Consciousness of road safety is of course a virtue, but one needn’t be a zealot to believe in it

Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I do not condone reckless driving in any shape or form whatsoever. I am well aware that aggressive and furious driving is the cause of a great many road accidents, and that there will be people who would still be alive today had it not been for some idiot thinking he could drive like Lewis Hamilton in a built-up area. I fully accept the notion that such aforesaid idiots should be dealt with most sternly by the law, and that more public education on road safety can never be a bad thing.

Having got all of that out of the way, though, I was nevertheless horrified to hear one Anthony Bangham, the Chief Constable of West Mercia Police, recently suggest that drivers should be prosecuted for exceeding the speed limit by so much as one mile per hour, and that the 10%-plus-2 mph buffer-zone of tolerance should be done away with. Mr Bangham’s opinion on enforcement of traffic rules matters, because he is also the roads policing lead for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, and so other chief constables are more likely to espouse such a proposal than if he was not first among equals where road policing is concerned. But it seems plain that on this occasion common sense has deserted the man – given that his proposal would require a total abdication of common sense by all those involved in ensuring road safety, not to mention the undesirable environmental consequences of his envisaged state of affairs coming to pass.

Mr Bangham claimed that zero tolerance of speeding was necessary because there has apparently been a spike in the number of road deaths in recent months. But I would love to know how exactly he knows that all, or even most, of those deaths were the result of marginal speeding. I’m tempted to believe that he has simply plucked his conclusion from thin air, and such temptation is perfectly rational because a letter appeared in the papers quite recently from a retired traffic officer who had spent the best part of his working life investigating the causes of road accidents, and he concluded that in virtually all cases, the fact that a collision had occurred had absolutely nothing to do with minor infractions of the speed limit. On the contrary: the four most common causes of serious or fatal road accidents that this officer identified are, in no particular order, using a mobile phone at the wheel, drink-driving, inadequate vehicle maintenance and careless right turns. This makes perfect sense; one mile per hour is such a small increment that an accident at 31mph is not going to cause a significantly greater amount of damage than one at 30mph, and the same goes for accidents that take place one or two miles per hour more than whatever the posted speed limit is. Conversely, general inattention while behind the wheel is much more likely to result in a crash, however fast one is going, whether one is breaking the speed limit or not. Which scenario do you think is more likely to end in tears: driving at 32mph while keeping both hands on the wheel and your eyes looking out of the windscreen, at where you’re going; or driving at 29mph with a mobile phone glued to your ear or (worse still) on your lap, diverting your attention from the road conditions?

Anyone can work out that the non-speeding driver who is distracted by his phone is much more likely to hit another car or a pedestrian than the driver who drifts a tiny bit over the limit but nonetheless does not allow his concentration to lapse, and who may not even be aware that he is speeding at all due to the varying levels of speedometer accuracy. If a zero-tolerance regime came into force, drivers’ concentration would be all the more impaired as they would be forced to keep their eyes constantly trained on the speedometer rather than the windscreen, out of fear of drifting over the limit by a single paltry mile per hour, and consequently being slapped with an extortionate fine and penalty points, as Mr Bangham’s bright idea includes drastically curtailing the offering of driver-improvement courses as an alternative to prosecution. Those who support his proposal blithely assert that no one would be forced to keep their eyes fixed on the speedometer as they should know where speed cameras are, but that simply does not apply if you happen to be driving in a part of the country you’re unfamiliar with, or if the police set up a mobile speed trap.

There’s another problem, too. If people are forced to drive well below the speed limit so as to avoid even drifting over it by a negligible margin, it will necessarily follow that it will take them longer to get from A to B. That means that their cars will be on the road for longer, and emitting exhaust fumes for longer. It also means that if more cars are so forced to be on the roads for longer, more of them will get stuck in traffic jams, leading to more pollution hotspots that will be more severe as gridlocks become more frequent and harder to avoid. This completely undermines the argument that zero tolerance of speeding would benefit the environment: the exact opposite is in fact true. Speed limits, of course, need to be enforced, but the enforcers need to use discretion and common sense when deciding whether and how to punish transgressors, not zealotry based on ill-founded assumptions and disregard of consequences. Nobody likes a zealot.

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