HC Deb 07 July 1961 vol 643 cc1972-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

4.1 p.m.

Mr. J. Langford-Holt (Shrewsbury)

On 8th February, 1957, new Traffic Signs Regulations were laid before this House. It was my inclination at that time to pray against those Regulations, but, in view of the fact that they were dealt with rather late at night, I did not do so. I thought at that time, and still think, that those Regulations are bad. They are always paraded as being a step forward in road traffic signs, but in fact they give official sanction to designs which in some cases are more than fifty years old. I well remember seeing some of them when I used to drive with my father in a pony trap thirty years ago. The majority of them date back to a time before the first autobahn was built in Germany in 1929.

Road signs are divided into two main categories, first, signposts and direction signs and, secondly, signs giving orders and warning. I shall deal briefly with the first category, signposts and direction signs. I do so briefly, because there is not in this category much international uniformity, nor indeed is there a great deal of uniformity in this country either. The requirements of signposts and direction signs are quite simple. First, there is the requirement of simplicity itself. Secondly, there is the requirement of the maximum use of space on the board for the giving of the direction and, lastly, the necessity of having as good a visibility of the signs as possible.

How do our signs in this country match up to that? As to simplicity, one has only to look at the Regulations to see how far short of that requirement we fall. As to maximum use of space, how can we say that we are properly using the space on a signpost board when the board is 6 ft. by 4 ft. and we put on it lettering 3 ins. high? How can we say the same when we have lettering 3 ins. high on board 8 ft. high and 2 ft. wide? This is just nonsense. On the third point about visibility, how is it possible for anyone to read a sign at night when it has 2½-in. lettering, the signpost is pointing in the same direction as one is going and one has to crane one's neck to the left or the right, thus taking one's eyes off the road to read what is written on it?

The second category is, I think, probably more important; that is, signs which give orders or warning. There are many more than two alternative solutions which may be used, but I think that we are driven either to using our own system as we do at the moment or to accepting, in whole or in part, the agreement which was reached at the United Nations Conference in 1949. I wish to confine myself to the differences between these two systems.

What are the requirements of signs giving orders or warnings? I think that the first requirement is brevity and conciseness. The less brief and concise a sign is the longer the eye of the driver has to remain on the sign and not on the road. I believe that the second requirement is clarity in order to make the sign visible much earlier than it otherwise would be. The third requirement is maximum uniformity with the minimum amount of duplication.

I believe that the first essential of brevity is to cut out lettering on traffic signs, especially on danger signs. It will be noted that in the 1949 conference protocol there are no letters on the signs except those which denote speeds in speed restriction signs and distances concerning the width and height of bridges. In our Regulations we have road signs with eight letters in some cases on the sign, in some cases 9, 12, 15, 18 letters, and in one case 26 letters. Why do we in this country have to be the only country in Europe which insists on a sign with a red triangle and then, a foot or so below it, the rest of the story so that the eye has to travel all the way down the signpost before one knows what it is all about? Every other country except the United Kingdom has the instructions inside the triangle or circle, thus keeping the eye on one point only. The wandering eye is infinitely less receptive than the fixed eye.

What I am saying sticks out a mile when one looks at the book of international road signs produced by the American Automobile Association. In all cases the pictorial signs are concentrated in one place, whereas ours look rather like a hanging banner down the side of a lamp-post.

With regard to clarity, I come back to the old argument of diagrams versus lettering. Pictures or diagrams on road signs are clearer and more easily understood. There is the Continental road sign indicating road works, which has the silhouette of a man digging with a pile of earth beside him. In this country we have several signs indicating the presence of road works. One says "Road Works", another says "Road Works Ahead" and there is one which refers to wet tar. All these are in four-inch letters. This goes back to the point that I made earlier about the necessity of making the letters larger.

Then there are the one hundred and one other signs on our roads which are thought up by every contractor who digs a road. Why cannot we put in a clause in each contract to the effect that the signs which they exhibit should conform to the road sign requirements of the country?

