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Leading article: Deadly roads dictate a rethink of speed limits

The setting of a new norm would alert drivers to dangers and foster greater caution

The UK has long prided itself on its road safety standards. Casualty figures are low compared with most other industrialised countries. But this positive record, coupled with the fact that the international trend continues downwards, is also why the first increase in road deaths for almost a decade should be a cause for concern.

A breakdown of the 2010-11 figures shows where that concern could most usefully be directed. Deaths among drivers and passengers were up 6 per cent, with rural roads accounting for more of the rise than urban areas, and a disproportionate number of fatal accidents involving drivers under 24.

The relatively high accident rate on rural roads has brought calls for a new speed limit in country areas of 40mph. That is worth considering. There are many roads where the lack of a limit implicitly allows drivers to travel at 60mph, even where the conditions should dictate otherwise. Arguments about the expense of new signs could be met by the introduction of a blanket limit on minor roads. Enforcement would, of course, be difficult. But the setting of a new norm would at the very least alert drivers to the dangers and foster greater caution.

The number of fatal accidents involving younger drivers – it should really be no surprise that road accidents are the main cause of death among young adults – should raise questions once again about the rigour of the driving test. Consideration might also be given to whether, perhaps, the legal driving age should be raised. The downside, however, would also have to be weighed. Age may be less of a factor in accidents than inexperience, and any rise in the age at which someone may obtain a licence could penalise those living in areas with poor public transport and encourage more teenagers to drive illegally.

The most startling aspect of these statistics, though, is the 12 per cent rise in deaths among pedestrians. Many reasons could be advanced, not all of them related to worse behaviour on the part of drivers. At least some of the increase could be attributable to technology, and the distractions of mobile devices and headphones. The danger that lurks when pedestrians are insufficiently aware of their surroundings should be spelt out more loudly and more often.

If the rise in pedestrian deaths is the really bad news, the best news might be that deaths among motorcyclists fell 10 per cent nationally and among cyclists by 4 per cent. But the positive trend here is likely to conceal sharp variations, as deaths among cyclists in London have been rising, along with the number of those taking to two wheels. The fall in cycling fatalities nationally should not provide any pretext for local authorities to give up on improvements in road layouts and greater provision of cycle lanes. Separation of cyclists and motor traffic must be a priority.

There is another easy conclusion, too, that is being – but should not be – drawn from the general rise in fatalities. Calls can already be heard, from MPs and others, for the Government to shelve its plan for a higher, 80mph speed limit on motorways, or at least to put it to a Commons vote. Motorways, though, account for relatively few UK road deaths; rural roads are many times more dangerous. Concentrating on improvements to these secondary roads, and on pedestrian awareness everywhere, would be a better use of limited funds than reversing a sensible change that recognises reality and improves enforcement. This is the message to be drawn from the latest road accident figures, and it should be heeded – even though it may not be what certain vocal groups of campaigners want to hear.