HC Deb 11 November 1953 vol 520 cc1105-10

11.42 p.m.

Mr. William Keenan (Liverpool, Kirkdale)

Before I begin, perhaps you would be good enough to tell me, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, whether my Adjournment debate will be curtailed in view of the business which has just taken place.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAudrew)

Yes, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has lost seven minutes of his time.

Mr. Keenan

My reason for raising this subject tonight is that I was unable to take part in the debate on road safety on 28th July and I consider that questions might have been put to the Minister which are of more importance than some which were addressed to him. I wish to put them tonight. I wish to address questions on four subjects to the Home Office, because I am concerned with the way in which the law is being administered. The law is broken, and insufficient attention is given to dealing with those who break it. I wish to deal with the effect of alcohol upon motorists and the offences committed because of it, the roadworthiness of adults, speeding, and headlights.

There are very many people who are disturbed by the number of deaths on the roads, particularly those which occur after hotels and public houses close. It is then, as far as I can observe, that the incidence of injuries and deaths seems to rise. There seems no indication that the police are as alive to what is going on as they should be, or that they are taking strong enough action to deter those responsible. Nearly every country public house today has a great car park to accommodate the large number of motorists who go out "pub crawling."

Every motorist should either not drink at all when he is in charge of a vehicle or leave alcohol entirely alone, because it interferes with his judgment. In America, they have a test for motorists to find out the amount of alcohol that has been consumed. In this country 8 per cent. of accidents are attributed to alcohol, but I do not think that figure could be sustained if the facts were better known. What are the Home Office doing about this? Are they aware of this serious matter?

The figures of accidents and deaths during the last Road Safety Week were tragic. Last year, the number of deaths of children between five and 15 was simply alarming. In 1951, the figures were 554 killed and 32,000 seriously and slightly injured. In 1952, the figures were slightly better-460 and 31,000. But, in 1951, in addition to the number killed, there were 329 under five who were fatal casualties.

I know there are a great number of prosecutions for speeding in the courts, but not sufficient attention is paid to this offence. I understand that some motoring organisations think that the 30 m.p.h. speed limit should be raised to 40 m.p.h. I am prepared to stand in Whitehall any evening with the Home Secretary when he will find that there are many vehicles travelling between 40 and 50 m.p.h. in the vicinity of Scotland Yard.

I see the same sort of thing in Liverpool. This applies not only to private cars, but to buses. Let me say at once that the standard of driving and the road sense of bus drivers throughout the country is wonderful. The surprising thing is that they do so well. But even bus drivers, because of schedules, and so on, exceed the speed limit, and I shall take an early opportunity to invite the Chief Constable of Liverpool to visit certain spots to see these buses speeding.

When an accident occurs nobody ever admits that he was travelling at 30 or 40 miles an hour. He always says that he was travelling at 10 or 15 miles an hour. Similarly, when a man is summoned for a motoring offence involving the drinking of alcohol he says he has had nothing to eat and has drunk only one glass of sherry. My complaint is against these two offences of speeding and being under the influence of drink when driving a car, because they are the cause of accidents and death on the roads.

Some magistrates' benches complain they have not sufficient powers, yet most of them do not use to the full the powers they already have. Offenders get away too lightly. I call the attention of the Home Office to that, although I know they do not appoint magistrates. After some years of experience of the local highway authority dealing with the overloading of vehicles, and so on, I am satisfied that it would be a good thing to insist on having on the magisterial bench at least one person who is not a motorist. The motorist's point of view runs right through the administration in this field, and I am convinced it would be far better to insist on one member of the bench being a non-motorist, and so prevent the sympathy of fellow feeling being expressed in the courts when these offences are tried.

Now I should like to say a few words about headlights. I do not drive a car, because I do not possess one, but I have done a lot of travelling by car, and what annoys me, as it must the driver, is the glare of the headlights of oncoming traffic. There seems to be no standard of conduct or regulations governing it, as far as I know. I should like to know whether it is an offence to have glaring headlights, because they are certainly the cause of many accidents. When I have been travelling by car I have often wondered how the driver has avoided a serious accident when faced with glaring headlights and the careless and indifferent performance of some drivers on the road.

I also want to take this opportunity of telling the Under-Secretary of State that with the increase in the number of road users the standard of driving has deteriorated. I am assured of that by motorists. Something must be done about it. I am not satisfied—and I do not suppose that the Home Office are either—that there is sufficient control over the individual who is given a licence to drive.

The roadworthiness of vehicles is something about which I know motorists' organisations and others are very concerned. It is well known that there are on the road thousands of vehicles which are not fit to be on the road, and I should like to know whether the police are doing anything to ensure vehicles are in a fit condition to be on the road. I know the difficulties. Many motorists are unable to get their cars repaired, or to get their brakes attended to as well as they should be. But these things must be dealt with in order to avert future tragedies.

