HC Deb 10 April 1962 vol 657 cc1274-86

9.57 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Pedestrian Crossings (Push Button Control) Regulations, 1962 (S.I., 1962, No. 425), dated 26th February, 1962, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6th March, be annulled. These Regulations are perhaps better known as the panda crossing Regulations. I want to make it clear at once that this Prayer is no condemnation of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport for introducing this experiment in pedestrian safety. I am as anxious as I am sure is the Minister that this experiment should be given a full trial and that as much public explanation of it as is possible should be given, and unless my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary says something outrageous I shall not invite the House to divide on this Motion. But I think that I am justified in using this form of Parliamentary procedure to extract more explanation than has been given so far of these panda crossings. The newspapers have gone as far as to call the introduction of these crossings "Panda-monium," and the House will agree that the public ought to be a little better informed of the nature of the experiment and of the operation of the Regulations.

The background to the Regulations is that although pedestrians are involved in only one-fifth of the personal injury accidents which occur on the roads, they comprise two-fifths of those killed in such accidents. In figures referring to those of 1961, that means that no fewer than 54 pedestrians are killed every week on the roads, which is about seven or eight a day. The great majority of those pedestrians who are killed on the roads every day are killed while crossing the roads, and my right hon. Friend was right when he said recently that there was a growing need for the provision of safe crossing places for pedestrians. The question before the House on these Regulations is whether these panda crossings are safe crossing places or at least are safer than the present type of crossing.

I do not think that we can claim that crossings of the present type are really safe. No fewer than 30 people a week are killed or injured on the existing crossings. As between the different types of existing crossing, excluding those which axe police controlled, on which the casualties are quite insignificant, it can be said that it is 150 per cent. safer on a press-button light-controlled crossing than it is on an ordinary zebra crossing. The reason for the greater safety on the light-controlled crossing is obvious; it gives a warning that the pedestrian intends to exercise his rights, whereas on the zebra crossing the pedestrian has no rights whatever until he takes the plunge and steps on to the crossing.

The panda crossing under these Regulations is something of a combination of the two. It gets one safely on to the crossing by stopping the traffic, and then, by releasing the traffic, it allows the zebra rules to apply, if I may so call them—that is to say, the motorist must give the pedestrian precedence.

In case any hon. Members have not tried the panda crossings, I will endeavour to explain how they work, and as you say on other occasions, Mr. Speaker, for the sake of greater accuracy I have provided myself with a stop watch. Perhaps I should offer acknowledgement to Messrs. H. Samuel Ltd. on the other side of Bridge Street who loaned me this stop watch this afternoon, entirely free of charge.

With the aid of this stop watch I will explain to the House how the panda crossings work. The pedestrian who wishes to cross, presses the button—and for the period of time which I will show on the stop watch the sign "Wait" lights up on the beacon which is on the pole by the crossing. The House may be a little shaken by the fact that that period of time which I indicated on the stop watch is so short. During that short period of time an amber light is pulsating towards the motorist approaching the crossing. When the motorist sees the amber light start to pulsate like that he has the period of time which I will now demonstrate on the stop watch in which to draw up at the crossing. Hon. Members will observe that five seconds, which is the period involved, is a very short period of time.

The next phase in the crossing is that the pedestrian sees in front of him the sign, as it were on the opposite bank. "Cross". At the same moment to the motorist a red light pulsates. The pedestrian, having seen the sign "Cross" light up in front of him, then has the period of time which I will now demonstrate on the stop watch during which the motorist is held up—merely five seconds on a 32 ft. road.

Up to that stage everything is fairly orderly. First, the pedestrian has the sign "Wait". He then sees the sign to cross, and he starts to cross. At the same time the motorist has an amber light which he understands to be a cautionary light, and he then has the red light which he understands to be "Stop". Up to that stage everything is fairly orderly—but then everything goes crazy. To the pedestrian this comfortingly illuminated invitation to cross, having fiendishly induced him on to the crossing, suddenly turns into a morse signaller with St. Vitus Dance getting wilder and wilder as he endeavours to finish his crossing. The motorist, too, is similarly presented with a bewitched light which flashes at him. I think it is enough to strike panic into the stoutest of hearts. Then, with frightening suddenness, all is dark. All this is extremely confusing both to the pedestrian and to the motorist.

