Sunday, March 8, 2009

The beginning of the end for UK motoring?

This morning the UK government announced plans to reduce the national speed limit from 60mph to 50mph. What’s more a new wave of average speed cameras is planned to enforce the reduction. The official justification for this is of course road safety, with some conveniently obliging government statistics to back the message.

“We are killing 3,000 people a year on our roads,” said roads minister Jim Fitzpatrick. “It would be irresponsible not to do something about it and I’m sure that the vast majority of motorists would support the proposals.”

Well, here comes the science bit: According to the government 69% of fatal car crashes on UK roads in 2007 occurred in rural areas. Que a recent study by the Department of Transport, which claims that a 10mph reduction in the speed limit would save around 200 lives a year. However, even the highest estimate only puts a third of these down to excessive speed - an almost equally large proportion is attributed to drivers under the influence of drugs.

UK roads were for many years – when the national speed limit was 60mph and 70mph before that – rated as the safest in the world. Nonetheless, accidents still have to occur somewhere, and if you look at the options it’s no wonder that they will be on rural roads. The conditions in town means that a reasonably sensible driver never really goes fast enough to kill another motorist – even pedestrians are relatively safe at 20 or 30mph down the high street. Take our other major road category, motorways, and although the speeds are much higher there are no junctions or oncoming cars to worry about. Logically you’d expect nearly 100% of our road accidents to be on rural NSL roads, not 69.

The government’s target optimistically equates to a 6% reduction in road casualties, or a total reduction in the number of people dying each year in Britain by 0.04%. Surely if the aim is to save lives the money could be better spent elsewhere? Last time the politicians played Risk in the Middle East hundreds, if not thousands, of times that number were killed. If you want to make the world a safer place there are more cost effective solutions.

Indeed, there are more cost effective ways of making the UK roads a safer place. How about better standards of driving tuition? Zero tolerance on drugs, and more human police officers rather than R2D2 spying on you from a yellow box? Sadly you have to concede the answer is money. Average speed cameras are notoriously effective at catching drivers unaware as they do not monitor one particular black spot, but rather a wider stretch with potentially no other hazards. Add to that the fact that it neatly paves the way for ‘pay as you drive’ road charging schemes and makes up for the loss in tax revenue from greener vehicles, and it suddenly sounds disturbingly real.

I’d love to think this will disapear like so many crackpot vote winners before it, but sadly apathy looks set to take over. Most people live in suburban connobations. And, when they do venture into the countryside, they sit at precisely 43mph until their gormless, commatosed state causes an accident, still well within the confines of the proposed laws. It won’t affect them and many, no doubt, will support it. I’d love to end on a cheery note about heading to the burgeoning track day scene, but with councils across the country clamping down on noise regulations, even that looks under threat. Sadly it seems whatever the greater bulk of voters don’t want or can’t afford will always be a target. I would say that’s just democracy, but with us sliding apathetically towards a police state, even that doesn’t seem to justify it.

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