HC Deb 01 May 1962 vol 658 cc980-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Philip N. Hocking (Coventry South)

I ought to make it clear at the beginning of my speech that I realise that the M.1 is one of the safest roads in the country today, and is, indeed, becoming safer as drivers become more experienced. But I do not think that that necessarily means that we can rule out any further measures to make the road safer still, because the better the highway becomes the higher its safety record.

Since I have been a Member of this House, during the last two years, I have had the opportunity to drive along the road on innumerable occasions. My home is at the far end from here, so I have been able to see at first hand, in almost every conceivable type of condition, exactly what happens on the highway. I have driven along it at almost every hour of the day and night in ice, fog, wind, and rain, and in fine weather, so I should like tonight to draw attention to some of the things which I think are necessary to make conditions better perhaps on this road, and, I hope, better on some of the other motorways being constructed.

I think that the worst condition for driving is that in which one meets heavy rain and there is a large amount of water lying on the flat surface of the road. Immediately one approaches another vehicle to pass it, spray is flung on to the windscreen and one is blinded by the tremendous amount of water thrown up. I realise that it is impossible immediately to do anything about this, but I hope that the Ministry will pay some attention to this problem, particularly when the question of resurfacing the highway comes up. It would then, I hope, be possible to give a slight fall to get the extra water away from the road. It might also be possible by some regulation or other to insist on flaps being put on the rear of motor vehicles to prevent that spray being thrown up.

At night, the most difficult problem is that of dazzle. I do not think that anyone who drives along the motorway at night ever gets over the problem, except during the short time when travelling along the road between Luton and Dunstable, where the experimental strip of anti-dazzle screen has been erected. Whilst one can drive with comparative safety along that stretch of the road, over the rest of the highway it is only safe to drive with dipped headlights and not cause inconvenience to oncoming traffic.

But if a driver puts his headlights full on, when he approaches a bridge, or if a vehicle approaches him from behind one of the bridges—and there are 100 between the southern and northern ends of the highway—long shadows cast by the pillars of the bridge cause him considerable trouble and difficulty. There have been two fatal accidents—one as recently as six weeks ago—in which these shadows have been mentioned, and it seems that round the bridges dazzle is the most dangerous condition.

I have noticed that in the Questions that have been answered from time to time at Question Time it has been suggested that it is impossible, or that it is not necessary, to put an anti-dazzle screen down the whole length of the highway. I hope that attention will be paid in the near future to the possibility of providing some form of dazzle screen on either side of the approaches to bridges—perhaps for 100 yards or so. The screen could be made up in a number of ways. Expanded metal or something of that nature has been suggested as being most suitable. Another suggestion is the use of fast-growing rose bushes. I suggest that gorse might be used. It is a natural phenomenon in some parts of the country, and it would form a screen rapidly and help to prevent dazzle at the approaches to bridges.

Consideration might also be given to the erection of a permanent crash barrier between the separate highways. This would also act as a dazzle screen. Thirteen feet six inches is not a very wide expanse in which to correct a skid, and as it is now impossible to widen the central reservation I hope that some form of barrier will be put up between the two highways.

Some people have said that the road travels through a very difficult stretch of country, and have asked that indicator boards should be erected to show people travelling along the road what conditions are prevailing further along. In reply to questions on this point, we have always been told that a driver should be able to anticipate the sort of conditions he will come up against. On the last evening before the Recess I left this House and found apparently good road travelling conditions as I drove out of London. Indeed, at the southern end of the motorway conditions were perfect. But by the time I had travelled about 35 miles I ran into dense fog. I could not anticipate it. I went down a slight hill and ran into fog at the bottom. It was impossible to see it.

Some form of indicator board could be erected at various points along the motorway—electrically lit and controlled—to tell drivers when they were approaching fog of ice, which is another thing that no driver can see at night, but which he is likely to come across suddenly. Such indicator boards could also tell drivers when they were likely to meet high winds which, on exposed parts of the motorway, tend to drive cars from one side of the road to the other, and could warn drivers of accidents which had occurred. Those things would make conditions on the motorway even safer than they are at present.

Finally, I want to draw attention to the difficulties experienced because of temporary hazards on the motorway. These roads must be repaired from time to time, but at present insufficient warning is given when they are being repaired. At might the driver merely sees a string of red lights in the distance, and he is not sure whether the highway is being narrowed because of repairs, or whether a string of vehicles is moving slowly along the motorway in the same direction. I suggest that it would be reasonable to give some indication of these obstructions at least a mile ahead. It would take only one minute for a car travelling at 60 m.p.h. to meet such an obstruction, and a minute is not a long period of time in which to take the necessary avoiding action.

If my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend will pay attention to some of these difficulties, what is at present a very pleasant and safe road to drive on—much safer than the normal roads that we have been used to in the past—could be made even safer and better in future.

11.40 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Hocking) began his speech to the House by remarking that the motorway with which we are concerned tonight, the M.1 section from St. Albans to Crick, is safer than other roads in this country. That is a remark which I certainly endorse from the figures and the information that we have.

