The first Porsches of spring are making their way around our single-track Highland roads and we are having to adjust our driving style.
The NC500 is a popular route, especially for silver-haired couples in older classic cars, motorhomes, and it also seems to have cut through to the young. That’s great – but many of them don’t know how to play the game of cooperation that’s involved.
One of the joys of off-season is that there are far fewer vehicles on the road and most of them know the rules. My husband Rob is a natural at the game – I am learning. A win is when both drivers birl along the road, identify the same optimum passing place and adjust their speed so that they pass each other smoothly without really stopping.
But there are many ways to mess this up. As we approached the Porsche we met the other day, Rob pulled into the correct passing place, anticipating that the other car would speed up to pass him with the minimum of hold-up. Instead of doing that, it pulled into a space on the other side of the road and stopped. The protocol is that, as Rob stopped first, the other car should keep going. The Porsche then started to flash its lights assertively. We drove past, minimally responding to the other car’s cheery waves. They probably concluded that the locals are unfriendly – not realising that they just failed the driving game.
I met another tourist the other day – one of the type who thinks the game is to be the person who doesn’t pull over. I headed towards the space that seemed to offer us the minimum delay, but the other car shot past it and then slammed on the brakes. After a few seconds of stand-off it grudgingly reversed. Fail. They got a small shake of the head instead of a wave, but it is best to zen this stuff out because it happens so often.
Another common irritant is drivers who don’t let vehicles behind them pass – for reasons such as: “Is there someone behind me? I forgot to adjust the mirrors when I hired this 40-foot motorhome”, “I pull over once an hour – otherwise I would never get anywhere”, or “I am driving at a reasonable speed for the road”.
The trouble is if they meet another driver of that ilk, each leading a convoy of vehicles, passing becomes a painful shuffle. The protocol here is that slower vehicles should stop as soon as possible to let someone past – in practice, that is going to mean frequently.
If a single vehicle is approaching a group, the single vehicle should pull over, but you often see a car with two camper vans in its wake stop at the start of a passing space, leaving the camper vans behind it to try to get up on the verge.
There is generally a passing place at a blind summit or sharp bend, and the driver on that side should steer into it, to give them a better view of any oncoming vehicle, thus reducing the number of times people have to slam on the brakes.
Another hazard is the potholes which develop each winter, when snow gets into a smaller hole, freezes and cracks the tarmac. On the plus side though, they work as natural speed bumps – or perhaps alien Porsche traps. Low-rise luxury cars don’t cope well with them. Locals of course tend to work out where they are and avoid them.
Aire the A9
The candidates for Scotland’s next First Minister have been discussing the A9. The conversation seems to begin and end with dualling it. That will – eventually – make a difference, but there are other ways to make the A9 a bit safer. There is a long-standing presumption against development along the road itself – in the name of encouraging drivers to go to nearby villages. That means there is hardly anywhere to stop safely to rest, get fuel or grab a coffee between Inverness and Perth.
It is not unusual for people to come all the way to the Highlands in a oner from the south of England so by the time they hit this stretch, drivers may have been on the road for 10 hours, perhaps with tired kids and dogs and bikes on the back. Heading south too, if the journey started in the far north or on one of the islands they may have been traveling for hours and have miles to go before they sleep. These drivers need somewhere convenient to stop, and road safety should be a bigger priority than directing their custom to local businesses.
So putting up a sign suggesting people turn off into Aviemore or somewhere is a bad idea. It is going to add probably two hours to their journey, getting a table in a cafe on a summer Saturday will be impossible and they will come back on the road at right angles to the traffic, often having to cross over a thundering roar of lorries and cars doing 70.
Sometimes at night, when the rain is coming down like iron spikes and the road is as dark as a werewolf’s armpit I feel that the brown signs directing you to local services are a sick joke. The signs don’t contain any information as to distance, so you could come off and find it is a 20-minute drive, or that everything is closed and the one 24-hour fuel pump is broken. The latter happened to me once at Birnam – followed by a horrific re-entry to the A9 that terrifies me to remember.
I try to get the train as often as possible but sometimes I have to drive, and the safest place to stop is Ballinluig. The service station there was built in 1970 and predates the presumption against development so it has slip roads and a bridge. Most lorry drivers who know the road seem to go there. There is a truck stop and a Motor Grill offering homely fare such as Scotch pie and chips, or cold meat and salad. But the signage on the road doesn’t tell you that there is sliproad access – it doesn’t make any distinction between it and the other joke signs. Everyone gets a sign it seems – even places with basically no shops, cafes or garages (Dalwhinnie).
One thing that would help make the A9 safer may be some simple Aires like they have in France, offering a safe area to stop away from the road to let kids and dogs stretch their legs and the driver have 40 winks, furnished with picnic benches, toilets, a 24 hour fuel pump, an electric charging point and maybe a coffee truck.
First published by the author on her Substack blog A letter from Scotland
Image of the NC 500 courtesy of Rob Bruce