HC Deb 17 April 1959 vol 603 cc1369-73

3.48 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That this House, deeply conscious of the human tragedy that lies behind the continuing high level of road accidents, regrets that the Road Traffic Act, 1956, has not had the impact in reducing such accidents as had been hoped and pledges its support for intensified efforts to this end. I am grateful to whatever providence watches over our Ballot for winning second place today, but I am not quite so grateful to the providence which has left us such a very short time to discuss what is, after all, one of the most serious and tragic problems which confronts this country today. Indeed, in a way, it is almost an insult to those who have suffered and been bereaved through road accidents that we should be forced by the rules of order to dismiss this subject in so very brief a time.

After consultation with my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, I think that the best plan is for me to give, very shortly, a summarised version of the remarks which I proposed to make and to allow a little time for the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell), who has kindly agreed to second the Motion. This means that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will forgo the opportunity, which 1 know he wished to take, to reply to the debate, but we all hope that he will have an opportunity at a later stage to revert to the matter.

Road accidents have been a major issue for as long as most of us remember, certainly for thirty years. They present a problem which is marked not only by its gravity, but also by its complexity and, unfortunately, the reluctance which so many people feel in having to face it at all. The gravity of the problem is sufficiently advertised by the terrible figures and I do not intend to sicken the House by repeating them now. As I have said, however, people in general are reluctant to face the issue. They prefer to think about something else. Safety campaigns, meritorious though they are, have a limited fleeting effect, and so likewise do warning signs, even if they are as effective as the famous sign of the widow which went out to the country some years ago.

Similarly, the experts and those responsible for these matters too often take refuge in soft and easy irrelevancies. We are told that more people are killed in accidents in the home. That may be true, but two blacks do not make one white. We are told that the casualties per licensed vehicle are going down— and so they ought to be with all the attention that is paid to brakes, lighting, road surfaces, and so on. We are told that the roads are not up to modern traffic. Of course they are not, and they never will be up to modern traffic. That is not to say that we are not right to spend as much money as we can afford to improve them. At any given moment, however, people who use the roads must take them as they find them or else they had better stay at home.

The complexity of the problem, and also of the law which relates to it, has resulted, and does result, in the most diverse and conflicting views being held, often with passionate intensity, by people who describe themselves as well-informed and thinking people. For example, we are often told that it is the courts that are to blame. We are told that magistrates and juries, being human— and also, incidentally, often being motorists as well. — fail to make use of the powers which Parliament has given them. Other people will say that it is not so much the courts that are at fault as the police. It is often asserted that the police have neither the time nor the training to act as efficient prosecuting authorities and that, as often as not, the wrong man is placed in the dock and the truly guilty party appears merely as a witness for the prosecution.

We are all familiar with people who single out one special class of road user as the nigger in the woopile. Pedestrians, cyclists, slow drivers, fast drivers and people who park their cars badly and in thoughtless places, all have been singled out in turn as the prime cause of accidents. Alternatively, it is often argued that one habit or defect is the major cause— for example, drink, smoking or listening to the radio while driving, youth or old age, emotional instability or simply plain inability to concentrate.

I could go on with such examples for the remainder of the time at my disposal, and a great deal longer, but from this diversity of views one might conclude that there would be a strong case for appointing a Royal Commission to investigate road accidents as a whole. A great deal of preparatory work would, however, be necessary before a Commission could arrive at any useful conclusions. Secondly, we would need to be clear about what the roads are for.

If safety was the sole consideration, we could go back to the man with the red flag and all would be well. Most people, however, regard roads as highways and say that their object is to be able to drive along them and to get from A to B as fast as possible consistent with safety.

If one accepts that, there is no room on the roads for the man who ambles along on the crown of the road, pointing out objects of historic interest to his admiring passengers, or for the young fellow with a new sports car who first tries out its paces on the road and then parks by the wayside to cuddle his girl friend. If we take that as our object, there is room on the roads only for those who are bent on getting from one place to another and who are prepared to give their undivided attention to that process.

On the other hand, there are people who say that that is not at all true and that the roads have been made to run through beauty spots and are meant for people to enjoy the fresh air, recreation, and so on. There are yet others who will tell us that the main object of a road is to enable them to get to their own places of business and to enable other people to get to their shops, and there are others who will say that it is to enable the 50-ton yachts they build to be transported to the sea which is fifty miles away.

I therefore think that one of the first things we should do is to make up our minds what should be the prime purpose of any given road. It may well be that we ought to reclassify the roads as highways, commercial thoroughfares, and drives, and it may well be that differing rules could usefully be applied to each class.

A much more important prerequisite to any serious inquiry is to gain more information about the causes of these accidents. I should like to suggest to the Government that it is a mistake to link the proceedings of an inquiry into a road accident directly and exclusively with possible criminal proceedings to follow. That prevents all sorts of relevant matters from being brought up, because witnesses may be placed in jeopardy and must be safeguarded.

I would invite the attention of the House to the alternative procedure which follows an accident to a warship or a military aircraft. It is a confidential inquiry in which the witnesses are not on oath, of which the proceedings are not published, of which the findings are not divulged, and in which everyone giving evidence knows that nothing he says can subsequently be made use of in criminal proceedings. In other words, the object of the inquiry is to find out the facts, and not to apportion blame. If that procedure could be followed in inquiring into 2,000 sample accidents—and, goodness knows, we should not have to wait very long before we had 2,000 sample accidents to inquire into—the facts could be analysed and a good deal of useful in formation could be derived.

All these things will take time, and in the meanwhile I believe that there are certain things which could be done with advantage and about which there can be no serious doubt. I have time to mention only one. The need for better driving is recognised and indisputable, and yet so far, I think I am right in saying, only the Institute of Advanced Motorists has done anything practical to meet the need. I must declare an interest. I am proud to have served on the Council of the Institute— as a rather ineffective member, I must admit— since the Institute was formed. I am disappointed that only about 10,000 people have passed the advanced test. I know I speak, though, for the whole Institute in saying how grateful we are to my right hon. Friend the Minister and his Department for their friendly interest and help. Nevertheless, I wish that some more positive incentives could be given people to pass that test.

My time is up, if I am to allow time for the seconder of my Motion, and therefore, I simply conclude by saying that if these few minutes do something to bring the importance of this problem to the notice of the public the debate will not have been in vain.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

I beg to second the Motion.

I was at Leeds United football ground the other week when I saw the players come out on to the field wearing black arm bands. That was because a very distinguished footballer, Jeff Hall, had died of polio. Of course, that news went through the land, and there was so much fright that people are lining up every lunchtime to have a couple of jabs to stop themselves from suffering the fate of the lamented Jeff Hall, but only 176 people died of polio last year.

Then, of course, there is anxiety about other things. We have had many debates here about Cyprus, where 400 people were killed in about four years. This House has gone into hysterics from time to time on the subject. Bigger numbers of people up and down the country have gone into hysterics over the nuclear deterrent and the possible fall-out of radioactive materials, which have not materialised at all up to now, and people march in their thousands to and from Aldermaston to pray against the fate they fear may come. I regret it. I look upon this as merely another form of mass hysteria. But these are the sorts of things which happen year after year. We see these things and we see that there is in them an element of drama which stirs people.

But we are dealing now with 5,970 people killed on our roads last year, a degree of carnage which is an absolute disgrace and shame—