DRIVERS are to have their speed tracked on more than 100 miles of Scotland’s most notorious road in a bid to improve safety.
In the second largest scheme of its kind in the world, ministers have ordered dozens of cameras to be installed on the A9 between Dunblane and Inverness, weeks after the latest multiple-death crash on the road.
The £2.5 million scheme – the biggest outside the United States – is expected to be operating by next summer to enforce the 60mph single carriageway and 70mph dual carriageway limits on the main route to and from the Highlands.
Cameras will be sited every four miles over a 136-mile stretch between the Keir roundabout, south of Dunblane, and just south of the Raigmore interchange in Inverness. They will measure vehicle speeds over set distances by recording number plates and taking the average speed between the cameras.
Pressure has intensified on Scottish ministers to take action to make the road safer after the latest fatal crash, on 9 July, in which three people were killed on a single-carriageway section near Newtonmore.
On Tuesday, Professor Donald Macleod, a former principal of Free Church College in Edinburgh, described the A9 death toll as “a shame to the nation”.
Ministers have privately acknowledged that extra safety measures are required in the short term, as completing the dualling of the Perth-Inverness section will take at least 12 years. Construction of what will be one of the biggest projects in Scottish history is not due to start until 2015 and will cost £3 billion.
There have been about 100 deaths on that section in the past eight years. It is currently covered by mobile speed camera vans and police cars.
Average speed camera technology has nearly halved the number of deaths on a 32-mile stretch of the A77 in Ayrshire since 2005.
Yesterday’s announcement by transport minister Keith Brown came nearly a year after justice secretary Kenny MacAskill revealed such cameras were being considered for the Dunblane-Inverness section by safety experts, as The Scotsman was first to report. He spoke out after police caught 687 motorists speeding between Perth and Inverness in a ten-day crackdown last August.
A national review of speed limits by Transport Scotland last year did not recommend any changes to that section of the A9.
Mr Brown said: “The A9 Safety Group has recommended an average speed camera system is introduced to help cut down on the number of accidents, and Transport Scotland will now take this forward.
“While the Scottish Government believes that dualling will be the long-term solution to the safety issues on the A9, we also want to make the immediate improvements that will bring positive changes to driver behaviour.”
Transport Scotland said the first of some 40 camera sites would be installed early next year. A spokeswoman said the system would not require planning permission, but officials would consult with bodies such as the Cairngorms National Park, including over the colour of the so-called “yellow vultures” that are fixed to overhead gantries.
She added: “The system will be capable of detecting all classes of vehicles, including motorcycles. It will also detect all vehicles regardless of lane changes.”
Superintendent Iain Murray, of Police Scotland, said: “Average speed cameras have previously proved their ability to reduce casualties on other major roads in Scotland and analysis shows that there will be similar benefits on the A9.
“There is no doubt this announcement will help to reduce the concerns of a great many people who have made their concerns about safety on the road known in recent days.
“However, it is clear that the introduction of the system will take some time.”
Mr Murray said there would be increased police patrols in the meantime.
Neil Greig, the Scotland-based policy and research director of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, has said many crashes on the A9 were caused by drivers misjudging overtaking manoeuvres and collisions at junctions, rather than only speeding.
He has called instead for better overtaking opportunities and more police patrols.
Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “If the problem is speeding, then these cameras will do the job, because they ensure near 100 per cent compliance. But drivers can make dangerous misjudgments within the speed limit and we are pleased that, in the longer term, ministers are committed to engineering the risks out of the road.”
Phil Flanders, of the Road Haulage Association, said: “Road safety has to take priority, and this action is in response to many people speeding and carrying out dangerous manoeuvres, which in many cases have resulted in serious or fatal accidents.”
The Rail Freight Group said the death toll could be further reduced by transferring more freight from lorries to trains. David Spaven, its Scottish representative, said: “Lorries are disproportionately involved in fatal accidents, and moving freight by rail is vastly safer.”
Katrina Ashbolt, an Inverness solicitor, tweeted: “[It] won’t stop ridiculous overtaking slower vehicles. Please just dual it.”
Jennifer Nicol, an Inverness marketing manager, tweeted: “If they’re going to spend £ before dualling, why not put up loads of signage. It’s the ones who don’t know the road who cause deaths. People get stuck at 40mph, then speed to 80mph after, averaging out at about 60, therefore nothing changes!”
Analysis: Stepping up a gear on the long, tortuous road towards a safer A9
AVERAGE-speed cameras may be a no-brainer in cutting speeding, but the A9 has a more complicated safety problem. That may be why, years after their proven success elsewhere, the technology is only now being deployed on the main route linking the Central Belt and the Highlands.
With complete dualling of the Perth-Inverness section at least 12 years away, and yet another multiple-death crash in recent weeks, ministers will have been under increased pressure to take tangible action.
Transport Scotland said it had spent £50 million on improving A9 safety since the SNP came to power six years ago, but the fatal smashes have kept on coming.
Motoring experts said the problem was not speed itself, but the mixture of single and dual carriageway sections. This has caused the fatal twin dangers of driver confusion about which section they are on, and frustration at being stuck behind slow-moving vehicles, leading to unsafe overtaking. The road’s many junctions are also seen as a risk, with only a few, such as at Ballinluig, near Pitlochry, upgraded so far.
Before the 1970s and 1980s, when the Perth-Inverness section was upgraded and every town bypassed, the A9 was so tortuous that British Rail ran a Motorail service which carried cars between Stirling and the Highland capital. Thirty years on, dual carriageways still account for little more than a quarter of the mileage north of Perth.
In addition, on many of the long, sweeping curves of the single-carriageway sections, which were designed to assist overtaking, sight lines have been significantly eroded by tree growth.
To drivers using the road regularly, improvements must seem to be happening at a snail’s pace. There have been some short dual-carriageway extensions and the introduction of “2+1” lanes at several points, as a quicker and cheaper way of enabling overtaking on one carriageway short of full dualling – but they do not have central crash barriers.
The SNP has trumpeted its pledge to dual the road since winning the 2007 election, but ministers have revealed only in the past year how this will be achieved.
Preparation work seems to have moved up a gear, but it remains unclear how the £3 billion cost will be funded. That is the equivalent of two Queensferry Crossings – and the bridge is Scotland’s biggest project for a generation.
Finishing the job by 2025 would also seem a tall order, considering the scale of the task – 80 miles of dual carriageway, plus the potential for planning and bad weather delays.
In the interim, Transport Scotland has ordered improved signs and road markings, and electronic displays showing journey times.
In that context, installing what are likely to be highly visible cameras along the route will be a clear indication to long-suffering motorists that ministers are stepping up a gear.