Road accidents are the leading cause of the death and serious injury of children and young people in Britain. While Britain's road safety record is good overall, our record on child pedestrian safety is one of the worst in Europe, with a death rate that is double Germany's. There is a simple reason for this. The freedom of motorists to drive at speed has consistently been put above the safety and freedom of children and pedestrians in general.
A manifesto commitment to make 20mph the maximum speed limit in residential areas would not only make the greatest contribution to reducing child pedestrian casualties; it would also complement measures to eliminate child poverty. Children from households in the lowest socio-economic group in Britain are five times more likely to be killed on the roads than those from the highest socio-economic group. A study of Edinburgh and the Lothian region found that children from the poorest districts were almost eight times as likely to be knocked down as those from the richest areas. Such inequalities in road accidents apply to people of all ages, but they are most marked for children. The children least likely to travel by car, because their parents cannot afford one, are the most likely to be knocked down by other people's cars.
This is largely because children from poor homes make more journeys on foot and lack safe play areas. Another study, of Birmingham residents, showed that children from Asian backgrounds were twice as likely as non-Asian children to be injured while pedestrians - because many of the people of Asian backgrounds live in inner-city areas.
It is not just in the increased likelihood of their children being killed or injured that the poor suffer from high speeds. The 1998 Acheson report on health inequalities, for example, notes that the burden of air pollution tends to fall on the disadvantaged, who do not enjoy the bene-fits of the private motorised transport that causes the problem. The report supported the call for lower speed limits and other measures to slow down traffic in built-up areas.
The relationship between road traffic and community life is complex. A classic study on the streets of San Francisco showed that traffic could have a profound effect on social relationships. It surveyed three streets almost identical in appearance, but differing markedly in their levels of traffic. The quietest street had a high proportion of families with children; people tended to know their neighbours and to have friends on both sides of the road. By contrast, the street with heavy traffic was inhabited mainly by elderly and single people who tended not to know their neighbours and who treated the street as hostile territory.
But it is not enough simply to put up 20mph road signs - which, research has shown, are almost completely ignored. Road layouts need to be changed so that drivers know that they have entered residential territory, as in 20mph zones which reduce overall road casualties by an average of 60 per cent, child casualties by 70 per cent. "Home zones", with a complete makeover in street design to give priority to pedestrians and cyclists, are widely used on the Continent and are also being piloted in a number of places around Britain.
Why is the government not already doing more? Cost cannot be the problem. A 20mph zone typically costs between £100,000 and £200,000. The government has estimated that a programme of 20mph zones to prevent 25 per cent of all casualties in urban areas would cost about £3bn. This is an affordable sum in comparison with the £25bn allocated to national roads and £60bn allocated to railways in the government's ten-year transport plan.
It is disappointing that transport ministers have downgraded a proposed national strategy for pedestrians into mere advice to local authorities on encouraging people to walk. The government's road safety strategy contains challenging targets - including one to cut, by 2010, the number of children killed and seriously injured in road accidents by 50 per cent - but it relies mainly on exhortation.
The response of local authorities is likely to be patchy, and the 20mph zones are more likely to be implemented in leafy suburbs where parents clamour for them than in deprived neighbourhoods where they are most needed.
Ministers should be prepared to take on the motoring lobby. Westminster City Council, inspired by the Institute for Public Policy Research, is already investing in measures to reduce the child accident toll, including 20mph speed limits in residential streets and safe routes to school, targeted especially at the most deprived wards. If a Tory council can do it, then surely a Labour government can.
Tony Grayling is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.
This is the ninth in a series of articles prepared by the Fabian Society and the New Statesman on ideas for a second Labour term