This stretch of motorway has been open for just over two years and so far the casualty rate per vehicle mile travelled has proved to be less than half the rate on other unrestricted roads. It is also less than one-quarter of the rate averaged over all other roads, both restricted and unrestricted. There is no doubt that the motorways in Britain, and this road in particular, are proving much safer than other roads.

So far, the accident rate on M.1 has worked out at a fraction over one accident per million vehicle miles. The casualty rate for fatal accidents is working out at something like .07 per million vehicle miles. The casualty rate for all casualties is a little higher at 1.19 per million vehicle miles. We have every reason for modest congratulation on these figures. We must, however, not be complacent. The motorways are proving extremely safe roads, but we must consider what, if anything, can be done to make them safer, and I am obliged to my hon. Friend for tonight mentioning a number of points which we might take into consideration for improving safety on the motorways.

There are two major things which could enormously increase the already good safety margin on motorways. The first is if we could get substantial improvements in the reliability of tyres and the mechanical condition of vehicles. There is evidence that far too many drivers still go on the motorways driving at high speeds in vehicles which are not suitable for the sort of treatment that they give them. Tyres are not properly inflated, they are not inflated to uniform pressures, the general condition of braking is not good and it is small wonder that vehicles break down or accidents happen. The first thing that one could say, therefore, is that before anyone goes on a motorway he should make sure that his vehicle is in good condition.

The second major thing we can do is to see that driving behaviour on the motorways improves. I believe that the greatest contribution to safety on motorways can be made by drivers themselves. The motorway is essentially a safe road. A driver on it has none of the hazards that are found on other roads. He does not have junctions, sharp curves or parked vehicles; he does not meet cyclists or straying animals. If motorists would only treat the motorway as if it were the same as other roads but with most of the hazards removed, and if they would continue to drive moderately, there need be no serious accidents.

Instead, there seems to be a tendency for people to drive competitively on the motorways, to see how fast they can drive and to make sure that they overtake the car in front. This does not, of course, apply to everybody. There are, fortunately, a very large number of sensible drivers. But it certainly would help if everyone realised that the main purpose of the motorway is to allow vehicles to maintain a high average speed without having to drive excessively fast at any stage.

A driver can cover 60 miles in the hour without going much above 60 m.p.h. at any time. A mile a minute should be good enough for almost anybody travelling on a normal journey in this country. It. should be a pleasure to drive on the motorway instead of the feeling that one sometimes gets now that it is a rat race. In brief, it is the motorist, in the last resort, who decides how safe a road is. We in the Ministry have done our part in providing in the motorways roads with high safety standards, and it is up to the motorists now to ensure that they are used in that way.

I turn, now, to some of the points raised by my hon. Friend. One of the very important points he raised was one which has received a good deal of prominence recently, namely, whether we should have crash barriers along the length of motorways, and M.1, in particular. On the present evidence, we have come to the conclusion that there is no need for this. Before one comes to a conclusion of this kind one has to get the matter into perspective. I will briefly analyse the accidents which have occurred in the past two years on this Stretch of the M.1. There have been 940 accidents of all kinds. Only 89 of these have consisted in cars crossing the central reservation. In 13 of these 89 cases a collision took place with oncoming traffic in one of the lanes of the other carriageway. This means that in only 13 cases out of 940 did a vehicle cross the central reservation out of control and actually hit something on the other side. In only 3 of those 13 cases out of the total of 940 accidents was anyone killed.

That puts the matter in some perspective. It is important, because we know from experience in other countries where motorways have become a regular feature of motoring that, if a crash barrier is erected down the central reservation, there is a very serious risk of increasing the number of accidents. If a vehicle travelling alongside a crash barrier gets out of control and hits the crash barrier, if the barrier is strong enough it will cause the vehicle to rebound into the road. That is almost certain to cause an accident if there is any other traffic about. The vehicle itself may overturn as a result of rebounding in this way.

We have come to the conclusion that on the present evidence that we have there is no need to have a crash barrier all down the length of the motorway and that, if we did, it might well lead to far more accidents than there are at present.

I pass, next, to the point about dazzle. As my hon. Friend said, we have a stretch of experimental anti-dazzle screen over some two miles of M.1. This consists of a fence of expanded metal mesh. The two-mile stretch has been carefully chosen to cover a number of different types of conditions on the motorway. The two miles include straight and curved sections, a hill and a dip.

Some time ago the Minister of Transport set up a working party to keep motorway developments under review. The working party is, in turn, served by a traffic engineering sub-committee. The sub-committee has now conducted a good deal of work in connection with dazzle on the motorways and has now advised my right hon. Friend that there is insufficient justification for a general use of anti-dazzle screens on M.1. To provide an anti-dazzle screen right down the motorway would be expensive. We estimate that it would cost about £300,000. It would undoubtedly have some advantages in some limited places, but the House will realise that it would prove a much less rewarding and pleasant experience to drive down the motorway in daylight if on the right-hand side as a motorist drove for mile after mile after mile he had no sight of anything, except a metal fence. One of the advantages of the motorways is that drivers and passengers get the opportunity of seeing something of the countryside which they cannot often see from the general purpose type of road. We have, therefore, come to the conclusion that we cannot, and should not, provide an anti-dazzle screen of this type.

