HC Deb 30 May 1956 vol 553 cc334-9

(1) The Minister may by regulations provide that section nine of the Act of 1930 (which imposes minimum ages for the driving of motor vehicles on roads) shall have effect in relation to motor cycles, or, if it is so prescribed by the regulations, in relation to motor cycles of any class or description so prescribed, as if for the minimum age for driving there were substituted such age (not being less than sixteen years) as may be so prescribed:

Provided that a person shall not be prohibited by virtue of regulations under this section from driving motor cycles of any class or description if at any time before the coming into force of the regulations he has held a licence comprising that class or description of motor cycles (other than a provisional licence) or if at the time of the coming into force of the regulations he holds a provisional licence, and for the purposes of this proviso "licence" means a licence to drive granted under Part 1 of the Act of 1930.

(2) In subsection (5) of the said section nine (which provides for treating a person as disqualified for holding or obtaining a licence if prohibited by reason of age from driving a motor vehicle of any class) after the word "class" there shall be inserted the words "or description".

(3) The power to make regulations under this section shall be exercisable by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Molson

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The object of the Clause is to make it possible to vary the minimum age for the driving of motor cycles by regulations to be made by the Minister instead of having to pass an amending Act of Parliament. At present the minimum age for driving motor cycles is fixed at 16 by Section 9 of the Road Traffic Act, 1930. As a result, if for any reason it is desired to vary that minimum age it is necessary to wait for a legislative opportunity. That may well be inconvenient. The Departmental Committee on Road Safety is now undertaking an inquiry by means of a Sub-committee into the appropriate minimum age for motor cyclists. That will undoubtedly take some time. It is unlikely, therefore, that effect could be given to any recommendations that the Departmental Committee might make if the opportunity of this Bill were not taken and if the Committee are to present its Report after the Bill had been placed on the Statute Book.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) moved an Amendment in the Standing Committee, on 20th December, to exclude a person under the age of 18 from driving a motor cycle of more than 250 c.c. I undertook that the Departmental Committee on Road Safety would set up a Committee to go into the matter and report upon the whole question of accidents to motor cyclists. The moment that the Committee began to look at this matter we realised that it was a good deal more complicated than we had at first supposed.

In the first place, despite the very widespread feeling that modern heavy, fast motor cycles are being ridden by persons who are really too young to do so, there is extremely little evidence to show that the youngest of the motor cyclists are in fact having the most accidents. Clearly, before a change is made in the law, it would be essential to justify it on the facts. However, there is a very widespread feeling of that kind, and we should certainly want to have power to deal with the matter if, after careful examination, the Committee on Road Safety comes to that conclusion.

Further, it has been strongly represented that some of the light motor cycles could quite safely be ridden by these boys but that there should be a limit upon the size. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby had in mind, but from the practical point of view of enforcement it is essential that such limit should be one which the police can readily detect, and it is not at all easy to know whether a particular motor cycle is more or less than a certain cubic capacity. Therefore, it is a matter which must be carefully considered from the point of view of enforcement, even if the case is made out that it is desirable that there should be a limit of that kind.

Thirdly, it emerged that the size of the motor cycle—the cubic capacity of the cylinders—is not necessarily a criterion of the speed at which the motor cycle can travel. We were surprised and rather alarmed to learn that some quite light motor cycles can travel and are ridden at speeds up to 100 m.p.h. Obviously, we want to take that kind of thing carefully into account before we decide upon altering the law in this matter.

The Road Safety Committee, by a considerable majority, represented through me to the Minister that it was most anxious that the opportunity of this Road Traffic Bill should not be lost. It is for that reason that I move the Second Reading of the new Clause. It gives the Minister power, by regulation, to alter the age, if and when he is satisfied, as a result of the investigations now being undertaken by the Road Safety Committee, that it is desirable to do so.

Clause read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause be added to the Bill.

Mr. Ernest Davies

So far as I understand the new Clause, it empowers the Minister, by regulations, to raise the age at which one can drive a motor cycle—or to lower it. I do not think that anyone in the House would suggest that the age should be lowered below that of 16 at which it stands at present.

