HC Deb 21 February 1952 vol 496 cc557-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Redmayne.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. C. R. Hobson (Keighley)

Last year 5,250 people were killed on the roads of Britain—14 people a day, one in every five of them being a young child—and no fewer than 52,360 people were injured. On Christmas Eve we reached the casualty peak with 1,065 people being injured and 24 being killed.

This is a terrible toll, which brings in its train death, injury, excruciating pain and poignant sorrow to those who are bereaved, and we should be failing in our duty if we were not prepared to take what action is open to us to reduce this terrible casualty rôle. It is, therefore, with a sense of urgency that the House and the whole country will tonight listen to the Parliamentary Secretary to hear what are his views and the views of his Department as to the steps to be taken to try to improve the situation. This is a scourge on our national life, and I am sure that none of us are prepared to accept the situation in which we pay such a terrific price in limb, injury and death for modern transport.

Having said that by way of introduction, I want now to pass to one or two suggestions which may be helpful. From now on my remarks and phraseology must be somewhat telegraphic in character. I want first to deal with zebra crossings. Zebra crossings are a definite improvement on the Belisha crossings, but immediate steps should be taken to light them up at night in built-up areas. Experiments are taking place, and I do not think many more will be needed, because at Ealing Broadway the Ministry of Transport have an ideal method of illuminating the crossings at night.

In the interests of safety, and allowing for breaking, 10 yards on either side of the zebra crossing there should be a white line across the road or two signs indicating the approach to a zebra crossing. We ought also to ensure that the road 50 yards on either side of every zebra crossing has a non-skid surface.

There are not enough zebra crossings. Greater discretion ought to be given in this matter to local authorities. It was wrong to cut down the number of pedestrian crossings by two-thirds. One half would have been sufficient, and I hope this problem will be looked at again.

Where these crossings are more than 30 feet wide, particularly on the main roads where they are most required, I think there should be an island in the centre of the crossing. It is confusing for traffic to have an expanse of over 30 feet with no island in the centre. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary's views on that question will be given to us.

Now we come to the regulations themselves. We are all aware of the Bristol decision. It has proved one of two things, either that the regulations are nebulous and cannot be properly understood; or that the decision of the court was wrong. At an early stage this House, the country and the public at large should have an assurance of a re-definition of these regulations from the Minister of Transport.

Next there is the matter of the lighting of roads not only on the main roads but on what are colloquially termed "back doubles," in other words, those secondary roads which enable people to avoid the traffic lights and the main road traffic. It is on that form of secondary road that there are many fatal accidents, and it is on these roads that the lighting is very often poor, the siting of poles bad and the wattage of the lamps insufficient.

The Minister must exert pressure on local authorities to have a complete examination of the lighting system in their streets, and on those roads over which the Minister has control he should give a Departmental instruction for the lighting to come up to a certain standard. I am going to give the Minister credit for one thing. He has done it on Hendon Way, though he had a fight. I do not want to go into the matter of the Chatham disaster, but lighting was in some way responsible for that accident, and, therefore, I hope that attention is going to be given to this.

We then come to another question, which is probably outside the scope of the hon. Gentleman's Department, but it is certainly not outside the scope of the Government, and that is the question of capital allocations to local authorities for the purposes of getting non-skid surfaces on our main roads. There are still wooden blocks in the centre of London, and on many roads there are non-asphalt surfaces which are a positive danger to the motorist when braking on a wet evening.

I also want to raise this question of the 30-mile limit. A 30-mile limit ought to be rigidly imposed in all urban areas even where there are arterial roads, and I want to draw the attention of the Minister to the North Circular Road in the Borough of Willesden where I live. In a previous Parliament it was the subject of an Adjournment debate. It is a non-restricted road. It has a double carriage way, and on that road there are two schools, factories on either side, a public library and two council housing estates. It is a veritable death trap, and parts of it not within the Borough of Willesden, where there is not the same amount of use by pedestrians, are restricted.

Such is the density of traffic on the North Circular Road that at Neasden Circus four policemen escort the people across the road at certain times because of the build-up arising from the density of traffic. That is not a waste of a policeman at all, and I pay tribute to the local inspector for realising the danger at that point.

The situation on the North Circular Road at peak hours is nothing short of criminal. There should be a far more rigid enforcement of the speed limit. Private coaches are notorious offenders. Motorised police ought to take immediate action by summoning the drivers concerned. The 30-mile limit was instituted for the safety of pedestrians and indeed of the motorists.

Look at the newspaper vans. I am amazed, because the Press are generally excellent in drawing the attention of the public to the necessity of safety on the roads and many newspapers run safety campaigns. Anyone who drives around London knows that many newspaper vans do not keep to the 30-mile limit. The reason is not that newspaper van drivers are bad, or the accident rate would probably be higher. Some of the newspaper managements want to look at the schedules for taking papers from newspaper offices to the stations. I had experience in the previous Government in regard to Post Office mail bags. I was very much concerned whether sufficient time was allowed to get the mails from the depots to the stations. I plead with the Press to have a look at this problem.

