The Ilminster bypass is probably the most notorious stretch of the A303 in the region. Claire Smyth speaks to a police officer who helped secure improvements made on the stretch in 2003 and says the road is safer now, but is still not “perfect”...
Police inspector Tim Coombe was a young constable when the Ilminster bypass was first built.
Eight years later, in 1996, he joined Avon and Somerset Constabulary’s roads policing unit and spent the next eight years patrolling south Somerset.
During this time he saw the aftermath of serious and fatal crashes on the A303 in the district.
At least ten people died on the Ilminster bypass within three years of it opening in 1988, according to Mr Coombe. The road was modified in a bid to prevent crashes as a result of overtaking, but in the late 1990s, Mr Coombe was still encountering tragedies on the bypass. He knew something had to be done.
He said: “Motorists go about their business and don’t think about what could happen. But we pick up the pieces.
“Generally in a response policing role, you might be unlucky enough to be called to one or two fatalities, but in a roads policing role you go to them in quite quick succession.
“It has certainly occurred to me that it could be me or a loved one who doesn’t come home from work. Your own mortality does become far more real.
“Even if you do everything right, it can be misfortune or someone’s neglect of road safety which can take your or your loved one’s life away.”
From a law enforcement perspective, the road design made it difficult to bring a conviction against people driving dangerously on the Ilminster bypass, according to Mr Coombe.
He said: “When the bypass was first built, it was set up as two wide single lanes. But what wasn’t predicted was vehicles travelling four abreast. People treated it as a dual carriageway even though it wasn’t.
“Originally there was just a central line marking, so in terms of policing it was really difficult. If people were speeding, it was cut and dry. For offences of due care or attention for other road users, it was more of a grey area. You had to convince the magistrates their driving was careless or inconsiderate.
“So what we tried to pursue was setting the bypass out so you would have two lanes in one direction and one in the other.”
Mr Coombe said he compiled a report on the road and gave it to his sergeant who raised the issue with Somerset County Council’s highways department. Funding was found and the road markings were changed to their current format in June 2003.
Mr Coombe added: “I think we would all agree it is not a perfect solution but in terms of what was there before it is an improvement.
“The fact it is a safer road, for me, means I delivered what my role was about – that is making the road safer for people to travel on.”
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