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Traffic officers - just what are they, and what can they do?

United Kingdom Traffic Officers are sometimes confused with Police Officers. Their roles, however, are different and they do not share the same roles and responsibilities; nor do they have the same duties and powers.

Fundamental Differences From Police Officers

The Highways England Traffic Officer Service employs Traffic Officers who do have the power to enforce certain laws, but whilst a Police Officer can do everything a Traffic Officer can do, the reverse is not true. The powers of a Traffic Officer are very specific and limited. At present they only operate in England although discussions are ongoing about extending their presence to the rest of the UK.

Sometimes Traffic Officers are confused with the Police. They wear uniforms and drive vehicles that are marked in similar ways to Police vehicles, but they cannot enforce the law through arrest. Traffic Officers are confined to the roads and traffic carried by them in the exercising of their duties.

Traffic Officers are not officers of the law like the Police. They do not have the range of powers available to the Police, such as the power of arrest, or the freedom to investigate to the extent that Police do. They must drive with respect for the speed limits in force on the highways, unlike the Police, but are permitted to stop, drive and reverse on hard shoulders.

Traffic Officers cannot detain persons, or search them or their vehicles, and they cannot issue fixed penalties such as the Police can.

An issue that confuses some people is whether or not they can stop vehicles for speeding; they cannot. The only circumstance under which Traffic Officers may legally stop traffic is to prevent an accident or if there is another type of perceived risk if the traffic is not halted. Police, on the other hand, are within their rights to stop a vehicle for any reason they choose to employ.

Powers Of A Traffic Officer

Their powers are laid down in the Traffic Management Act of 2004. Under this Act they have powers to:

• manage traffic on the highways
• stop traffic and direct it
• when necessary close carriageways and lanes.

They can also issue instructions to drivers and if those instructions are not obeyed then the offender could be fined up to £1,000, in addition to receiving an endorsement on their driving licence or even disqualification from driving. In this way, they have similar power to a Police Officer as failure to follow their instructions can result in prosecution. It is necessary for Traffic Officers to have these powers in order for them to effectively discharge their duties of keeping the highways open and safe to use.

Highway Maintenance

It is one of the their specific responsibilities to keep highways clear. In order to do this they have the power to clear debris from highways, do what is necessary to manage traffic (this can include closing lanes) to keep the road safe, assist with access to incidents and co-ordinate emergency services, and provide assistance to the Police. They have a responsibility to ensure that any closed lanes or highways are re-opened as soon as possible.

The electronic signs that are so common on English motorways are administered by Traffic Officers, providing up to date information on hazards and other issues. THey also supply some of the information used in travel reports on radio.

If a vehicle breaks down on the highway it is more than likely that a Traffic Officer patrol will become aware and provide assistance. If a vehicle breaks down or is abandoned and is in a position judged by them to be dangerous, they have the power to remove the vehicle. The legal basis for this is in the Removal and Disposal of Vehicles (Traffic Officers) (England) Regulations 2008. If a Traffic Officer believes that a vehicle is posing a risk to other road users or it is blocking the flow of traffic, that person has the legal power to require the vehicle to be moved and this is termed Statutory Removal. There are specific circumstances that must be met for them to invoke the Statutory Removal law. These are:

• if the vehicle breaks down in a lane carrying traffic, and it cannot be moved to a safe area
• if the vehicle is left unattended
• if the driver cannot arrange recovery in a time deemed reasonable
• if the driver proposes recovery arrangements that are deemed unsuitable or unsafe.

They cannot simply decide to remove a vehicle and there are certain conditions that have to be met. These are that:

• the Traffic Officer is present at the scene when making the decision
• they have checked where possible whether appropriate private arrangements have been made.

They can be informed if a vehicle has broken down on the highway by using the emergency telephones that are placed along the hard shoulder.

Conclusions

One of their major responsibilities is to keep traffic flowing, safely. This can involve clearing debris from highways, doing what is necessary to manage traffic during incidents, helping to co-ordinate emergency services and providing assistance to the Police. They ensure that any lane closures are re-opened as quickly as is reasonably possible, provided that it is safe to do so.

Traffic Officers are not Police officers, and do not have anywhere near the range of powers the Police have. They are limited to ensuring the safety of the highways, and the vehicles and people on them. They may stop the traffic in the process of discharging these duties, but cannot stop individual vehicles for speeding or any other reason unless it relates to an issue of safety.

They must obey requests and instructions from the Police just as any other individual must. In major road traffic incidents it is the Police who will take control, and Traffic Officers will provide assistance.

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