The death toll on the A9, Scotland's most dangerous road, makes sickening reading.
Between 2006 and 2010 there were 67 fatalities, and more than 200 accidents each year. In 2011 there were 14 deaths, 13 of them on the deadly stretch between Perth and Inverness. And last month alone, four people died in collisions, images of which were splashed across TV screens and newspapers, showing people how unsafe a route this is.
As if we needed a reminder. In fact, this road is so notorious it's a wonder those with any alternative use it. Almost everyone who has driven it has a near-miss story, a tale of avoiding head-on collision with someone who has come around a bend as if trying to out-run the speed of light, or who has roared past them and only just squeezed back into lane, thanks to other drivers braking hard. You'd think, then, that one would be glad that finally the dual-carriage project has been given the go ahead to start in 2015. Even though it will take a decade, could anyone argue with this inestment?
Well, yes. No-one can deny how nail-biting driving on this road is, with traffic sitting mid-carriageway waiting to turn right while cars go hurtling past at motorway speed, not to mention vehicles creeping on from side roads at a bicycle's pace. But the essential problem on the A9, as on all dangerous routes, is less the quality of the road, and more that of the drivers. On hearing of the upgrade, for instance, Neil Greig of the Institute of Advanced Motoring, said: "Dualling ... means you get rid of most of the frustrated overtaking problems that account for many of the deaths of the A9." As that remark suggests, it is impatience and poor judgment that cause the majority of accidents, the careless or irritated driver often making victims of those who have done nothing wrong.
The dualling project will cost £3bn, and will undoubtedly save lives. Yet people will still have accidents, because the wider the road, the faster and more heedless the cars. If one lane is bad, two can sometimes be worse. A few days ago Formula One champion Damon Hill commented that "the speed limit going up to 80mph makes me shudder. I am a big fan of the 55mph speed lim".."
I agree. I've been a passenger with drivers who boast of their quick reactions and turbo-charged engines. Certainly they'd have needed to be faster than Concorde if so much as a hedgehog had stepped on to the road as they blazed along, wheel in one hand, phone in the other, wobbling even on gentle motorway bends, and switching lanes without a flick of the indicator or a backward glance.
The hazards of the A9 could surely be significantly reduced without a disruptive, costly building project. A more far-reaching strategy would be to help effect a sea-change in the way we drive, to create a shift in mental gears that would make every road, and not just the A9, less risky. Because otherwise, as cars get faster and safer, the problem will only get worse. Indeed, by dualling the A9, the Government is endorsing the idea that patience is not a virtue when you're behind the wheel, that convenience and speed over-ride every other consideration and that, even though one is passing through some of the most beautiful countryside in Europe – which for many is why they're there in the first place – the faster you can flash through it the better.
Selfish driving will always be a problem, but today's boy-racer culture – which is not restricted to men or the young – ought one day to be considered as shameful as drink-driving. If the danger spots on the A9 were more heavily policed, and speeding or dangerous drivers stringently fined, the message would gradually get through. Meanwhile those whose reckless driving causes a fatal accident ought automatically to face stiff punishment – a life ban on driving at the very least. This may sound draconian, but to change a society in which aggressive, life-threatening driving goes unquestioned, and even applauded, drastic measures are required. They're as nothing compared to what the dead and the bereaved have to suffer.
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