Episode 14 A1: Britain's Longest Road


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Episode 14

Documentary series centred on the A1. A rush-hour crash leaves traffic officers tackling a potential fire risk, and police take the high road in a crackdown on dangerous truckers.


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The A1, Britain's longest road.

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Stretching almost 400 miles from the City of London

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to the heart of the Scottish capital.

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Connecting two nations and passing through 18 counties.

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It's an unrivalled highway

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used by hundreds of thousands of vehicles every day.

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We're going southbound down the A1

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on the northbound carriageway.

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But not all journeys go to plan.

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I thought, am I going to lose my life?

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Cars are coming close.

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It is a dangerous place to be.

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Lives can hang in the balance.

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The rear end of that vehicle is unrecognisable.

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This is actually the bodywork of the car.

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24 hours a day...

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It's not a safe place here.

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..there's a team of people who keep us safe from harm -

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the police...

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..response teams...

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We don't know whether they've got the road closed and we don't know what's happened.

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..and traffic officers.

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Keep going.

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Keeping Britain's most iconic road...

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-Get out.

-..on the move.

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Substantially damaged flat-bed truck in lane two.

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The A1, the monster that it is, will start to return to normal.

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Coming up...

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a rush-hour crash...

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-HE COUGHS

-Dear me.

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..leaves traffic officers hot under the collar.

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There is some smoke coming from inside the cabin.

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Can we request fire to scene to check it out, over?

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Police take the high road in a crackdown on dangerous truckers.

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Hand-held mobile device.

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Had his phone in his left hand.

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And a bus breakdown sparks a major highway hold-up.

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My concern is that because there's so much oil and fluids inside the vehicle,

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when they lift it up to tow it off,

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that might spill out on to the road.

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At nearly 400 miles long,

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the A1 is Britain's longest and most iconic road.

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And problems can often occur when it meets with some of the country's

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other major routes.

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One such area is in South Yorkshire,

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where the A1 intersects with the M18.

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It's the morning rush-hour and as Highways England traffic officers

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Matt Gibson and Rob Larkin approach this crucial crossroads,

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it already appears trouble is brewing.

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At this point it's backing up on the roundabout,

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which isn't normal.

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So there's a possibility something has broken down somewhere.

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1-3, we're on the roundabout, junction 35 A1(M).

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We believe there is a live lane breakdown.

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Go down the slip, Matt.

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What looked like a breakdown is in fact much more serious.

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Oh, it's an RTC.

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I can confirm it's RTC.

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Car in lane one of the slip.

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LGV in lane one of the roundabout, over.

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There's been a collision between two cars.

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A Hyundai appears to have shunted a BMW into the middle of a roundabout

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that feeds on to the A1.

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The first priority for Matt and Rob

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is to assess whether the drivers are hurt.

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Is everyone OK?

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-Yes. Fine.

-No injuries?

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-No.

-Are you sure?

-Yes.

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-Just shook up.

-Just shook up.

-OK.

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With the traffic ground to a halt and already backing up,

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they need to clear dangerous debris off the road.

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It's rush hour now. We've got traffic stopped.

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We intend to get it running as quick as we can.

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Before the rush-hour commuters can get on their way,

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the damaged vehicles need to be moved to the hard shoulder.

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It won't start that, Rob.

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-Won't start?

-No. We need to drag it in a minute.

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If they won't drive, they'll have to be towed.

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I'm just going to hook this vehicle up to ours, so we can drag you out

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of the live lane.

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But it appears there's a big problem with the BMW.

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HE COUGHS

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Cor - the smell coming out of this car.

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And Rob fears the worst.

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Could be... Sometimes battery acid smells.

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Could be that.

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An acid leak is a potential fire risk.

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THEY COUGH

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Add to that a jammed handbrake,

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and this shunt is turning into a challenging recovery

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for the traffic officers.

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It might be a tough drag, this.

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We'll do it.

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After just 15 minutes, they have managed to shift both vehicles.

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We'll get back over here and then we'll let traffic go.

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And with the road reopened,

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rush-hour commuters can head off to work.

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-Dear me.

-But for Rob,

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the BMW is still a serious hazard and he's calling for urgent backup.

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1-3, we've moved this vehicle on to the hard shoulder.

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There is some smoke coming from inside the cabin.

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We believe it might be the battery.

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With it being a BMW, the battery's in the back.

