faster than is good for them. Without digressing too far, this is clearly in the MSAs’ interests: if the environment was too comfortable, people would just sit around instead of spending money and buggering off.
Drivers are warned constantly about the dangers of fatigue, and it’s about time that the MSAs were made fit for the purpose of helping the public drive safely. Whether they do this voluntarily or through a regulatory scheme, it would be a significant contribution to road safety. And just as importantly, motorway driving would be ever-so-slightly less awful.