HC Deb 02 August 1935 vol 304 cc3027-38

12.17 p.m.


I wish to raise a question following upon the subject already dealt with—a question that is made necessary by replies given by the Minister of Transport on Wednesday of this week. The Minister then answered a question that was put by another hon. Member relating to the report recently given by the British Medical Association in answer to a request put to them by the Minister after questions in this House. Some weeks ago questions were addressed to the Minister asking whether he intended to take any steps as to the manifest troubles that have arisen consequent upon the association between the use of alcohol and road safety. The Minister gave great satisfaction to those in the country who are interested in this matter by saying that he regarded the subject as of such importance that he intended to take the advice of those who were best qualified to advise, and that therefore he had communicated with the British Medical Association and the British Medical Council. I would like to express at once by gratitude for the course that the right hon. Gentleman took.

I remember that a deputation from those who were interested in this subject waited on Mr. Herbert Morrison when he was Minister of Transport. That deputation was made up of some very eminent men associated with the medical profession, and of those who had taken great interest in the subject. Later on another deputation waited upon the succeeding Minister of Transport, Mr. Oliver Stanley, if I may use the name in this connection. I had the honour to be a member of that deputation, and I heard what was said by the very eminent doctors of this country in submitting their views to the Minister. On this occasion there has been a definite advance, because the Minister has not waited for a deputation; he himself has gone to those who are qualified to advise him. At once, apparently, his request was complied with, and the report has now been published. It is to that report I would like to direct the attention of the House for a few minutes.

The British Medical Association regarded the Minister's request most seriously and they appointed a special committee consisting of 15 gentlemen. It was under the chairmanship of Dr. Willoughby, the Medical Officer of Health of Eastbourne. The Association was apparently most anxious that the Committee should be thoroughly representative. It included physiologists, neurologists, pharmacologists, police surgeons, physicians, and general practitioners, and those 15 men who, I assume, are men of outstanding credentials and of some eminence in their profession, have now published a report. The report occupies about five columns of the present issue of the "British Medical Journal". I think it will be sufficient for me to say that this subject is not going to be discussed in days to come without this report being regarded as indispensable. The importance of the report is in the fact that the eminent men who have given their time to this question and to this inquiry during recent weeks have drawn the attention of the British public not to the ordinary case of intoxication but to the effect of the sub-intoxicant amount of alcohol, that is, amounts less than that customarily regarded as rendering a person under the influence of drink to such an extent as to be incapable of having proper control of the vehicle. Those who turn to the report will find that they deal in particular with the effect of alcohol on powers of concentration, the effect on the reasoning powers, on the "succession of highly skilled muscular movements which are dependent on rapid and accurate co-ordination between the eyes, hands, and feet," and upon the effect of alcohol on the safety and accuracy of hand movements and leg movements. The consequence is that the Committee suggest to the country that the real danger upon the roads is not the drunken man, but the man who is in charge of a dangerous machine and who has taken sufficient alcohol to give him a false confidence, and the effects of small quantities of alcohol "are such that the attention of the public should be drawn to what is a manifest peril." As a matter of fact this report emphasises the result of an inquiry made in 1927. I would like to read to the House what was then found by the British Medical Association in a report by the Committee on tests of drunkenness, which is recorded in the "British Medical Journal" of February 19th, 1927. What that Committee said was this: Fine shades of self-control might be lost without any signs apparent of alcoholic intoxication. The first effect of alcohol is on the higher centres and is subjective, and even if no objective symptoms occur the subjective effect of alcohol may be sufficient to make it unfit for an individual to be in a responsible position—for example in charge of a mechanically-propelled vehicle. If what was said by the British Medical Association in 1927 has been confirmed as a result of constant inquiries not only in this country but in many other countries, it is evident that the tests which are now being applied in courts of law are very often quite inappropriate and irrelevant. The danger is not with the man whose mental gear is thrown entirely out of control by drunkenness, but with the man whose mind is affected by what would not make him, in the ordinary sense of the word, an intoxicated person. In other words, you can have a man who is mechanically drunk and socially sober. If that be true, and it appears to be quite true from the evidence given by these Committees—because this is not a teetotal tract: the report is not written in any polemical way—we have to alter our whole conception of the manner of dealing with the problem of the peril of the roads.