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It may have split. It is a very sulphury smell.

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Can we request fire to scene to check it out, over?

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With huge tailbacks and vehicles passing close by,

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Rob is just hoping the fire brigade will arrive before the incident gets

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out of control.

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Hundreds of thousands of vehicles use the A1 every single day.

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But like all roads,

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it's affected by one of the scourges of modern-day Britain -

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drivers who are distracted behind the wheel.

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Mobile phone calls,

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texting or even adjusting in-car controls

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can all lead to a momentary lapse in concentration,

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which can have disastrous results.

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And when lorries weighing up to 40 tonnes are involved,

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the consequences can be deadly.

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On the A1 in County Durham,

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police are on a mission to rid the road of dangerous truck drivers.

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And they have a secret weapon.

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It's an unmarked six-tonne lorry

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which will give them a bird's eye view into other HGV cabs.

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Riding high in the lorry are PCs Andy Edgar and Ian Stapeley...

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He's got his belt on.

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..while PC Neil Armstrong travels behind them, ready to pull over offenders.

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Predominantly, we are targeting the heavy goods vehicles.

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You know,

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the vehicles that we ordinarily can't see into.

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In a police car there is only so much view,

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so with a HGV we now have a better scope on looking for seat belts,

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mobile phones.

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If we can educate drivers, casualties will be reduced.

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And within just minutes of arriving on the A1 in County Durham,

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the police team spot a lorry with a driver

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who has just one hand on the wheel.

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He's on his phone.

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Yep, I'll have him.

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Hand-held mobile device.

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Had his phone in his left hand.

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If he loses control playing with his phone in that,

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the damage it could do on a road like this, it could be horrendous.

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Obviously you've realised why we've stopped you.

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We carried out an operation today

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using this vehicle, which is an unmarked police vehicle,

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and as we've come past you,

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you've got your phone in your hand, using it.

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In 2014, more than 16,000 drivers

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were convicted of using a mobile at the wheel

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and PC Neil Armstrong is quick to lay down the law.

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Because you've committed an offence of using your mobile phone while

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driving, I have to caution you.

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OK? You don't have to say anything but it may harm your defence if you

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don't mention, when questioned, something which you later rely on in court.

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Anything you do say may be given in evidence.

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Do you wish to give any explanation

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-as to why you've committed that offence?

-No.

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The driver faces a £100 on-the-spot fine

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plus three points on his licence.

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You're going to be reported for the consideration of the question

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of prosecuting you for using a mobile phone while driving.

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So what's going to happen now, that will get submitted to the central

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ticket office. You do nothing now.

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You wait for the central ticket office to get in touch with you

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and make you what they call an offer.

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-All right?

-No worries.

-Take care now.

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The fine and penalty points might not be the only worry for this driver.

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With some haulage firms operating a zero-points policy, it could mean

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he also loses his job.

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When drivers use their mobile phone,

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their attention is not being paid to the road.

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If you're travelling at 70mph, to hit another vehicle,

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you're talking major trauma.

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From his elevated position,

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it's easy for Ian to spot complacent or

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negligent HGV drivers.

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And it's not just mobile phones

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which are creating life-threatening situations.

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I don't think he's got his belt on.

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Yes, yes, all received. Just behind him, Ian.

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Right, jump out.

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It's estimated that around a thousand drivers a day

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don't wear seat belts on this stretch of the A1.

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My colleague has already alluded to the fact we are on operation today.

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Not wearing your seat belt.

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It's all been captured on camera.

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What I propose to do is issue you with a non-endorsable

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fixed penalty ticket.

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It's not points, so you're not looking at your licence being endorsed but,

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obviously, it is a fine, the fine being £100.

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All right?

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My point of view,

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you're getting stung harsh, but please, yeah, belt on.

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-Belt on, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

-Yeah.

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With hard evidence captured on Ian's camera...

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Watch how you go, take care.

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..the driver has no option but to accept the fine.

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The usual reaction you get when you stop a motorist that has committed

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offences, is just dazed and then usually, to be fair,

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probably gutted.

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We sort of, like, compound the fact when we tell them

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how much the fine is and that really upsets them.

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With six hours of their operation still to go,

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Neil and the team are convinced they'll catch even more culprits.

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More than 50 miles north, near Newcastle,

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a hefty problem needs to be sorted out by the police.

