After 14 deaths in 10 years along a busy commuter route, Craig Blackburn investigates whether anything can or should be done to stem the mounting death toll
Travelling between Falmouth and Helston is normally a pleasant 15-minute drive.
The road is largely straight, with overtaking lanes, lay-bys and garages. Road signage and visibility are generally good: but this road has claimed the lives of 14 people in just 10 years, not to mention countless non-fatal accidents which have left victims with serious injuries.
At the inquest into the death of Peter Coram, police and officials from council roads contractor Cormac explained to the coroner all that had been done to make the route safe.
Cornwall Council’s stance is that the road is not dangerous.
Councillors and residents from Helston to Penryn disagree.
Mabe councillor Pete Tisdale was one of the first on the scene of a “horrendous” accident in which Merryn Butler lost her life in 2010. “There was nothing left of the car. It looked like it had been hit by a bomb,” he says. “That was what prompted me to start looking into this.”
Since Ms Butler’s death, four more people have died.
Mr Tisdale started campaigning for traffic-calming measures with Mabe Parish Council in 2010. “It’s only a matter of time before it will happen again,” he said. “How many more people have to die before something is done about this road? That’s what I said last time in 2010, and it’s still happening.
“Cornwall Council tell me it’s not the most dangerous road in the county, but how many people have to die before it becomes that?”
At Mr Coram’s inquest in Truro this week, Cormac road safety engineer Adrian Roberts said the A394 had a good accident record and did not feature on the county’s accident black spot list.
Mr Roberts said he had a concern over the “apparent smoothness” of that section of the road, but forensic collision investigator PC Glynn Griffin said grip tests conducted after the incident showed the road performed “better than expected”.
In Mr Coram’s case, it was his habit of not wearing a seatbelt, combined with black ice, which led to his death.
PC Griffin said the other driver, Valerie Howard, survived despite suffering “a more severe impact”, because she had worn a seatbelt.
Edgcumbe resident Shaun Collins, who witnessed the aftermath of Mr Coram’s accident on an icy Sunday morning in January, said: “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s amazing the woman survived. You wouldn’t believe it if you’d seen the car.”
In January, Mr Collins joined other residents and a local councillor in calling for action.
Loveday Jenkin, Cornwall councillor for Crowan and Wendron, said: “This accident highlights that it is a dangerous piece of road. People perceive it as wide open road but it has a number of junctions along it.”
Last year a motorist demolished a bus stop at the same spot which only an hour earlier had been full of schoolchildren. In March a man driving an X-type Jaguar left the road at the same place and smashed into a line of parked cars at the Autotrend garage.
Luckily, the driver survived without serious injury.
Further down the road at Trevennen in 2010, Barney Clowe was not so lucky.
The Falmouth motorcyclist died six months before Ms Butler lost her life near Gables filling station. The driver of the car with which Mr Clowe collided, Heinz Birkenbeul, was sentenced to 16 weeks in prison, suspended for 12 months, disqualified from driving for 12 months and ordered to pay £1,200 costs to the prosecution for causing his death.
In 2009, three men admitted a charge of dangerous driving after Christian Vinnicombe died during a road race against friends. Each was given a 50-week prison sentence, suspended for 18 months, banned from driving for 18 months and ordered to carry out unpaid work.
In 2007, Graham Thacker was jailed for three years for causing the deaths of a popular preacher, David Green, and his wife Lynn. Police road casualty reduction officer PC Dave Trowt said the force was investigating some of the incidents along the A394, listening to the concerns of local residents and dealing with the issue of speeding – with mobile and fixed speed cameras – in an effort to reduce casualties.
“While each collision is different, the overriding cause is human error,” he said. “The road itself is being looked at in order to examine whether or not any changes can be made to help reduce casualties, but the best way to reduce these tragic circumstances is for drivers themselves to concentrate more on driving and to slow down.”
Cornwall Council, meanwhile, says it does not believe this section of road is inherently dangerous, explaining: “Detailed investigations of these accidents have shown that they have largely been as a direct result of specific driver behaviour or unusual weather conditions rather than being related to the road layout.
“We have reviewed the speed limit along the A394 in line with government guidance which encourages councils to take factors such as existing traffic speeds, the road layout and the collision history into account.”