No one can read this report without being satisfied that the association between the use of alcohol and the safety of people upon the roads is direct, is immediate, and is substantial, and that any attempt on the part of the Minister or his Department to deal with the danger upon the roads which ignores this evidence is bound to be inadequate and futile. If these facts are scientifically proved, if what the Committee has to say is true, there is a very definite obligation upon the Minister of Transport and his Department, and, indeed, upon this House, to see that those facts are made known to all who are concerned. If they are untrue let them be disproved; but if true they ought to be made known to every judge on the bench, to every magistrate who has to administer the law, to every police officer, and to every person who takes upon the road a highly dangerous machine. And if the facts are to be made known, there is no one upon whom the responsibility rests more than the right hon. Gentleman. It is his business to see that these facts are brought home to the minds of all concerned.

I will not occupy time in trying to prove, because I think it already has been proved, the association between the use of alcohol and road safety. The time for that has gone. The legislation already passed by this House is based upon the assumption that there is such an association. The fact that something like 80 to 90 per cent. of the municipalities of the country and the great public utility companies make abstinence an absolute condition of service for men who are driving vehicles or acting as conductors is, in itself, conclusive evidence. This problem of the association between the use of alcohol and road safety has confronted those who are responsible for the affairs of every country where there is motor transport. The strongest evidence upon this point is the action of the Minister himself, because when he published the Road Code only a few weeks ago he very wisely, as I think, drew attention to the dangers that may arise from the use of alcohol.

I am raising this question to-day, first, because I want to know what the Minister intends to do about the report; secondly, because I wish to assist in drawing public attention to the report; and, thirdly, because I think the House would like to share with the Minister in the expression of thanks which he gave to the British Medical Association and to the Committee for having given so much time to this question. I assumed that when this report was issued the one man in this country who would be most eager to publish it generally would be the Minister, and I was amazed on Wednesday when I gathered from the reply he made that he intended to take no action to secure greater publicity. He stated in reply to my question that the report was published in the "British Medical Journal" for 27th July, and was therefore generally available. A report in a professional paper is not generally available. If this House put to the Home Secretary a question about some point of English liberty, and he thought it was wise to consult, say, the Law Society, and the Law Society set up a Committee, at his request, to go into the matter, and then sent to him their report, I do not think the Home Secretary would be satisfied, or would think the country would be satisfied, if that report were to remain only in the columns of the "Law Journal".

This report was intended to be published by those who gave their time to it. They themselves drew attention to the necessity of public attention being aroused. The report was not meant for doctors. Probably the one class in this country who need this report less than the rest are the doctors, because they are best qualified to know about these things. It is not a report written by doctors for doctors. It is a report affecting practically every family in this land in as much as everyone has to use the roads, and it is generally the pedestrian who suffers, and seeing that the Report has so far been only issued in the "British Medical Journal"—with the consent of the Minister, it is his report—I suggest that it should be more widely published.

When I pressed my point of view upon the Minister by a supplementary Question, he made what I thought was a preposterous reply, saying that the expense to the British taxpayer had to be taken into consideration. The Minister has spent money with profusion in every other direction, and I think with general approval. No one has begrudged the expenditure upon the pedestrian crossings or upon the beacons, or the enormous expenditure on the widening of the roads, all ostensibly to secure public safety, and to talk about the expense of reprinting half-a-dozen columns did not do the Minister justice and, indeed, was almost ludicrous. In any campaign to reduce the figures of mortality on the roads the Minister will command the co-operation of the whole community, but any such campaign which ignores the facts in this Report is one which, I suggest, is bound to fail. The chief difficulty which the Minister will encounter in this matter is ignorance. If he cannot overcome ignorance, part of his campaign is bound to fail. In so far as ignorance upon these matters is irremovable he cannot help himself, but to the extent that it is removable the responsibility rests upon him.

I am glad the Minister has been doing something to improve the equipment of cars. A man who takes on the road a vehicle with inadequate tyres commits an offence under the law, and I believe that the Minister suggested some time ago that brakes ought to be maintained in good order, when I raised the matter in debate in this House. It is not enough to see to the brakes of the car, if the driver of the car be in an unsound condition, as he would be upon this medical evidence. I am sure that the British Medical Association did not expect that their report would be put on one side. It is not expressing thanks to them to set their report aside in this way. It is a most important document, and public interest should be aroused in it. If the facts stated in the report were fully understood throughout the country and were acted upon, we could bring about a very substantial reduction in the number of killed and injured upon the road. I am satisfied that, whatever else may be done, if this remedy be left untouched the Minister will find his plans frustrated.