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It's Friday rush hour, and A1 patrol officer PC Darren Lant

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is heading out to deal with a broken-down bus,

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which is blocking a lane of the busy southbound carriageway.

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I'm not quite sure what sort of bus, whether it's a single-decker

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or double-decker, whether it's got passengers on it, or...

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We're still waiting for that information coming forward.

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It's right at the start of the Easter break,

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and, with the road approaching one of its busiest times of the year,

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an incident like this will definitely create traffic trouble.

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SIREN WAILS

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It's my job to get there,

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and if there is anybody on the bus,

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just keep them on the bus and that's going to give them some protection.

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Hopefully we'll get there nice and quick.

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The A1 here is a dual carriageway,

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so the breakdown is having a huge effect on traffic flow.

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This traffic here is the consequence of this bus breaking down.

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CAR HORN HONKS

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Look at all this traffic.

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We'll try and fight our way through here.

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Darren's the first on the scene...

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6-3-4, pulling up on scene.

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..and he's greeted by the driver of the stricken bus.

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Hello, sir!

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Yeah?

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OK.

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With his bus starting to overheat, and the lives of his passengers

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paramount, the bus driver has already got them to safety,

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away from the A1.

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So I saw some smoke coming off the oil,

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and I thought, if that's...

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If it was a hazard, like. if it was going to go up in flames...

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I got them off onto the grass verge

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in front of the bus, for safety reasons,

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and then I flagged another bus down.

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They weren't too bad, actually, and luckily there's buses coming

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past here every, sort of, minute or so.

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But while the passengers have all been safely evacuated,

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the bus itself still represents a major hazard

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for thousands of motorists making an Easter getaway.

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As well as Darren, his colleague Alan Keenleyside

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is now at the scene...

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Give us a run-down.

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..while highway officers are helping to make

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the area around the bus safe...

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All that's going to run out.

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..and soon it's clear this hulk of a vehicle is going to take

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some time to shift.

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So, right at the bottom there, almost behind the wheel,

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is part of what's called the prop shaft,

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which basically spins the wheels,

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and it's that that's flew up inside the engine compartment,

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and it's hit the oil sump,

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and that's punctured, set the oil out,

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and made the engine come to a complete stop.

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But because it's now unstable,

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simply towing the bus away isn't an option.

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There's something telling me, if the transmission's on

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the left side of this engine base, you can't...

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-You've got to leave it.

-You've got to leave it, aye.

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So it's a left-mount leave, L for leave.

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We could end up causing more damage than it's worth,

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and I'm not being responsible for damage to that bus.

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With thousands of vehicles caught in miles of tailbacks, the breakdown's

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already causing traffic chaos,

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and unless they can stem the oil spillage soon,

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recovering the bus could lead to even bigger delays.

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The problem we might have is,

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because there's so much oil and fluids inside the vehicle,

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when they lift it up to tow it off,

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that might spill out on to the road.

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So we have the option of doing a reverse lift,

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where we have to close the A1,

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and take it north in the southbound lane.

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We don't know yet. We'll have to see.

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With holiday traffic already backing up for miles,

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closing the entire southbound carriageway would be

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a further nightmare for thousands of people already suffering

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at the start of their break.

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The recovery vehicle that we really need,

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like, now, is stuck in traffic,

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which is a direct result of the bus breaking down

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and the lane having to be closed.

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It's not very good when your recovery truck

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gets stuck in traffic.

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Finally, the potential saviour arrives under police escort,

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and Darren can only hope this escalating situation

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doesn't get any worse.

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In South Yorkshire, an accident close to where the A1

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and the M18 intersect is causing big delays.

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Traffic officers Rob and Matt have moved two cars,

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which were blocking the road, allowing vehicles to get back on to the A1.

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As you can see, it's freed up again quite quickly, so that's the aim of the game.

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But now, they've got an incendiary issue to tackle.

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HE COUGHS

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Dear me.

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They suspect a battery damaged in the crash is leaking acid and

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could be a fire hazard.

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So they've called for help from the Fire Brigade.

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There's a really eggy smell coming out of the back of it.

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A choking, choking smell.

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So what we've done, we've asked for the Fire Brigade to attend.

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If it is the battery and it's split,

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they might put some neutraliser on it or something.

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But there's a chance, with it being electrical,

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it could cause a fire, so it's always better to have them

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come out just in case.

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They're here now. The Fire Service are coming.

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But there is confusion over where the fire engine should be coming to.

