Bank holiday getaway: Do we still need radio traffic alerts?

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It is an annoyance familiar to many drivers: you are cruising along, listening to a song or sports match, when suddenly...

"Here's your latest traffic and travel update!"

Radio traffic alerts, which interrupt a CD, tape or radio station when there is an update, are likely to sound in the millions of cars taking to UK roads for the bank holiday.

Drivers have relied on alerts since the late 1980s, but may also now use modern alternatives to avoid jams - including sat-navs, mapping apps or smart motorway signs.

So is the era of the "traffic and travel update" coming to an end?

Radio is 'king'

The alerts - which can be turned off quite easily in a car radio's settings - are sent via the Radio Data System (RDS) standard.

RDS is a communications code in the FM signal which can be embedded into a BBC or commercial local radio broadcast.

It allows a vehicle's radio to temporarily turn to a station for the duration of a travel announcement, before switching back again.

They can also be indiscriminate - you might pick up alerts from several different local radio stations if you are at a high point and get a signal, for example.

"They can be annoying," says the AA's Ian Crowder.

"Sometimes the alert comes on and there's a load of banter from the previous speaker before they get round to the traffic update.

"I'd urge local ratio stations to stick to the traffic reports."

But Mr Crowder says that - while annoying to some - they can be "invaluable". And David Bizley, the RAC's chief engineer, says drivers are surprisingly enthusiastic about radio.

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About 72% of motorists get information about incidents and delays via the radio, according to the RAC's research.

"It appears radio is still king," Mr Bizley says, even though "motorists have the likes of variable message signs and live traffic information on their sat-navs."

He adds: "I am surprised by the high level of dependence on the radio to find out about traffic problems."

The motoring group surveyed 1,700 drivers and found just 47% use road signs and 36% their sat-nav.

Bob Pishue is an economist at Inrix, the firm which provides traffic reports to most local radio stations in the UK, as well as to sat-navs and smartphone apps.

"Radio alerts are still useful for people who don't use smartphones, but we are seeing people switch," he says.

Smarter traffic?

Unlike a radio DJ announcing a traffic jam, sat-navs and smartphone apps will work out a new route for you.

"Not only can the apps route you to avoid congestion and road works but also do things like real-time parking," says Mr Pishue.

He says navigation technology no longer has a reputation for being clunky to use, or unreliable. "The data is getting better all the time," he says.

In a sign the technology is now commonplace, learner drivers will have to be able to follow directions from a sat-nav as part of changes to driving tests from December.

Mr Pishue, however, says not everyone has - or may want - a navigation unit in their car.

"We supply traffic data all over the place, and we see a future for radio alerts," he says.

And if technology fails, drivers can always use road signs to avoid a traffic bottleneck.

As well as old-fashioned diversion signs, Highways England says it has installed electronic signs on hundreds of miles of its "smart" motorways, which display real-time traffic data.

They can alert drivers to traf­fic jams and haz­ards up ahead, and are present on about 240 miles (386 km) of UK motorway.

The AA's Ian Crowder warned that the signs could be ignored.

"I have concerns about how drivers react," he says.

"If it says congestion ahead but you can't actually see it, you don't know whether you can trust this information, especially if no one else is slowing down."

A Highways England spokesperson says: "We give drivers as much real-time information as possible to help them with their journeys, both before they set out and while they are on the road."

Highways England nevertheless still recommends drivers tune into local radio travel bulletins.

Whether they are useful, or an annoying interruption to your bank holiday soundtrack, perhaps it is not yet the end of the road for radio alerts.

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