I make no apology for raising a matter of such great importance. The mortality and suffering upon our roads are a very great burden and they ought also to be a burden upon the public conscience. It is a lamentable thing to reflect, as we are starting our Recess to-day, that before we meet again upon 29th October, as I assume we shall if we are not summoned earlier by Mr. Speaker, something like 1,500 people, judging by the current figures, will lose their lives on the roads, and about 50,000 people will be injured. I was calculating just now how long it would take merely to record those deaths and accidents if the House considered them upon its resumption. If we gave only one minute to each case and devoted to them every hour of every day of our Parliamentary time, we should be occupied with them for three weeks. I know that the Minister is deeply concerned about these matters; he is entitled to the co-operation of all good citizens, but he cannot achieve his purpose unless he uses the remedy suggested by this report.

These are the questions which I wish to put: Will the hon. and gallant Gentleman who is to speak for the Minister, see that the report is made available to Members of this House and to the general public, because it is a publication with the imprimatur of a Government document and can command attention which would not have been given to a mere professional leaflet I Will he in his Department study what the report has to say, and, when a reasonable opportunity presents itself, tell the House what course he intends to take? I was amazed when I heard the Minister say that the report did not suggest any course of action. It was not for the doctors to suggest a course of action; they were not asked to do it. They were asked to state the scientific facts, and if they had gone on to say that the law should be amended in this or that way they might have been accused of usurping the authority of the Minister. Perhaps we may hear what request was put to those medical men. They did not understand that they were requested to advise as to any policy under the existing law. They have complied with the request, as they understood it, in stating the scientific facts based upon the most recent inquiry. I hope that the Minister will not put up such a ludicrous plea as was suggested the other day, that expense stands in the way in this matter, and that we may be assured that everything possible will be done by his Department to translate into effective action the results of this scientific investigation which has been so generously undertaken.

12.40 p.m.


I am very glad that the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Isaac Foot) has introduced this very important matter. The report to which he has referred is extraordinarily interesting, and I hope that it will be very widely read by Members of this House. The report emphasises the fact that the taking of alcohol in comparatively small quantities, even hours before, may have a serious effect upon the mental qualities that are required by the drivers of motor cars. The faculties of quick decision and of immediate attention may be affected, the report shows. It is that which I hope will make this report widely read by the people of this country.

The report gives interesting figures with which I shall not detain the House. May I give one interesting fact with regard to the taking of whisky Two to three ounces of whisky, which is a comparatively small quantity, have been shown by psychological tests to diminish attention and power of control, to reduce the capacity to learn, to affect adversely the reasoning powers and to affect the powers of making movements dependent upon rapid and accurate co-ordination. The curious thing is that drivers of motor cars often think that their powers are improved by taking alcohol, that they are quicker in seeing what goes on around them and are more skilful and ready in the driving of their cars. That feeling is an illusion, because it will always be found that the taking of alcohol affects the qualities which are necessary in the driving of motor cars.

Last year in Great Britain, 2,016 drivers of motor vehicles were certified by doctors to be under the influence of drink. If the number of convictions was 2,016, it is obvious that there must have been a very large number of people in excess of that number who, when driving motor vehicles were under the influence of drink. To reduce that large number ought to be the object of the Minister of Transport. If this discussion arouses attention on the subject of the effect of alcohol upon motor driving it will have been of value. I hope that the Minister will use the report, give publicity to it and act upon it.

12.44 p.m.


