It's time you put your foot down, minister

If we can't kill speed with advertising, we can by criminalising it, writes Christian Wolmar
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The Independent Online
No parent watching the road safety advertising campaign featuring home videos of children killed by speeding motorists can fail to be moved. The very gaucheness of the footage, badly lit images of children larking about or sitting quietly on a sofa, adds to the poignancy. Today, the second phase begins, with radio advertisements featuring the voices of relatives of those killed talking about their bereavement and stressing the need for more careful driving.

But the very power of these advertisements raises a problem, for the campaign against speeding has run for five years and there have been few signs of any impact. Drink driving, by contrast, has been drastically reduced thanks to a marked changed in social acceptability stimulated by effective advertising. The fundamental problem is that we are all guilty. Everyone with a driver's licence has broken the speeding laws. It is, indeed, the likes of us who are still responsible for the vast majority of the 1,200 deaths each year - including 160 children - caused by excessive speed, a third of those killed on the roads.

The failure of past campaigns led the Department of Transport's new advertising agency, Abbott Mead Vickers, to go for broke with its innovative campaign. Cilla Snowball, the agency's head of client services, says the shock treatment was necessary "because drivers are very resistant. They see accidents and crashes on telly all the time, and we had to break through people's complacency."

The difficulty for the campaigners is that speeding is much more deeply ingrained. The latter was principally a one-off, an aberration by otherwise sensible people. Speeding is part of the culture of using cars. We drive principally to get from A to B as quickly as possible and speeding is almost an inherent part of the process.

Ms Snowball identifies three widespread views that prevent speeding being seen as socially unacceptable. First, it is considered to be a minor infringement; second, everyone thinks they are a good driver; and third, the legislation is not properly enforced. To make speeding a more serious issue is to challenge the unfettered right of motorists to use their cars as they wish. But it would be effective. There would be very little speeding if you lost your licence every time. Or if you were fined pounds 500 or pounds 1,000 for being 10 miles per hour over the limit.

Widespread enforcement could be introduced. Every time speed cameras are installed, the police and ministers say this is only a way to prevent speeding and not to raise revenue. But why not? Speed cameras cost pounds 27,000 each. Why not turn them on all the time, ensure that everyone caught is actually fined, and spend the money on installing yet more cameras?

If ministers really think that speeding is as serious as drink-driving, then they have to criminalise it. There should be an invasion of traffic humps and other measures. Virtually the whole roads budget could be allocated to this in an emergency programme that would transform residential streets. Of course such moves would delight motorists - and that means most voters - as much as following a caravan up a windy mountain road. But at least many families would be spared the prospect of being asked for video footage of their dead children for the next campaign.