Take the sign which says "No Right Turn", with the word "right" written in three-inch letters. The Highway Code is fond of making clear how long it takes a car to pull up at a certain speed. How long does it take a person to realise from a sign with three-inch lettering whether he should turn right or left when perhaps the sun is behind the signpost, and he is travelling at 30 to 40 miles an hour? Contrast it with the European sign with the red line going through it which is understandable instinctively. One does not have to read it in order to understand it. It is worth noting that the motoring organisations of this country have been in favour of these pictorial signs for the last five years.

I turn to the question of uniformity and duplication.

The public must get used to and know the minimum number of signs, but in the United Kingdom under our Regulations we have eleven versions of the "No Entry" sign, we have eighteen ways of saying that the motorist must not turn right or turn left and we have seven versions of signs for public lavatories.

What is the Government's policy in all this? I have been turning up the statements from the Government Front Bench in this House and in another place to see exactly what the Government have said over the years, and it is a fascinating story. In November, 1955, the present Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, then Minister of Transport, said: The regulations set out comprehensively our present system, with a number of important changes, some of which are designed to bring us closer to Continental practice. He added: I am inclined to think that, in most matters, our practice is better than that in foreign countries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd November, 1955; Vol. 545, c. 1022.] On 6th February, 1957, Lord Mancroft, then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, said in another place: New traffic signs regulations will be laid before Parliament on Friday this week. They will not alter the general character of the present system, but…some of the changes incorporate ideas derived from Continental practice, as contained in what is known as the European Protocol. That is the document which I have been discussing. He continued: …but efforts to secure an international code a universal application have been unsuccessful. We have an agreement here, but we have refused to sign it. Lord Mancroft also said: I think that, so far as we have gone, we have come to an effective compromise…".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 6th February, 1957; Vol. 201, c. 533–4.] In answer to me in this House my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent), then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, said: …broadly…we are following our established practice, our own system, and we think that on balance that is to the general benefit"—;[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th June, 1957; Vol. 571, c. 1236.] What progress has been made since then? It goes forward with a series of statements which are confusing and ineffective. But I will not weary the House with them. My hon. Friend need not worry too much about being quoted in future debates because recently—at last—the Minister of Transport said on 30th November: I am at present considering whether a general review of our traffic signs is needed." —[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th November, 1960; Vol. 631. c. 53.] Seven months later he said: I am considering whether we should have a general review of signs on other roads. On the same day he said: I am considering seriously whether we should have a similar enquiry into all our signs."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st June, 1961; Vol. 642, c. 1449–50.] This is the greatest act of contemplation since Confucius. It has been going on for seven months.

I think that I know all the arguments which can be adduced against taking any action and against following the Continental pattern. The first is that there is a danger of another committee. I hope that we do not have that. Everybody who knows anything about road signs is quite clear on the subject—except the Ministry of Transport. In my researches I have found that for every sign they have in Europe, we have about five in this country showing the same thing.

Who signed the protocol in 1949? This is interesting. Bearing in mind the Six and the Seven and the Common Market, it is interesting to find that it was signed by Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Holland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Who were the progressive nations in road work who did not sign? With Britain, there were Finland, Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

The greatest argument will be that it costs a lot of money to make this change. But I am not arguing, nor has anybody ever argued, that we should renew all our road signs at once. All I say is that the Ministry of Transport should state, "This is the pattern to which our signs will conform, as and when they are renewed." I prefer the protocol pattern. From the very first day we shall have a reduction, continuing day by day, in the number of signs in this country, and day by day they will become clearer and less of a menace to safety on our roads.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) has raised this question because, as both he and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary know, I have been pursuing it for some years. As I, too, am anxious to hear the Minister's reply, I shall be brief. I wish to stress how urgent the problem is becoming because of the growing motoring traffic between this country and the Continent, which we should all encourage.