I do not complain in the least of the fact that the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Isaac Foot) has raised the question of the report on this, the only occasion on which he could have done so. I agree with him that the more publicity the report obtains, the better the effect will be. As he knows, both my right hon. Friend and myself will do anything possible to reduce the horrible toll of death and mutilation on the road. I think he will also agree that my right hon. Friend, during the time in which he has held his present office, has been successful to a great extent in getting the figures down, in spite of the fact that the number of motor cars on the roads has increased tremendously within the last 12 months. The hon. Member for Bodmin asks what were, if I may use the expression, the terms of reference to the British Medical Association. As he knows, the inquiry was conducted by a special Committee formed by the British Medical Council at the Minister's request, after a question asked in the House by the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. Rhys Davies) and also requests from the hon. Member for Bodmin and others. Accordingly, the Minister wrote that he would be grateful for any observations which the British Medical Association might be able to make on the subject in the light of the existing knowledge and experience of the medical profession. Between the time when the report was asked for and the time when it was received, we inserted in the Highway Code a reference to the use of alcohol. It is very short, and we put it specially in the part which is addressed to all users of the road. It says: Before using the road, be sure that your alertness or sense of caution is not affected by alcohol or fatigue. We put that in on purpose to meet the point made by the hon. Member that we should give as wide publicity as possible to the fact that drivers of motor vehicles should take particular care that their faculties are alert when they are driving; and, as the hon. Member knows, the Highway Code has a circulation of some 13,000,000 or 14,000,000, and is being widely read, as I happen to know. Therefore, I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong in thinking that we are not giving enough publicity to this question of alcohol. As he said, deputations were also received both in 1931 by Mr. Morrison and in 1934 by my right hon. Friend who is now President of the Board of Education. As regards publication, the report has been issued in the "British Medical Journal," which is the official Journal of the British Medical Association. That report is on sale, and no doubt reprints can be obtained by anybody interested if they wish for them. In fact, I know that they can, because I have one here. Generally speaking, a government department does not issue reports of this kind unless there is a general demand from the House, and we have seen no such demand. We really fail to see, when a report is published from one source and can be obtained from that source, why we should ask the taxpayers of this country to publish it again in spite of the fact that it is already published in one journal and is to a certain extent copyright—though I do not stress that point—


On the point of copyright, is it not a fact that the report itself could not have been published without the consent of the Minister, and that the British Medical Association said so?

Captain HUDSON

Certainly. The British Medical Association asked the Minister if they might publish it, and he, of course, agreed at once. I am not making a point of the question of copyright; what I am saying is that the British Medical Association have here something in their Journal which they have taken a great deal of trouble to obtain, and in connection with which they have done a very good piece of work voluntarily. We do not want, if we can avoid it, to take away the value of this contribution which they have, and publish it in the Vote Office here unless there is a very general demand that that should be done; and up to the present we have had no reason to suppose that there is such a demand. We did try, when the report was first published, to get as much publicity for it as possible in the general Press, and I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that nearly every newspaper in this country had some article on the subject. I also hope that our debate to-day will have a certain amount of publicity. I am perfectly certain, however, and my right hon. Friend is certain, that there is no reason why we should republish the report again as a Parliamentary paper, particularly as we are pretty well assured that its circulation would be very small indeed. As regards the report itself, there was one particular sentence in it—the last sentence of all—which I think is the most important. It says: After taking alcohol he may believe himself"— that is, the driver— to be driving better, but in fact, his body works less efficiently. This adverse effect generally occurs even if alcohol is taken in moderate quantities some hours before driving, and especially if taken in the absence of food. I hope that publicity will be given to that statement. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the report is long and very technical, and you do not get a report of that kind widely read by motorists and people who ought to read it; but that one sentence is, I believe, the kernel of the whole report, and I hope that people who are going to drive motor cars will take it to heart. We have, in studying this report—and, of course, it is being studied in the Ministry—to use common sense. We have found that one other thing besides alcohol is almost as bad a cause of accidents, and that is fatigue. I do not know what the hon. Member for Bodmin would want us to do on this report. I do not know if he is suggesting that only a certified teetotaller should in future be allowed to drive a car—


I have not suggested that.

Captain HUDSON

I was wondering what the hon. Member was going to suggest, because I do not think that total prohibition would ever commend itself to this country, particularly after certain experiments in that direction in other countries across the ocean. But we are studying the problem, and we may have to take action, as we had to take action in regard to fatigue in the case of drivers of heavy motor vehicles. As the hon. Member knows, very strenuous steps have been taken to see that they do not drive for too long, because much the same effect in the direction of blunting the faculties takes place from fatigue as from too much alcohol. People in this country are becoming more sober by education And by the force of public opinion, and that, I am certain, is the right line on which to go. The report, as I have already said, suggests no line of action. If the Committee had felt that they could usefully make any such suggestion, I see nothing in the terms of reference which would have prevented them from doing so. The hon. Member for Bodmin has himself suggested no definite line of action. If I were to suggest anything, I would suggest that what we have done by putting in the Highway Code that paragraph to all road users, by educating young people and by popular opinion, is the best thing that can be done. We suggest that this report, or the important parts of the report, should be studied and its lessons taken to heart by all good citizens, and I think I may say that the vast majority of our road users are good citizens, and do their best as far as they can to lessen the horrible toll of our roads.