HC Deb 29 January 1960 vol 616 cc593-9
Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

Mr. George Darling.

Mr. George Darling (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

In the time that is available it would be wrong of me to proceed with the Motion which stands in my name. I do not know whether I shall be in order in just making an appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. The hon. Member cannot make a speech if he is not moving the Motion.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Darling

I beg to move, That this House urges Her Majesty's Government to recommend the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into the causes of road accidents and to consider all practical measures that will lead to greater safety on the roads, for traffic users and pedestrians, and to a progressive reduction in the appalling toll of deaths and injuries arising from such accidents. As we cannot develop the arguments in support of the Motion, I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to bear in mind that for some time we have not had a wide debate on all the proposals, ideas and suggestions which ought to be brought forward from every quarter to reduce the number of road accidents, the deaths, the injuries and the carnage which occur to road users in this country. Unless special arrangements can be made in the near future to discuss this matter either inside or outside the House, it will be extremely difficult to focus public attention upon this great problem, which is one of the biggest blots on our civilisation.

Although I cannot at this stage proceed to develop at any length the arguments for the appointment of a Royal Commission on this subject, I can refer to two of them. First, at some time in the near future the present Road Traffic Acts will have to be reviewed and possibly a consolidation Measure introduced. Secondly, in considering this difficult problem of how to reduce the carnage on the roads, it will be necessary to bring into our discussions everybody who has ideas and suggestions to offer. Many people who have interested themselves in the problems of road safety might have practical proposals to bring forward. They cannot very well bring them forward to the Ministry as it now operates but they could bring them forward to the Royal Commission.

If such a Royal Commission were set up it ought not to prevent the Ministry from going ahead with its own ideas. We know that there are many ideas and suggestions inside the Ministry on the improvement of road safety. The Minister himself has brought some forward, such as the Pink Zone for London. Proposals are to be introduced for a force of what we might call traffic police or road wardens. These were ideas which were canvassed at the time when the last Road Traffic Act was passing through the House. Other proposals which were embodied in that Act, such as the compulsory testing of vehicles, have not yet been carried into force. All these ideas are there. We should proceed with them much more rapidly than we have proceeded since the Road Traffic Act was passed. There has been far too much delay in bringing into operation the present legislation or the powers conferred upon the Minister to introduce legislation. The setting up of a Royal Commission completely to review the situation again should not be a limiting factor. It should not prevent the Minister going ahead with ideas which he may have or introducing regulations under existing legislation. The whole attention of the Government must be concentrated on the problem. If the Royal Commission met in public it would help to create public interest in one of the greatest social problems of our time.

The figures are frightening. We have now reached the situation where 7,000 people are killed and 300,000 injured on the roads each year. It is as if the whole population of a city like Bradford—men, women and children—was hit by some disaster such as an earthquake or fire. If the casualties occurred all in one spot at one time, the conscience of the nation would be aroused. We should then do something about it and many suggestions would be advanced and considered to prevent such a disaster happening again if it could be prevented. Because road casualties are spread over the year and all over the country the public conscience is not aroused as it should be. The setting up of a Royal Commission is only one suggestion which would help to make the people aware that a great deal must be done to stop the awful carnage on the roads.

Standing Orders have rather prevented me doing what I wanted to do, namely, to ask the Minister if he could give us an opportunity to discuss such matters as these more frequently in the House or at least to discuss a proposal for setting up a Royal Commission. I had intended to ask if we could have debates covering the whole aspect of road safety instead of having a series of limited discussions on certain proposals. Even such a small opportunity as this should not be wasted. We should be talking all the time at every opportunity presented to us, in the House and in the country, to make people aware that this grave social problem must be dealt with. It calls for attention and action on the part of everyone in the community.

3.50 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I beg to second the Motion.

I am sorry that there is not an adequate opportunity to develop this subject properly today, because it is one which bristles with questions needing to be answered. That was brought home to me forcibly the other evening when I was sitting at home at half-past eight, just about to listen to "Any Questions." There was a sudden crash outside my front gate. It was an accident on a clear night and on a clear road with no traffic about. A cattle dealer ran into a tree at the side of the road. It took about two hours to clear up the mess. It was brought home to me forcibly that the accident would cost several hundred pounds in nursing fees, hospital fees and clearing up the vehicle. Such accidents happen every two minutes of the day, twenty-four hours of the day, every day of the week the whole year through.

