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This week, Charlie talks about his experiences with dealing with an incident on the road and discusses what he learnt from the situation.

As I have mentioned a few times on this bulletin, I spend a lot of my time telling people how to respond to incidents rather than being part of the response myself. I have been involved in a few incidents: a cement plant oil spill, a wildfire on the Isle of Coll, and an accident involving a boat at the Isle of Coll Fishing Competition. On the 8th of December 2023, on the way to our Christmas party at the Atholl Palace in Pitlochry, I became involved in another. This is what happened and what I learned.

The journey from Glasgow to Pitlochry was mainly uneventful, with two PlanB cars travelling in convoy and another a few miles ahead. Fifteen miles ahead of us, we came into some roadworks, and then when we had passed them, the lead car told us there was a car fire ahead. The road came to a halt. We spotted a small side road that seemed to bypass the fire, and we thought we would make our lunch in time. I did notice that the road was rather narrow, a single-track road, but didn’t think too much about it. We passed a few cars gingerly with inches to spare, and one woman, as we passed her, said she had been stuck in her car in the layby for an hour. We very quickly noticed that there were a large number of cars in front and behind us. Then came gridlock – the road narrowed, and in front of us were 10 cars going the opposite way, leading to either group being unable to go backwards or forwards. It was obvious that nobody was going anywhere.

I jumped out of the car to see what was going on. The group facing us said the road further back was also blocked and they had made it past the block only to be halted by us. There was a standoff, and everyone waited for someone to do something. As there was a drive about 200 meters behind the last car facing us, I thought that at least if we were all facing the same direction, we could at least travel in the same direction. No new cars were joining the queue in front of us, so that seemed a bit of a solution. I eventually persuaded 10 cars to reverse and turn around, and so we were all able to drive some way further up the road. We then met another gridlock – there were some vans blocking the road. There was also a farmer in a tractor who said there was an alternative route if we followed him. I got the vans to move, and the cars followed the farmer and his tractor back onto the A9. After about 10 minutes of directing traffic, the road we wanted to travel on became clear, and the gridlock cleared.

So, what did I learn?

Someone needs to take charge in a ‘disaster situation’ as most people will wait to be told what to do. In taking charge, you do feel very self-conscious, thinking this is not really my job; shouldn’t the police be doing this (they were nowhere to be seen); what if I mess it up and make the incident worse? I think I helped, and someone had to do it, but I think on the whole, there is a reluctance to be the person who stands up and manages the response.

I have heard this before from people talking about fire evacuations. If you block the fire evacuation point, then people are not very good at finding an alternative exit. They are programmed; ‘This is where I always exit in fire practices’ and then they struggle to find a different exit. I had to speak to a number of cars, and a number of them said ‘But I need to go this way,’ pointing at a gridlocked road of cars. I struggled to persuade them, and it was very obvious that they were able to go on their journey they planned, but they still insisted. With a lot of grumbling, they agreed to turn around and go the opposite way, but they were not happy about it.

When I asked a couple of cars to reverse back, they took a lot of persuading. In the end, I think it was because they were pretty poor at reversing and so didn’t want to be embarrassed with lots of people watching them. When people refuse a strong suggestion, then there may be other reasons, like they may have difficulty carrying out the action, rather than them being bloody-minded.

The power of social conformity is a very strong emotion. Once the first two cars reversed back, the rest did it without fuss. If everyone else is following the plan, then social conformity means others will as well.

Finally, beware the opinionated person without a plan. A man claiming he was a local tried to get a whole load of cars to reverse down a drive – people did it, but I am not sure what he was trying to achieve, as it didn’t help in the least!

Never let a ‘disaster’ go to waste, and however minor, always think through what you have learned and how you might react better next time. In the end, we made it to lunch an hour and a half later, so at least we felt we deserved it!

Have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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