Highway safety drive – or just the latest ministerial car crash?

Campaigners tell Jonathan Brown tell why new penalties for road-hogging and tailgating will not work

Driving in Britain is safer than at any time since 1950. But that is of little consolation to the families of the five people killed or the dozens seriously injured every day in collisions on UK roads.

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With 200,000 casualties per year the imposition of £100 fixed penalty fines announced by the Government today was dismissed by some safety campaigners as a woefully inadequate response to the grim toll of death and injury resulting by our love affair with the motor vehicle.

Roads safety minister Stephen Hammond warned that drivers who hogged the middle lane of motorways, drove while using their mobile phones or tailgated other road users faced on the spot fines and three points on their licence.

Those that did not use their seat belt - a safety initiative credited with saving 50,000 lives since it was introduced in Britain in 1983 - also face increased fines if they do not buckle up.

The charity Brake, which cares for families bereaved in road accidents, had sought to persuade the Government that the minimum fine for such offences should be £500 - £1,000 - putting it on a par with financial penalties to prevent littering or smoking in public.

Julie Townsend, the charity's chief executive, said the proposals simply did not go far enough. "It's crucial we encourage greater respect for laws on our roads, which are in place to protect people's lives, and higher fines can help achieve this. £100 is not enough to pose a strong deterrent to potentially life-threatening behaviour, like using a mobile at the wheel," she said.

It is estimated that phoning or texting whilst driving increases the risk of a crash by up to 400 per cent. 

Mr Hammond said the new scale would make it easier for police to tackle problem drivers rather than haul them through the courts. Yet groups immediately questioned whether this would mean more traffic officers on British roads.

Dave Shenton, head of field operations for the Institute of Advanced Motorists and a former West Midlands traffic officer said that without more motorway patrols there could be little hope of enforcement.

He said too many motorists still harboured basic misunderstandings such as that the three lanes on a motorway were for slow, medium and fast drivers.

"From my experience a lot of the problems we see are a result of ignorance of behalf of the driver. All three lanes have the same speed limit of 70mph," he said.

Currently motorway driving does not feature as part of the driving test and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents - which took part in the consultation process with the Department for Transport - said it supported the use of remedial training over the imposition of fines to change driver behaviour.

Traffic psychologist Dr Charles Johnson, technical director of CAS, said previous major cultural shifts in the 1970s and 80s such as the reduction in drink driving and the change in the seat belt laws had been the result of a general public acceptance of the risks posed and hard hitting public information programmes.

But ministers had yet to make the same compelling, straightforward arguments on matters such as using a mobile phone whilst driving.

"All the emphasis has been on hand held phones but the research evidence suggests it doesn't matter whether it is hand-held or hands-free. Any sort of phone call is distracting and has equal consequences," he said. 

Enforcement - or at least the perception of enforcement - remained vital. "If you are going to use penalty fines as the method for improving behaviour it has to be seen to have an impact. You have to believe you are likely to get caught," he added.

Video: AA backs crackdown on middle lane road hogs

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