I want the Minister to stop lorry drivers and owners of lorries from carrying overhanging loads, like steel girders and long poles which protrude from the rear of the vehicle, often obscuring the rear light. All there is by way of warning is a bit of red or white handkerchief, or a piece of paper tied to the load. Regulations ought to be used to prevent lorries from having overhanging loads.

There is the question of play streets, and I want to pay a tribute to Salford and Keighley where certain streets are barred to motor traffic. That idea can be extended and I suggest that the Ministry ought to do something in this matter. On the provision of guard rails, I suggest that they are in many cases responsible for accidents. The Minister knows Golders Green; let him cross, but not on the zebra crossing, until he sees a bus coming out of the yard and has to dash for it to get to the rails. He will find that the rails are too close to the edge of the pavement. They ought to be put back a certain distance.

I want to raise another point. Has the Minister consulted the Home Secretary as to the need for sending out a circular to magistrates about imposing stiff penalties on people convicted of being drunk in charge of a motor car? That ought to be done. It is not for me to suggest what the penalty should be, although I do know—and I am not a lawyer—that it is possible even under existing laws to disqualify a person from driving for life if he has been found drunk in charge of a lethal machine such as a motor car. That also ought to be done.

Another thing that ought to be looked at is the road-worthiness of vehicles. It is possible for the Minister under his regulations to insist that road vehicles have a certain mechanical standard. I am talking about brake drums. Public vehicles are good and so are heavy road transport, but many of the "C" licence vans we see on the road are not up to standard. We only need to see them try to pull up to realise that there ought to be a standard of road-worthiness.

I want to give the hon. Gentleman time to reply and having been somewhat critical as well as, I hope, a little helpful, I shall finish on a note of praise, partitularly of the police of this country and of the school teachers in the work they are doing in educating children in curb drill. It is money well spent by the Metropolitan Police and the other police forces of the country. Unquestionably it has resulted in the casualties not being higher than they are now.

Finally, all of us, if we are men at all, and many of us who are parents, feel strongly about this matter. I know the hon. Gentleman who will reply does, and therefore I await with interest to hear what he proposes to do to deal with this terrible scourge of the road.

10.17 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Gurney Braithwaite)

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Hobson) has, with the greatest moderation, raised a question of first-class importance, as the House will recognise. May I say at once that I do not propose to lean with any comfort at all on the fact that the December road accident figures were lower than November or, indeed, that they compare favourably with the year 1938. The problem is one of immense gravity, causing anxiety not only to our Department but to the public. Like the remarks of the hon. Gentleman my reply will have to be telescopic, if not telegraphic in character, and if I do not cover every point, I hope he will acquit me of discourtesy.

I propose to take the main points of the hon. Gentleman and use these as tributaries flowing into the main stream of prevention and remedial action. I will begin with the children. I was glad to hear the tribute which the hon. Gentleman paid in his closing remarks. Education in the schools on road safety drill is yielding unmistakably satisfactory results. A generation is now emerging which sets a good example to its elders, and the House will be glad to know that the adult patrols at school crossings are already proving their value. Accidents are negligible where they are operating and discussions are now proceeding between my hon. Friend, the Minister of Education and the Home Secretary with a view to expanding the present London system all over the country.

It is, therefore, disappointing to find that accidents to children are not falling in volume. I think the explanation may well lie in the increased younger school population which we now have, the consequence of the 1944 to 1947 bulge in the birth rate. Moreover there is—and this I deplore more than anything else I shall say about this problem—a distressingly large number of casualties amongst children who are below school age and who stray into the road. I therefore take this opportunity of appealing to mothers, despite their many preoccupations—and we all know what they are—to exercise the greatest care and attention over the very young.

I turn now to density of traffic. Pilot investigations taken by the Ministry show that there is today an increase in the order of between 10 and 15 per cent. over pre-war in traffic density. Accidents, however, have not increased, and despite a present tendency to rise, which the hon. Member stressed, are in fact 7 per cent. below 1938. I repeat that that is no reason for complacency, but it is at least some satisfaction to know that they have not risen in proportion to the growth of traffic, although the number of commercial vehicles has risen—I was going to say almost out of proportion—certainly very considerably over pre-war days.

I shall use most of my time in speaking of the methods we propose to adopt to tackle this problem. Subways and over-bridges are a great advantage to the pedestrian, but the cost is formidable and, alas, they are not often utilised, even when they have been constructed.

I come next to the 30 miles an hour restriction in built-up areas. The hon. Member gave an example of the North Circular Road. I have four examples: the Kingston By-Pass, the Birmingham-Wolverhampton Road, the Nottingham Ring Road—I did not want to stay in London all the time—and the Great Western Road at Glasgow. All these were built specially to relieve older congested routes, and it would be a mistake to restrict, even where they are partially or wholly built-up, and for this reason.

