• The A9 has the reputation as the most dangerous in Scotland , with the deadliest stretch running from Inverness to Perth. Picture: PA
FOR Fraser Mackenzie, taking the main route between the Highlands and the Central Belt has become a "lottery" that he avoids at any opportunity. An environmental consultant who travels weekly between the Atmos Consulting offices in Inverness and Edinburgh for which he is responsible, he says that to drive the road is to run the gauntlet of motorists taking "ridiculous risks" or simply falling asleep at the wheel.
The fears, no doubt shared by many a fellow A9 veteran, come as another two deaths last week add to the road's grim toll, which now totals seven in the past three months alone.
Scotland's longest road stretches for 273 miles between Scrabster and Falkirk. It is largely single carriageway north of Inverness, and mainly dual carriageway south of Perth.
However, the mix of single and dual carriageway stretches on the middle section between Inverness and Perth causes the most concern, and the greatest number of deaths in recent years.
Weaving its way through spectacular and varied scenery, from wooded hills around Dunkeld to the mountains of the Cairngorms, sections of the road have above average crash rates for Scottish trunk roads, and there is a popular belief it is the country's most dangerous.
In fact, the last comparative assessment, for 2006-8, found the A819 Inveraray-Dalmally road in Argyll had the highest crash rate. The Road Safety Foundation reported that the 14-mile road, which was classed as "high risk" by taking into account its length and traffic levels, had 12 crashes causing deaths or serious injuries. By contrast, the A9 was classed as low to medium risk.
However, Mackenzie does not see the A9 that way. He says: "It's just a lottery. It does not matter how good a driver you are, you are at the risk of people falling asleep, taking ridiculous risks or not knowing the road.
"In the dark, the A9 can also be quite tricky. Unless you know the road by heart, it is often difficult to tell if you are on a dual carriageway section or not. The many sweeping curves are unnerving because it looks like someone is perpetually overtaking.
"Twice this year I have been stuck behind what turned out to be fatalities. It's reached the stage that I've started looking online to see if the A9 is shut before leaving.
"I definitely try to minimise driving on the road and take the train instead, but it is significantly slower."
Mackenzie is also unimpressed by the Scottish Government's progress towards its oft-stated pledge, last repeated only last week, of dualling the Perth-Inverness section.
He says: "The new overtaking lanes that have been added are tiny and piecemeal – there is no grand plan.
"When I go to the Central Belt I see massive schemes like the A80 motorway upgrade and the M74 extension in Glasgow and realise that in the Highlands we are connected by a piece of dangerous string."
Transport minister Stewart Stevenson launched work on the latest dual carriageway section of the A9 two weeks ago.
However, the 10.4 million scheme at Crubenmore, near Dalwhinnie, due to be completed late next summer, will add just two miles of dual carriageway, which accounts for less than one quarter of the mileage between Perth and Inverness.
Stevenson said: "The A9 is a vital link to north Scotland and the Scottish Government is committed to dualling this route, from Perth to Inverness, on a phased basis."
Transport Scotland has estimated that dualling the entire section would cost up to 3 billion – one and a half times the cost of the new Forth road bridge, which itself is expected to place a major squeeze on other transport spending.
The only other A9 upgrades in the pipeline are overtaking lanes at Slochd, north of Carrbridge, and Kincraig-Dalraddy, south of Aviemore, totalling 17m, which survived last week's Scottish Budget cuts.
A further 600,000 is being spent on designs for dualling a short section between Birnam and the Jubilee Bridge, north of Dunkeld. The Scotsman highlighted the slow progress more than two-and-a-half years ago when it emerged ministers' early plans for further dualling focused on only a six-mile stretch, between Luncarty, north of Perth, and Birnam. So far, overtaking lanes have been added at Carrbridge and Moy, and new slip roads built to cut crashes at the Ballinluig junction, south of Pitlochry.
Motoring groups say it is not clear why the A9 is regarded as so dangerous, but they have called for more urgent action to improve safety.
Paul Watters, head of roads policy for the Automobile Association, says: "Being at the upper end of importance in the Scottish roads network, it is not deprived of investment cash, but with cuts, even this route may be at risk from spending stringency in the future."
Neil Greig, director of policy and research for the Institute of Advanced Motorists, says: "Poor overtaking decisions or loss of control appear to be the main culprits, with speed contributing to the force of the crashes, although breaking the speed limit is not always the main cause.
"As a design the A9 varies a lot along its length, but there is nothing intrinsically deadly about it. It has a mix of long distance and short, local trips, plus visitors and lorries, which means that risk can be higher and outcomes more tragic if a mistake is made."
Greig calls for more dualling, coupled with extra police patrols and roadside service areas, which have been absent since towns and villages along the route were bypassed.
He says: "The A9 would be intrinsically safer if it were fully dualled and with full grade-separated junctions (slip roads], but that will take time and money.
"In the meantime, the ongoing provisions of extra overtaking lanes and junction improvement is welcomed by us and must continue apace.
"It is also time to review the roadside services issue and allow more stopping points. This will impact local communities, but with modern cars more than capable of driving from Perth to Inverness and back on one tank of fuel, more attractive service stops are needed."
Greig also suggests a trial of raising lorry speeds on some of the single carriageway sections – from 40mph to 50mph – which he feels might reduce the risk of frustrated drivers committing "stupid overtakes".
A Transport Scotland spokeswoman said: "The Scottish Government is committed to improving safety on the A9. Since 2007, over 50m has been invested in safety and structural improvements on this vital link.
"We continue to work towards our commitment to dual the A9 from Perth to Inverness on a phased basis, enhancing further the safety of journeys for all users along Scotland's longest trunk road."