HC Deb 25 January 1963 vol 670 cc539-48

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

4.6 p.m.

Mr. William Shepherd (Cheadle)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport for coming to the House this afternoon to deal with what is perhaps a small subject, but one which is not without its importance.

The House may recollect that a few weeks before the Christmas Recess I raised with the Minister of Transport at Question Time the issue of whether we should make yellow bulbs in headlamps compulsory. He turned me down, and I think that on the same day he also turned down the very useful suggestion that there should be distinctive colouring of signs indicating "No right turn" and "No left turn", respectively. I am rather surprised at the Minister of Transport, because at times he behaves rather like an virtuous maiden. He says "No" to almost every suggestion. We are not in a position in this country to turn down ideas, because we are singularly unproductive of ideas for improving traffic conditions.

If the House will cast its mind back over the various innovations of the past 20 years it will find that they have nearly all come from some other country. We have not displayed the ingenuity which is characteristic of the race in matters of dealing with innovations for improving traffic safety. Therefore, it was not surprising to me that the Minister turned down the proposal. I made it with some vigour in 1947 and I received the answer then which, with respect to my hon. Friend, I anticipate I shall get 16 years later. I do not mind pursuing these matters, because in 1947 I urged the reform of the financing of the Post Office and the Government obligingly did that last year. Therefore, if we have to wait a few more years to achieve yellow headlamps I shall not be too disappointed.

I want to emphasise that this country is probably the most dangerous country in which to drive at night. I drive a good deal in different parts of the world and I do not know of any country where I am more reluctant to drive at night than in the United Kingdom. This is due in the main to the dazzle of headlamps and to the fact that we have both undulating territory and roads which have in them a considerable number of bends. Indeed, this is the country where night-time driving becomes a nightmare. It is urgently necessary for us to take some steps to render this driving safer.

Despite the fact that the conditions in the United Kingdom are such that night driving is essentially more dangerous than in most other European countries, we have seen fit to exacerbate this situation not only by refusing to take the step which I will urge upon my hon. Friend today but by continually stepping up the wattage of headlamp bulbs. I think my hon. Friend will know that the permissible limits of lighting in the United Kingdom are very much higher than, for example, in the United States of America and in many continental countries.

It is urgently necessary that we should change our attitude, and that those gentlemen who repose themselves in the road research stations and the "boffins" at the Ministry of Transport should consider what people with many years of hard driving experience have to say, rather than depend on the promise, as was made to me 16 years ago, of polarised windscreens and headlamp glasses, which to my mind are probably another 16 years away at least. It is essential to tackle this problem because the deaths on the roads at night in relation to day-time are very high in this country compared with other countries.

What do I find in my experience overseas which induces me to believe that the use of yellow bulbs in headlamps would improve conditions in the United Kingdom? I think it is true to say that basically a yellow light is more restful and less alarming to the eye than a white one. I admit that the effect of a yellow bulb is to lower the level of illumination. There is no argument against that; it is a scientifically established fact. But this does not in any way detract from the merits of the argument in favour of the yellow bulb, for I am reasonably satisfied that the level of illumination permitted in this country at night is too high and encourages drivers to drive at higher speeds than is safe in the United Kingdom with its undulating surfaces and its twisting and winding roads.

I know the Minister will say that most of the trouble arises from the fact that headlamps are not well adjusted, and I am sufficiently experienced to know that this is true. There must always be cars being driven about with ill-adjusted headlamps. What we have to establish is conditions under which, even allowing for some degree of maladjustment of the headlamps, there is maximum safety for people on the roads. If one goes to France, as I often do on business and when I can for pleasure, I find there is among Frenchmen considerable annoyance when they meet a British car on the road—so much so that our motoring organisations advise their members going overseas not to go into France with the standard British type of headlamp, but to do something, out of courtesy, to meet the requirements of that country.

The very fact that the existence of standard British headlamp equipment arouses so much annoyance in France is an indication that we have a level of illumination which is unsatisfactory and unnecessary. From my experience, even the fastest French drivers have no difficulty in travelling at reasonable speeds in France with their existing headlamp equipment.

These arguments in favour of having a less alarming form of headlamp are themselves strong, but, in the last year or so, there has come into existence what is, in my view, a much more powerful reason, to which even, I hope, the Minister of Transport will lend an ear. Looking at the figures for deaths on the road, one is struck by the large number which occur at night. This is not entirely because people are imbibing too freely at local hostelries, although, obviously, that is a factor. It is because the hazards of driving and of walking are necessarily increased after dark. This is particularly true in urban areas, much more so than in the countryside.

For this reason, campaigns have been started to induce people to drive with headlights dipped in urban areas. I emphasise the merits of this practice. The results obtained in Birmingham are dramatic. During the ten weeks of the experiment there on which a report has been made, day-time deaths increased from 6 to 10 as compared with 1961, but night-time deaths were reduced from 21 to 9—a really staggering result— despite the fact that, according to surveys made, only about 55 per cent. of motorists appeared to take part in the experiment.

