Traffic information has never been easier to get. At least the main roads of most European countries and the more populated areas of the USA are monitored by traffic sensing systems, backed up by people in control centres and radio stations with their own observers phoning in reports.
Some sat nav systems monitor such information, at least advising you of traffic problems on a planned route, and sometimes showing you those nearby even if no route is planned.
On The Radio
If your car has an RDS (radio data system) radio, which displays the name of the channel it is tuned to, it certainly has a traffic programme setting (usually shown on the button and display as TP). This automatically interrupts whatever you are listening to and plays traffic information being broadcast by any other station in range. This can be very irritating because on a bad day it constantly interrupts with news of problems on routes far from yours as the local stations from two counties away may still be within range. Indeed, it may even interrupt to say there are no problems two counties off.
In Europe some countries, including the UK, have a Traffic Message Channel (TMC) which is available on some RDS radios and sat nav systems. This is a digital signal broadcast nationally alongside the audio signal and it delivers traffic information to some car audio systems in text form, with some even receiving and storing it when the radio is off. The messages are displayed either automatically or if you press a button. Radios can filter out those too far away to be relevant and you may be able to search by road name.
The websites mentioned for route planning also offer traffic information, though you may have to plan a route to get it. Some internet service providers, and the UK’s Highways Agency at www.highways.org.uk can provide constant traffic information feeds to your computer by broadband.
Most mobile operators offer a voice traffic information service via a dedicated number which recognizes where you are and gives local information. Most also allow you to dial in at least motorway numbers to get the traffic situation on that road. It pays to set this up with a quick dial number or with voice recognition for hands-free dialling. The same service, without the location ability, is also available on UK landlines on 08700 660115.
Using Traffic News
Having found out what is happening ahead, how do you use it? You must consider whether it will be easier and less stressful to sit it out in the queue or whether you should make a detour. Don’t try planning a route in a traffic queue unless it is completely stationary or you may drive into the car in front.
If the alternative route is largely rural you may find it will be quicker and less stressful than waiting, but if it is urban it may quickly snarl up when others have the same idea as you. Remember, too, that it is unlikely you will be able to make up time on a route that isn’t as direct as the one you were on and if you are off the motorway or dual-carriageway, driving will need even more attention. If you are worried about being late, phone ahead rather than trying to meet the deadline.
If the problem is a long way off, work out where your point of no return is and check the information when you get closer. Traffic clears quite quickly after most accidents so, unless it is a major incident, there is no point planning an alternative route if the more direct one may be moving by the time you get there.