Ministers had been planning to set targets and timetables for reducing the number of road crashes. But a document from officials warns that even maintaining the current level of accidents will be difficult, and that the best they can hope for is a zero increase on the number of crashes, which amount to 3.5 million every year.
What is worse, officials forecast in a departmental working paper that if traffic volume continues to grow, the number of crashes is likely to grow too. With the number of cars on the road mounting steadily, ministers have now decided to abandon completely the target for all injuries. Instead, they will concentrate on reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured. This will appear in their long-delayed road safety strategy, which will be published soon.
"This is totally missing the point about road danger," said Dr Ian Roberts, director of the Child Health Monitoring Unit at the University of London. "Parents won't let their children out on the roads because they're afraid of them being knocked down.
"The Government may succeed in cutting the absolute number of people killed by focusing on accident spots, but it won't alter the climate of fear on the roads for children.
"This is leading to children staying indoors, and as a result becoming obese. That's going to lead to huge increases in heart disease, diabetes and brittle bones in later life. That, in turn, will cost the National Health Service far more in the long-run. Putting traffic-calming schemes into our towns and villages would be a far better idea."
Lynn Sloman of Transport 2000 said: "This is typical of this Government's old-fashioned and cowardly response to road safety. It has looked at a problem, decided that it is too hard to solve and walked away from it. This is a major issue for health and quality of life. We can't just ignore it and hope that it will go away because it won't."
Britain is near the bottom of the European league for child road safety, with 5,000 children a year killed or seriously injured on the roads.