I ask my hon. Friend: Why not have words instead of these flickering flashes? Let me give the process which I think would be reasonably understood by both the motorist and the pedestrian. The button is pressed and the pedestrian sees the sign "Wait" in front of him for five seconds. Then he sees the sign "Cross" showing from the other side of the road. I should have thought that ought to last for at least ten seconds to enable the pedestrian to get fairly well across the crossing. Then let it change to the word "Caution". Perhaps there could be another light there. At the same time, behind him on the pavement which he has left the "Wait" sign should light up again on the beacon pole to prevent other pedestrians getting on to the crossing at the last moment when there is insufficient time to cross. There is a series of words easily understood—"Wait", "Cross", and "Caution".

To the motorist the same phases would be pulsating. If one wishes, an amber light for five seconds would tell the motorist to pull up, a red light for ten seconds would tell him that he must not proceed across the crossing, and an amber light for some ten to fifteen seconds would allow him to proceed even though there may be a pedestrian on the crossing.

I ask my hon. Friend to ask the Minister to consider these three things. First, the timing of these lights under these Regulations, and particularly the timing of the all-red period. That does not need any alteration of the Regulations. Secondly—and this might need an amending Regulation—to use words rather than the flashing lights. It is really confusing to the ordinary road crosser on foot to have these lights flashing at him.

The third point I would ask him to consider is one that I have not mentioned yet. It is this. As I understand it, the principle of these panda crossings is that the pedestrian first stops the traffic and then starts to cross. While the pedestrian is still on the crossing, the traffic is then allowed to proceed—of course, giving precedence to the pedestrian. The traffic which is then allowed to proceed is not only the traffic which has been stationary but is also the traffic which is approaching the crossing and may be approaching at no slow speed The pedestrian on a panda crossing is put in jeopardy from overtaking traffic far more than on any other crossing.

If it were an offence for a car to overtake on approaching a pedestrian crossing, and if this law were enforced, I think the present danger which I see inherent in these Regulations would be greatly reduced. But in the absence of a prohibition against overtaking on approaching pedestrian crossings, I am very apprehensive about the effect of these panda crossings.

I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that when the Minister undertakes the critical examination of this panda experiment he will not be governed by any over-sensitive regard for what is called the flow of traffic, what I understand is something calculated to terrorise those on foot, but will have a very real regard—and here I think I can use the Minister's words—to the provision of safe crossing places for pedestrians.

10.10 p.m.

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

I am much obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) for tabling this Prayer tonight and my sense of obligation to him extended even further when he said in his opening remarks that he did not intend, unless I said something quite startling, to divide the House against us.

I welcome the opportunity of saying something about this new type of pedestrian crossing, which has not had a completely unanimous welcome, but which will—I hope that I shall carry the House with me by the time I have finished my remarks—have a great part to play in improving road safety.

I should like to begin by explaining why we have instituted the panda type crossing. Road safety is probably the most baffling, and certainly the most difficult, of all the jobs which fall to a Minister of Transport, and no aspect of road safety is more difficult than what the experts call the vehicle-pedestrian conflict. The House is probably aware that my right hon. Friend has set up a long-term study group to look into the whole question, among other things, of the physical separation of pedestrians from vehicles, but this, of course, could not easily be undertaken without a complete rebuilding of our cities.

In the meantime, and until that sort of solution can be implemented, we have to arrange that the carriageway of our roads has to be shared between vehicles and pedestrians on the same level, and the whole purpose of the pedestrian crossing is to assist the orderly sharing of road space at certain times.

I hope that, without getting too wildly out of order, the House will permit me to say a word about the other types of crossings that we have in this country, because it is impossible to understand why we have chosen the panda type crossing without understanding also the advantages and drawbacks of the other types.

Briefly, there are four other types of pedestrian crossings. The first is the police controlled crossing where there is a policeman on duty to hold up the traffic and then to hold up the pedestrians. This type of crossing is suitable where there is very heavy vehicle and pedestrian traffic, but it results in very substantial delay to the traffic. The second type is signal control at a junction. Here a stream of traffic is held up in the interests of another stream of traffic, but when it is held up pedestrians are enabled to cross. In some places, we have an all-red phase where all the traffic lights on the arms of the junction are showing red and that enables pedestrians to cross without difficulty. This again creates a substantial delay for traffic and is not universally suitable for every junction.

