Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Speed limits in target-land

No sooner had I blogged on the subject of speed limits than it was announced that the government is drawing up plans to cut the speed limit on single-carriageway roads in the countryside from 60mph to 50mph.

The point of this is that last week, the press reported that the government is drawing up plans to cut the speed limit on single-carriageway roads in the countryside from 60mph to 50mph.

Now, I admit that there are country roads in Britain where it would be pretty difficult to do 60 mph. And I admit that cutting the speed limit to 50 will not cause a great deal of hardship to many people. Most European countries have a 90 kmph speed limit for non-urban single carriageways. And I admit that the matter of setting speed limits on roads is not easy.

But I am not impressed by this proposal, for three reasons.

1) Driving at 60 mph is not, in itself, inherently dangerous. Why should an activity that is not inherently dangerous be made illegal?

2) There are rural single carriage-ways in Britain which are straight and have very little traffic on them, and where going at 60 mph is not excessive.

3) Such legislation is completely unnecessary. The number of road deaths in Britain is low. The number of deaths in road accidents has not been rising in recent years. According to the Office for National Statistics

“In 2005, 671 pedestrians were killed in road accidents in Great Britain, this was 21 per cent of all deaths from road accidents, the lowest total for over 40 years.

The total number of deaths in road accidents fell slightly by 1 per cent to 3,201 in 2005 from 3,221 in 2004. However, the number of fatalities has remained fairly constant over the last ten years.

Just over half (52 per cent) of people killed in road accidents in 2005 were car users. Pedal cyclists and two-wheeled motor vehicle users represented 5 and 18 per cent of those killed respectively. Occupants of buses, coaches, goods and other vehicles accounted for the remaining 4 per cent of road deaths.

The total number of road casualties of all severities fell by 3 per cent between 2004 and 2005 to approximately 271,000 in Great Britain. This compares with an annual average of approximately 320,000 for the years 1994-98 and 324,000 in 1984.

The decline in the casualty rate, which takes into account the volume of traffic on the roads, has been much steeper. In 1964 there were 240 casualties per 100 million vehicle kilometres. By 2005 this had declined to 55 per 100 million vehicle kilometres.

The United Kingdom has a very good record for road safety compared with most other EU countries. In 2004 it had one of the lowest road death rates in the EU, at 5.6 per 100,000 population. The UK rate was also lower than the rates for other industrialised nations such as Japan (6.96 per 100,000 population), and substantially lower than that of Australia (8.15) and the United States (14.66).”

We don’t need this legislation. Why is it being proposed? Basically because our current government is addicted to passing unnecessary legislation. But the specific reason apparently has to do with “league tables” and “targets”

According to the Daily TelegraphIn 2007 there were 2,946 deaths and 30,000 serious injuries on British roads – with speed being a factor in 29 per cent of them. Some years ago Britain was top of the world league on road safety but has slipped down the chart recently. Jim Fitzpatrick, the road safety minister, is understood to want to get the UK back to the top of the league and to believe that a cut from 60mph to 50mph for rural single carriageways would help achieve this target.”

Let’s think about this.

1. Jim Fitzpatrick believes that this action would help achieve this target. Well, he may believe it. But should we? Looking back over the past dozen years, it seems to me that ministers in this government don’t have a very good record at guessing what effect their legislation will have.

2. The government is considering legislation because “Britain has slipped down the chart.” That implies that our roads are getting dangerous. Here are the statistics from the Department of Transport:

The number of people killed in road accidents fell by 7 per cent from 3,172 in 2006 to 2,946 in 2007.

In 2007, the number of people killed or seriously injured was 36 per cent below the 1994-98 average.

So actually, our roads are getting safer. Why is the legislation necessary?

Again, the Department of Transport:

In 2000, the Government announced a new road safety strategy and set new targets for reducing casualties by 2010. It wants to see a 40% reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured in road accidents compared with the average for 1994-98.

In other words, the government is fixated with arbitrarily set targets and league tables, and will do anything, however unlikely it is to work, in order to try to meet them.

This is no way to run a country. When laws are passed to criminalise activity that is not inherently dangerous, in the hope that it might just help the government to meet an arbitrarily set target, it brings the law into disrepute.

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