I put it to my hon. Friend that, if we were to have yellow bulbs used in headlamps in this country, we should have much more ready acceptance of driving with dipped headlights in urban areas. I have as my only luxury, I think, motor cars, and I drive two or three different cars. If I go down the road where I live, which is lined with motor cars parked at night, driving a car equipped with yellow headlamps, I never meet any flashing resistance from motorists coming the other way. It is absolutely essential that I do have the headlamps on as I go down that road, with cars parked on each side, because a pedestrian may step out at any time and, with only the sidelights on, I should not have a chance to see him. If I go down the road in a car not equipped with yellow headlights, I meet immediate resistance from the oncoming motorist.

If we want to save life on the road, we can save it most easily, I suggest, by becoming accustomed to the use of dipped headlights at night in urban areas, and the yellow bulb is the means by which the way can be prepared. If every car in this country were to be equipped with yellow headlights, there would be free acceptance by the individual driver of the use of dipped headlights in urban areas.

This seems to me to be a reason of considerable importance which ought to cause the Ministry of Transport to change its opposition to the yellow headlight. I believe that the adoption of this idea could be the greatest single means of saving life on the road in the United Kingdom. I repeat that I do not believe that the polarised windscreen will come. I say again that we have in this country too high a level of illumination. The yellow headlamp causes less disturbance and alarm to other motorists, and it would result in more ready acceptance of the use of dipped headlights in urban areas. For all these reasons, I urge my hon. Friend to stop the 20 years of stonewalling and to stop opposing the hard experience of hundreds of thousands of motorists, and to agree by the administrative means at his disposal to make the use of yellow bulbs in headlamps compulsory.

4.20 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Shepherd) began his remarks with a comment which was bound to endear him to me at once. He described my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport as a virtuous maiden. My right hon. Friend has been called a great many things in his time, but I think that this is the first time that he has had that description applied to him.

My hon. Friend went on to say that the reason why he described my right hon. Friend in that way was that he always turns down good ideas, or most of them. This is not true. My right hon. Friend's record in making use of bright new ideas in trying to solve this country's traffic problems as far as possible bears comparison with that of any other Minister of Transport.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend that traffic improvements always come from other countries. One thing we use in assisting traffic in this country which receives universal acclaim from traffic experts from other countries who visit us is "cat's eyes", which help a lot at night as an aid to the illumination of cars themselves. That is an idea of which we can be proud.

Before I pass to the main burden of the case, let me say one other thing. My hon. Friend did a little less than justice to the Ministry by saying that we have continuously opposed the use of yellow headlamps. That is not true. It is open to anyone in this country, provided he has white side lights, to use yellow headlamps if he wishes, but the fact is that, even among those motorists who go abroad and make use of yellow headlamps when they do so, the use of them in this country is comparatively small. If the merits of yellow headlamps were as extensive as my hon. Friend claims, many more motorists would voluntarily undertake to have them on their cars.

Mr. Shepherd

My hon. Friend says that the use of yellow headlamps in this country is comparatively small. My impression is that it is growing. Has my hon. Friend any survey to show what the percentage is?

Mr. Hay

No. I agree that many motorists are beginning to use yellow bulbs in their headlamps. Although I have no technical information or statistics to prove this, I imagine that a great many of them are motorists who have been to France and have fitted yellow headlamp bulbs or filters for the purpose of the journey and have retained them when they came back. My point was that it is quite wrong to say that the Ministry of Transport opposes the use of yellow headlamp bulbs. It is open to any motorist to fit them and to use them if he wishes.

The use of yellow headlamps instead of white, with the object of decreasing dazzle, has been proposed on many occasions, particularly by those with experience of night driving in France. In that country, headlamps are required to show light of a special yellow colour. But France is the only country which has this requirement. Other countries on the Continent, and, as far as I know, elsewhere in the world, have steadfastly refused to adopt the same standard. In any case, the light intensity emitted by a headlamp is reduced by about 10 per cent. if a yellow light or filter is used.

There are three main reasons why motorists who go to France and see traffic at night with yellow headlamps are likely to find that they are less dazzled than they are elsewhere. First, as I have said, the headlamps of the cars which they meet emit light of considerably less intensity because the light passes through either a yellow bulb or a yellow filter placed over the front of the headlamp.

Secondly—and to my mind this is the most compelling argument that one can make on the point—the design of these lights used on cars in France is such that they have a dipped beam which complies with a special specification having a rather sharper cut-off at the top of the beam than the beam which is specified in this country. As I understand the technicalities of it, in France it is necessary to have the bottom part of the headlamp bulb itself, which must be yellow, shielded to such an extent that the beam is cut off at a certain point in respect of oncoming traffic. We accept rather less stringent requirements.

