The main road to the North Coast, the A26, will very soon be (in different locations) of just about every standard a main road can be. South of the M1 it is essentially a rural road; between the M1 and the M2/M22 it is generally a wide single carriageway, sometimes with sections of 2×1 (i.e. two lanes one way, one the other; it is now policy not to build these, except for short sections clearing junctions/roundabouts, on safety grounds) or urban dual carriageway; from the M2/M22 at Antrim to south of Ballymena as well as for short while north of Ballymena it is a standard dual carriageway (with right-turn “gap junctions; another standard which policy dictates should no longer be built on safety grounds); the section around Ballymena (in effect; this is of course actually numbered the M2) is a full motorway; and then the new section from Glarryford to Armoy will be a dual carriageway with grade separated junctions (so, a barrier throughout and thus no right-turning/oncoming traffic).
The new section with grade-separated junctions will be extremely safe; there is just a risk, however, that drivers will begin to assume that the other dual carriageway sections either side of the Ballymena Bypass Motorway will not pay due attention to the fact that those sections are not as safe, continuing to contain as they do gap in the barrier and thus potentially crossing traffic (including slow-moving vehicles such as tractors).
The UK and Ireland do not distinguish in law between these different types of dual carriageway, but most continental European countries do. France has voies expresses (most notably in Brittany), Germany and Austria have Schnellstrassen and Spain has autovías as a designation of road in between “normal dual carriageway” and “outright motorway”. These separate types of road have their own official symbol (in Spain it is a dotted version of the full motorway symbol; elsewhere it is typically a white car symbol on a blue background).
At least in Europe, in English this middle designation is usually referred to as an “expressway”. Given that so many roads recently constructed (A1 Newry Bypass; A4 Dungannon-Ballygawley; A8 Newtownabbey-Larne), under construction (A26 Glarryford-Armoy; now A6 Randalstown-Castledawson) or soon to be under construction (A5 Derry-Strabane; also by upgrade the A1 Hillsborough-Dromore and later Dromore-Banbridge) fall into this middle standard between normal dual carriageway and outright motorway, it would make sense on safety grounds for Northern Ireland to specify what constitutes an “expressway”.
This could easily be done in legislation; an “expressway” would quote simply be a primary trunk dual carriageway (these are defined in legislation already) with a central barrier prohibiting all crossing movements (and thus exit and entry only from the left). It would be marked by the conventional “white car on blue background” symbol.
The introduction of this road designation would improve safety, as it would also draw attention to some of our major dual carriageways which are not expressways (notably the A1 between Hillsborough and Newry, and the A26 between Antrim and Ballymena; both of which sadly account for several fatalities and other casualties every year). Ultimately, of course, the aim would be to convert most if not all of those into expressways, thus further improving safety.
This is the sort of area where we in Northern Ireland generally slavishly follow English standards without really thinking. Perhaps it is time we did some thinking! Devolution is about doing things which suit us and our circumstances. Let us recognise our circumstances and do something really straightforward to make our roads safer.