TRUNK roads on the North Coast 500 are no more dangerous than when the route was promoted as a road trip two years ago, according to Scotland’s transport chief.
Concerns have been raised about the safety of the scenic 516-mile route, dubbed Scotland’s Route 66, after a reported increase in accidents on the nine main roads since it was launched in March 2015.
Highlands and Islands MSP Edward Mountain probed Scotland’s transport minister Humza Yousaf on the issue at Holyrood.
But Mr Yousaf pointed out less than a quarter of the route’s miles are the responsibility of Transport Scotland, with the rest falling to Highland Council, but said accidents on the stretches of trunk road reduced last year.
"The Scottish Government welcomes the success of the North Coast 500 and recognises the importance of the route to the Scottish economy," he said. "In terms of road safety Scottish ministers are directly responsible for trunk road sections of the North Coast 500 which compromise approximately 23 per cent of the route through sections of the A835, A899 and A9.
"The safety performance of the trunk road elements of the North Coast 500 is reviewed annually and the figures for 2016 are lower than the average for the three years before the route was promoted."
Despite this, Mr Yousaf said he is working with the council and NC500 marketing group to improve safety on all roads on the route, starting from Inverness, heading across the north west Highlands to the far north and back toward the Highland capital.
"A partnership approach has been taken to improving safety across the whole North Coast 500 and the transport sub-group includes officials from Highland Council, Police Scotland, Transport Scotland, Bear Scotland, NC500 and Visit Wester Ross," he said. "Options being considered include passing places on single track roads, road-edge strengthening, improved tourist route signing, as well as general road safety and driver behaviour and education.
"These discussions are at an early stage and I would of course welcome contributions and input from members across the chamber."
The average number of yearly accidents between 2012 and 2014 was 37.7, compared to 34 in 20015, the year the North Coast 500 was launched, and 35 last year.
Conservative MSP Mr Mountain also called on the Scottish Government to pay for improvements which the cash-strapped council cannot afford but Mr Yousaf said this should be paid for through the local authority block granted provided by the Scottish Government.
"I will look at any proposal, along with colleagues, as part of the working group and transport sub-group we have set up," he added.
"Of course we would expect local roads to be funded from the block grant that amounts to almost £400 million for Highland Council. Nonetheless, any suggestions and proposals that do come forward I will keep an open mind about."
A road safety campaign group founded by Highlands Islands Labour MSP David Stewart has produced a new leaflet urging tourists to stay safe on rural roads.
Mr Stewart highlighted the booklet by the North of Scotland Driver Awareness Team he founded in 2010, saying it will help visitors not used to single track roads.
"The North Coast 500 route is a stellar success for tourism but perhaps more work needs to be done in progressing the specialist and technical skills needed to drive on single track roads," he said at Holyrood on Thursday.
Mr Yousaf agreed, calling the leaflet "excellent".