SCOTLAND's roads were engulfed in chaos as five people died over 24 hours and a spate of crashes on black ice closed two motorways and blocked many other routes across the country.
• A gritter passes smashed cars after four vehicles were involved in an accident on the M9 motorway near Stirling yesterday. Picture: PA
The A9 in Perthshire was shut for almost 20 hours when a 16-year-old girl was killed as she walked along the road with friends.
Hours later, an elderly couple died after they were hit by a lorry as they crossed a road in Lanarkshire.
Yesterday a man was killed when he was struck by a car near Inverness and later another man died after being hit by a vehicle on Longdrive in Irvine. He was taken to hospital in Kilmarnock, but died shortly before 10pm.
The problems on the roads were compounded by another blast of winter weather, which brought black ice and closed parts of the M8 and M9, sparking condemnation of transport minister Keith Brown by businesses and politicians for failing to avert the gridlock.
Eagle Couriers described the closure of a westbound section of the M8 for more than three hours as a "monumental blunder".
The 24 hours of chaos began on the A9 on Tuesday when a 16-year-old girl was killed near Auchterarder at 10pm.
A 20-mile section of the route remained closed until late yesterday afternoon for investigation work. Diversionary routes were at a standstill, with the road between Greenloaning and Perth eventually being reopened at 5:35pm.
The girl was named last night by police as Elli Stewart Williams of Auchterarder. She is believed to have been a pupil at the Community School of Auchterarder. It appears she was struck by several vehicles while walking beside the dual carriageway with friends, who witnessed the incident.
Superintendent Tony Beveridge, of Tayside Police, urged drivers who had been on the southbound carriageway at the time to check their vehicles.
He said: "This has been a tragic incident involving a 16-year-old schoolgirl, and our thoughts are with her family at this very sad time.
"We have already had a number of drivers come forward reporting that they may have hit the girl as she lay on the carriageway. It would have been dark and it's possible some drivers may even have thought they have hit an animal."
A schoolfriend posted on her Twitter account: "It was a horrific death. The story of how it happened makes me feel sick."
Tributes to Elli were also posted on the Facebook website. Joanna Perrett wrote: "How awful…thoughts are with the family." Aileen Smith wrote: "Tragic, awful, sad."
The second accident happened at 9:45am yesterday when Emma and John "Jake" Grier, both 76, from Motherwell, were knocked down while crossing the A72 Townhead Street in Hamilton. Both died in hospital.
The street was closed for more than five hours, causing widespread traffic problems. Exit sliproads from the nearby M74 were closed in an effort to prevent tailbacks increasing.
Minutes before the A9 was reopened following the death of the teenage girl, a man died when he was hit by a car on the A835 Inverness-Ullapool road near Conon Bridge. He was pronounced dead at the scene, with the road staying closed last night for investigations.
Earlier, there was major rush-hour disruption on the M8 in North Lanarkshire when a five-mile section of the westbound carriageway between junctions five and six was closed by police after 15 vehicles were involved in a series of collisions on black ice shortly before 7am.
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Two people were taken to hospital for checks. The road remained closed until 10:24am.
Superintendent Alan Speirs, of Strathclyde Police, said: "This weather has been difficult and the colder conditions look set to continue for the next month or so. Therefore it is imperative that drivers be aware of hazardous conditions and make sure they drive with extreme care."
The M9 was closed in both directions after crashes on both carriageways between junctions eight and nine, south of Stirling.
Five vehicles were involved in two collisions on the northbound carriageway, with one man having to be freed by firefighters and several other drivers suffering slight injuries. Another car crashed into an unoccupied police car parked across the road.
On the southbound carriageway, a vehicle crashed off the road. Police also reported several collisions on the M876 nearby because of black ice.
Chief Inspector Donald McMillan, of Central Scotland Police, said: "While the roads may look wet, this can be deceiving and it may actually be stretches of black ice."
The M8 closure prompted accusations that Mr Brown had reneged on his promise to deal with wintry weather after taking over from Stewart Stevenson, who resigned as transport minister over his handling of snow problems, which gridlocked the motorway last month.
Eagle Couriers, which calls itself Scotland's leading independent courier firm, claimed that yesterday's closure had been avoidable and must not be repeated. Its fleet makes 2,000 trips a week on the M8, including emergency deliveries for the NHS and Scottish Blood Transfusion Service.
Director Jerry Stewart said: "Before Christmas, the (Scottish] Government was saying it would properly deal with any adverse weather conditions in order to keep the roads open. Even during the subsequent snow and ice that battered the country, they were able to successfully deploy gritters and ploughs to clear the major routes and allow motorists to complete their journeys.
"However, now the snow has gone, the government has clearly decided to rest on its laurels and has been caught out badly. The weather reports have been predicting freezing conditions for days, so there is absolutely no excuse for not having gritters out to tackle the ice.
"It is unacceptable to have our main motorway closed at any time, so this is a monumental blunder that should not be allowed to happen again."
The Conservatives also rebuked Mr Brown. Transport spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: "What should have been a fresh start has proved to be a false start, with many motorists stranded on the M8 all over again.
"Keith Brown's encouraging words have not been matched by effective action."
Charlie Gordon, his Labour counterpart, also warned Mr Brown: "The SNP government must be well-prepared for bad weather on the roads now and in the future. Plans in place need to be robust and we need to see them executed properly."
Elsewhere, a snowplough driver was airlifted to hospital after a crash at the summit of the high-level B974 Banchory-Fettercairn road at Cairn o' Mount in Aberdeenshire.
Another driver and passenger escaped uninjured after their car crashed 50ft down an embankment, leaving it perching on rocks at Peterhead Bay.
A 51-year-old man was taken to hospital in Dundee after he was trapped in his car following a collision at Longforgan.
Mr Brown said last night: "We have made every effort through our resilience planning and working closely with our partners to ensure we are as ready as possible for whatever the weather may bring, which is why gritters were out in the early hours of the morning.
"I would urge drivers to check their journeys in advance and follow police advice."
The Scottish Government's Transport Scotland agency said the M8, M9 and M876 were salted from 11:55pm on Tuesday and 2am yesterday, with gritter patrols also on the trunk road network from 6-8am.
A spokeswoman said: "Although gritting operations had been carried out overnight, a band of heavy rain, followed by freezing temperatures, resulted in spots of black ice.
"Driver behaviour has, overall, been steady and well paced, with people heeding police advice. However, incidents such as a vehicle reversing on the M8 to go back to a junction to exit must be highlighted as reckless behaviour."
There was also misery for rail commuters because of signalling and power supply problems on the approach to Glasgow Central. Network Rail said ScotRail had been forced to operate a "thinned-out" service.