Leading article: Better education can help to make our roads safer

The Government should not rely solely on modifications to the law
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Britain's roads are relatively safe by international standards. In 2007, there were 50 fatalities per million of population in the United Kingdom. In France there were 73. In Italy the rate was more than 90. And the figures are heading in the right direction in this country too. There were 2,946 deaths and 30,000 serious injuries on British roads last year, the lowest rate since records began.

But there can be no doubt that Britain's roads could still be much safer. And the Department for Transport's new consultation paper is looking at ways to make that happen. Among other things, the consultation will examine the case for a six point licence penalty (rather than the present three points) on those caught breaking the speed limit by more than 20mph; tightening up the present drink-drive limit and the introduction of parallel "drug-drive" limits.

These seem largely sensible ideas. It makes little sense that those who stray slightly above the speed limit should receive the same punishment as those who wilfully smash it to pieces. This should reinforce the incentive for drivers to keep their speed down. Meanwhile, because Britain's drink-drive limit is higher than much of the rest of Europe, it should probably come into line with the rest of the Continent. And considering the increasing number of accidents in which drugs, from cannabis to heroin, are a contributory factor, there is a case for formalising the offence of driving under the influence of narcotics.

Yet we must be careful. A danger lies in assuming that the best way to push down fatalities and injuries is through tougher penalties on dangerous driving and modifications to the law. A plethora of regulations and detailed instructions can lull people into a false sense of security on the roads, paradoxically making them worse drivers. It is worth bearing in mind that a large proportion of crashes involve not just excessive speed, but a lack of concentration. People need to engage their brains on the roads, not just mindlessly process instructions from signs telling them to keep their speed down or to maintain adequate braking distances.

Speed cameras, sleeping policemen and tough penalties for speeders certainly have their place in the battle to improve road safety. But there is a danger of the authorities relying wholly on such techniques. We should not forget that there are other ways of improving drivers' behaviour too.

Some regional police forces have been offering drivers caught speeding a chance to attend a course on road safety instead of having penalty points added to their licence. These courses appear to have been rather successful in changing attitudes to speed. And those who attend often emerge as better drivers.

Such schemes ought to be expanded and offered to more drivers, whether they have been found guilty of speeding or not. We should remember too that the Government's success over the years in reducing drink driving rates and increasing seat-belt wearing owes as much to relentless public information campaigns as changes in the law. Peer pressure has played a big part too. It is no longer considered socially acceptable to drink and drive in Britain. We need to learn from that success.

The authorities should adopt an approach to road safety that understands that drivers are not inherently reckless automatons who can only be controlled by the firm arm of the law. They are human beings who can be educated into behaving better too.