The A9 is an unusual road – it has it’s own website!

OK, to be fair, the website is actually for the A9 Road Safety Group (RSG) but their sole focus is on making the A9 safer 🙂 The site provides a lot of details and shows their suggestions (now implemented) to make the road safer together with the various documents they have used to make their decisions. Many of these are the usual documents provided by political bodies, such as the RSG, and are therefore of limited interest. One or two are useful and worth a read.

One fact that quickly comes to light is the reliance on the experiences of the A77 speed camera implementation for comparisons. The roads are very different in nature and usage, but it’s unclear how much allowance for these facts has been made.

The A9 can be a frustrating road. Large sections are single carriageway, with limited visibility through woodland. It’s a busy road with a large proportion of users unfamiliar with the road and travelling long distances. The unfamiliarity combined with the distances inevitably leads to frustration, which in turn leads to many instances of poor overtaking – usually at low speed! For regular A9 travellers the experience of rounding a corner and finding a car coming towards you on the same side of the carriageway isn’t unusual. Often the slow speeds involved are the saving grace, but the frustrations and dangers are only too apparent.

Over the past few months average speed cameras have been added to much of the A9 with the aim of reducing the number of accidents. As speed has rarely been a factor in the nearest misses I’ve experienced I find the decision a little strange.

By way of comparison, the A77 already has large sections “protected” by average speed cameras. As with many people I found myself spending too much time watching my speed rather than looking at the road when using the A77, which given the complexity of the road struck me as being a negative for safety.

One aspect shared by both the A9 and A77 is the confusing and overwhelming number and placement of signs. Approaching junctions it’s not uncommon to find 5 or more signs, all essentially giving the same information. The placement of the signs seems decreed by committee and often signs cover each other or are obscured by vegetation. Given the obsession that exists on the A77 (and in Perth and some parts of the A9) for limiting turn options for lanes, correct lane discipline is important but often awkward and a last minute decision unless familiar with the junction due to the sign issues. Couple this with obsessive watching the speed and it’s a wonder more accidents don’t happen.

Average speed cameras are “fairer” than the instant ones that used to be used, but are they really a good solution for the A9? Monitoring the speed of a vehicle provides a single data point, albeit one that can be objectively measured. Police patrols provide a more subjective measurement of a vehicles behaviour, but they require police officers with all the issues that they bring. It’s a shame that the cameras, with their continuous monitoring of traffic and ability to generate as many tickets as required, has made them the only solution now considered for many organisations.

Of course, alongside the speed cameras the A9 group have also lifted the speed limit for HGV vehicles in an effort to reduce tailbacks and the frustrations that accompany them. It’s an interesting approach, but the usual relationship between speed and energy applies to accidents involving HGVs, so any accidents that take place involving HGVs will be more likely to cause injury. Where the balance between reducing the number of accidents and the additional injuries caused cannot be known at present, but it will be interesting to reflect on.

Another aspect of the introduction that seems strange is the placement of some of the cameras. One of the average speed zones has it’s finish just before one of the most dangerous junctions I regularly pass. The addition of warning signs for turning traffic (that only rarely work and are dazzlingly bright when it’s dark) has been rendered irrelevant as cars now accelerate away from the average speed zone straight into the path of right turning traffic. Moving the zones by a small amount would have avoided this – so why was it not done? Such inattention to detail does not bode well for a multi million pound project that is meant to save lives.

As anyone who drives regularly will attest, the safest roads are those with a steady, predictable stream of traffic. Introducing anything that interrupts the predictability of traffic increases the risk of accidents. Sticking speed cameras at seemingly random locations on roads seems like a sure fire way of doing just that. The sudden braking and rapid acceleration that accompanies such sites is often the trigger for accidents. Following the installation of the cameras on the section of road I travel almost daily, changes in behaviour have been obvious and the near collision between a van and car that I witnessed a few days ago was the first – and closest – I’ve seen in months. Hopefully it’s just a transitional thing and people will adjust.

I’m certain that the reports published will support the decisions made by the RSG, after all that’s the beauty of statistics 🙂 It would be nice to think that they would publish the “raw” detailed information about incidents and accidents, but so far I’ve been unable to find any place online that has such data. If anyone knows of such data then I’d love to have a look at it and try and do something with it, though I suspect that this will be a pipe dream.

All these changes have been described as temporary, meant to provide additional safety while the plans for changing the entire A9 into a dual carriageway are developed and implemented. The fact that several of the average speed camera sites are on existing dual carriageway sections would tend to imply that they will be a permanent fixture. The continuing income from the cameras will no doubt be welcome, even if they don’t provide much improvement in safety.