After all, pedestrians do not commit suicide, and it is not reasonable or right that motorists should travel at any speed they like. Allowances must be made for children, and the fact that many motorists travel at more than 50 m.p.h. in built-up areas accounts for many of these accidents. We must do more than we have done up to now to protect the children and to stop them being murdered on the roads, because that is what it amounts to.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will be able to deal with the four particular points I have mentioned, and will be able to give an assurance that his Department and the police will do more than is being done at present to prevent these murders on the roads.

11.55 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Kirk-dale (Mr. Keenan) for raising the important points he has mentioned, because this is a subject in which publicity can do nothing but good. I will try to deal with the points he has raised, though not necessarily in the order in which he spoke.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned speeding. I think he was talking particularly of drivers exceeding the 30 m.p.h. limit in built-up areas. In 1952, the police in England and Wales instituted proceedings in 54,000 such cases. They also issued written warnings in 7,000 further cases. The result of those proceedings was fines amounting to £109,000, an average of rather more than £2 a time, and 110 drivers were disqualified.

I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman that that number of offenders is far too great, but I think it is true to say that the reason is not the usual reason which one finds where there are a large number of offences against the law, namely, contempt on the part of the public. I do not believe that the public as a whole is contemptuous of the 30 m.p.h. speed limit. On the contrary, I find that there is increasing public support for the principle of the 30 m.p.h. limit, and I am informed that the police also find that they are getting good support in that respect.

It is, of course, for the police to enforce the law in this matter. On the whole, it appears that breaches of the law are caused mainly by thoughtlessness on the part of a certain number of drivers. The right remedy for offences of that kind is to make as certain as possible that those who commit them will soon be caught. The practical difficulty is that many police forces are suffering from grave shortages of manpower. In addition, they have had numerous additional tasks thrust upon them in the last few years. The policy in London, and generally throughout the country, has been twofold; first, to concentrate on stopping speeding in the bad spots; and, secondly, to increase the number of traffic patrols.

May I say to the hon. Member for Kirkdale, who referred to speeding in Whitehall, that during the last nine months there have been only four accidents of a serious character in Whitehall. One occurred because someone fell down inside a bus, and three occurred to pedestrians who stepped off the pavement inadvisedly. There was no question of anyone exceeding the speed limit. So that, in this connection, Whitehall has a clean record, and I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that it would be a waste of time to concentrate our resources in Whitehall when, in fact, there are places where serious accidents are taking place quite frequently.

The action of the police in these cases has met with some success. In spite of the increasing volume of traffic, the number of fatal accidents fell by over 13 per cent. in 1952. the last complete year. Indeed, there have only been two years since 1912 when there have been fewer accidents. One was a war year, and one was a year of petrol rationing. The number of fatal accidents in 1952 was 570. That is far too high. We would all wish to see it reduced, but I can assure the House that no one is more aware of that need than the police, and I can give a definite assurance that every possible effort will be made to reduce the number still further.

May I say a word about drunkenness in driving. The penalties in this connection are, on a summary conviction for a first offence, a fine of £50 or four months imprisonment, and on a second or subsequent offence, £100 or four months' imprisonment, or both. In both cases there is automatic forfeiture of the licence for one year unless the court sees special reasons to order otherwise. Those are fairly severe penalties.

Mr. Keenan

Not exceeding those penalties?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Not exceeding those penalties. Those are severe penalties, and rightly so, but it is for the courts to decide what penalties shall be inflicted in particular cases. It is not for the Government, and it is certainly not my province here to comment on the penalties that the counts in fact inflict. Hon. Members are entitled to express their views here, and no doubt the hon. Member's views will receive publicity and come to the attention of magistrates.

Mr. Keenan

I hope so.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

In England and Wales, in 1952, the police prosecuted in 3,150 cases of drunkenness, either driving or in charge of a car. There were 233 sentences of imprisonment and 2,099 fines totalling £41,000—an average of about £20 each time. On the whole, therefore, these cases have not been dealt with particularly leniently by the courts.

The statistics of accidents caused by drunkenness do not provide a very reliable guide. I think that the most illuminating statement that I can make is to refer to the statement of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis in his Report for 1952, where he puts drink and drugs as the last but one of 24 factors leading to road accidents. There is no strong reason, really, for suggesting that accidents are particularly likely to occur when people are coming out of the public houses in the evening.

Mr. Keenan

Do not the figures show that they are?

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

It is quite true that the figures rise after 10 o'clock at night, but I am sure the hon. Member will agree that people are likely to leave other institutions than the public houses around 10 o'clock at night.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half-an-hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Five Minutes past Twelve o'Clock a.m.