Deadly gap junctions on A1 show need for good road building

A tractor crossing through a gap junction on the A1 road between Loughbrickland and Beech Hill, shortly after the road opened in late 2006. Such junctions are rarely now built in dual carriageways and are implicated in many accidents. Pic by Ben Lowry
A tractor crossing through a gap junction on the A1 road between Loughbrickland and Beech Hill, shortly after the road opened in late 2006. Such junctions are rarely now built in dual carriageways and are implicated in many accidents. Pic by Ben Lowry

In 2006, a key stretch of new road opened in Co Down on the Belfast-Dublin route.

The £25 million section of dual carriageway from Banbridge towards Newry was a link in the chain of upgrade schemes that saw the route belatedly transformed.

Three people died and one was seriously injured in a collision between two vehicles at a gap junction on the A1 in Co Down in August

Three people died and one was seriously injured in a collision between two vehicles at a gap junction on the A1 in Co Down in August

Those improvements, from 1993 to 2010, overhauled a dangerous single carriageway connection between the two capitals into a four-lane highway (and, south of the border, to a full motorway).

Gone are the backward days when intercity traffic got caught behind tractors.

But there was a flaw in the six mile section that opened in 2006. It had gap junctions in the central reservation.

These are the junctions in which vehicles turning right, on to or off the road, have to drive across to a space in the middle of the road and then wait until they can join or leave the main carriageway.

Scene a two vehicle car crash north of Newry at a gap junction on the A1, where two nuns were killed last year

Scene a two vehicle car crash north of Newry at a gap junction on the A1, where two nuns were killed last year

The AA’s then head of road safety, Andrew Howard, told me in a story that it was a “1960s design”. The article described how tractors were among vehicles that used the junctions, sometimes with long trailers jutting into the fast lanes. I photographed such a tractor (shown on our web version of this story).

Not only was the design ill suited to a route that was being built to motorway standard south of the border (as was apparent from the early 1990s), it contradicted plans for the rest of the A1. Those plans are to close existing gaps on the route, and build flyovers, which are far safer.

Absurdly, when those upgrades are done (still years away), one of the newest sections of the road will be the most dated, with gaps. Talk about short sighted planning.

A number of people have been killed at such junctions on the A1, including the Rev David Sinton, killed waiting in the middle near Dromore in 2003. In 2006 Oliver Ward died after he slammed into a lorry waiting at a gap junction between Dromore and Banbridge, its trailer jutting into the fast lane in darkness.

Crash at a gap junction on the A1 in May

Crash at a gap junction on the A1 in May

To get a sense of the danger, drive down the A1 and watch vehicles whizz on and off across the road from the junctions like darts.

The risk is worse northbound, where traffic coming off the Dublin motorway, with its 75mph speed limit, suddenly faces such obstacles as it reaches the 2006 dual carriageway at Beech Hill.

Mr Howard said then that “allowing right hand turns across dual carriageways belongs to the 1960s and 70s”. Junction accidents were a big killer on that road type “and this sort of dated design is asking for such accidents”.

Tragically, so it proved. Two nuns were killed at a gap junction on that very stretch last year. On an older gap junction further north, in August, three young men were killed at a gap junction.

Ben Lowry News Letter Deputy Editor 2014

Ben Lowry News Letter Deputy Editor 2014

This week Eugene McNally has died beside an A1 gap junction. The circumstances of that collision are still unclear but we know now that there are safety grounds to invest in properly upgrading major routes such as the A6 to Londonderry and the A26 to the north coast.

The money is there. The roads from Belfast to the border at Newry and to Londonderry should have been motorways, part funded by a modest £1 toll. The lucrative Dundalk toll motorway shows that motorists pay for a fast road.

There is also much waste in Northern Ireland. As I wrote recently, spending on Disability Living Allowance costs hundreds of millions of pounds a year more than it should.

Spending on roads saves lives – look at the A4 extension to Ballygawley, which replaced a lethal old single carriageway.
And we should build them properly at the time, with flyover junctions, as our forefathers did with the M1 and M2, so that they do not require expensive later additions.