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Pressure mounts to improve safety on the A31
OLDER residents say they can still remember when it was little more than a gravel track.
Today the A31 is one of the busiest roads in Hampshire.
The crowded dual carriageway is used by thousands of people travelling between Bournemouth and Southampton and is also one of the main routes to holiday destinations in the West Country.
However, accidents and congestion often result in cars travelling almost as slowly as they did before the road was surfaced about 80 years ago.
The A31 has been upgraded several times – but campaigners say the changes have failed to keep pace with the relentless rise in traffic.
Used by about 60,000 vehicles a day, the section between Ringwood and Cadnam makes headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Hardly a day goes by without an accident or a broken down lorry bringing one of the south’s most important routes to a standstill.
In 2008 it was revealed that 63 crashes had occurred in the previous three years, resulting in two deaths and 96 injuries.
In the first 77 days of 2011 police logged 101 incidents, including crashes, breakdowns and vehicle fires.
Potential solutions, such as road widening, are always likely to be blocked by the huge cost as well as the environmental implications.
As reported in the Daily Echo, Government cuts have already resulted in the Highways Agency dropping plans for a third lane at Ringwood.
The worst tailbacks tend to occur on the westbound carriageway – especially at weekends. Even on a good day queues start to build at Cadnam, where the M27 ends and the A31 begins.
Three lanes suddenly turn into two, without any corresponding reduction in vehicles.
Accidents or congestion caused by the sheer volume of traffic often result in thousands of journeys being disrupted.
Even minor collisions can block one or both lanes, causing long jams that leave drivers angry and frustrated.
Lorries struggling up Castle Malwood Hill almost at walking pace are another source of delays.
Comparatively few jams occur in the Burley and Stoney Cross area – but there is usually a sting in the tail.
The westbound carriageway at Ringwood is a major bottleneck. Vehicles leaving the town centre have to merge with through traffic, including drivers moving over to join the busy A338 road to Bournemouth.
More than one motorist must have been left wondering if any other 12-mile stretch of road in the county sees as much mayhem.
Accidents occur almost daily. Most are fairly minor but warehouse worker Ross Lipsett was killed last week when his car crashed into a lorry parked in a lay-by at Poulner Hill.
Mr Lipsett, 53, of Ringwood, is thought to have died instantly in the collision, which closed the westbound carriageway for several hours.
Earlier this year Ringwood Town Council launched a campaign aimed at persuading the Highways Agency to carry out improvements between Picket Post and the Ashley Heath interchange.
The council is calling for a reduction in the 70mph speed limit and signs advising drivers to get into the correct lane more quickly.
More than 1,000 people have signed an accompanying petition that has the full support of Desmond Swayne, Tory MP for New Forest West.
He said: “Much of what the council proposes could, if accepted, be in place by Christmas.
“I think it amounts to four signs, using poles and bridges already in place, and a pot or two of yellow paint.
A 50mph speed limit might take a little longer but it can be done.”
Ringwood councillor Michael Thierry added: “The cost is actually lower than the cost of one accident.”
A motion supporting the campaign and urging the Highways Agency to take urgent action was tabled at this week’s meeting of the district council.
It would normally have been referred to the Cabinet but was debated that day – a sign of how seriously the authority takes the issue.
However, police say accidents on the A31 are usually the result of driver error, not the road.
A spokesman said: “Many motorists join the A31 from the M27 and continue to drive as if they’re on a three-lane motorway instead of a dual carriageway.
“Some drive too close to the vehicle in front or do not allow sufficient distance when pulling out to overtake.”
A Highways Agency spokeman said: “Any safety intervention – be it a speed limit or other measure – would have to be backed up by evidence to show that it would achieve a worthwhile safety improvement.
“We cannot do these things simply on opinion, no matter how strong that opinion might be.”