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Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Putting your foot down

Speed kills. The message is clear. But some of the other signals UK drivers are receiving may be a good deal less unequivocal.

More than two-thirds of Britons break the 30mph speed limits on urban roads, according to government figures.

Pressure group Transport 2000 says a police "buffer" margin, allowing drivers to creep above the speed limit before risking prosecution, is costing lives.
Police speed gun
Over and above: Do police officers turn a blind eye?

It backs its accusation with a study showing that someone hit by a car travelling at 35mph is more than twice as likely to be killed than if the vehicle had been moving at 30mph.

The "buffer" guidelines, drawn up by the Association of Chief Police Officers, are only one sign that speeding rules in the UK are far from absolute, says the Automobile Association's head of road safety, Andrew Howard.

"The entire system is a total mess. One road will have a 30mph limit and on the other side of town there'll be an identical road where you can go 40mph."

Speed freaks

Mr Howard says there are also regional variations in how speed limits are enforced.

"Many police forces have tried their level best to show they're applying a zero tolerance approach to speeding. Others are a little more quiet on the subject."

Drivers also feel more comfortable speeding on some roads than others.
Many drivers feel free to speed on motorways

"On a motorway, it's conventional wisdom that you won't get caught as long as you don't do much over 80mph. That's the message most motorists have."

Mr Howard says that because there are nine times fewer accidents - per vehicle kilometre travelled - on motorways than on urban roads, speeds limits are less strictly enforced.

In the absence of clearly defined, and upheld, rules, Mr Howard says motorists tend to make up their own minds about what speed is suitable.

He says the "buffer" margin, while not there to aid speeders, is sensible considering the inaccuracy of car speedometers.

Clock watching

However, any notion that drivers are unwittingly breaking the limit because of a faulty instrument panel is refuted by Angus Frazer, motoring editor of the BBC's Top Gear magazine.

"In all the time we've been testing cars, I've never seen a speedo under-read. Occasionally performance cars will be spot on, but most speedos over-read."
Car crash
Pedal to the metal: Speed contributes to accidents

Mr Frazer suspects the "buffer" is used to save police resources, rather than to give drivers the benefit of the doubt.

"If they stopped every car that drove at 31mph, they'd be halting everyone on the road."

Vince Yearly, from the Institute of Advanced Motorists, says speeding is endemic.

"Most people see it as a minor infringement. The government's efforts to improve road safety need to render speeding as anti-social as drink-driving is now."

Hard target

Many drivers see speed limits "not as limits, but as targets", says Mr Yearly. Targets to be exceeded if needs be.

"They think they can get from A to B quicker by speeding, but they may only be saving literally seconds and putting themselves and others at risk."

Mr Yearly also says speed limits can be driven to only in optimum conditions. Bad weather, poor visibility and other hazards should prompt motorists to adjust their speed downwards.
Police car
Stop police: When are speed limits enforced?

"Driving at under 30mph doesn't make you a bad driver, it makes you a responsible driver."

While some studies suggest getting motorists to abide by lower speed limits will cut the number of road deaths, human behaviour may muddy the waters.

Professor John Adams, a University College London academic who has examined the role of risk taking in transport, says fatalities could remain static, even if speeds fall.

Mr Adams says if they perceive roads are becoming safer, pedestrians are more likely to put themselves in harm's way.

Risky business

"We all have risk management thermostats. Some are set high, Hell's Angels and racing drivers. Some are set low, the cautious old lady."

Mr Adams says proportionally three times as many children were killed on UK roads in 1922 as today, despite a nationwide 20mph speed limit and far fewer cars.
Zebra crossing
Will 'safer' roads mean fewer accidents?

"Today's roads are so dangerous, children are no longer allowed to go out."

Mr Adams says boasts of low accident rates mask the fact that children, the elderly and other pedestrians are deserting the streets.

Slowing traffic may reverse the trend, but ironically put people back into the path of oncoming traffic.

"You might not save any lives, but you will produce many beneficial neighbourhood effects."

Seemingly with so much at stake, maybe the only foot we should be putting down... is on the pavement.

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See also:

01 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Push to cut road deaths
26 Nov 99 | UK Politics
Fury at speeding climbdown
04 Aug 99 | UK Politics
Safer streets tests begin
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