There was a severe accident on the new A8 road between Belfast and Larne on Sunday, in which there was one casualty but no one was killed. The road is built to the highest possible safety standards below a motorway, including a median barrier throughout meaning that all traffic is proceeding the same way, and there can therefore be no head-on collisions where, in effect, impact speed is doubled or impact is directly with the side door of the car.
Such standards were not originally envisaged for the road and, indeed, there are other, older sections of it where a head-on or sideways collision would be possible due to a break in the median barrier. It is no accident that standards have been raised – people like Wesley Johnston, the roads blogger, and Ben Lowry, in the Belfast Telegraph and now the News Letter, have long campaigned for “no gaps” (i.e. no breaks in the central reservation of a dual carriageway). It was indeed while querying the baffling decision to put median breaks and roundabouts on the new A6 Toome Bypass in 2004 that I got to know both, and upon becoming an elected representative in 2005 I was prominent in highlighting the outrage of allowing blatantly dangerous turnings to remain on prominent, dualled, inter-urban routes.
Our pressure did deliver a change of policy, first apparent arguably on the new A1 Newry Bypass and then more obviously on the new A4 Dungannon-Ballygawley route. A regular dual carriageway would have seen fatalities in the double figures on those routes since 2010 – there have in fact been two. That is the difference in action.
This brings us to the three young gentlemen who had set out on a journey on Sunday afternoon but were not lucky enough to be travelling on a road the standard of the new A8. They were travelling on the A1 between Dromore and Banbridge, a stretch which retains “gaps” (breaks in the central barrier), and where I was interviewed by Niall Donnelly for UTV fully ten years ago appealing for them to be closed (I cannot find the footage but I am certain of the timing). At one of the gaps, the one for Mount Ida Road, all three were killed.
There is a particular horror to road fatalities. They are so sudden; utterly innocent (and, disproportionately, young) people are involved; there but for the grace of God go the rest of us (I was driving the same route almost exactly 24 hours earlier myself).
In this case, however, there is also a particular anger. There have been proposals to close these lethal “gaps” since 2007, but still we await action – as the answer late last year to this question (not surprisingly asked at my behest) demonstrates.
It is to the credit of TransportNI (the agency formerly known as Roads Service) that they changed policy on dual carriageway construction some time ago, but the Department has been far too slow in implementing the “gap closing” proposals which are frankly straightforward (in that the case for them is clear on safety grounds and they do not require significant new land, etc) and relatively inexpensive (versus other prominent projects which, while improving traffic flow, will not make such a difference to safety).
There has been a rather unfortunate attitude among some senior bureaucrats that they were somehow being cunning by not upgrading the Belfast-Dublin route on the Northern side of the border to full motorway standard, as merely dualling it was cheaper. Let us be clear: merely dualling it and allowing cars to compete with bicycles and tractors across central reservations may have been cheap – but it was lethal.
The whole A1 in Northern Ireland must be upgraded without delay to the standard, at the very least, of the new stretch of the A8. If not, we are guaranteed to see more horror, just as we saw so completely unnecessarily on Sunday.
My sincerest condolences to the families and friends. Let us now ensure this does not happen again.