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Has congestion charging created a safer London?

We already know several things about London’s congestion charge: that it has reduced traffic, done likewise for pollution, and delivered lots of money into the city’s coffers.

But now we hear of another benefit of the charge: fewer road accidents. According to new research presented to the Royal Economic Society, and reported recently by the Guardian, the number of accidents in central London has declined by 30 a month since the charge was introduced – or by a resounding 40 per cent.

This fits in with a general trend towards fewer accidents. The European Commission’s most recent data shows that the number of deaths from road accidents in the EU fell precipitously from 76,230 in 1991 to 28,143 in 2012. In the UK alone the numbers went from 4,753 to 1,802. It’s a happy fact that our roads are increasingly safer. Better cars and more perspicacious drivers have made sure of that.

But London is special. The Royal Economic Society researchers made certain of it. They also tested their findings against twenty other cities in the UK, as well as comparing the rate of accidents from before and after the charge was introduced. There can be no doubt: Ken Livingstone’s policy wheeze has helped to reduce accidents, even aside from other developments over the past decade-and-a-bit.

Which does rather prompt the question of whether other cities will introduce their own charges – and why they haven’t already. There are currently only two places in the country with a congestion charge, London and Durham, and even they took their time getting round to it. The Smeed Report was recommending the policy, or something like it, as far back as 1964.

Of course, there’s politics at play here. Few politicians will be keen to provoke motorists’ collective anger by saying ‘Well, you know that road you currently drive along for free? We’re planning to charge you a tenner to use it.’ And even when they’ve braved it, the response hasn’t been encouraging. In 2005, the people of Edinburgh voted against a congestion charge by a margin of three to one.     

But who knows? The London experience could embolden politicians to try again, particularly as they try to find new ways to raise money in these straitened times. One of the recent leitmotifs of the Government’s transport policy has been, as we wrote in anticipation of the Budget, a willingness to devolve power away from Westminster and towards the regions. Perhaps that will see more areas to experiment with charging.    

In the meantime, it’s worth recalling that statistic the next time you have to stump up for London’s congestion charge: accidents have declined by 40 per cent. No-one wants that number to go up again. If a bit of cash helps keep it down, that might not be all bad.

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