Fleet News

Safety vs freedom: a political tightrope

SPEED kills. Such a simple statement has been at the centre of a bitter row between motorists, politicians and experts for decades. And the row is set to intensify after a House of Commons Select Committee on Transport carried out one of the most intense examinations of the issue.

A speed camera on every corner by 2004 and fleet cars that slow down automatically may be the only solutions to Britain's 'endemic' problem of people driving too fast. This Orwellian vision of the future is one of a series of drastic measures suggested by a powerful House of Commons Select Committee of MPs, which claims its proposals could save more than 2,000 lives a year and cut the cost of accidents by £100 million a week.

Its recommendations include massive increases in speed cameras and the specific use of intelligent speed limiters on fleet cars. But for many groups, the cost to drivers' freedom is too high a price to pay, as they claim that inappropriate speed, rather than speeding on its own, is the real danger on the roads.

The Government is now walking a political tightrope between backbench pressure for concerted action to deal with speed and the risk of a backlash from motorists – who are also voters – who claim they are simply being used as a 'cash cow' for Treasury coffers.

Members of the Select Committee on Transport are convinced the Government should focus on safety at all costs.

According to a survey 'Vehicle Speeds in Great Britain: 2001' more than half of cars on motorways travel faster than the speed limit, with 18% travelling faster than 80mph. Some 65% of cars exceed 30mph urban limits.

The committee's report, 'Road Traffic Speed', calls specifically for the national safety camera scheme to be put entirely in the hands of the police and local authorities to 'ensure the whole country is covered by 2004'.

New guidance should also be issued to local authorities about speeding, recommending new speed limits, such as a 30mph maximum in villages, massive re-engineering of roads to reduce speeds and making road safety a priority for the reworked 10-year transport plan.

The report added: 'The Government has to give leadership. It needs to make it very clear that speeding is unacceptable. The prime minister has to decide whether Government policy on speed will be dominated by concerns about how it is portrayed by a section of the motoring lobby and in the parts of the press.

'The alternative is to base it on the detailed research of experts, including the TRL, the AA and the Royal College of Physicians. The evidence we received is that such a policy would be popular with the public, for whom speed is a very serious concern. With the right policies, we could reduce deaths on the road to under 1,000 per year.'

Despite criticism of speed cameras from transport organisations, the Select Committee said their use should be mandatory among police forces. It said: 'The new rules about visibility and location of cameras are unreasonable. Crashes do not just occur at accident blackspots. There was no scientific research to support this decision and people will die as a result.'

However, it also noted that an 11% fall in the number of traffic police had to be halted, so that on-the-road enforcement could be increased, while penalties for speeding should be more harsh.

While vehicle type approval should be changed to include features that will make drivers more aware of 30mph speed limits, including the use of digital speedometers, the committee has gone one step further in saying how technology could cut accidents.

Members are calling for the Government to support the development of Intelligent Speed Adaption (ISA), an in-car system which 'knows' the local limit and stops drivers from exceeding it.

ISA can also respond to road conditions and limit drivers' speed according to weather or road type. The Committee recommended 'encouraging voluntary adoption by fleet managers and providing tax incentives to those that do and establishing a Europe-wide requirement that all new vehicles sold from 2013 should have an ISA capability'.

In all, the committee made 50 recommendations and conclusions that would drastically change the nature of motoring in the UK, ranging from new guidance for magistrates to changing the design of crash barriers.

But it is the report's demands on speed cameras that have received the most vocal reaction from motoring organisations.

A spokesman for the Association of British Drivers, which lambasted the Transport Select Committee as 'clueless', said: 'Right from the start cameras were hidden behind signs and bridges, in bushes and placed on safe roads with no accident history.

'The speed camera lobby has succeeded in hijacking the whole road safety debate, using cameras to enforce general speed reductions for social reasons rather than in specific safety-related situations. Meanwhile, much needed road engineering improvements have been shelved and driver training has been neglected.'

Mary Williams, chief executive of safety campaign organisation Brake, applauded the Select Committee's recommendations, adding: 'Computer or satellite controlled speed limiters are a fantastic idea. If we can put a man on the moon, then we can implement this technology and take away the question of drivers speeding.'

However, manufacturers have made it clear to Fleet News they are worried that they would be legally liable if such equipment failed and drivers were banned for speeding or caused an accident.

Mortality rates in the UK
Cause of death in thousands 1971 1981 1991 2000
All causes of which: 645 658 646 608
Cancer: 133 150 162 151
Heart disease: 213 223 198 156
Respiratory diseases 82 92 73 102
Road accidents 8 5 5 3
Other accidents 12 11 8 9
Source: National Office of Statistics

Road deaths
Year Killed Seriously injured
1996 3,598 44,499
1997 3,599 42,984
1998 3,421 40,834
1999 3,423 39,122
2000 3,409 38,155
Source: National Office of Statistics

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