We are considering whether further experiments might be carried out to avoid dazzle at certain places, perhaps by the planting of shrubs, but here I must point out that our landscape advisory committee is against the planting of shrubs to avoid dazzle, particularly in places where the view of the countryside for people travelling in the vehicles would be seriously obstructed.

My hon. Friend mentioned, in particular, the "ghost" effect that some people claim to have seen on the motorways in the approaches to bridges. That problem is under constant observation. It is a matter to which I myself have paid some attention, and I can tell my hon. Friend that we have agreed to consider whether some special treatment could be introduced to avoid the shadow effect in the vicinity of bridges. We shall see how we get on with our experiments.

My hon. Friend also mentioned advance warnings. The highway authorities and the police already hold stocks of warning signs, which they exhibit at appropriate places if conditions on the motorway seriously deteriorate, but we are concerned now with something a little more elaborate; namely, the possibility of having illuminated signs, remotely controlled. Here, it is hoped that next winter we may be able to start an experiment to work out ways and means of doing that. If we are successful, we would hope to have advance warning signs, remotely controlled, and illuminated, about every two miles down the motorway, with a flashing amber light adjacent to each, drawing attention to the fact that some sort of hazard, such as fog, mist, ice, or even an accident, lies ahead. We are looking into that now, and we hope to be able to do something about it.

Then there is the question of the spray thrown up from the surface of the motorway by vehicles, which temporarily blinds the vision of the drivers who follow behind. That, of course, is a constant problem on any road, particularly so where we have a number of vehicles travelling at high speed. The difficulty becomes worse where the road has deposited on it a certain amount of dirt, dust or earth, in dry weather, which turns to mud when there is heavy rain.

On the motorways, and on M.1 in particular, the problem is even more aggravated, because here we have a very wide carriageway and a very wide crossfall. In the later motorways, built after the M.1 was constructed, we have changed the design somewhat in order to ensure a more rapid fall away of water. After all, M.1 was the first motorway after the Preston by-pass, and we are making use of the lessons we have learned from it in the construction of later stretches of motorway elsewhere.

The answer to the spray problem is twofold, and I hope that my hon. Friend will agree with me on this. First, it is for any driver travelling on a motorway, or any other road, to drive in accordance with the conditions he experiences. If he finds that he is driving on a road where spray is thrown up by other vehicles he should moderate his speed and his driving accordingly. Secondly, we now have the advantage of the rather ingenious windscreen washer which most modern motor cars have, and which every motor car can have fitted. I believe that it is by the use of windscreen washers that most benefit can be obtained, and the spray problem largely eliminated.

I should like to mention another problem to which my hon. Friend did not refer, but which has been the subject of a good deal of comment in the Press, the technical journals and, indeed, I believe, in Questions in the House. It is the overtaking in the fast lanes by heavy lorries. The difficulty is that a large number of heavy commercial vehicles are now using the motorways, and M.1 in particular, and many of them find that to pass they may have to go into the fast lane—the third lane. If the outside lane is clear, of course, there is no reason whatever why any vehicle which wishes to overtake, and is capable of overtaking, should not use it, but there is a proviso, and that is that the driver should be satisfied before he starts the manœuvre that he can get by reasonably quickly.

What is going wrong at present is that many heavy commercial vehicle drivers are trying to pass other heavy vehicles at a speed which is only two or three miles per hour faster. As a consequence they block the lanes of the motorway over a considerable distance, and if, then, there are fast motor cars coming up behind there is the risk of a serious accident.

We are watching this particular matter very closely indeed, and I should, I think, at this stage only say that it is really not only for the drivers of the heavy lorries to watch the matter and to adjust their driving accordingly, but also for other drivers in the fast lane not to drive so fast as to be unable to deal with a situation of the kind which may confront them. If people blind along a motorway at 90 miles per hour or more, as many of them do, or try to do, frankly I think that they are going too fast. After all, the motorway is a good motor road, and is intended to be such: it is not intended to be a race track.

One has to remember, too, that although we have eliminated from the motorways many of the hazards of the all-purpose roads—as I said earlier, one does not meet cycles, one does not meet animals, one does not meet pedestrians—nevertheless on the motorway may be a mixture of motor traffic of all kinds, fast and slow. There is the small family saloon which perhaps can reach 35 miles an hour down hill with a following wind, and at the same time there is the very fast car which is capable of attaining a speed of 120 miles an hour, and it is this mixture of motor traffic which creates that potentially dangerous situation unless drivers drive steadily at a reasonable speed and thereby achieve reasonable safety.

Moreover, if they would only drive a little more moderately in all circumstances they would, I think, treat their cars a little better than some of them do. My hon. Friend who travels on the M.1 frequently, as he told us, probably has seen a great many examples of this. J can only thank him, in conclusion, for raising the subject tonight and giving me an opportunity of saying something about this safety problem and expressing the hope that if only drivers will use the motorway as it was meant to be used they will be much happier when driving upon it and, also, our good safety record will be greatly improved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to twelve o'clock.