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Scottish Parliament Speech: Road Safety Framework (September 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I join members in welcoming the Scottish Government's road safety framework, and I declare an interest: I am president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport and I have not knowingly driven a car for 32 years.

Although I distrust target setting - as Katherine Whitehorn memorably said during last year's Melrose festival, "If you hit anything, call it a target" - it is good to see that by 2007 Scotland had considerably exceeded the 2010 UK targets and it is good that we plan to do even better. If the UK Government will not move to reduce the blood alcohol limit for drivers from the current level to 50mg, we should be allowed to do so.

I want to link this debate with yesterday's debate on sport and physical activity, when we considered the country's weight problem. People who are overweight - that includes our friends and ourselves; I am 6kg heavier than I ought to be - live under a kind of indirect threat from traffic, because lifestyles have become overwhelmingly sedentary. We spend our lives safely in bed, in front of computer screens, at tables, eating, and in cars, going to or coming back from work, school, the supermarket and so on.

The international comparisons that can be derived from the statistics are not comforting, although they are explicable. In wonderful Copenhagen, 36 per cent of workers cycle to work every day, whereas in Edinburgh we have just registered an increase of an eighth, to 2 per cent.

It is not easy to walk in Scotland. We have to walk along or cross many roads that have heavy traffic and are heavily parked. Freuchie community council got in touch recently to say that folk in that Fife village, which is bisected by the A92, can be cut off for 20 minutes from their bus stop, shops, school or work.

In Edinburgh in the 1960s, I was that daredevil, a bike commuter - let's hear it for Scotland's greatest invention, the invention of Kirkpatrick Macmillan and John Dunlop. I did the trip from Morningside, and later from Stockbridge, to the university. Members should consider the volume of traffic and parked cars on such routes now - that is why our cycling statistics are so bad. Even when I walk from Old College, where I get off the Borders bus, to Holyrood, I have to cross two busy roads in half a mile. The cobbles on Jeffrey Street are so badly laid that they look like a death trap - I do not know whether other members have observed that. That might be taken care of when a toddler or pensioner trips and is knocked over, which is - alas - the sort of incident that propels intervention.

My daughter, Alison, commutes by bike in London in traffic that looks and often is frightening. Last year, my friend Lisa Pontecorvo of the Open University, who was born in Glasgow and was a great expert on documentary film, was crushed to death by a heavy lorry while riding her bike in Islington.

My brother, Steve, is a lorry driver for Christian Salvesen and he keeps me informed about that scene. UK standards are pretty good, particularly in unionised firms such as Salvesen, although they are not perfect. However, two thirds of the overseas traffic that reaches Scotland by road comes in foreign heavy goods vehicles, of which a third have been recorded as being overloaded or badly maintained or having overworked drivers. Members can imagine the hazards in that regard.

Our orthodoxy has been to squeeze more traffic capacity on to our roads. Instead, we need to reduce car speed, provide broader pavements and give right of way to bus, cycle and pedestrian traffic. Cars are not the only issue. Ideas such as the concept project, which is mentioned in the framework, enable us to devise an overall solution to the problem in the context of allocation of loads.

It is not just about declarations and planning. We need an ethos that is not that of ‘Top Gear’ - the ‘four wheels good, two legs boring’ ethos. ‘Top Gear’ might be ‘just fluff’, as Jeremy Clarkson tells us; fluff is not a policy for transport or indeed for our survival.

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