A Caithness activist has insisted action to improve road safety in the countryside is “long overdue” after national statistics were released showing rural roads in Scotland are far deadlier than those in urban areas.
Iain Gregory, a retired police area commander, advanced police first class driver and accident investigator, described the latest figures as “shocking” and cited a number of measures that could improve the situation.
He spoke this week after rural insurer NFU Mutual released an analysis of statistics showing what it called “disproportionate risk” in rural areas.
A representative for an equestrian charity in the far north called the numbers “disappointing but not surprising”, while the life president of the Thurso-based Caithness Cycling Club said some of the back roads in the county pose a “major hazard” to people on bicycles could.
In 2021, Scotland’s country roads (102) had 149 per cent more deaths than city roads (41), despite the fact that there were 60 per cent fewer vehicles driven on country roads in any given 24-hour period. Nationally, there were 70 percent more deaths on rural roads than on urban roads, despite more than a third fewer vehicles traveling on rural roads each day.
Mr Gregory, co-founder of Caithness Roads Recovery and part of the Forss Campaign Group calling for safety improvements on a section of the A836, said: “These statistics are shocking and a campaign focused on rural road safety is long overdue.
“The far north is predominantly rural, with towns and villages making up a very small percentage of the roads in the Highlands.
“In my police career spanning more than three decades, I have investigated countless fatal and life-changing accidents, many of which took place on rural roads and each one was a tragedy for those involved.
“I doubt we can ever reduce road deaths to zero, but we can continue to reduce the numbers through a combination of strategies.
“I don’t think that simply applying ‘blanket’ speed limits is the solution. The problem is far more complicated.
“The roads themselves need to be well-maintained, with crossings and hazards clearly identified and marked, with active identification of potential hazard areas – sometimes simply cutting back bushes and vegetation, for example, can open up a previously ‘blind’ corner.
“Driver education is vital and we all need to be considerate of one another. Pedestrians, cyclists, bikers and drivers are all responsible for their own safety and for each other.
“We also need many more traffic police units on the road – clearly visible and unmarked – rather than occasional visits from speed camera trucks that just focus on a single aspect of a very complex equation.
“Caithness is an area locally with many activities for horses. Horses and riders have a perfect right to use our roads – in fact they were there long before the car – so please be careful, slow down and give them plenty of room, and don’t do anything to startle the horse.
“Farming is an integral part of our way of life and farmers also need to use the roads so be aware that slow moving tractors may be present and drive accordingly.
“In the summer we have a large number of tourists in the area, including many motorhomes, driven at different skill levels and we have to take that into account as well.”
Mr Gregory added: “There is one golden rule that will greatly increase your safety: always drive defensively, anticipate potential hazards and remain alert and alert at all times.”
Donna Mather, Access Officer for the British Horse Society in the Highland North area, said: “The statistics in the report are disappointing but not surprising.
“Rural roads are busier than ever, but speed is the number one cause of serious accidents. It can be tempting to accelerate when the road is clear, but rural road conditions can change due to slow-moving machinery, mud, wildlife, and hidden dips and turns in the road.
“Sharing rural roads with vulnerable users such as walkers, cyclists and horse riders and horse-drawn vehicles is a major responsibility.
“Because horses are kept in rural areas, drivers have a duty to look after them. You should be aware that horses are not motorcycles and the quietest of horses can suddenly startle.
“The amendments to the 2022 Road Traffic Act, which prioritize the safety of vulnerable road users, are a welcome change. I’ve already noticed that this year motorists pass by more safely when driving.
“Of course, drivers need to ensure they are easily seen by wearing fluorescent clothing and not causing frustration by blocking the road unnecessarily.
“The combination of the changes in the hierarchy of road users and the increasing availability of affordable body-worn action cameras means drivers are more likely to be blamed for riders and other vulnerable road users causing accidents or near misses on the roads.
“Every road user has the responsibility to keep up to date with changes in the road traffic regulations.”
Alasdair Washington, Life President of Caithness Cycling Club, said: “In Caithness, our secondary roads are not normally heavily trafficked, but our very poor road surfaces can pose a major hazard to cyclists.
“I cycle a lot in Strathspey where – despite much harsher winters – most surfaces are excellent. Often the only way to avoid very bad sections is to drive carefully near the middle of the road, and that takes experience.
“Although traffic is often sparse here, elsewhere there have been serious accidents involving agricultural vehicles turning into fields or overtaking with wide trailers, often misjudging the cyclist’s speed. Fortunately this is not an issue that I encountered in Caithness but both cyclists and drivers should be aware of the potential problem.”
Mr Washington added: “Cyclists obviously need to ride safely. First, be visible. Second, don’t drive near the shoulder, even if the surface is good, as this leaves no room to avoid potholes or to swerve in emergencies – this is especially true on sharp left turns and gives the motorist a better view of cyclists.
“Third, be polite to other road users.
NFU Mutual runs a rural road safety campaign supported by the Department for Transport, British Cycling and the British Horse Society.
Jade Devlin, Rural Roads Specialist at NFU Mutual, said: “These latest figures confirm our fears that an increase in road traffic on rural roads has led to an increase in the number of deaths and casualties on rural roads – with vulnerable road users generally bearing the brunt of it .
“Country roads are a lifeline for many isolated people and a common space for the entire population, so this is a national tragedy that is rightly a major concern for our customers and the general public.
“That’s why we, together with our partners, call on all road users to act now so that a further increase in traffic on rural roads does not lead to an increase in tragic and avoidable deaths.”
NFU Mutual conducted an online survey to find out what motorists think about rural road safety and what they see as the greatest dangers. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of those surveyed said they had been involved in a collision or accident on a country road.