We live in an age of panic: about crime, mobile phones, medical blunders, drugs, railway safety, food, asylum-seekers, terrorism and more. We do not panic about motor cars, even though they kill 3,400 people a year - four times the number who are victims of homicide - and take more lives every single day than were lost in the Potters Bar rail crash. Road safety is not sexy or glamorous or youthful; it evokes images of lollipop ladies, of elderly men in flat caps, pottering along in the middle lane, and of boringly obedient children who remember to look left, right and left again. It is dull, wimpish, middle-aged and backward-looking. Besides, car ads, often promoting performance and speed, account for one-eighth of the national press's advertising income. So a report on road traffic speed from the MPs' committee on transport is relegated (with the honourable exception of the Independent) to the inside pages or not mentioned at all - except as a further example of the old leftist eccentricity and curmudgeonliness of its chair, Gwyneth Dunwoody. Any suggestion that the car should be restrained, or the laws against it more firmly enforced, is dismissed as an infringement of liberty and privacy, a breach of the Englishman's (it's nearly always a man at the wheel of a speeding vehicle) God-given right to mow down anything in his path.
Speed contributes to one-third of traffic accidents. Excessive speed is dangerous, not just because it makes it harder for drivers to react or stop quickly, but because any collision at speed leads to far more serious injuries. Hit at 20mph, nine out of ten pedestrians will survive; at 40mph, nine out of ten will die. Britain has one of the lowest overall motor accident rates in Europe, but one of the highest rates for pedestrian deaths and injuries. In proportion to population, UK drivers kill nearly twice as many child pedestrians as French, German, Dutch and Danish drivers. Moreover, a child from social class V is five times more likely to be killed on the roads than a child from social class I. As the higher-income groups are more likely to drive fast (partly because they have higher-powered vehicles and more appointments), the car has become an instrument that allows the rich to kill the poor.
Ministers make stirring speeches about the need to reduce crime. They press the courts to lock up more people and the police to move resources from traffic to burglary, drugs and mugging. Yet crime (on any reading of sensible statistics) is falling faster than road deaths. Crime, in any case, is likely always to be with us, barring armed police on every street corner. Road deaths are avoidable (not least because they are mostly caused by otherwise law-abiding people who take fright at any prospect of a serious conviction) at a price far below the estimated £17bn they cost in medical care and lost working days. The transport committee reckons they could easily be reduced to fewer than 1,000 a year.
For example, in 1998, Labour decided to set up extra speed surveillance cameras in eight areas. The results were significant, sometimes spectacular: in Northamptonshire, for example, the numbers killed or seriously injured fell by 30 per cent. Moreover, surveys showed majority public support for the cameras. Yet, after a shameful press campaign, egged on by the Tories, ministers agreed that, when the scheme went national, its effectiveness should be reduced. Cameras were to be located only at accident black spots and painted bright yellow - which, as the pressure group Transport 2000 put it, was "akin to telling burglars that they will only be arrested in areas where there are police patrols".
Even if caught, motorists are likely to be treated leniently by the courts - a far greater scandal than the treatment of burglars and muggers - but the government has failed to press ahead with a review of the penalties (which should involve fewer fines, fewer prison sentences and more bans).
Speed, as the transport committee points out, is now a more important factor in road deaths than alcohol. But its social and environmental effects go further. Children do not walk to school, because their parents fear them being killed or injured in traffic; then we panic about the obesity and unfitness of the next generation. The lack of restrictions on speed or size of vehicles has made country walking, cycling or riding almost impossible; then we grumble about the loss of opportunity to enjoy rural peace and quiet. We allow city streets to become dirt tracks for speeding motorists, consigning pedestrians behind fences and into underpasses; then we lament the loss of urban community. We need to rethink our relationship with the motor car, and the MPs' report gives an admirable outline of how we can do so.
All is changed, but not utterly
Scientists, it is reported, have teleported a beam of light, Star Trek-style, over a distance of a metre. Now news reaches us of another breakthrough: scientists have explored one of those alternate, parallel universes predicted by quantum theory. Wishing to start with just a trivial event, they split off an alternate universe at the moment Clare Sumner, of the PM's office, phoned Black Rod about the Queen Mother's lying-in-state. In this parallel world, they arranged for Ms Sumner to say: "Oh, that's all right then. In fact, Tony would rather not come at all. As a mere elected politician, he doesn't want to muscle in on a big day for our royal family. They should have the limelight to themselves." The NS can reveal the results: political crisis, Press Complaints Commission involved, calls for Alastair Campbell to resign, red-faced man called Oborne always on TV. And big Daily Mail headlines: "Shame! Blair snubs Queen Mother".