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-Where have they gone?

-Up the M18 slip.

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1-3, I believe Fire Service have maybe got the wrong location for this.

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They've gone by us and gone straight up the slip.

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After a short detour, the Fire Brigade have arrived.

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You all right?

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All it is, it's been hit up back and the car's full of smoke still inside.

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A really, really strong, like, toxic smell.

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We just thought we'd get it checked out because the smell was constant.

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It won't go away.

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Access to the battery is via the boot,

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but the accident means it won't open. The smell is getting worse.

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So drastic measures are called for.

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Aye-aye, the jaws of death are coming.

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Rob and Matt were right.

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The battery is smoking and could have ignited at any point.

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Well, basically, it's had a rear-end collision.

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The battery is in the rear on a BMW. It's been fuming off.

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So we just cut through the terminals and made it safe.

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With the danger averted,

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Matt and Rob can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

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The Fire Service have now left the scene. They've checked the car over.

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They've disconnected all the battery, it's all been declared safe.

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The lady's just been on the phone to BMW Assist,

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and they're going to come out within the hour to recover this vehicle.

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So we're just going to stay on scene,

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make sure it's safe and protected, and then hopefully,

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we'll get it all clear and back and running shortly.

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Over there, you can see we have had the contractors come.

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They've picked up the debris from the two vehicles where they crashed,

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and then obviously, we've got the recovery here.

0:18:320:18:35

That's coming for this, and then it will be scene clear.

0:18:350:18:38

With the recovery vehicle on its way,

0:18:440:18:46

Rob and Matt can head back to patrol

0:18:460:18:48

this incident-filled stretch of the highway.

0:18:480:18:53

It's not a bad outcome at all - really.

0:18:530:18:56

No injury.

0:18:560:18:57

The driver had arranged recovery through her insurance company.

0:18:570:19:01

I think she's getting the train, isn't the?

0:19:010:19:03

Yeah, they're going to take her to the car dealership

0:19:030:19:05

and they're going to provide a taxi,

0:19:050:19:07

then a train all the way back to Suffolk.

0:19:070:19:09

So she doesn't have to travel by car back home today.

0:19:090:19:12

Yeah, she did say she didn't want to drive, didn't she?

0:19:120:19:14

So, that's a good outcome.

0:19:140:19:16

On the A1 in County Durham,

0:19:240:19:26

the team targeting dangerous lorry drivers is nearly an hour and a half

0:19:260:19:29

into its operation,

0:19:290:19:32

using an unmarked HGV.

0:19:320:19:35

The three officers are on the lookout for

0:19:380:19:40

unsuspecting lorry drivers,

0:19:400:19:41

who might think that their lofty position on the road puts them

0:19:410:19:45

out of sight of regular police cars.

0:19:450:19:48

But riding high in the police artic,

0:19:480:19:50

it's not long before PC Ian Stapeley spots another offender.

0:19:500:19:55

No belt.

0:19:550:19:56

No belt.

0:19:560:19:57

Pulling over this pallet wagon.

0:19:570:19:59

'Driver... No seat belt.'

0:19:590:20:01

All received. We're just pulling him in now.

0:20:010:20:04

But as the officers pull him over, they're in for a surprise.

0:20:040:20:08

Sorry?

0:20:100:20:11

When this vehicle was first put on the road,

0:20:160:20:18

it didn't have seat belts fitted.

0:20:180:20:20

so, because, as the law stands,

0:20:200:20:22

if the vehicle wasn't fitted with seat belts at the time,

0:20:220:20:25

then, under the Road Traffic Act,

0:20:250:20:26

they don't need to actually have them.

0:20:260:20:29

So, not very often you see a vehicle as old as this,

0:20:290:20:32

so they're...they'll be on their way.

0:20:320:20:35

Never mind.

0:20:410:20:43

Andy and Ian are not just on the lookout for HGV drivers

0:20:430:20:46

who are breaking the law,

0:20:460:20:48

they have a bird's eye view of all traffic on the A1,

0:20:480:20:52

and Ian's taking a closer look at a passing car transporter.

0:20:520:20:57

-No belt.

-Yep, no belt.

0:20:570:20:59

Yeah, there's a car transporter just behind us,

0:21:000:21:02

one vehicle on the back of it,

0:21:020:21:03

driver - no seat belt.

