Are you concentrating, or have you dropped something?

I can’t say this very often, but I was pleasantly surprised by an article on road safety that appeared in Norfolk County Council’s “magazine for all residents” that eased its way carefully through my door this winter.

It was titled “Keep your mind on the road”, and I read it very attentively, keeping my mind on it. I was not driving at the time.

What surprised me? I don’t think the word “speed” was mentioned once.

Speed limits, cameras and associated persecution are not – taking the world as a whole – very high among the great evils of our time. But they do affect many of us in Britain almost every day, sometimes for long periods. So I think it’s reasonable to hope that transport authorities might see sense on the issue. In recent years, that has not happened much, and it has been unusual to see anything written about road safety without speed being seen as the main problem.

That article, by contrast, concentrated on what is clearly a major cause of accidents: lack of attention. It pointed out: “There are lots of distractions every day which take your mind off the road, from jogging while listening to music to turning round to talk to passengers in the car.”

It also struck fairly new ground in suggesting that cyclists, walkers and joggers need to concentrate just as much as drivers. It offered courses in cycling and motor cycling training for young people and in teaching children to cross the road, as well as co-ordinating and promoting driver development – important when it takes years to learn to drive really well.

By that time you know how fast it is safe to drive in most situations. You also know what causes accidents – stupidity, inattention, boredom and poor judgement tend to top the list. Excessive speed is also dangerous, of course, but this is not the same thing as going faster than speed limits that are for the most part inexpertly fixed. And it’s rarely uncovered by cameras because they are normally set to catch people, not to keep the roads safe.

We’re all familiar, and fed up, with puerile slogans like Speed Kills (it doesn’t) and It’s Fifty for a Reason (yes, usually a very bad reason). I’m in favour of speed limits, set by people who know what is realistic and safe (experienced traffic police, for example) but preferably to advise rather than punish motorists. It is only poor drivers (and non-drivers) who like slow limits punitively policed, because they don’t understand how fast is safe. They assume they’re safe because they’re obeying the law. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Reckless behaviour in a motor vehicle is a serious offence, but this is masked by the pretence that speed is the major issue. Even those few serious accidents attributed primarily to speed by the police are usually the result of some other criminal activity, like drug-taking or theft.

Reckless behaviour in a car always involves a lack of proper attention, and that includes using a mobile phone, fiddling with the cd-player, watching the speedometer, carrying on a vigorous debate with a passenger, pointing at landscape features and trying to find the glasses that fell off the central console. Driving is dangerous, and we mustn’t forget it.

My solution? The same as yours, probably: more traffic police. And in the cities, more visible police generally. And more education as suggested by the article that prompted this one. Not fatuous slogans, and wilfully diverting people’s attention from the real problem.