Mr. Molson

May I correct the hon. Gentleman? Under the Clause the age could not be lowered. We are taking power only to raise it.

Mr. Ernest Davies

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary said that the Departmental Committee on Road Safety is conducting an inquiry into the age limit for the drivers of motor cycles and I hope that this will be speeded up as much as possible. The road accidents which occur as a result of motor cycles being involved are numerous. Indeed, I believe that in 1954 there were 700 fatal accidents as a result of motor cycles being used, and no doubt the number is increasing.

It seems disproportionate that no one can drive a motor car until he is 18 years of age, whereas the motor cycle, which, in my view, is a more dangerous lethal weapon, can be driven by younger people. What is more, those who drive motor cycles are of the type who take greater risks and cause confusion on the highways, so that many of them are a danger to the public. Again, whereas before a provisional licence for a motor car is obtained the applicant must have someone by his side who is a fully qualified driver, there is normally no one assisting the person learning to drive a motor cycle. So for those reasons there is a strong case to be made out for raising the minimum age for the driving of motor cycles.

I welcome the power being taken by the Minister to put this into effect if recommended so to do by the Road Safety Committee. I repeat that I hope its inquiry will be regarded as a matter of urgency, and that before long the House will be informed of its recommendations.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I want to express gratitude to the Minister for introducing this new Clause. At an earlier stage of the Bill I introduced a rather more specific Clause because, according to Metropolitan Police reports, there has been a substantial increase in the number of accidents involving motor cyclists.

I thought that this matter could be dealt with in a specific way, but the Minister has referred it to the Road Safety Committee which has found that it is not nearly as simple as I thought. The problems which arise when one investigates the accidents in which motor cyclists are involved are unexpected and unusual. Therefore, I thank the Minister for introducing this new Clause, which will give my right hon. Friend power to bring the recommendations of that Committee into effect as soon as it has reported.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

I want to put what I think is a small but practical point to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. Suppose that the Departmental Committee on Road Safety suggests at some future date that the way to deal with this problem is to allow driving licences to be granted at the age of 16 but recommends that between the ages of 16 and 18 any applicant for a licence must pass a special and stricter test than would be given to anyone above the age of 18. Is there anything in the Bill that would prevent the Minister from accepting such a suggestion, or could it be suggested under this proposed Clause and the other parts of the Bill that might be affected?

Mr. Molson

The answer is that under this Clause it is only possible to raise the age.

Mr. Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

One or two of the comments made in connection with this new Clause seemed to infer that it was designed primarily to give power to the Minister to give legal force to such recommendations as may emerge from the Departmental Committee on Road Safety. I hope that we shall not prejudge the verdict of that Committee or its findings. We do not know what they will be, and if, for want of evidence of greater accidents among the young riders of motor cycles, the Committee were disinclined to increase the age limit at which the licence is granted, I for one would still remain impressed with the view that an increase ought to be made.

I agree with the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) that motor cycles, in terms of road accidents, are more dangerous than motor cars. Therefore, whatever the Road Safety Committee recommends, and whatever may be the statistics of accidents for young and old, I hope we shall keep to that point and leave to the consideration of the Committee any distinctions between small, not dangerous types of motor cycles and the bigger ones, which evidently is thought by the Minister to be relevant to this issue.

I hope that we shall be completely free to consider the Statutory Instrument which, presumably, will follow from the powers now taken to deal with the recommendations of that Committee when they come forward.

Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)

I, too, welcome this new Clause, but two things should be remembered when motor cyclists are criticised. The first is that the proportion of motor cycle accidents to the total number of motor cyclists is substantially less than it was before the war, not more, as is often stated.

Secondly, in reply to a recent Parliamentary Question, it was indicated that although, unfortunately, many motor cyclists succeed in eliminating themselves, the numbers of the general public who are killed by motor cyclists is very much smaller than the corresponding numbers killed by motor cars, even allowing for the different numbers of vehicles licensed.

Clause added to the Bill.