0:21:030:21:06

This guy has, again, no seat belt,

0:21:060:21:08

so main arterial route, speed limit 70,

0:21:080:21:10

and although this bit of glass keeps you dry when it's raining,

0:21:100:21:15

it's not going to protect you from hitting the tarmac

0:21:150:21:18

if you're involved in a bad collision.

0:21:180:21:20

Safety is at the heart of the crackdown,

0:21:220:21:26

and getting the right message across is one of the team's top priorities.

0:21:260:21:30

-Is this your vehicle?

-No, work.

0:21:300:21:32

-Works van. Have you got any ID on you at all?

-Yeah.

0:21:320:21:35

-So, if you want to just come take a seat in my car, mate...

-Yeah.

0:21:350:21:38

So, any reason why you weren't wearing your seat belt?

0:21:430:21:45

So you don't have an exemption?

0:21:490:21:50

OK, there will be a fine involved

0:21:570:22:00

as a result of not wearing your seat belt today.

0:22:000:22:02

-OK?

-OK.

-Seat belts will save lives,

0:22:020:22:06

and that's the reason why we stop drivers

0:22:060:22:08

and try and educate them into using that.

0:22:080:22:11

It's an instant £100 on-the-spot fine for the driver,

0:22:110:22:15

but this motorist is more interested in handing out

0:22:150:22:18

safety advice to Neil.

0:22:180:22:20

Police officers are exempt from wearing seat belts

0:22:240:22:27

while they have people in the vehicle,

0:22:270:22:29

and we are exempt from wearing seat belts when we don't

0:22:290:22:31

have people in the vehicle.

0:22:310:22:33

And after a quick vehicle check...

0:22:330:22:35

'I've checked, and recently it's been in our area.

0:22:350:22:38

'Stand by, one.'

0:22:380:22:39

..the driver's day is about to get even worse.

0:22:390:22:43

Did they say it ain't got an MOT?

0:22:430:22:44

Your MOT ran out, yeah.

0:22:440:22:46

Unfortunately, because the MOT is out on the truck, erm,

0:22:460:22:50

that's an offence, and I have to issue you with another one of these.

0:22:500:22:54

If the MOT's out,

0:22:540:22:56

then what's to say what faults are on that vehicle from the day it was

0:22:560:23:00

tested, if you follow me?

0:23:000:23:02

And that's your documentation, there.

0:23:020:23:04

Right, watch out over here. Watch how you go, kidder.

0:23:040:23:07

£200 lighter, the driver's finally on his way.

0:23:070:23:11

He's not had the best of starts to his day.

0:23:110:23:14

You know, I do like meeting the public,

0:23:200:23:22

I do like making a difference.

0:23:220:23:25

It sounds corny, but, you know, you do.

0:23:250:23:27

You do make a difference, at times,

0:23:270:23:29

and if these people who I've stopped today

0:23:290:23:32

prevent the accidents tomorrow,

0:23:320:23:34

you know, we just can't quantify it.

0:23:340:23:36

You know, we won't know.

0:23:360:23:37

In Northumberland,

0:23:430:23:44

a broken-down bus is causing PC Darren Lant

0:23:440:23:46

and thousands of Easter holiday-makers

0:23:460:23:49

huge problems on the A1 at Seaton Burn.

0:23:490:23:52

It's been blocking half of the carriageway for nearly an hour...

0:23:560:24:00

I'm not praying, I'm just looking.

0:24:000:24:02

..and congestion is so bad that the police helicopter has been sent up

0:24:020:24:06

to keep others trying to begin their Easter getaway informed.

0:24:060:24:10

Basically, the helicopter's up, cos what that'll do is that

0:24:100:24:13

videos us and puts the live images into the control room,

0:24:130:24:16

so the supervisors in there can see what effect it's

0:24:160:24:19

having on the traffic, and how far the traffic jam is,

0:24:190:24:21

and then they'll come up with a strategic plan

0:24:210:24:23

as to how they're going to deal with that.

0:24:230:24:25

With a broken prop shaft and badly-leaking oil,

0:24:260:24:29

the bus needs expert handling before it can be removed.

0:24:290:24:33

You can't really tow a heavy goods vehicle

0:24:330:24:35

when the prop shafts are engaged.

0:24:350:24:37

You have to disengage them or take them out, so the vehicle will run

0:24:370:24:40

freely, so that's basically what the guys are doing now -

0:24:400:24:42

they're disengaging prop shafts, so the vehicle can move easily.