The third type of crossing is where we have installed traffic lights on a pedestrian crossing without there being a junction at that point. This, as my hon. Friend said, creates much greater safety for pedestrians but it has a number of disadvantages. The fact that traffic is stopped for a period often means that if only one person or very few people want to cross a lot of traffic may be held up for a substantial time. Often traffic is quite unnecessarily held up. Most of us who are motorists have had the experience at these crossings of the small boy who takes a fiendish delight in pressing the button and running away after bringing all the traffic to a halt. This is one of the disadvantages.

Finally, there is what we call in the Ministry the uncontrolled crossing, which lie public generally knows as the zebra crossing. The uncontrolled crossing was first instituted in 1935, and the zebra markings with illuminated flashing globes were brought in as recently as 1951. At the same time, the number of these crossings was reduced considerably. We have managed to maintain the number fairly constant ever since. We now have about 10,000 zebra crossings throughout the country. The essential feature of the zebra crossing as hon. Members know, is that on a crossing of this kind the pedestrian has priority. If he is on the crossing, he is entitled to precedence.

We install zebra crossings only where there is a reasonably continuous flow of traffic both vehicular and pedestrian throughout the day. We are often pressed to have more of them and we have to be rather brutal about saying "No", as hon. Members may know from their own experience, perhaps to their cost. The reason is simply that, if we allowed pedestrian crossings to proliferate to a large extent throughout the country, the standard of observance of the rules by drivers would undoubtedly fall dramatically.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby said, the accident rate for pedestrians on pedestrian crossings is rising. In 1959, there were i6£ per cent. more fatal and serious pedestrian accidents than in 1953, but the accident rate on zebra crossings alone rose in that period by no less than 42 per cent. It was in the light of this situation that we came to the conclusion that something fresh was needed.

The object of the panda crossing is to deal with that situation. First, we seek by this type of crossing to give the pedestrian a degree of protection by traffic lights, but to do that with the minimum of delay to traffic. As I have said, when there is a pedestrian crossing controlled by the orthodox three-colour traffic light, we find that in practice the traffic is held up for long periods, often quite unnecessarily. The first object of the panda crossing is to overcome that difficulty but, nevertheless, to control vehicles by a light.

The second object is to provide a crossing for two types of site. The first type is where pedestrian demand for a crossing is light or limited to certain comparatively short periods of the day. The second type is where the pedestrian demand is heavy but where vehicular traffic is light. That zebra crossing is not appropriate for these circumstances. It is in those two types of case that we are installing the panda crossing. As my hon. Friend said, this is being done on an experimental basis. The experiment will run for a year. We are monitoring and watching what is happening, and we shall modify the experiment as we go along.

The essential features of the panda crossing are those of a signal-controlled crossing with special aspects. The period during which vehicles must be halted in answer to the lights is kept as short as possible. As my hon. Friend said, this can be as short as five seconds. The object behind this comparatively short space of time is not simply to enable pedestrians to get across the crossing but to enable them to start to cross because the moment that they start to cross they obtain their right of precedence over the vehicular traffic. I do not know what HANSARD will have made of my hon. Friend's demonstrations with the stop watch. I wish to impress upon the House that these timings are flexible and we can and will alter them if experience shows that to be necessary.

Once the amber lights have started to operate, a vehicle may continue to go over the crossing provided that it is clear of pedestrians. If it is not clear of pedestrians, then a vehicle may proceed only if by so doing it does not hinder a pedestrian. The effect, therefore, is that there is greater flexibility for the vehicles. The vehicles are not brought to a stop for a long time as with the ordinary type of traffic light. A degree of flexibility is given to the driver so that he can proceed if the circumstances on the crossing in front of him are such as to enable him to do so in safety.

I shall not weary the House with a long description of how the crossings work because my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby has done that very graphically, and I could not find many, if any, faults in what he said. I should, however, like to say a word or two about the timing problem. My hon. Friend was somewhat critical of the comparatively short time we have instituted with the panda crossings, but it is important to understand that the whole of the panda installation is completely flexible with the object of meeting local circumstances. For instance, the length of the preliminary amber signal is varied according to the speed of the traffic on each road. If the traffic is restricted to 30 miles an hour that is, if the panda crossing is in a built-up area, the length will be four seconds. If the speed limit is 40 miles an hour, it will be five seconds. I repeat that the object is to enable the pedestrians to get on to the crossing and to claim precedence.

