The Big Question: Is lowering speed limits the answer to saving lives on Britain's roads?
By Michael Savage
Wednesday, 22 April 2009
Britain's roads have become much safer over the last 30 years, but in recent times our record has been slipping behind some of our European neighbours. While there are now 5,000 fewer deaths each year on the highways compared to the 1960s, progress has slowed down considerably. That has prompted the Government to come up with a plan to cut road deaths by a third by 2020. But it will not be popular with many drivers, as the central plank of the plan is a reduction of speed limits on notoriously risky roads, while drivers will be forced to crawl along at 20mph in residential areas.
So what is the plan?
The speed limit on some A-roads in rural areas will be lowered to 50mph. The Road minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, also said that a new 20mph limit should be applied "in all streets which are primarily residential in nature". That will have wide implications for city dwellers. Any final decision about the reduction of speed limits will be left in the hands of local authorities, but such strong direction from the Government will not be ignored.
Any other measures in there?
For the first time, the Department for Transport (DfT) is proposing to introduce a target for reducing road deaths. It wants to reduce the number of deaths by a third over the next decade. The target is a significant step forward, according to safety campaigners, because it will be impossible for the Government to manipulate the figures. Previous targets focused on reducing deaths and "serious injuries", which were open to interpretation.
A shake-up of the driving test is also on the cards. A fifth of new drivers have a crash within a year of getting their licence. Ministers hope that toughening up the test will stop poor drivers hitting the roads. The revamp is likely to result in the test being sliced into four pieces. It will mean it will take much longer to pass, which should improve driving ability. But it is also likely to raise the cost of learning to drive, which will not be welcomed by a cash-strapped public.
Why are speed limits being targeted?
The problem for the Government is that many of the measures that are guaranteed to have an impact on road safety have already been introduced. Seat belts are compulsory, speed cameras are a regular site on our roads and the penalties for drink-driving are severe. While the Government is expected to tighten up those measures further – for instance by doubling the fine handed out for not wearing a seat-belt to £60 – reducing speed limits is one of the few levers it has left to pull.
Is there any evidence that reduced speeds lead to fewer deaths?
Reducing speed limits will have an impact, but the raw statistics suggest it needs to be accompanied by a change in driving culture to achieve the target for reducing road deaths. In 2007, a total of 342 people died in accidents involving a driver breaking the speed limit, while a further 417 people were killed when a driver was travelling too fast for the weather conditions. If the DfT wants to hit its target of cutting annual deaths by a thousand over the next 10 years, it will need their drive to improve the road awareness of new drivers to have an effect, too.
Any dissenting voices?
Unsurprisingly, driving groups have not been too happy about the plans. Many drivers already think they are unfairly targeted by the Government in relation to tax, fuel prices and speed cameras. They argue that accidents happen because of poor driving rather than speed. Edmund King, president of the AA, said it was important that local authorities consider the circumstances of individual roads before applying a blanket speed limit reduction.
"Reducing the speed limit in a blanket manner is the wrong approach as this does not address the specific road safety problems," he said. "Currently local highway authorities can and indeed do reduce the limit to 50mph on stretches of road deemed appropriate. Whatever the limit, drivers should never drive to the limit but should drive at a speed appropriate to the road design and conditions."
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