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21 February 2000

The killers defended by ministers

Why is new Labour so reluctant to improve road safety, asks Roger Harribin

By Roger Harribin

A liberal state would allow me to smoke dope, snort coke, inject heroin, drive as fast as I like on an open motorway, with or without my seat belt, eat and drink to excess and make passionate love with my neighbour’s wife or even my neighbour himself, if he’s that way inclined. But even the most relaxed states have laws to protect us from the excess of each other. No society would allow me to force drugs on my children, undo my passenger’s seat belt, vomit my food and drink over the diner on the adjoining table, or rape my neighbour or his wife. The greater the threat to life and collective freedom from personal liberties, the tighter the strictures required.

Now here’s the uncomfortable bit. Most of us are guilty of putting at risk the lives of others on a daily basis. Driving fast while protected by seat belts, air bags and crumple zones, we transfer the risk to vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists known in safety jargon as “soft road-users”. The government does little to stop us.

The purpose of speed limits is to prevent drivers from travelling at speeds that might kill or injure people or frighten off the Queen’s highways other road-users with equal rights to be there. Yet the government’s imminent review of speed limits is expected to enshrine for years to come an arbitrary hierarchy of speed limits laid down 66 years ago by civil servants without data or methodology to quantify actual risk.

In Sweden, the speed limit is being lowered to a level at which the statistical risk is deemed acceptable. But in Britain, ministers shaken by the motoring lobby’s attack on higher fuel prices have decided to ignore similar advice and to promote instead a fudged policy which will aspire to substantial improvements in road safety, but without any substantial increase in safety spending, and without any fundamental change to archaic speed limits. Ministers will leave speed limit decisions to local councils, most of which will gladly reduce speed in residential zones, but not on main roads where half of urban pedestrian deaths occur.

Critics on the back benches argue that new Labour was elected to protect those most at risk from cars going too fast: the elderly, children, disabled people and the poor. Children of lower income groups are five times more likely to die on the roads than the richest.

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The police’s policy is to allow drivers 10 per cent extra on top of the speed limit: but does this make sense? My house was burgled recently. The police came round, took copious notes and offered me counselling. If they catch the burglar, should they let him go free if he agrees to keep only 10 per cent of what he had taken? Or should they nail him to deter others from putting people’s property at risk? Near my house, a cycling father of three was killed on a road where most drivers ignore the statistically safe speed of 20mph. The authorities have become so complacent about the level of risk from cars that no attempt has been made to enforce the limit by the police or the local council.

Politicians and police appear to be paralysed by a crude assumption about public attitude. Because a majority of drivers break the speed laws, politicians posit an electoral risk in rigorous speed enforcement – and especially in bringing the limits down. But there is another interpretation of this evidence – that drivers speed simply because they can. The number of traffic police has halved in a decade. It is thus possible to break the laws for several hours a day for weeks without a chance of being caught. The junior Home Office minister Charles Clarke believes that 30-mile-an-hour limits should hold good, although he appears not to be supported by Jack Straw or by the Prime Minister. But the government, driven by terror of a potential motorists’ revolt, is now facing a backlash from vulnerable groups that believe that lives are being put at risk for political expediency.

These groups want to see a speed policy based not on motoring custom and practice but on known statistics of danger. On main roads where pedestrians and cyclists share space, the government has evidence that, on safety grounds, the limit should not exceed 20mph. This is an annoyingly slow speed for drivers used to going faster – but it would liberate child-taxi parents who could tell their car-hungry children literally to get on their bikes to go about their lives. It would also, according to a study by Leeds University commissioned by the BBC’s Panorama programme, add just three minutes on the average journey to work – a tiny price to pay for the benefit of recreating a liveable society. This time cost could be cut by a reduction in delays from serious accidents and fewer school runs as children cycle to school.

Many ordinary motorists appear prepared to accept such strictures as part of the price of safety, but the government could offer a sweetener to speed-lovers, too. On motorways, the government might follow the same risk assessment regime and raise the limit to 75 or 80mph. Motorways are our safest roads, and there is no good safety case for keeping the speed limit down.

But to ensure that local people receive the protection they deserve, ministers should underpin the policy with a guarantee that anyone complaining of speeding drivers in the locality can expect the police on the spot within 24 hours. Here is a policy initiative that safety campaigners believe could be a vote-winner. It would increase safety, liberate children and parents, create a fitter, healthier society in which people are able to walk and cycle, help to stem the increase in road rage, increase neighbourliness and allow drivers to cut the time that they spend on motorway journeys without falling foul of the law. We’ll soon know for certain if such a vision for modern Britain has been abandoned altogether.

Roger Harribin is Associated Press Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge