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Be prepared to extend road safety programme

AS an advertising campaign urges Scots to be careful on the roads this festive season, ministers have unveiled plans to trial new 20mph limits in five Scottish towns - Maybole, Largs, Biggar, Langholm and Oban.

The move is designed to make the roads a safer place for those not travelling by car - pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and equestrians. That focus is to be welcomed. While there is often an understandable concentration on protecting drivers and passengers it should be remembered the first person to be killed by a car in the UK was neither of those things - she was a pedestrian.

And official figures show that when it comes to safety on Scotland's roads there is significant room for improvement. Overall there has been a substantial reduction in road deaths in recent years, an achievement which should be applauded. But there is still much more to be done.

Although road deaths fell overall by 6% to 174 in 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, the number of pedestrians killed rose by 33% to 57.

During the same period, the number of cyclist casualties rose by 9% to 901.

As with all changes, the new speed limit will have to be introduced carefully.

Motorists have become used to 20mph limits near schools, so should be able to adapt to wider restrictions. Indeed, the co-operation of drivers is essential to the scheme because the new limits will be "largely self-enforcing".

Such moves have significant public support, opinion polls have found. One survey found 60% of those asked backed moves to switch to 20mph limits in built-up areas, with women, younger people and pensioners particularly enthusiastic.

There is also good evidence about the impact reduced speed limits can have. One study estimated a 20mph speed limit could cut casualties by up to 40%.

Undoubtedly, there will be areas whose residents will feel they have missed out on the latest initiative. Consideration was also given to introducing 20mph zones in Keith, Nairn, Inveraray, Golspie, Callander, Springholm, Crocketford, Aberlour and Cromdale. In the end, however, each of these was rejected for different reasons.

Ministers rightly decided not to proceed in circumstances where they feel a 20mph zone will not have the desired impact and have also said they will look at ways to increase road safety in these areas as well.

Although this pilot project is small, it is still is to be welcomed and the new speed limits are due to be in place by next summer at the latest.

The impact of the new restrictions will be monitored every year.

If, at the end of the three-year pilot, it is found the new limits have significantly cut the number of incidents involving vulnerable road users then the 20mph signs should become permanent fixtures.

But the ambition of the project should not stop there. If the new limits do prove to be a success, then serious consideration must be given to rolling out the idea to other areas where lives could be saved.

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