When one sees that kind of thing one should ask oneself whether the average driver is capable of controlling his vehicle in all states of weather and road. I have taken a great interest in the formation of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, which runs a second driving test, or super test, on a voluntary basis. No fewer than 26,000 people have applied for the test and taken it. Presumably they are among the best motorists in the country. Only 50 per cent. of those 26,000 have passed what is a comparatively simple test. If that is the standard of driving among our best motorists I shudder to think what the standard of driving is among some of our average motorists.

One then asks oneself whether the enforcement of the law is sufficient at present and whether everyone convicted of dangerous or careless driving should not undergo a test. Some time ago I asked what was the average fine in Middlesex for careless driving. I was told that it was £4 or £5. As an act of careless driving could cause an accident, which, on the average, costs £600 to clear up—it might cost £6,000—it is derisory that magistrates should treat cases of careless driving with such lenience. I read the other day of an accident in which a motorist, unfortunately, ran over a cyclist who had been knocked down by a motor scooter in the middle of the road. It looked to be a most serious case of dangerous driving The motorist was convicted of dangerous driving and disqualified for a month. One asks again whether the enforcement of the law is sufficient.

Another topic which occurs to me is engineering. I am a great believer in engineering being partly able to cure some of the road accident problems. Is my view correct that perhaps 20 per cent. of lives could he saved if we cleared up every little corner, pinch point and bottleneck? I believe that we could do much for road safety along those lines. I should like such questions as those to be answered in an authoritative way.

It is said that drink is responsible for many of the accidents, but looking at the police reports in which the causes of 165,000 accidents are analysed it appears that, in the view of the police, only 1,100 accidents, or less than 1 per cent. of the total, were due to this cause. Is that or is that not a fair analysis of the situation?

For those reasons, I would like a Royal Commission to investigate these things on an authoritative basis. Of course, I do not think that all the accidents are due to drink or carelessness. In my constituency, over the Christmas weekend there were five accidents, in one of which one person was killed. Most of those involved were elderly people. It may be that elderly people are more careless in going into the road, and it may be that they ought to wear white armbands at night. All these things should be investigated. While we have not time now to examine tie question fully, I suggest to my hon. Friend that, at some time, a Royal Commission should examine all these very difficult problems.

3.56 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) will accept my assurance that I sympathise very deeply with him in his situation this afternoon. By the Standing Order, he had only twenty minutes in which to move his Motion, to leave time for his seconder and, if possible, to get a reply from this Dispatch Box. I apologise to him, therefore, for the fact that what I have to say must necessarily be truncated.

I also have very much sympathy with him in his obvious desire, in which we all share, to see something done as soon as possible to put an end to, if we can, or to slow up, this appalling problem of road accidents. Naturally, I have to address myself to the Motion now before the House. I would have preferred to have elaborated at some length the various things that we are already doing, or are trying to do, and have been trying to do for a long time, to put an end to road accidents, but I am afraid that time does not permit that, and I must deal as briefly and as clearly as I can with his point about the Royal Commission.

I must tell the House—and it has already been said in answer to Parliamentary Questions—that we are not convinced at present that the appointment of a Royal Commission would necessarily be the right or the best way to go about this matter. I understood perfectly well what the hon. Gentleman had in mind. He felt that if a Royal Commission could be appointed it would act as a kind of focus of opinions as to what could be done about road accidents, and that thereby the public conscience could be aroused.

I would remind him and the House that there already exists a very high-powered and intelligent body—apart from its chairman—to look into these things. It is the Departmental Committee on Road Safety of which I am, at the moment, ex-officio, chairman. This Committee has been in existence for a good many years, and it provides a first, class forum for all practical ideas about road safety to be deployed, to be debated, to be argued about and hammered into some sort of practical form—

Mr. Darling

But not in public.

Mr. Hay

I will deal with that point in a moment.

The Committee certainly brings together an enormous amount of expertise in this subject. I cannot go through the list of members, but all the the organisations concerned with road traffic and road safety are represented by some very notable people. The hon. Member says that it would be better if this were done in public. I would certainly like to look at that. Since I have been ex-officio chairman, which has been during the last two or three months only, I have wondered whether it would be possible, with the agreement of the Committee and of my right hon. Friend, for something to be done to bring that body more into the open; to enable it, perhaps, to conduct its proceedings in somewhat greater publicity than is possible at the moment, and, possibly, to have its status upgraded. As I say, I should like to think about that, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that as being some answer to his point.

I am quite convinced that unless and until we bring home to the public as a whole the fact that accidents are mainly due to lack of care and to thoughtlessness—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.