27 September 2013

The A9, the Church and Transport Policy

a9Over the past few weeks, I’ve been intrigued to follow one Free Church Presbytery’s foray into the world of transport policy. The Presbytery of Inverness, Lochaber and Ross (PILR) has been calling upon the Scottish Government to bring forward its plans to dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness. Of course, as a former Consultant in transport policy and engineering, I’ve been extremely interested in this excursion into an arena where the church has usually found little to interest it.

The members of the PILR  are motivated in their call for accelerating the dualling project by road safety concerns. Of course, road safety should matter to all of us. In 2012, 170 lives were lost in Scotland through road traffic accidents and the A9 between Perth and Inverness has one of the highest fatality rates (6 fatalities per year, on average, between 2007-2011). Each road death brings the suffering of bereavement, often of people who had much more of their lives to live. Many of these deaths, however, are not accidents at all, but are caused by careless or reckless driving. The A9 is a busy road, especially in summer when volumes are 40% higher than in winter.  It is the A470 of Scotland – poor alignment in places, with limited visibility, and above-average percentages of HGVs and caravans. In winter, weather conditions compound the problems. These features, coupled with the long journey lengths of many users, contribute to driver frustration. The consequent poor decision–making of some of these drivers is what kills and injures people every year. Others are killed and injured for other reasons – it’s what happens when thousands of people travel in cars on the same piece of road.

So, it fascinates me that the church, which is rightly focussed (or ought to be) on the reality of human sinfulness and on the injustice perpetrated by some people against others – it fascinates me that the PILR are solely aiming their barrels at the Scottish Government. The reason people die on the A9 is to a large part due to selfish and reckless people who cause misery and suffering to others who are their victims. The PILR ought to be calling for greater responsibility on the part of drivers and more effective law-enforcement (for example, effective patrolling or peak-period speed limit camera enforcement), not solely requesting (somewhat forcefully) the Government to bring forward their dualling programme. Given the fact that in the Highlands and Islands there is a genuine cultural problem with respect to road safety (driver attitudes, especially towards vulnerable road users), if the church is concerned about road safety there are more issues to address than simply A9 dualling.

There are good reasons for dualling the A9, and the Scottish Government has already developed ambitious plans. However, road safety cannot alone make the case for it, and dualling alone will not prevent deaths (6 fatalities during 2007-2011 occurred on dualled sections of the A9). The most likely case is an economic one, focussed on the future development of Inverness. But even then, a biblical theology of creation ought to give us pause for thought. If decades of road building have taught us anything, it is that suppressed vehicle demand brings more drivers onto the road when road capacity is increased. To put it succinctly, if you completely dual the A9, more people will make longer trips in their cars, and more people will make trips by car rather than by rail or by bus. From an environmental perspective, none of this is good news. The church ought to be just as concerned with the sustainable use of the earth’s resources as it is with road safety. And, given that the A9 traverses some of the most spectacular scenery in Western Europe, the dualling of the A9 will have a detrimental effect on the visual environment. Historically, the church has neglected the environment and issues of sustainability. The church ought to be concerned about these things too.

Christianity has something to say about everything – this is God’s world. So, let the church speak out on transport policy. But let that speaking be considered, balanced, and theological.

[Anyone interested in this issue can read the Accident Analysis 2013 on the A9Road.info site]