0:24:420:24:46

And to Darren's relief, moving it won't mean dragging it backwards,

0:24:510:24:55

which would have meant closing the whole of the southbound A1.

0:24:550:24:58

The recovery lads have said that the easiest...

0:24:580:25:01

Probably the best way to do it is just to lift the front up

0:25:010:25:03

and take it with the flow of traffic.

0:25:030:25:05

My concern is that when they do that,

0:25:050:25:07

because the vehicle is lifted up, and all the fluids are at the front,

0:25:070:25:10

are they going to drain out from the broken prop shaft

0:25:100:25:13

where all the oil and fluids are?

0:25:130:25:15

Is that going to drain on to the road?

0:25:150:25:17

When it goes off, we're just going to, any second...

0:25:190:25:21

It may cause a trail, but the Highways staff are behind.

0:25:210:25:25

They'll sprinkle all that sawdust-type stuff,

0:25:250:25:27

they'll sprinkle that and that'll soak that up.

0:25:270:25:29

Yeah, I think we're ready to go.

0:25:290:25:31

With the recovery driver all set...

0:25:330:25:36

I'm just going to go for it.

0:25:360:25:37

..Darren takes up a watching brief behind.

0:25:370:25:40

The bus is now all hooked up, erm,

0:25:400:25:42

as a trailer to the recovery operator,

0:25:420:25:46

and we're going to follow the truck back,

0:25:460:25:49

being towed back to its depot in Ashington,

0:25:490:25:53

which is a canny little drive away.

0:25:530:25:54

That's a good 15 minutes away.

0:25:540:25:56

But almost as soon as the bus sets off,

0:25:580:26:01

Darren's hopes for the recovery come to a grinding halt.

0:26:010:26:04

Strange.

0:26:080:26:10

What's the matter? Is it leaking again?

0:26:100:26:12

Aye. Yeah. The brakes have gone.

0:26:120:26:13

It's all locked on.

0:26:130:26:16

With the bus's brakes jammed,

0:26:160:26:17

towing this 18-tonne monster is going to be impossible,

0:26:170:26:22

and for traffic officer Peter Senior,

0:26:220:26:24

that means his stretch of the A1 faces further delays.

0:26:240:26:28

Yeah, they managed to tow this bus approximately 50 metres,

0:26:280:26:32

and they've had to stop again.

0:26:320:26:34

The problem is...

0:26:340:26:35

The initial problem with the bus, the prop shaft snapped,

0:26:350:26:38

but apparently it's damaged one of the air lines

0:26:380:26:41

and now the brakes have locked on.

0:26:410:26:43

We've got to fit a bag under the bus now.

0:26:430:26:45

He's trying to wind the brakes off manually,

0:26:450:26:47

so hopefully it's not going to take too long,

0:26:470:26:49

and we'll be able to get it moved over.

0:26:490:26:51

Oh, and we're off.

0:26:530:26:56

Yay. Here we go. We'll try again.

0:26:560:26:58

HORN HONKS

0:26:580:27:00

Hopefully, we've...the recovery staff have got it cracked,

0:27:020:27:05

and they can get it safely recovered to the bus depot.

0:27:050:27:08

Back on the move again,

0:27:120:27:13

Darren and the recovery crew finally make it off the A1

0:27:130:27:17

and nurse the stricken bus back to the depot for repairs.

0:27:170:27:21

Oh, well. Happy days.

0:27:210:27:23

After dealing with two hours of traffic chaos

0:27:260:27:29

caused by the bus breakdown,

0:27:290:27:31

there's just one last job for Darren.

0:27:310:27:34

We've rejoined the A1.

0:27:340:27:35

We're going to have to check to make sure everything is OK,

0:27:350:27:37

and, look, all gone. Beautiful.

0:27:370:27:39

Nice and clear. Just back to normal Friday rush-hour traffic.

0:27:390:27:43

You would never think it was at a standstill half an hour ago.

0:27:460:27:51

The driver stopped for using his mobile phone at the wheel

0:27:570:28:00

was fined more than £130,

0:28:000:28:02

and received three points on his licence,

0:28:020:28:05

but a recent change in the law means those penalties

0:28:050:28:08

have now doubled for new offenders,

0:28:080:28:11

and the trucker who was found not to be wearing a seat belt

0:28:110:28:14

was fined £100.

0:28:140:28:16