CONGESTION CHARGING in London will undermine attempts by London ambulance drivers to meet government emergency response targets, the London Ambulance Service (LAS) warned this week.
LAS fears charging will cause longer tailbacks on approach roads to central London. This is because traffic lights at the edge of the charging zone will be rephased in favour of vehicles diverting around it to avoid the £5 congestion charge.
LAS believes that this could make it impossible to reach and maintain an National Health Service target of responding to 75% of all life threatening incidents within eight minutes by next year.
LAS said it was confident of reaching the 75% target by NHS' November deadline but it doubted if it could maintain it after congestion charging is launched by Transport for London (TfL) in February 2003.
Every year up to 250 London ambulances respond to an estimated 50,000 call outs to the central London Accident & Emergency departments at St Thomas's and University College Hospitals (UCH). Many ambulances will have to leave and re enter the charging zone to pick up accident victims and bring them to hospital.
Transport experts expect that as much as 20% of traffic passing through central London will divert onto routes ringing the congestion charging zone.
TfL will re-phase traffic lights at junctions on the scheme's boundary to allow more green time for traffic using the outer ring roads. This is expected to lead to bigger tail backs on roads approaching the zone which form vital links to St Thomas's and UCH.
fiPeople are not going to stop having heart attacks because TfL is launching this scheme, fl said LAS executive officer John Warwick. fiGetting ambulances in and out of the zone boundary is going to be a major problem and we are not sure that TfL has thought through the impact on the emergency services.
fiOur main problem will be getting back into the zone from outside. We rely on the good will of drivers to move aside but if there is nowhere for them to go the ambulance will just have to sit there. fl Warwick added that tailbacks on approaches to Tower Bridge or London Bridge could force ambulances to cross the Thames as far east as the Rotherhithe Tunnel adding significantly to journey times.
LAS also claimed that the congestion charging scheme will lead to a big drop in people using cars to get to central London accident and emergency departments. This could mean an extra 28,000 extra ambulance trips a year in central London.
More ambulance journeys may also be needed because of a possible rise in accidents resulting from vehicles travelling faster in central London.
A TfL spokesman told NCE that it did not expect extra tailbacks on approach roads because it expects a 5% to 12% fall in traffic approaching central London once the scheme is launched. Traffic management, including traffic light re phasing, would respond to changes as they happen.