The last week in January saw another spate of accidents on the A9. It’s our main highway connecting the central belt with the north east and Highlands making it one the most important roads in Scotland. It also undeniably one of the most dangerous. Every year too many people lose their lives on this road and although new safety measures are reducing this, the numbers are still too high.
So why is the road so dangerous and why is the current upgrading of the route not expected to be finished until 2025?
Many reasons are given for the roads killer reputation. Some say the beautiful views distract tourists who take their eyes off the road. The weather is also a definite factor with fog and snow playing their part. Some of the sections between Perth and Stirling which contained a common central overtaking lane were terrifying to drive and have now been scrapped. But by far the biggest reason for deaths on the A9 is that it’s not a complete dual carriage way for its entire length.
So why isn’t it? Well as usual the answer is politics and money. Building dual carriage way on a road as long as the A9 is very expensive. The current transport minister estimates it will cost 3 billion pounds to complete by 2025. With the amount of money in the public purse shrinking what other expenditure areas should lose out so more cash to be given to one road?
IN the past the answer was explained like this. It’s a long road but it connects to relatively small centres of population in the North East and Highlands. Given that one political party dominated Scotland from its solid base in the central belt there was no real political incentive to invest in a road that didn’t affect many of their supporters. So little investment was made. It might sound bad but this is something which is common to most political parties in most western countries. Scottish politics has changed a lot in the past 10 years and in part that has that led to a change in infrastructure priorities. One of these is building dual carriage way the whole length of the A9. However the same problems exist for infrastructure expenditure due to finite funds. Economist call it opportunity cost. If the government chooses the opportunity of building a new forth crossing then what is the cost? Perhaps it’s less money for subsidising child care. Perhaps it’s less money for a teachers or nurses pay rise. Perhaps it’s less money for dual carriage way on the A9. The opportunity costs go on and on.
One of the most controversial examples was the Edinburgh trams. Figures vary but this small section of tram line has cost the tax payer around 600 million pounds. Is that value for money? Why couldn't that money have been used to begin the work on a dual carriage way. Well it was or at least it was supposed to be. When the nationalists won their first ever election albeit by 1 seat in 2007 one of their main headline policies was scrapping the Edinburgh trams advocated by the previous lib dem labour coalition and using the money saved to begin work on the A9.
Understandably the Scottish Labour Party was very upset at losing power and were on the look out to inflict as early a defeat as possible on the new minority SNP government. Trams was the perfect opportunity. All three opposition parties teamed up together to defeat government plans to scrap the trams. The trams were reinstated and the A9 lost the cash.
This is how our politics work. If the boot had been on the other foot it's likely the SNP would have done exactly the same thing. It’s too tempting for opposition parties to miss an open goal like that. It’s just a shame that road safety was the casualty. I sometimes wonder if the MSPs from that debate back in 2007, many of whom no longer sit in parliament, ever pause when the see the latest report of a death on the A9.
I suppose what this blog is about is priorities. Every responsible government wrangles with the terrible choices they are forced to make. So while things like average speed cameras on the road have helped reduce deaths, unless we as the Scottish public are willing to pay more or have other spending priorities lose out the deaths will continue. Is the opportunity of saving 6 or 7 lives a year on one road worth the cost? Only we as individual voters and tax payers know the answer.