Ride along gives glimpse of life keeping region's roads safe
It's not easy retrieving stray pillows from the carriageway of the M5 as four lanes of traffic hurtle by.
But that is the scenario facing National Highways traffic officers as they embark on another routine patrol in the West Midlands.
The report of the pillows, including one covered in Pokemon characters, had come from an alarmed passing motorist close to the motorway's junction with the M6. Luckily they had blown out of harm's way, but the potential for an accident is always in the mind of Sian Plant and Tony Phipps.
It is typical of the kind of tasks that come in. From stray horses to rogue branches and flying litter, most can be dealt with quickly. But Sian and Tony are also often among the first on the scene when serious accidents happen. They point out that their on-board defibrillator has been used several times.
Everyone is familiar with the distinctive National Highways cars that patrol our motorways. Many motorists mistake them for the police, but they are instead emblazoned with the words Traffic Officer. And while they work alongside the emergency services, their main objective is to maintain safety and help keep our motorway and major road network flowing.
Through the control centre at Ridgeway Business Park in Quinton, just off junction 3 of the M5, and a fleet of vehicles patrolling the roads and motorways, the National Highways West Midlands team work to maintain, develop and manage the strategic road network.
To see how the team works, I was invited to go on a ride-along with the officers to see how they monitor the roads, what they do in case of being called to a job, their experiences of doing the job and how they came to become traffic officers.
Sian and Tony aren't there to enforce the law, but they are focused on making travel on motorways and main routes safer. And that can mean offering blunt advice to motorists. Given the opportunity, they will check tyres for lack of tread and will check fluid levels.
One particular bugbear is drivers who end up stranded on the hard shoulder – or worse a live lane – after running out of fuel.
Tony said: "We do remind them that it's actually illegal for the car to run completely out of fuel as it can cause issues to drivers and other road users."
Sian added that she had seen several occasions when people had gone out without sufficient fuel and she had been called out to assist them.
She said: "I had one guy who had tried to drive a long distance with his kids in the car and ran out of petrol and when I got there, he said he couldn't believe it when the car stopped.
"I asked him how far he was going, which turned out to be further than the range on the car, and asked him why he hadn't fuelled up. He simply thought he could make it."
Both Sian and Tony have come to the job from other careers and admit they love it. The role of the Traffic Officer is varied and there is plenty of interaction with the public, although there is always the possibility of a shift having to deal with a serious incident.
Sian says the most extreme incident she had encountered actually came on her very first day of active duty.
She said: "It was on my first day of doing anything, having had four weeks of training, then having a coach in the back of the car with me and three days of observations, sitting in the back and watching what was going on.
"My first role was to help set up a road block with the police for a major incident where there was three HGVs that were sandwiched together.
"Air Ambulance arrived and I was having to do rear-ward relief, which was releasing the traffic. It was the biggest challenge I have faced and I had only just started."