The length of time which the red light is shown to vehicles will also vary according to the width of the road. If the road is narrow, the red period for cars will be four seconds. If it is a wider road, it will be five or six seconds. The length of time of the flashing amber signal will depend on the intensity of pedestrian traffic at its peak. If this period is too long, there is a danger of a second wave of pedestrians being built up and attempting to cross too late, a point which my hon. Friend made and which I will look into because I have noticed this myself.

Finally, the vehicle period when no lights are on is varied in accordance with the maximum vehicle traffic. If this period is too long, pedestrians will become impatient and will not wait. Again, this is something which I have seen. The pedestrian presses the button and the "Wait" sign goes on, but the pedestrian does not wait. He or she plunges forward across the crossing imagining that all will be well.

A particular example is the crossing which no doubt hon. Members have seen at York Road, opposite Waterloo Station. At this site, where there is a very large amount of pedestrian traffic, the division of time between pedestrian and vehicles is more or less 50–50. At installations elsewhere, the division of time is nearly three to one in favour of vehicles. The time of the complete cycle from the beginning to the end varies at different sites from about 35 to 55 seconds. The more intense the competition between vehicles and pedestrians, the greater the need to keep the total cycle time as short as possible.

I should like to say something about our experience to date with these crossings. I emphasise that we have had little experience of them so far, and I hope that we shall not come to premature conclusions after what is in fact only eight days of panda crossings, because they were started, as the House will remember, on only Monday of last week. Undoubtedly the installation is more complicated than the zebra crossings, but we do not see any reason why it should not be understood in time. When it is, I think that it will pay us good dividends in terms of road safety.

Incidentally, panda crossings should not be judged solely or even mainly by the one in York Road. As I said, there is there an exceptional density of both pedestrian and vehicular traffic. However, the experiment which we are conducting covers a very wide range of sites and traffic conditions throughout the country and we need evidence about how the crossing works at all of them.

We have installed panda crossings at 45 sites in England and Wales. Five have been installed in Scotland, in Glasgow. Twenty-three of the sites in England and Wales are spread evenly to cover all sorts of traffic conditions. The other 22 are at Guildford, which has 12 of them, and at Lincoln, which has 10. In these two towns, all the zebra crossings have been converted to panda crossings.

Already, interesting results are appearing. At Lincoln, for example, it was formerly necessary for the police to control zebra crossings at peak times and on Fridays and Saturdays. As a result of the institution of the panda crossings, the police control has been withdrawn because it is unnecessary. Again, at Guildford, on a Saturday police control was needed on several crossings. It has been withdrawn because it has been found that the panda crossing renders this type of protection for the pedestrian unnecessary. Similarly, police control has been withdrawn from the crossing outside the Royal Grammar School at Guildford, where it was formerly necessary and is now considered to be quite unnecessary.

I spent a little time last weekend in Reading, which is near to my constituency, where three panda crossings are in operation. I noticed the tremendous difference compared with what one sees in York Road, Waterloo, because in Reading I found it extremely difficult to observe pedestrians and vehicles together at the crossing. Pedestrians had no trouble in crossing because there was not much traffic. The traffic had little difficulty in getting through the crossing because there were not many pedestrians. On the whole, the scheme is working there, too.

I should like next to say something about the observations that we are making. We are already starting to make detailed observations of the panda crossings and some rather interesting evidence has come forward. We have found, for instance, that about one driver out of every four does not seem to realise that he can move forward on the flashing amber signal if no pedestrians are crossing. We have also found that a very few pedestrians—less than 5 per cent.—still apparently think of the panda crossing as a zebra crossing and they try to cross when vehicles have precedence. Very often, we find that they simply do not observe the illuminated "Wait" sign. They press the button and walk straight forward.

