Plan for 20mph urban speed-cam zones touted
Live slow, die old, leave a wrinkly corpse
Just when you thought it was safe to go driving again without being repeatedly photographed - with news breaking this week that the government has put national road pricing on the back burner - the nanny state lobby has bounced back off the ropes with ambitious new plans.
The 'casts and sheets this morning are full of a new report from transport safety think tank PACTS, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. That sounds as though it might be an official body, but it's not - it's a private company with charitable tax exemptions which is allowed to operate half in and half out of the Houses of Parliament, like many others.
PACTS has been brewing its report, titled Beyond 2010, for some time.
Its executive director Robert Gifford said (pdf): "We are living in a period when central government appears reluctant to regulate unless absolutely necessary.
"With all that we currently know about urban design, we should aim to design out road use conflicts in the same way as we can design out crime.
"When we also remember that road deaths amount to 82 per cent of all accidental deaths for those under 20, there still remains plenty for us to do.
"Our first hurdle is to persuade central government that a third round of targets [following those set in 1987 and 2000] would be a good idea."
PACTS doesn't care for the government's practice of measuring its success by counting numbers of people killed or "seriously injured" on the roads. The lobbyists say that the definition of seriousness can be fiddled with so as to make it seem that progress is being made, when in fact it is not. Gifford wants to see a hard target set for reductions in the number of deaths, and no fooling with injuries.
"A road death is much less equivocal than an injury. A specific target for deaths would concentrate minds," he tells the Times.
"Our aim should be to make our roads as safe as possible for all classes of road user... we should also take some account of equity: those who pose the least risk to others and who are themselves most at risk from others should be afforded the highest levels of resource and priority."
What he's on about there is sorting out the roads to be safer for cyclists (and probably pedestrians too). British bike lanes and paths, as anyone who's used them much knows, are rubbish. Their layout almost always prioritises the convenience of motorists over that of cyclists; pedestrians and drivers ignore them most of the time - without fear of so much as a harsh word from the cops - and they are often conspicuous by their absence just when you need them most.
So, fine. If the government wants more people to ride their bikes, it could sort that out. Apparently the Scandies have done so, and seen a pleasing drop in road deaths. Motorists and walkers might actually be pleased as proper, useful separate lanes and signals etc could get the cyclists out of their hair. There's only one thing more annoying than a driver in stop-start traffic with his wheels in the cycle lane; and that's a bloody cyclist shooting through a junction across your bows when you've got a green light.
But Gifford's plans don't stop at sorting out the cycle network. He'd also like to see a government target of no more than 1,000 UK road deaths annually by 2030, a drop of better than 60 per cent from present levels - and that's regardless of what might happen to population levels, distances travelled, or anything else.
One step towards this would be a default urban speed limit of 20 mph, to be enforced by - you guessed it - a hell of a lot more speed cameras. Realistically, these would probably not be Gatso-type jobs measuring speed along a short segment of road: you would need a vast number of those to hold people down to 20mph in today's 30 and 35 zones. Rather, some kind of numberplate-reading average speed kit would need to come into play. About two minutes later, one might expect the plods, spooks et al to be given database access; and presto, we're back in Orwellian vehicle-snooping territory.
But that's OK, according to Gifford, if it just makes the roads safer. He's probably right to suggest that for most modern Brits road use is the most dangerous thing we ever do; by PACTS' calculations, on average it's 8.5 times as dangerous as doing DIY, and we all know what a slaughterhouse the average home workshop can be. Gifford says going on the road should be no more than twice as deadly.
Obviously, less people killed and torn up would be good. But, in fact, things are a lot safer on the roads than they used to be, with annual UK deaths down by better than half since the 1960s. At some point, when you insist on ultimate levels of safety, you start to pay more and more for each life saved: perhaps not just in money either. Overly ambitious safety goals can strangle entire new technologies, choke economies, and - in the case of vehicle tracking - actually take away your freedom if you aren't careful.
Is it better to be rich, free, and at some risk of getting killed by an idiot crashlanding his nuclear-powered flying car; or poor, downtrodden, spied upon - but sure of living long enough to die luxuriously of cancer or Alzheimer's?
Gifford seems to favour the second extreme.
"If we achieve the [current government targets]," he wrote last year, "do we all retire gracefully? Or should we continue the current work, aiming to reduce those figures to a level as low as is reasonably practicable?"
A naughty loaded question, we submit. But we also submit that even if the government does everything Gifford says by 2030, we won't feel safe. We'll be engaged in a massive crackdown to stem the (perceived) nailgun-related apocalypse, as DIY soars inexorably up the kill rankings. ®