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On the road to death and mayhem

PUBLISHED: 09:01 14 June 2003 | UPDATED: 14:00 03 March 2010

BRITAIN now has statistically the safest roads in Europe. A heartening thought until you think how we shrug our shoulders at a death rate that would cause a massive outcry if it came from, say, the railways, the airlines or recreational drugs.

BRITAIN now has statistically the safest roads in Europe. A heartening thought until you think how we shrug our shoulders at a death rate that would cause a massive outcry if it came from, say, the railways, the airlines or recreational drugs.

Imagine 3,500 people dying in a year from ecstasy use. Certain national papers (and their readers) would think it was the beginning of the end of the world.

Yet that is roughly the UK's annual rate of deaths caused by driving.

In France, which has a population only very slightly more than ours, well over twice as many people die on roads far less crowded than ours.

Head-for-head, the worst drivers in Europe are the Portuguese and the Greeks. Mile-for-mile, the Czechs are worse – but few have cars, and they don't drive much.

In the US, which has a population roughly five times that of Britain, the road death rate is about 12 times ours. The Americans may run a greater risk of being shot dead than anyone else outside a war zone – but they are still 50 per cent more likely to die in a traffic accident than by gunfire.

It's not that their driving is much worse than ours – it's just that they drive A LOT.

So, our roads and our drivers are far from being the worst. But the figures still mean an awful lot of pain, mutilation and needless death.

You have to agree that Something Must Be Done.

And, let's be fair, someone is trying to do something.

We have all got used to the crop of bright yellow boxes at the roadside – and the dangerous habit of drivers to brake sharply whenever they see them.

Drunken driving is now generally regarded as unacceptable, but that other great killer – driving too fast – is still normal behaviour.

However much it may seem to infringe civil liberties, putting spy cameras to catch people speeding must be a way to tackle the problem.

But I don't see how it helps to make them so blooming obvious. They will surely only work if people think they might be anywhere – or everywhere.

So now Suffolk SafeCam, a partnership of caring agencies (police, county council, hospitals etc) is putting mobile cameras on our roads to catch people speeding in danger spots.

Great. Except the vans with the cameras in will be bright yellow too for maximum visibility.

So more sudden and dangerous braking wherever they appear – and more deadly flouting of the law wherever they don't.

The rather more hi-tech scheme I mentioned in passing the other week does, at first sight, have more going for it.

This is the futuristic plan to use global positioning to tell drivers when they are approaching speed limit areas, and maybe even forcibly reduce their speed.

Slowing drivers down must be a good thing. Encouraging them to stop thinking for themselves isn't.

In any case, who is going to choose a car that inflicts this Big Brother control on them?

And if it's not a matter of choice, how on earth would you enforce it?

There is really no technological solution to the danger of inappropriate speed. The only solution is for people to drive better.

To encourage that, the rules of the road must be sensible, broadly accepted, and strictly enforced.

A social change is needed that makes speeding as unacceptable as drink-driving.

People who cause accidents by driving too fast – or under the influence of drugs, including alcohol – should be treated as what they are. Criminals. Potentially murderous criminals.

Everyone – except, apparently, a majority of Americans – knows that American gun law is madness. Their highly prized freedom means the freedom to possess lethal weapons and kill people with them.

Too many of us Brits seem to have a similar attitude to our cars.

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