It all seems to defy common sense, especially since Britain is one of the worst countries in Europe for child road safety, with 5,000 children a year killed or seriously injured on the highway.
The latest policy retreat is set against the background of the major review of speed policy which was announced in the White Paper on transport in the summer. That said speed was a major problem for many people, not just on safety grounds, but also because of noise, disturbance and the tendency of busy roads to split communities.
In response, transport ministers decided to lower the speed limit on single carriageways to 50mph, with an exemption for fast inter-urban roads. They were also considering a cut in the 30mph limit in residential areas to save the lives of children and pedestrians.
But then a hint on their thinking was leaked to the tabloid press, which reported it as an attack on motorists. John Redwood, the Conservative transport spokesman, saw his chance and goaded Labour over its policies. He described plans to clamp down on speeding as yet another assault on drivers.
Transport ministers are fighting a rearguard action to salvage some progress on safety from the wreckage of the long-awaited speed and safety review, which has now been delayed until January. They want a major investment in traffic calming to bring speeds down in city streets and villages, and a crackdown on dangerous drivers who break the speed limit in residential areas.
But even this watered-down strategy is being resisted by Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, who fears giving more potential ammunition to the Tories. He recently gave an off-the-record briefing to lobby correspondents to say that there would be no lowering of the speed limits.
The policy climbdown is particularly galling to road safety groups at a time when Britain is about to launch another huge investment programme in rail safety. Since the Paddington crash the Government is backing the installation of the Advanced Train Protection system (ATP) - at a cost of pounds 14m for every life it will save, according to economists.
At the same time, local authorities are struggling to get cash for minor safety improvements such as pedestrian crossings and police cameras to stop law-breakers jumping red lights, which experts say would save far more lives. And police forces are cutting the cash to traffic police who monitor speed limits. It is a problem exemplified by Camden School for Girls in north London. Pupils can only cross the busy main road because their local petrol station and supermarket have funded a pedestrian crossing.
The Government's furtive shift in policy has angered campaigners such as Brigitte Chaudry from Roadpeace, the road victims' charity she set up after her son was killed in an accident. "The comparison between the Government's attitudes to road safety and train safety is an outrage," she said. "A life is a life wherever it is lost. There are 10 people killed every day on the roads of Britain. That's 100 times the Paddington death toll every year. But road victims get ignored, and the Government is completely complacent about this.
"It is a national scandal that we should have to rely on private firms to subsidise basic road safety. The Government has been able to sweep this issue under the carpet because the road deaths happen throughout the year instead of becoming a national focus like rail deaths. Governments have got away with doing far too little."
This Government's economists say the cost of road crashes amounts to pounds 14.8bn a year. Publicly it says it is impossible to quantify how much is spent on preventing crashes, because the budgets come under separate headings.
But privately ministers admit that the Government is spending between pounds 2bn and pounds 3bn. They have been told that little extra will be available from the Chancellor, and are hoping that councils will be able to carry out low-cost traffic-calming measures by painting signs on the road.
This plan has been condemned by the RAC Foundation and the AA. Both support slow-speed areas such as 20mph zones if they are demanded by local residents, but insist that the zones should be self-enforcing with physical barriers like chicanes to slow down drivers. Edmund King of the RAC Foundation said: "We would like to see government and local authorities spending more on road safety improvement. There would probably be a national outcry if this sort of thing happened on the railways. Much more of what the Government takes from the motorist should be spent on safety."
So how has all this come about? Labour's speed and safety plans were bullish until Charles Clark, the Home Office minister, said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme that drivers in 30mph zones should stick to 30mph. The statement was portrayed in some newspapers as an attack on motorists' freedom, and the following weekend Alastair Campbell briefed journalists that this would not be government policy. By Monday morning John Prescott confirmed on Today that speed enforcement would be left to local forces to prioritise. Yet some forces have poor records on road safety, and experts say that the police need a clear lead from central government.
The Tories are also split over safety. Mr Redwood has been happy to harness speed as a weapon against the Government's transport policy. But Bernard Jenkin, his number two, who had a close friend killed in a car crash, fears this policy will backfire if the Government climbs down from safety plans, and more people are killed as a result. Some senior Tories fear that the party of law and order will be labelled hypocritical if it tolerates middle-class motorists breaking the law.
Dr Ian Roberts, director of the Child Health Monitoring Unit at the University of London, estimates that if speeds were cut in residential areas, around 2,000 children every year could be spared serious injury or death. "Transport is the single biggest issue in preventive child health," he says. "But most politicians don't realise that, and neither do enough medical professionals."
As politicians wrangle, the savage irony is that there is a groundswell of support for greater road safety. No 10 policy advisers have been reading tabloid editorials rather than the evidence from the Home Office crime and disorder audit. If they consulted that they would discover that 86 per cent of people think road safety is as important as mugging and burglary.
Roger Harrabin is transport correspondent of BBC Radio 4's `Today' programme.Reuse content