YOU let the public down.

That was the damning verdict of Hampshire’s police and crime commissioner last night as he pledged to take the chief constable to task over the chaos that followed a fatal crash on the A31.

Simon Hayes spoke out after hundreds of drivers were left stranded in their cars for almost seven hours while police investigated the tragedy sparked by a runaway horse that collided with two motorcyclists.

Couples with small children were among those marooned without food or water in near freezing conditions until 1am yesterday.

Mr Hayes accused police of ignoring the welfare of drivers.

Last night it emerged that the way officers dealt with the incident, in allowing traffic to move while the animal remained at large, has been referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Police initially halted traffic on the A31 after receiving reports of a horse loose on the carriageway – then advised drivers to proceed with caution.

The crash that followed just an hour later claimed the life of a 31- year-old Bournemouth man, while a 47-year-old Broadstone man was taken to Southampton General Hospital with serious injuries.

Mr Hayes told the Daily Echo: “Tragically, someone was killed, and the accident had to be investigated thoroughly.

“I can understand why the road was closed, but I also recognise that hundreds of drivers had their journeys disrupted for a number of hours, and I’m concerned that their personal welfare was not considered at that time.

“I’ll be challenging the chief constable on what could or should have been done to support people stuck in the jam and will be looking for answers.

“It would appear that no lessons were learned after the M27 had to be closed at Hedge End last year, but we need to learn lessons this time.

“People were stuck on the A31 for several hours with no food or water and no access to toilets.

“Their personal welfare does not appear to have been considered. I don’t know who could or should have addressed that but I’m concerned at the apparent lack of interest in the welfare of the public.”

Mr Hayes also criticised the lack of information given to commuters.

He said: “It would be unfair to expect police to give an exact time in terms of re-opening a road, but we need to put some sort of mechanism in place to ensure that motorists k n o w w h a t ’ s happening in situations like this.”

Mr Hayes said experts should look at ways of providing drivers on the A31 with an escape route if a carriageway has to be closed.

“Removing parts of the barrier to enable traffic to turn around would appear to be a common sense solution, but I don’t know if that would be possible.

It’s something we need to look into.”

The accident and resulting chaos has fuelled the campaign for major improvements to the A31.

The comments came yesterday when two further incidents involving escaped ponies happened – one on the A31 and another near Bartley – both of which were later captured.

Mr Hayes added: “It’s an extremely dangerous road for a number of reasons, including the fact that drivers come straight off a motorway on to a dual carriageway that’s narrow.

“It’s a road that needs an enormous amount of attention and reengineering.”

Victims of the chaos included Winchester-based graphic designer Mark Fudge, 45, who left work at 5pm and eventually arrived home at 1.35am. He told the Daily Echo: “I feel the police have got a lot of questions to answer.

“Luckily I had half a tank of fuel and was able to switch the engine on every 15 minutes to keep warm, but I had no food or drink.

There’s only so long you can run your engine to try to keep warm and still have enough fuel to get home. The couple in front of me had two children aged only five or six - goodness knows what they did.

“At 12.30am a policeman knocked on my window and said the traffic would be moving shortly but it was 1.05am before we were turned around. Even then there was no signed diversion once you got back to Junction 1, so anyone unfamiliar with the Forest roads would have been stuck.

“The police need to answer some serious questions on their handling of the situation and howthey plan to deal with similar accidents in the future.”

Decision referred to police complaints commission

POLICE today defended their actions in dealing with the fatal crash but said they will be looking to see what lessons they can learn.

Chief constable Andy Marsh, pictured left, has also said he will welcome talks with PCC Simon Hayes to discuss the fallout of the incident that left hundreds of drivers stranded.

Hampshire police told the Daily Echo last night that its officers had done a “very professional job in difficult and complex circumstances”.

However, they have asked the Independent Police Complaints Commission to review their decision to allow drivers to “proceed with caution” as they attempted to capture the runaway horse that ultimately caused the crash that killed the motorcyclist and left another seriously injured.

In a lengthy statement, Superintendent Chris Brown, the man in charge of roads policing in the county, said the decision to shut any major road is never taken lightly – but a thorough investigation was vital for the victim’s family as well as any future criminal proceedings.

He said: “We sent all available officers to the scene swiftly, and they worked hard to get the scene moving as soon as possible, including turning vehicles round and providing police-led relief diversions.

“This was a very complicated scene. We were dealing with what looked at the time to be a potential double fatal and the death of a horse on a main road, all of which had to be recovered with great care and diligence, and the scene forensically examined.”

Acknowledging that the impact on people was “huge” because of the road it happened on, Supt Brown said it would have been “difficult and frustrating” for drivers but unavoidable because of the large volume of traffic using the A31 at rush hour.

Calls for escape gaps in road

CAMPAIGNERS are calling for gaps to be created in the central reservation on the A31 to prevent
similar chaos in the future.

Former cross-over points were closed several years ago after a police motorcyclist was killed in
an accident caused by someone doing a U-turn.

One of the openings is still in use, allowing westbound traffic to join the opposite carriageway
and take the road to the Rufus Stone.

But all the others have been closed off, including those at Mogshade Hill, Stoney Cross and Bratley Plain, denying traffic an emergency escape route if one of the carriageways has to be shut.

However, the Tarmac beneath the crash barrier is still in place and is used by contractors  carrying out major repairs to the A31.

Photographer Simon Rowley, of Burley, said: “It should be possible to create openings every few
miles. It might only be a question of undoing a few bolts – and it wouldn’t cost a lot of money.”

Ringwood councillor Michael Thierry, who has spent years campaigning for improvements to the A31, expressed similar views.

He said: “I’m not in favour of permanently re-opening the crossings but it might be possible to create gaps in the centre, allowing part of the crash barrier to be removed in an emergency.”

“Vehicles would be able, under supervision, to cross the central reservation and head back the
way they came.”

Last year Government ministers said they were “minded” to reduce the speed limit on the A31
from 70mph to 50mph but went back on their word after talks with the Highways Agency.

Campaigners had to be content with a pledge to improve signage – but are still waiting for the
work to be carried out with Highways Agency bosses saying it will be complete by the end of
this year.