ONE of those unwelcome statistics that we don’t like to think about caught my eye recently. It was that three out of four road fatalities occur on country roads.
Motorway pile-ups and multiple crashes make the headlines, but insidiously, week after week, local newspaper reports accumulate reports of deaths, almost always unnecessary, in ones and twos on “quiet” country roads.
In that respect, the statistic about three out of four fatalities being rural was no surprise. I read my local papers assiduously, I drive regularly on rural roads, and have a lot of experience of driving tractors and moving machinery on those roads.
Occasionally, that has had its lighter, if embarrassing, side. I still blush whenever I think about hauling a set of old-style Cambridge rollers over Coldstream Bridge as local Burns’ enthusiasts gathered underneath in some ceremony to honour the Bard.
When I say old-style, I mean all three rollers of heavy, jangling, rings were in tandem on the road making a lot of noise. They didn’t, as modern ones do, fold and lift to be carried on the hydraulics. Nor is there any way to reverse and with traffic behind, it was impossible to stop. How Burns would have laughed – I think.
Occasionally, as anyone who takes agricultural equipment on public roads knows, it can be hair-raising as impatient car and lorry drivers pull out and cut in with many accidents occurring as agricultural vehicles slow to turn off a public road on to a farm road. Or, usually a worse accident, as a tractor tries to join a public road from a farm road.
It is also true that the old saying about familiarity breeding contempt applies. We all think we know our own stretches of local road so well that we can take chances at certain places and drive too fast on some stretches.
If we try not to think like that, someone else will. The irritation at having a following vehicle half-way up your exhaust pipe on a country road is familiar to most of us.
The result is that many of those three out of four rural road fatalities are not strangers to an area, but locals who thought they could take a chance – 40 per cent of accidents involve only one vehicle – and couldn’t. Their memorial is a few bunches of flowers in an unlikely setting and a line that should be a reminder for us all: “Yesterday he hadn’t time – now he has eternity.”
All statistics show that the two most common causes of death on country roads are driving too fast for the conditions and loss of control.
As we are now in what is officially summer and the traffic on rural roads is getting heavier, whether local, agricultural, or visitors, it’s a good time to remember that the national speed limit on these roads is 60mph. Also, that apart from unexpected slow-moving vehicles, there are more likely to be horse-riders or cyclists on rural roads. And straying animals. In short, drive carefully, be patient, and think ahead of what might be round any corner. And, yes, I’m trying hard to take my own advice.
A recent quote from the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole referred to “unknown knowns – facts we know to be true, but don’t want to acknowledge.”
I think that applies to quite a few things in farming. For example, the value of recording and analyzing data in livestock breeding. Face it, the pig and poultry industries, and increasingly dairying, have proved over more than 50 years how much livestock performance and breeding can be improved by being record-based.
Results from sheep flocks taking part in Quality Meat Scotland trials have indicated that financial results can be improved by £11 per ewe by recording performance figures and acting on the results.
All sheep breeders must be aware of these facts, but a hard core won’t acknowledge them, O’Toole’s “unknown knowns.” The “stockman’s eye” and “good kenning” and the importance of breed points such as the amount of white hair allowed on a black face are still considered more important.
The lukewarm response by farmers to the most recent attempt by Quality Meat Scotland and recording enthusiasts with a proven track record such as Richard Oates to promote sheep recording – not to mention the even more lukewarm response on behalf of traditionalists by the Scottish Farmer – shows that some changes in farming remain glacially slow.
James Withers, one of the sharpest brains in Scottish farming for the past dozen years, is moving on. Luckily for farmers, the present chief executive of NFU Scotland – the organization where he started fresh from university in 1999 – will become chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink from September.
As head of an organisation, now chaired by Ray Jones, formerly head of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, which aims to increase Scottish food and drink output from its present £10billion to £12.5billion by 2017, Mr Withers will still be playing a vital part in farmers’ futures. I wish him well.