I give the Ministry high marks for what it has done concerning the directional signs on the new motorways. It is on the other main roads throughout the country that it is becoming urgent and essential to get harmony between our signs and those on the Continent. For the life of me, I am quite unable to understand why more progress has not been made towards uniformity in the last few years.

As regards the signs giving orders and warnings, in the interests of safety, of comfort, of convenience and, I might say, of the enjoyment of the motorist, the Minister should get going on this subject. He must know how confusing it is to go from one country to another, to see the different signs and to have to puzzle out exactly what they mean. The case has been well stated, the Minister already has it in mind and I anxiously await to hear what he has to tell us about it.

4.17 p.m.

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

In view of the vigour of the language in which my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury (Mr. Langford-Holt) introduced this subject this afternoon, it may seem odd if I express my appreciation to him for having done so. I say quite genuinely, however, that I welcome the opportunity of saying a word about our policy on road signs.

We receive a great many complaints in the Ministry of Transport from time to time on all manner of subjects. Certainly, the subject of road signs is a frequent cause of complaint. Sometimes, the complaint comes from distinguished sources with whom delicacy and even the constitutional properties make it difficult to argue.

Of recent years, however, we have discovered that the complaints have centred round two topics. The first is the inadequacy and confusion which our direction signs are alleged to show in directing traffic from one part of the country to another. The second is the desirability, to which my hon. Friend has referred, of assimilating our traffic signs to those of the pattern used on the Continent.

Concerning the first of these topics—the direction signs—I must point out to the House, as hon. Members probably know. that except on the trunk roads, where my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is the highway authority, the local authorities are, broadly speaking, responsible for the installation and maintenance of signs. The basic design of direction signs, however, dates from as far back as 1933, when traffic conditions were entirely different to what they are now.

There is no doubt that the experience which we have had since then shows that the lettering which is used is probably rather too small, as my hon. Friend said, and that the design itself may need changing. In addition, I must express the view, which is frequently put and in which there may be a germ of truth, that we are inclined to give too great prominence to route numbers at the expense of place names.

We are looking closely into the matter of direction signs. We now have the advantage, as the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) said, of experience with motorway signs. I should like to express the appreciation of my right hon. Friend and, I am sure, of the House as a whole to Sir Colin Anderson and his committee for the great deal of work which they have done on This subject. The committee has recently reported, its report is now in the hands of the printer and I hope that it will be published fairly soon.

There has been general praise for the motorway signs, and we have, in fact, gone on from those to provide similar signs on some of the new by-passes, using the same basic pattern as that of the motorway signs but having signs a little smaller and using a green rather than a blue background. We have, from our recent experience of the motorways and investigations which have been made, learned a very great deal, and we are now considering what are the next steps we ought to take both for trunk roads and classified roads.

Now I come to the question of traffic signs proper, which was the main substance of my hon. Friend's criticisms, land, in particular, to say something about his suggestion that we should adopt the continental pattern of traffic signs. I think that he appreciates—I must emphasise it—that to do this would be a very big undertaking. It can easily be said that we in the Ministry must be bemused or mesmerised by the cost of this undertaking, but it would undoubtedly run into some millions of pounds. I have not got a definite estimate of what it would cost, but it would certainly be a very substantial sum.

I am coming to the suggestion which my hon. Friend put, and which was supported by the hon. Member for Accrington, that what we should do is to take a decision, and when we have done that, as signs need to be replaced or removed, we should introduce the continental signs. I would point out that if we make a change it would obviously have to be a gradual process. The job would have to be completed over a very considerable period, and as far as I can see there is very little between my hon. Friend and myself except the point that we ought now to make a clear decision to change over to the continental pattern, the point to which I should now like to come.

There are several considerations one has to have in mind at once. The first is this. What are the purposes of traffic signs? There are four. They are to prohibit, to warn, to advise, and to inform. All of these are described in the Highway Code, and certain advice and information is given in the Highway Code as to what individual signs mean and what the driver or pedestrian must do when he meets them.

