IT ALL depends, it seems, on what kind of transport you die in. The Government's valuation of a life saved on the roads and a life saved on the railways differs, according to the labyrinthine calculations of its own economists.

A life saved in a serious train crash is put at about pounds 3m, whereas a life saved on the road is valued at less than pounds 1m. The sums, which have a real knock-on effect on how budget priorities are worked out, reflect the cost to the economy of the accident services, the loss to the economy of the person's labour - and the grief caused to relatives.

Government civil servants think the value of rail safety should be higher than road safety because rail passengers put their life in the driver's hands. But road safety groups say the logic is flawed because a child puts its life into drivers' hands every time it crosses the road.

The figures lead to hugely distorted spending priorities. Since the Paddington rail crash the Government is gearing up to introduce ATP, the advanced train protection system, which will amount to the equivalent of pounds 14m for every life saved. Yet in the meantime councils are starved of cash for minor road safety schemes such as traffic calming and police cameras to stop red light-running. These offer better value to taxpayers.

Rob Gifford of the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety agrees: "If you are looking for value for money in safety investment, you should put it into roads, not railways. Schemes like traffic calming, speed cameras at dangerous spots, better driver education and improved police time has a fantastic payback at reducing crashes, but in comparison with the railways they are always starved of cash. Until the Paddington crash, no one had died on the railways for two years; and in that time 7,200 people had been killed on the roads. That's a staggering difference."

The UK is reluctant to fund traffic calming schemes - the main reason why we lag so far behind our European counterparts in child road safety. Councils spend pounds 60m a year on road safety. Transport 2000 estimates that the Dutch, whose safety record for children is very good, spend 16 times as much as the British do. "It is extraordinary that the Government has not seen the benefits of home zones," says Lynn Sloman of Transport 2000. "They cut accidents, produce fitter children, relieve parents of the chore of acting as taxi drivers, and increase the sense of community on the streets. They reduce the number of car journeys because people feel safe to cycle and walk, thereby reducing congestion, which helps the economy. The Dutch police say it even cuts crime because more people are on the streets offering passive supervision. This Government doesn't seem to realise that traffic calming helps to deliver all these benefits."

Policing is another problem area. Police budgets for traffic operations have dropped over 10 years from 12 per cent of budgets to around 6 per cent in response to government plans to reduce burglaries and street crime. Yet there are more people killed and hurt by bad driving than all other crimes combined.