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How National Highways use ‘life changing’ Access Guides to support disabled customers

This week (4-8 October) is National Customer Service Week. To celebrate, we’re featuring a set of Detailed Access Guides that AccessAble users in England are calling ‘life changing’ for disabled travellers.

For many years, people using AccessAble have said how much they would value having Access Guides for motorway services, and what a difference comprehensive accessibility information would make to planning a trip.

So, we listened, and teamed up with National Highways to create Detailed Access Guides for all 114 motorway services in England.

With more than four million journeys taking place every day on England’s motorways and major A-roads, National Highways’ roads play a vital part in everyone’s lives. We met up with Mel Clarke, Customer Service Director for National Highways, to find out more about the vision that brought these guides to life.

Photo of Mel Clarke

Mel Clarke, Customer Service Director for National Highways

What does customer service mean to National Highways?

Excellent customer service to us means making sure that everyone using our roads feels confident that they’ll have a safe and reliable journey.

From listening to our customers, we know this means getting the basics right; from providing accurate and timely information to making sure our roads are well-maintained and running smoothly. It also means we need to keep innovating, coming up with new and better ways to make a difference for our customers as their needs and expectations evolve.

We offer support to road users 24 hours a day, every day of the year. For example, our customers can contact us to plan the best route for their journey, find out more about roadworks and traffic conditions, or let us know if they’ve seen a problem on our roads. We also help our customers if they’ve broken down and need assistance. These frontline services are the ‘face’ of National Highways, helping our customers feel reassured that we’re by their side every step of the way.

How does National Highways get insight about what disabled customers want?

We’re proud to be an organisation that listens and responds to our customers. It’s just one of the ways we’re making sure that the feelings and experiences of those affected by our work shape the things we do.

It was through listening to customer feedback that we knew there was more we needed to do to give our disabled customers an equal experience. So, in 2018, we established a Roads for All Forum.

The Forum brings together a wide range of organisations that represent or provide services to disabled road users. It’s a unique network dedicated to capturing the needs and experiences of disabled people and building these in to how we plan and operate our roads. Working together, we’re finding ways to break down barriers and help disabled people feel more in control of their journeys.

How did the idea for the Detailed Access Guides to motorway services come about?

We encourage everyone to plan their journeys before setting off and appreciate that for some people this isn’t as easy as for others. Our Roads for All Forum highlighted the importance of journey planning for the disabled community, as well as the barriers to finding up-to-date accessibility information.

While motorway services are generally very accessible, access needs can be very varied and specific to individual circumstances. We wanted to take the guesswork out of journey planning for our disabled customers, giving them the information they need about facilities along their route.

How do the guides help your disabled customers?

For many disabled people our roads already provide the best travel option for them; enabling them to travel to work, go on holiday and visit family and friends. For anyone on a long journey, it’s important to take regular breaks. But for our disabled customers, the fear of stopping somewhere with poor access can be a barrier to them taking a trip in the first place.

The Access Guides for motorway services remove this fear of the unknown, helping our disabled customers plan where to take a break at any one of the 114 motorway services across England. Each access guide contains over 1000 pieces of information, covering all aspects of accessibility; from toilets, physical layout and contrast colours, to lighting levels and staff training.

We’ve also worked with AccessAble to create Virtual Route Guides. This new type of guide, which uses 360-degree imagery, enables people to virtually explore routes to key facilities, such as accessible toilets and Changing Places, so they can find out exactly what to expect when they arrive.

As you’ve just mentioned, the Virtual Route Guides are a ‘first’ for AccessAble. Is innovative technology important to National Highways?

It’s vital that we keep innovating for our customers. Not least because their needs don’t remain static – so neither can we.

Technology is helping us meet some of these needs in ways we would not have been able to imagine just a few years ago. For example, immersive technologies are changing how we develop the skills of National Highways traffic officers. We can now use virtual reality training to develop their capabilities away from our busy road network.

Virtual reality training helps bring to life scenarios that traffic officers are likely to experience when patrolling National Highways roads

Virtual reality training helps bring to life scenarios that traffic officers are likely to experience when patrolling National Highways roads 

Data and digital platforms are also bringing new meaning to our mission to ‘connect the country’. Our roads already connect people to places. Now we’re finding new ways to connect people to better information and services for better, safer journeys.

How do the guides support National Highways and motorway service operators to see how facilities could be improved in the future?

Developing the guides has already helped motorway service operators to identify gaps in accessibility. For example, Moto has used insight from AccessAble to adapt their own website, enabling customers to now search Moto services by facility, for example Changing Places.

Thanks to the guides, we can now clearly see what the range of accessible services are across motorway services. Some services already offer great standards of accessibility and choice, and others to a lesser extent. So now there’s an opportunity for us to work with motorway service operators, who are part of our Roads for All Forum, to raise the standards of accessibility across motorway services.

What challenges does National Highways face with meeting the needs of disabled customers?

The biggest challenge is that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ customer service solution for the millions of people who use our roads every day. Everybody is different, will have different expectations, and will need different things to have the best possible journey experience.

So, our challenge is to identify and prioritise the options and opportunities we know will work, and make sure we can deliver them across our organisation in a way that will really make a difference for people.

An example of this is the new text message service we’ve introduced. If someone needs roadside assistance and is unable to use a roadside emergency phone due to an impairment, they can now text us to let us know they need help. It sounds simple, but it's a huge undertaking for an organisation the size of National Highways to mobilise safely and roll out on that scale. The logistical challenges mean that we need to have a really good understanding of what the right things to do are, and when to do them.

Details of sms service

Information about how to use the National Highways text message service can be found on all emergency roadside phones in England

What achievements in your role as Customer Service Director are you most proud of?

Getting customer service right is really important to me. I’m proud that we’re addressing the accessibility of our roads and services, and that we’re doing it confidently.

From creating an environment where our disabled customers’ voices are heard in the Roads for All Forum, to working with partners like AccessAble, SignLive and Hidden Disabilities Sunflower, it’s great to see that we’re starting to make a difference for our disabled customers. There’s still lots to do, and I’m excited for the journey!

Click here to browse the Detailed Access Guides for motorway services.


Head of Marketing