Mr. Hobson


Mr. Braithwaite

I am sorry—I have to go very quickly.

Usually, these roads provide a longer route in point of distance, circling around congested areas, and if speed restrictions were imposed traffic would tend to flow back to its original channels, thus increasing the heavy accident rates on the old routes.

As regards maintenance, the average age of vehicles is much higher now than pre-war, and however carefully vehicles are maintained, it seems likely that the risk of accident is greater than if they had been replaced by new and modern successors. Increased inspection would require more skilled manpower than is at present available, and consideration on these lines must be put on one side while the re-armament programme is in progress. I use this occasion, however, to remind vehicle owners of their duty in this respect, and, in particular, of the maintenance of their brakes in proper condition.

Now I turn to the methods we have in mind of improving the position. I welcome this opportunity of saying something about Zebra crossings, beginning with their legality, about which, as the hon. Gentleman said, there has been some dispute. A crossing is legal if it is marked with stripes, beacons and studs in accordance with the new Pedestrian Crossing Regulations and is included in a scheme of pedestrian crossings duly approved by the Minister of Transport under Section 18 of the Road Traffic Act, 1934, and still in force, although on trunk roads a crossing does not need to be included in a scheme. Another exception is that certain crossings in the London area were authorised under Section 48 of the Road Traffic Act, 1930, and are also legal.

But some confusion has arisen because local authorities were asked to amend their schemes to give effect to the reduction in number when the new regulations came into operation as from 31st October last. However, the new regulations, which prescribe the new Zebra markings and the new rules for precedence, do not in themselves in any way affect the validity of crossings schemes.

Mr. Hobson


Mr. Braithwaite

Although, therefore, there may be several instances up and down the country where local authorities are amending their schemes, and either have not yet submitted them or received approval for them, this does not in any way affect the existence or legality of their previous schemes, and those are, therefore, still in force. A few technical difficulties have come to light in the application of the new Regulations and to cover these my hon. Friend proposes to make amending regulations. These will be designed to provide for four things: first, greater tolerance in the prescribed markings to cover crossings of irregular shape, such as those at bell mouthed junctions; secondly, an amended description of the markings to allow more space between the rows of studs and the end of the stripes; this is necessary where stripes are laid down by mechanical means; thirdly, power to the Minister to authorise wider crossings in certain cases; and fourthly, the exemption of bicycles from the prohibition of waiting imposed on vehicles within 45 feet. The drafting of the necessary regulations is now completed and they will be laid before the House at an early date.

As hon. Members will have read in the Press, experiments have recently been carried out at Lewisham with a view to improving lighting these crossings at night. One example—and I hope the House will not misinterpret the adjective, is the "blinking beacon." A report has reached the Department regarding researches in various parts of the country and my hon. Friend will give it careful consideration.

I feel bound to pay a tribute to the police. I am not here thinking of the enforcement of the law by prosecution, but rather of the helpful contribution to safety which they make by their supremely good example as drivers and by the friendly guidance given by those known to us as courtesy cops. The well known pre-war experiments established beyond doubt the way in which accidents can be cut down by putting mobile police patrols on the roads and my hon. Friend is considering with the Home Secretary what can be done to increase these patrols. This would in our view be the biggest single step which could be taken towards reducing road casualties.

Alas, the present need for economy in investment and Government expenditure means that we cannot afford to spend on physical safety measures anything approaching what we would like to spend. In spite of these difficulties, my hon. Friend has managed to secure the Chancellors' agreement to inclusion in the Estimates to be submitted to Parliament very shortly of just over £1 million to be spent from the Road Fund in the coming financial year for the purpose of helping small schemes of special benefit to road safety. Taken together with rate-borne expenditure this should enable a total amount of £1½ million to be incurred on such schemes in the financial year 1952–3. We shall concentrate on schemes designed to remedy black accident spots, and which are designed to secure the quickest returns for the outlay, and I may inform the. House that this is the first time we have been able to obtain funds solely for this purpose of cleaning up the black spots.

During last month I had the opportunity of meeting a considerable number of road safety committees in the West of England and South Wales to hear their views and discuss their problems. The House would wish to express its appreciation of all those who voluntarily and without financial reward devote so much time to this vital task which after all can best be performed through local initiative and contribution.

Finally, may I remind the hon. Member that when he sat over here as Assistant Postmaster-General and I once raised on the Adjournment what I believed to be a flaw in the Departmental administration of the Post Office he was so unkind as to accuse me of conducting a vendetta? I remained unwounded as the matter was quickly rectified, but now I turn the other cheek and thank him for raising this matter and giving me an opportunity of making this statement on behalf of Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. W. A. Wilkins (Bristol, South)

In the draft Regulations, will there be a paragraph which will define pedestrians responsibilities in the use of pedestrian crossings?

Mr. Braithwaite

May I look at that?

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.