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27/01/03 - News and city section

By Joe Murphy, Whitehall Editor, Evening Standard

Speed bumps are killing hundreds of Londoners each year by delaying 999 crews, the head of the ambulance service has told the Evening Standard.

Measures such as road humps and traffic-light rephasing - which are supposed to improve road safety - are actually costing many more lives than they save. Up to 800 victims of cardiac arrest die in London for every minute of delay caused - compared with a total of 300 who die in traffic accidents each year.

The warning was made by Sigurd Reinton, chairman of the London Ambulance Service (LAS). He said: "For every life saved through traffic calming, more are lost because of ambulance delays."

His charge calls into question the spread of devices deliberately designed to slow down the capital's cars and lorries. It also challenges Mayor Ken Livingstone's campaign to close off rat runs and widen pedestrian zones at the expense of lanes for vehicles. Mr Reinton, a former director of management consultancy McKinsey, was brought in to raise standards at LAS three years ago and is credited with doubling the emergency response rate.

However, he said life- saving improvements were being held back by the increasing number of anti-car measures. "Every time an ambulance approaches a speed hump it has to slow down to walking pace, or even slower if it is carrying a critically ill patient," he said.

"A lot of smaller roads have been shut off to stop cars using them as rat runs, but it means ambulances have to join queues on other routes.

"The widening of pedestrian areas in many parts of central London has meant there is now only one lane for traffic where there used to be two. That makes it harder for ambulances to overtake and often it is impossible for cars to move to one side." London has an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 speed bumps. There are also thousands of chicanes, ramps and barriers designed to prevent speeding.

However, the capital also suffers from some of the lowest survival rates for people who suffer cardiac arrest.

Only two per cent of those suffering the worst form of heart attack are revived in time, compared with 10 per cent in some other areas. Each minute of delay in an ambulance team reaching a victim reduces their chances of surviving by 10 per cent.

A total of 8,000 people suffer cardiac arrest in the city each year. Another 35,000 need treatment for chest pain.

Liam Fox, Conservative health spokesman and a qualified doctor, said: "The obsession of Ken Livingstone and Transport for London with road calming measures is actually killing Londoners. There needs to be a proper balance between road safety and the effectiveness of the ambulance service. London ambulance crews are doing their utmost - but they are being hampered by the transport authorities."