We find that drivers are observing the panda crossings very much better than they do the zebra crossings. We did some interesting observations at Waterloo. I have already mentioned the panda crossing at York Road. Just round the corner, in Waterloo Bridge Road, there is a zebra crossing. We had both of these crossings watched and we found that there was a great diference between the number of violations of the regulations at the panda crossing and the number of violations at the zebra crossing just round the corner. During one peak hour, there were no less than 153 violations of the zebra regulations by motorists while, at the same time, the violations of the panda regulations round the corner were only sixteen. These are startling figures.

The maximum delay to drivers since the crossing at Waterloo Station became a panda crossing has been reduced from 120 seconds to only 30 seconds. The maximum delay to pedestrians at that crossing has been cut from 34 to 24 seconds. These are the maximum delays. The average delays do not at present show a great deal of difference.

If I may conclude this part of my remarks, as soon as the initial shakedown period is over—and I urge the House to give us a period in which the "bugs" can be ironed out and the scheme can get into proper working order—we shall bring into operation a comprehensive and systematic monitoring of all the panda crossings. At the same time, we shall get the views of local authorities, of the police and of other interested bodies. We shall hold a major review in five months' time to consider the results of all these studies so that, if necessary, new Regulations can be made at the end of half the year's experimental period.

We do not claim that the panda crossing is perfect. It is still essentially an experimental apparatus. We shall take into consideration with a completely open mind all the criticisms which we receive, some of which have been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby, and we shall certainly be prepared to make changes if we consider these necessary.

There are a number of things that, in particular, we will want to examine. First, there is already doubt whether the amount of flicker in the pulsating signals needs to be reduced to distinguished them more clearly from the flashing signals. Again, should we, perhaps, change the red signal to motorists so that it becomes a steadier light or has a lower rate of pulse than the present signal? Should the striped globes be taken off the standards or should they remain? Do we need, and would it be practicable, to provide a "wait" signal or even a "caution" signal as well as a "cross" signal at the far side of the road facing the pedestrian? Does the fact that the crossing is striped lead pedestrians to suppose, quite thoughtlessly, that they have permanent rights over vehicles regardless of the lights, as they do on zebra crossings? Are the relative times given to pedestrians and vehicles right? Do they need modification to suit actual traffic and pedestrian flows at each site? These are questions which have occurred to us. No doubt there will be others as time goes on.

However, we have today made one modification at the crossing at Waterloo, and it will be made throughout the country as quickly as we can. We are trying to make the distinction between the flashing and pulsating signals much clearer. The modification we are making to the apparatus reduces the amount of flicker both for the red and the amber signal. The effect is that the light will appear much more constant and much less distracting. The Waterloo crossing is the only one we have modified so far, but modification will be made progressively to all the crossings installed.

Mr. Arthur Holt (Bolton, West)

The hon. Gentleman has been very good in giving us a great deal of detail. I am sure that we are all in favour of the experiment and will follow it with great interest. But is there not a danger that if these panda crossings are successful there will be a down-grading in the eyes of the motorist of the ordinary zebra crossing?

Mr. Hay

That is one of the things which we shall, have to think about rather carefully. I do not think that it is likely to happen, for a reason which I will explain. We shall have to make it as clear as we possibly can—and we are doing a great deal of propaganda and publicity at the moment—that the circumstances in which the zebra crossings are installed are entirely different, as I have tried to show, from those in which panda crossings are installed. Both crossings give pedestrians equivalent rights when the pedestrians are on the crossing and in the case of the panda crossing have pressed the button and started the light signals working.

I do not think that there is any reason for the motorist in future to regard the zebra crossing as a poor relation of the panda crossing. Motorists will come to realise that the panda crossing is installed in circumstances where the zebra crossing is not necessary. If anything, I would expect motorists to look at the matter the other way round, namely to realise that the panda crossing is installed where pedestrian traffic is likely to be less heavy than where the zebra crossing is installed. But these are speculations and we shall have to see how matters work out.

I ask the House and the public generally not to come to immediate final conclusions about the panda crossings. They are an experiment, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has made it perfectly clear that he is willing to consider any modifications and changes that may be necessary in the light of the experience we have over the next few months. If the thing proves a complete failure and a washout, my right hon. Friend will be only too willing to drop it. On the contrary, I think that these crossings will work out all right when the public are used to them. We shall not hesitate to make changes when necessary. With this explanation and those assurances I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby will think fit to withdraw his well intentioned Prayer.

Mr. Graham Page

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his explanation. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.