Mary Ann Sieghart: Saving lives can't be the only criterion

If we were to cut the drink-drive limit and keep the current sanctions, we would have some of the toughest laws in Europe even though our roads are among the safest
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The Independent Online

Any needless death is one too many. Put like that, it's hard to disagree. But then we might as well cut the speed limit to 2mph or ban cars altogether. In fact, let's all live in padded rooms, be fed by drips and never venture outside the house. Then we can be sure we won't cut ourselves, burn ourselves, be run over or attacked. But our lives, though longer, would also be ghastly. We'd be tempted to slit our wrists if only we could find something sharp enough.

We claim that the highest duty of a government is to save lives. We want politicians to protect us from war and murder and to make sure our planes don't fall out of the sky. But the trouble with putting lives above everything else is we don't then take account of the other side of the equation. We should also ask how our quality of life will be affected if we crack down on risk.

Safety campaigners are always trying to spook politicians and the public by talking of saved lives. Take drink driving. A few weeks ago, a review conducted by Sir Peter North for the Department for Transport claimed that if the drink-drive limit were cut from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to 50mg, 168 fewer people might be killed on the roads. Ta-da! Argument won. The man who demands the right to drink two pints of beer at the pub before driving home is instantly branded as frivolous and selfish. After all, how could his fun ever be worth more than their daughter's life?

What's remarkable about our roads, though, is not that they're so dangerous but that they're so safe. Only last week, we heard that the number of deaths from drink-driving fell yet again. In 2009, 380 people were killed in drink-driving accidents, compared with 1,640 in 1979. That's despite a huge increase since then in the number of cars on the road and the number of miles driven. Britain's roads are already the safest of almost any developed country. In France and Italy, with similar populations, nearly twice as many people die on the roads each year. And our roads are getting safer still. It's not just drink-driving deaths that have fallen dramatically. In the year ended March 2010, 2,090 people were killed in traffic accidents, 42 per cent fewer than in the mid-1990s.

We have designed our roads to be safer. I've just come back from driving in Italy, where the motorways are only two-lane with sharp corners, hills and no proper hard shoulder. We have designed our cars to be safer, with airbags and reinforced bodies. They brake more quickly and steadily and grip the road better. And our driving test is challenging enough to keep most nutters off the road.

Of course it would be lovely if no-one died at all. But at what cost? If we were to cut the drink-drive limit as Sir Peter suggests, and keep the current sanctions, we would have some of the toughest laws in Europe even though our roads are among the safest. Country pubs, which are already closing, would become unviable, and the heart of many a village would be lost. Social lives would wither: a party is tolerable on a couple of glasses of wine but if you have to eke out only one over a whole evening, you feel like a monk in a brothel.

At least most of us now are prepared to stick to the limit. Thirty years ago, you were thought a prig if you covered your glass when your host tried to refill it. Now it's the drink-drivers who are the pariahs. Much better to target those few incorrigibles who still insist on driving drunk. They won't be deterred by a cut from 80mg to 50mg, since they're already well over the current limit. What matters to them is the prospect of being caught.

By all means test drivers coming out of pub car parks. Or follow the example of New York, which is fitting ignition locks into the cars of convicted drunk drivers – the car won't start until the driver has blown into the tube and proved he is sober. What the Government shouldn't do is make the lives of the rest of us more miserable. I put this argument about not cutting the drink-drive limit to a senior Labour politician the other day. She looked horrified. How could you oppose a move that saved lives? It was the same logic that led her Government to pass the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. Just look at the name and see how crazy you must be to think safeguarding the vulnerable was a bad idea. In fact it was one of the worst ideas to have come out of the last Government.

This is the law that treats warm-hearted adults as potential criminals. You can't now help the teacher on your child's school trip or listen to other children read in the classroom without being vetted first. Remember the wild-eyed feminists in the 1970s who proclaimed that all men were rapists? Now we have legislation based on the idea that all adults are paedophiles.

It's not just insulting to adults; it's also dreadful for children. Not only will their fun be curtailed, as many fewer grown-ups will now be prepared to put themselves forward for football coaching, school trips or Scouting. They are also being led to believe that adults can't be trusted and have less-than-generous motives. Yet some of the best relationships I can remember from childhood were with grown-ups who took a kindly – and utterly unsexual – interest in me. What a tragedy it would be if today's youth were deprived of such friendships. And what a shame if the very people who are needed to make the Big Society work are deterred from helping out.

There are few improvements to our lives a Government can make that don't cost money. Here are just a couple. Don't follow Sir Peter North's advice on drink-driving, and repeal the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act. While you're about it, change the law to make it harder for people to sue public bodies after accident or injury. Then, perhaps, public swimming pools will dare to reinstate diving boards and allow parents to bring more than one child for a recreational swim. And adventure holidays will allow youngsters to have proper adventures.

David Cameron talks about wanting people to take more responsibility. That must surely entail allowing them to choose what risks they want to run. If a mother is confident that she can cope with two or three children in the pool, that should be her decision, not the local council's. If a school is happy to trust its parents to help out in the classroom, it should not be prosecuted for not checking their criminal records first.

Both parties in the coalition say they care about personal freedom. In that case, they should resist any extra encroachment on the way we lead our lives – such as raising the drink-drive limit – and peel away some of the bossier layers of legislation bequeathed by Labour. To ministers faced with the horrendous task of finding 40 per cent cuts in spending in their departments, this may seem like an unwelcome distraction. Who has the time or energy to start worrying about repealing laws and regulations when there is a spending round to prepare for?

Well, it's precisely because of the cuts that this exercise needs to be done. The coalition can't only deliver bad news. It needs to find the odd good story with which to cheer us up. These additions to our freedom are not only cost-free – they also have the chance to make our lives, grim enough at the moment, just a little bit better.

m.sieghart@independent.co.uk

www.twitter.com/MASieghart

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