The Big Question: Is lowering speed limits the answer to saving lives on Britain's roads?

Why are we asking this now?

Britain's roads have become much safer over the last 30 years, but in recent times our record has been slipping behind some of our European neighbours. While there are now 5,000 fewer deaths each year on the highways compared to the 1960s, progress has slowed down considerably. That has prompted the Government to come up with a plan to cut road deaths by a third by 2020. But it will not be popular with many drivers, as the central plank of the plan is a reduction of speed limits on notoriously risky roads, while drivers will be forced to crawl along at 20mph in residential areas.

So what is the plan?

The speed limit on some A-roads in rural areas will be lowered to 50mph. The Road minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, also said that a new 20mph limit should be applied "in all streets which are primarily residential in nature". That will have wide implications for city dwellers. Any final decision about the reduction of speed limits will be left in the hands of local authorities, but such strong direction from the Government will not be ignored.

Any other measures in there?

For the first time, the Department for Transport (DfT) is proposing to introduce a target for reducing road deaths. It wants to reduce the number of deaths by a third over the next decade. The target is a significant step forward, according to safety campaigners, because it will be impossible for the Government to manipulate the figures. Previous targets focused on reducing deaths and "serious injuries", which were open to interpretation.

Anything else?

A shake-up of the driving test is also on the cards. A fifth of new drivers have a crash within a year of getting their licence. Ministers hope that toughening up the test will stop poor drivers hitting the roads. The revamp is likely to result in the test being sliced into four pieces. It will mean it will take much longer to pass, which should improve driving ability. But it is also likely to raise the cost of learning to drive, which will not be welcomed by a cash-strapped public.

Are British roads more dangerous than those overseas?

The Government was prompted into action after it noticed Britain was slipping down the league tables when it comes to road safety. Back in the late 1990s, we had the safest roads in Europe. Now, we are lagging behind Norway, Sweden, Malta and Switzerland. The number of deaths only fell by 15 per cent between 2001 and 2007. Other countries, such as France and Germany, are making much better progress.

Why are speed limits being targeted?

The problem for the Government is that many of the measures that are guaranteed to have an impact on road safety have already been introduced. Seat belts are compulsory, speed cameras are a regular site on our roads and the penalties for drink-driving are severe. While the Government is expected to tighten up those measures further – for instance by doubling the fine handed out for not wearing a seat-belt to £60 – reducing speed limits is one of the few levers it has left to pull.

Is there any evidence that reduced speeds lead to fewer deaths?

Reducing speed limits will have an impact, but the raw statistics suggest it needs to be accompanied by a change in driving culture to achieve the target for reducing road deaths. In 2007, a total of 342 people died in accidents involving a driver breaking the speed limit, while a further 417 people were killed when a driver was travelling too fast for the weather conditions. If the DfT wants to hit its target of cutting annual deaths by a thousand over the next 10 years, it will need their drive to improve the road awareness of new drivers to have an effect, too.

What is missing?

Road safety campaigners have one other key demand – a lowering of the drink-drive limit that they say would save dozens of lives. Currently, drivers are allowed a maximum of 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood before they are prosecuted for drink-driving. That is higher than the 50-milligram limit applied across most of Europe. The Government's own advisers on road safety have called for the adoption of the lower limit, but so far, ministers have said increasing enforcement of the current limit is the priority.

The other issue not tackled is that of the 1.5 million uninsured drivers on Britain's roads. Some MPs have been calling for urgent action on tackling the problem. Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Mark Hunter said: "Any road safety strategy must tackle this problem. The Government has been worryingly silent on this issue."

Any dissenting voices?

Unsurprisingly, driving groups have not been too happy about the plans. Many drivers already think they are unfairly targeted by the Government in relation to tax, fuel prices and speed cameras. They argue that accidents happen because of poor driving rather than speed. Edmund King, president of the AA, said it was important that local authorities consider the circumstances of individual roads before applying a blanket speed limit reduction.

"Reducing the speed limit in a blanket manner is the wrong approach as this does not address the specific road safety problems," he said. "Currently local highway authorities can and indeed do reduce the limit to 50mph on stretches of road deemed appropriate. Whatever the limit, drivers should never drive to the limit but should drive at a speed appropriate to the road design and conditions."

Any others?

Opposition MPs have also described the Government's rigid approach of top-down targets and speed reductions as too general. Others believe the measures do not go far enough. Louise Ellman, chairman of the Commons Transport Committee, said: "More must be done to reduce the carnage among young, novice drivers. Half the drivers killed at night are under the age of 25."

Anything else in the pipeline to help safety?

The problem of drug-driving is also being looked at closely by the Government. The snag has traditionally been the absence of technology to test drivers for a variety of drugs at the roadside. But a hand-held device has now been developed and the DfT is hoping it will be approved for use by police officers before the end of the year. That will help crack down on an area that ministers fear is going unchecked.

Should we be worried about the number of deaths on our roads?

While every one of the 3,000 deaths that occur on Britain's roads is a tragedy, the number has come down dramatically in a generation, halving since 1980. And the number is still falling, albeit at a much slower rate, with deaths falling just below 3,000 a year in 2007 for the first time since records began in 1926. If the Government goes ahead with its plan in full after a 12-week consolation period, it should help push Britain back to the top of the safety tables.

Can 1,000 road deaths really be prevented by 2020?

Yes...

* Hundreds of people are killed each year by people driving too fast. Reducing speed will save lives

* Having a target for road deaths will focus the minds of local authorities and will be impossible to manipulate

* Creating a generation of better drivers by toughening up the test will reduce the number of crashes involving those new to the roads

No...

* Blanket targets are never the answer – the Government needs to take a tailored approach to each problem road

* Reducing the speed of drivers does not help – removing careless drivers from the roads is the answer

* The Government should be reducing the drink-driving limit to tackle road deaths

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