Although uniformity in traffic signs is very greatly to be desired—I admit this freely—I think that clarity in signing is equally important, if not more so. I do not mean by that that the continental signs are not clear. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that they are very clear, or rather, that the great majority are. I think that there is a little doubt about the sign which he mentioned, which prohibits the right turn or left turn, but I will not argue about that. There is a very great deal of clarity in the continental signs, but it has always been our policy hitherto that the symbols which are based on the continental pattern or signs should be supplemented in the interest of clarity by words.

There is another difference to which my hon. Friend drew attention. It is that on the Continent the circle or triangle which is the background to the sign contains the symbol inside it, whereas here it has been our practice in the past to place the circle or triangle above the symbol. The only reason why we have chosen to do that in the past has been that we felt that it would have greater impact to see a bigger sign, but this, as I say, is a story which goes back for many years, and it may well be that we shall have to look at this again.

We have not finally made up our minds on this matter. I regret that I am not in a position to make a definite and clear statement today on what my right hon. Friend's intentions are, but I should like to put before the House some considerations which ought to be borne in mind when thinking about this subject. These are not arguments for or against change, but things which one must understand and appreciate before one comes to a conscious and sensible decision.

The first point is whether the continental system of traffic signs would necessarily be the best for this country. We have to remember that we have on our very complex road network some of the highest traffic volumes in the world. The country to which our traffic problems most approximate is not any of the countries on the Continent, but the United States. Therefore, it is at least for consideration whether we ought not to draw more on United States experience and practice in deciding whether to make a change in any of the road signs rather than on continental experience.

There is, secondly, the point about tourists to which the hon. Member for Accrington referred. I would remind him that at the moment the majority of tourists in the country come from the United States and Commonwealth countries and in none of those places is the continental pattern of signs used.

Mr. H. Hynd

We can expect more and more tourists from the Continent in future.

Mr. Hay

That may well be, but I am pointing out the present situation.

There is already a very substantial degree of assimilation of continental patterns of signs in our own system. For example, we make a great deal of use of symbols which are already substantially the same as those used in continental countries—for the double bend, for children crossing the road, for where the road narrows, and for level crossings. Even the railway engine which we have on our railway crossing sign goes in the same direction as that in the continental pattern.

We have signs identical with those on the Continent for speed limits, and exactly the same signs for parking places. As I have already said, the motorway signs very largely follow continental practice and the double white line system now introduced and widely used in this country is of continental origin.

About the future, I do not want my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury or any other hon. Member to imagine that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is simply sitting back and is not concerned about it at all. As he said in reply to the hon. Member for Accrington on 21st June, he is considering a general review of signs on all-purpose roads in the light of our successful motorway signs.

If I may reply to the criticism of the delay there has been in making a decision, we have been awaiting the report of the Colin Anderson Committee. This is one of the reasons why we have been held up a little in coming to a final decision. I hope that it will be possible for my right hon. Friend to make an early announcement about the conclusions he has reached on the desirability of a review of this kind. The Road Research Laboratory is about to start on a comprehensive experiment to compare the efficiency of the United Kingdom system of traffic signs with those used abroad, on the Continent, in the United States, and in other parts of the world. This will be a thorough-going scientific examination which one needs before one comes to a final conclusion on whether our pattern should be changed completely, with all the expense that that involves.

I hope that what I have said shows the House that there are more features in this matter than perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury had time to mention. We in the Ministry are by no means complacent about it. We know that there are defects and inconsistencies in our signs system. We are by no means satisfied with the present situation, but we want the best solution we can obtain, having regard, first, to the substantial cost of wholesale changes which might well be necessary and, secondly, to the pattern and nature of traffic and road conditions. That is the framework within which we have to work. I hope that, taking all these things into account, the House will consider that our approach is reasonable.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.