The result is that whereas, when one is driving with yellow headlamps in France under these specifications, one cannot see quite as far as in this country, because the requirement is not so stringent here, nevertheless there is a lower intensity of light to oncoming motorists if the headlamps are properly adjusted. This is a matter which is not susceptible of easy proof or justification and it largely depends on striking a balance, if one can, between two factors: is road safety better served by reducing the possibility of dazzle or is it better served by ensuring that people who are driving can see a little further than they otherwise could?

The third reason why many motorists travelling from this country into France find a difference is that most of them are driving cars with a right-hand drive but are driving on the right-hand side of the road. They are therefore physically displaced a foot or two to the right of the beam of oncoming traffic, and that has some effect.

As my hon. Friend knows, there has been a certain amount of investigation into this matter, because the point of view which he expressed this afternoon is very widely held. To try to find out whether any advantage could be found in using yellow lights for headlamps, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, as long ago as 1937, carried out an investigation, and I should like to quote from the Report which it has produced: None of the claims made in favour of using a coloured, and in particular a yellow, headlight beam rather than a white beam of no greater power has been substantiated. The claim for a greater range of visibility in fog may be regarded as definitely disproved. On the other claim for less dazzle and greater facility of vision the evidence is inconclusive; but it is apparent from the information at present available that further work is unlikely to show that any considerable advantage can be secured by using coloured light. That was in 1937, but the matter has not rested there, because as recently as 1954 a series of pretty comprehensive experiments were carried out by the Road Research Laboratory. Some 20 drivers, as a sample, took part in these experiments, and they compared headlamps which emitted beams of the same intensity and design. The results are very interesting, because they reveal, first, that 18 of the 20 drivers showed a preference for driving on a clear road with the use of white headlamps, and 11 of those 18 preferred the use of white headlamps when meeting cars which were similarly equipped. Twelve drivers out of the 20 thought that meeting yellow headlamps caused slightly—I emphasise slightly—less glare than meeting white headlamps. I suggest that these practical experiments led to very much the same conclusion as the rather more theoretical investigations which were conducted before the war. Certainly they failed to show any evidence of anything more than a possibly marginal advantage in the use of yellow headlamps.

May I make a final quotation? One of the concluding paragraphs of the report by the Road Research Laboratory in 1954 was: It is of interest to note that differences in glare between similar settings of the white and yellow beams were always considered to be small, i.e., if a lamp setting was such that the white beam produced a high level of glare, this was not much affected by changing to the yellow beam. This result discounts the view that dazzle can be avoided merely by substituting yellow bulbs for clear ones. I should like to draw the attention of the House and to others interested in this matter to the important words there: that differences in glare between similar settings of the white and yellow beams were always considered to be small". The essential point in this controversy is not so much the colour of the light, but the setting of the lamp. That is the vital point. In our view, the greatest single factor which could contribute to the prevention of dazzle is the correct aiming of headlamp beams.

The Road Traffic Lighting Regulations, 1959, contain provisions intended to deal with dazzle, and advice is also given in the Highway Code on the correct use of headlamps. Under the periodical vehicle testing scheme we are beginning, I think, to achieve a limited advance in getting better aiming of headlamps. Moreover, as my hon. Friend has said, the experiment carried out in Birmingham last year—and there is one going on at the moment—in the use of dipped headlamps when driving at night has been of some value. We must wait for the final results of the current Birmingham experiment before drawing any conclusions and I certainly should like to do so before endorsing the views of my hon. Friend about the accident rate.

But one thing is clear from the experiment carried out in Birmingham last year. Garages there were willing to give free service in checking the aiming of headlamps of the oars which were brought to them, and nearly half of those cars which were submitted to them were found to have headlamps improperly aimed. Of course, as modern design of oars proceeds I think that we can expect an improvement in the aiming of lamps, because the design of headlamps in a modern oar usually is such as to enable the beam to be built into the car itself and, therefore, no adjustment or resetting is ever needed. The sealed beam lamp, for example, is a considerable advance in this connection. Motor manufacturers have equipment in their production processes for setting beams of headlamps correctly before the cars leave the factory.

I think the figures which I have just given show the need for action in this field either by propaganda or by vehicle testing so that we can get the beams of headlamps of all cars correctly adjusted.

I do not suppose for a moment that I shall have satisfied my hon. Friend beyond any doubt at all that no great advantage would be gained by switching compulsorily to yellow headlamps in this country. All the scientific evidence there is—I have given what is available to me—goes to show that there is no conclusive advantage to be gained. What is important is to get headlamp beams correctly adjusted, and that more than anything else will help us to prevent dazzle and glare to other drivers. If ever there were a body of evidence available to show that my hon. Friend is right, then of course, quite obviously, we should have to look at it again.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that under Section 15 of the Road Traffic Act, 1962, the Minister of Transport has power to review the whole of this question, and I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that we shall be looking at this very shortly, and we shall bear in mind the points he has made tonight. I do not believe that there is any great advantage to be gained in a change, but nevertheless, we shall approach the matter with an open mind when we come to look at the implementation of that Section of the Act.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock.