HC Deb 03 July 1963 vol 680 cc517-47

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Traffic Signs (Disqualification for Offences) Regulations, 1963 (S.I. 1963, No. 902), dated 6th May, 1963, a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th May, be annulled.

The Regulations to which this Prayer relates were made under powers contained in paragraph 13 of Schedule 1 of the Road Traffic Act, 1962. It will be within the recollection of the House that the Road Traffic Act, 1962, introduced the principle of disqualification after convictions within three years of three driving offences in the class set out in the two Schedules to the 1962 Act. That process is familiarly called nowadays"totting up." The adding of the three offences together may lead to disqualification.

At this point I would take the opportunity of correcting a misapprehension, which I find to be very widespread, that if a person has been convicted of three of these offences within three years the court is under a compelling duty to disqualify him from driving. Indeed, it is often referred to as automatic disqualification. It is true that as the Bill was introduced to Parliament that was, indeed, the consequence of convictions for three of these offences within a period of three years, but during its progress through Committee in this House material Amendments were made whereby disqualification becomes discretionary. The wording which was eventually arrived at does, indeed, enjoin the court to disqualify, but adds that it need not do so if—I do not use the exact words—for strong reasons it thinks that it would be inappropriate. Therefore, it is a discretionary disqualification, although there is a bias in favour of disqualification.

Personally, I hope that the courts will make the very widest use of the discretion which is thus conferred upon them, because I have never concealed my view that the 1962 Act and Section 5 which we are considering tonight makes a use of the criminal law in regard to motoring which I personally believe to be inappropriate. However, in considering these Regulations tonight we have to accept the policy which is in the 1962 Act and consider the Regulations in the light of it.

This discretion which I have been describing, and which was written into the Act during its passage through Committee in this House, may, I imagine, be sought to be turned against me to night in my Prayer against these Regulations. It may be said that regarding the three traffic signs which are picked out in the Regulations—to the details of which I will come in a moment—it is a little harsh that disobedience to them should be counted as an offence, adding up to disqualification. But the court now has discretion whether it should disqualify or not after these three offences have been committed.

This, of course, is not quite the good answer that it seems, because under the wording, as we finished up with it, the court is enjoined to disqualify, unless it finds sufficient reason not to do so. Unfortunately, one finds that when motorists are hauled before a court they tend to be convicted and fined rather heavily and disqualified. I say that without any personal animus, because it has been my good fortune never to have experienced any of these three disagreeable processes—as yet. But observation has confirmed me in that view.

In this context, it seems appropriate that the offences picked out for this totting-up process in the First Schedule should be offences that are clearly of a serious character and not of a minor character. I, and I think many other people, have been surprised by the Regulations on three grounds, which I will briefly state. The Section under which they are made was brought into force as from 29th May last, a few weeks ago, by Commencement Order No. 4, which does not have to be laid before this House. It cannot be prayed against, and is not, of course, before us tonight. But that Order brought into force the Section under which the present Regulations are made. It started off the process of adding-up, as I prefer to call it.

It came as a slight surprise to many people to find that when this started on 29th May what counted was not the date on which the offence was committed but the date on which the conviction took place, so that people who had committed one of these adding-up offences before 29th May if convicted after it would find that it counted as one of the three offences which might lead to disqualification within three years.

The first question I wish to put to my hon. Friend is: what is the position of these Regulations in that respect? They were made on 6th May and laid before the House on 13th May and came into operation on 29th May. If a person committed an offence by disobeying one of these three traffic signs before 29th May and was convicted of it afterwards, will it count as one of the three offences?

May I carry that one step further and ask: if a person committed the offence of disobeying one of the signs before 6th May, when the Order was first made and these three traffic signs imported into paragraph 13 of the First Schedule, and was convicted in respect of it after 29th May, would that be one of the three offences for which disqualification may be ordered? If so, at the time of commission of the offence the person who committed it did not know it was an offence which would be added to paragraph 13 of the First Schedule.

Whereas one could at least say of the offences which were written into the Schedule when the Act was passed that people did know that one day a commencement Order would be made in respect of them and that when it was made those would be the offences which counted, they could not know that in respect of these three traffic signs until these Regulations were made and published on or after 6th May. There would appear to be a question of principle, although of course only a transitional one, the importance of which will eventually disappear, but at the moment I think it of some significance. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will be able to give us some guidance about that.

The second reason why many people were surprised both by the appearance of commencement Order No. 4 and the appearance of these Regulations, which came into force on the same day as com- mencement Order No. 4, is that we understood during the course of the 1962 Bill through Parliament that an undertaking had been given that Section 5 would not be brought into force until there had been a general review of the speed limits throughout the country.

I at once agree that there is no direct connection between disobedience to the three traffic signs which appear in these Regulations and the speed limits, but the effect of the Regulations is to add to the First Schedule three extra offences which count with the others for the adding up process. So one might be convicted of one offence of disobedience to a traffic sign and two offences of speeding and that would make the three which would lead to disqualification. We all knew when this was under discussion that on the whole the most common kind of offence would be the speeding one and it would quite frequently constitute one or two of the three which would lead to disqualification. In that context there was general anxiety in both Houses of Parliament that Section 5 in its entirety, the totting up process, should not start until there had been a review of the speed limits.

This was most clearly referred to in the debate in another place on 30th January, 1963, in the present Session of Parliament in a statement by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport speaking on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. Referring to discussions in both Houses he said: This resulted in undertakings to review the question of speed limits, both those imposed on roads and those on vehicles. In fact it has been thought right not to introduce Sections 5 to 9 of the Road Traffic Act until such a review has been carried out, so that people do not incur the heavier penalties involved for offences held to be of a trivial nature."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30th January 1963; Vol. 246, c. 318.]

That is a clear reference to the undertaking which hon. Members of both Houses during the passage of the Bill had had given to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay), who at that time was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, said in Standing Committee E, on 29th May, 1962: We are at the moment carrying out a review of speed limits throughout the country. From memory, I think that the review of trunk roads has been completed and that the review of roads other than trunk roads is proceeding very quickly and should be completed by the autumn."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 29th May, 1962; c. 404.] That was in May, 1962, during our deliberations on the Bill, and it was in the light of these assurances and undertakings that the Committee and afterwards the House agreed to the machinery brought in by the Bill. It has come as something of a shock to find that, in spite of all that, this machinery has been introduced from 29th May without that review, on which it was supposed to be based, having been carried out.

The motoring organisations, which have been kind enough to write to me about this, protested, and the Ministry of Transport wrote back to them very recently to this effect: A considerable proportion, including virtually all those on trunk roads, had been done, and in view of the unexpected slowness of local authorities in proceeding with there view on their own roads"— that is, roads which are not trunk roads— it was on balance felt to be necessary in the interests of road safety, and thus for the benefit of motorists in the widest sense, not to delay any longer the bringing into force of stiffer penalties, since it was evident that to wait for the entire completion of the review would entail delaying those provisions for an unforeseeable time.

Assurances and undertakings, to use the word which was used by the Government spokesman in the House of Commons, can always be waved aside afterwards in the light of special difficulties and by pleas of public interest, but I am bound to say that this leaves a somewhat unpleasant taste in the mouths of those who thought during the passage of the Bill that undertakings of that character had been given to them. I stress it no more than that, but I think it is a pity that either the review was not speeded up or the commencement of these regulations was not held back until the review had been completed. That is the second reason why we were surprised when these Regulations came out.

The third reason is the nature of the Statutory Instrument itself. Every hon. Member is very experienced in the subject matter and every hon. Member has his own personal views as to which traffic signs should have been fixed if there had to be Regulations such as these. I have one particular objection to the substance of the Stautory Instrument, and I am faintly doubtful about others. If we are to have the totting up process, and if there is to be included in it some disobedience to traffic signs, and if three is to be the number, then I probably would take the"Halt" sign as one of them and also the policed traffic lights. Whether I would choose the double white line running along the middle of the road as the third is more doubtful.

On the"Halt" sign I would say, in passing—and some hon. Members may want to refer to this more specially—that it is possible for disobedience to be a purely technical offence. It may be a substantial and dangerous offence, but it is possible for it to be purely technical. For that reason, I am a little unhappy at seeing it in the Regulations. The double white lines along the centre of the road are also important markings from the point of view of road safety, but again it is possible for disobedience of them to be a technical offence.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett): I will try to answer these points in due course, but can my hon. Friend tell me how exactly what he has in mind when he says that disobedience to a"Halt" sign can be purely technical?

Mr. Bell

I mean that disobedience to a"Halt" sign can be of a substantial nature or of a purely technical nature, in the sense that the motor car almost comes to a halt but as a matter of mechanics does not actually cease to move before coming out of the road. It could be of that character. It has been held—there is clear authority for it—that unless the vehicle ceases to move a criminal offence is committed.

If my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary relies on the discretion which the court has and which I referred to earlier not to disqualify for three offences, he and my right hon. Friend have occasion to be very grateful indeed to those hon. Member on both sides who were associated with me in the prolonged and painful process of extracting this concession from the Government in Committee. Without this discretion it would be impossible to justify putting in the"Halt" sign and the double white line in the middle of the road, because if the disqualification were automatic, as it was when the Bill was introduced, a most absurd position would be created. It is not one that we can be happy about even now with that discretion in the Act.

I come to the specific point about which I am concerned in the Regulations. It is the reference to traffic lights. It is entirely sensible that disobedience to police traffic lights should count as one of the offences for this additive process, if there is to be an additive process. What I find extremely hard to accept is that disobedience to contractors' traffic lights should be one of these offences. This is clearly provided in the Regulations.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

It can be just as dangerous.

Mr. Bell

Many offences can be dangerous, but a hierarchy of offences is established in the Road Traffic Act, 1962, a hierarchy which falls into three parts—offences where conviction for a single offence leads to disqualification, those to which the totting up process of three applies, and offences which do not lead to disqualification. One has to decide the right place in the hierarchy and not take the view that any offence relating to the use of a motor vehicle on the highway is a very serious matter, which is rather the attitude of mind of the captain dealing with defaulters the day after.

The Regulations make it quite clear that contractors' traffic lights are included as well as those which are controlled by the police. There are many things which can be said about contractors' traffic lights. I shall say only the politer things this evening. They are to be found by holes in the road or where one side of the road is obstructed.

Regulation 29 (1) of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions, 1957, which is the one incorporated in the Regulations against which I pray tonight, says: Portable light signals may be used for the control of vehicular traffic—

  1. (a) where, owing to road works being in progress or for some other reason the width of the carriageway is temporarily restricted so that it will carry only one line of traffic, or
  2. (b) during the progress of temporary schemes of traffic control, if the signals are in the control of the police."
That"if" does not apply to the first category of road works. There is a specification of what contractors' traffic lights, if I may so call them, are to look like. They consist normally of two lights, red and green, with no amber, and they have to be of a certain height and design. They change, of course, straight from red to green and from green to red, and if a motorist is approaching a contractor's traffic light which is at green he may find that it will change to red just as he is about to cross the signal.

The Regulation with which we are concerned says: the red and green lights shall not be shown together and one shall follow the other without any appreciable interval of time. So it has got to be instantaneous. Therefore, if a motorist is two yards away from the signal when the green light goes out the red light comes on instantaneously and he may very well be, as one often is, forced to cross the signal at red.

It may be said:"Surely that is not an offence; you have got reasonable time." Unfortunately, the Regulations make it quite clear that one has not got a reasonable time. Regulation 30 states: The amber signal"— which is not present— (when provided) shall, when shown alone, convey the prohibition that vehicular traffic shall not proceed beyond the stop line or, if there is no stop line, beyond the signals, except in the case of any vehicle which when the signal first appears"— that is when the lights go to amber— is so close to the said line or signals that it cannot safely be stopped before passing the line or signals. That relates to the amber light.

As for the red light, The red signal shall convey the prohibition that vehicular traffic shall not proceed beyond the stop line on the carriageway provided in conjunction with the signals or, if there is no stop line, beyond the signals. To that prohibition there is not attached the qualification"unless the vehicle is so close to the signals that it cannot safely stop when they change."

Therefore, we have a clear-cut, sharp legal position brought about—I do not know why—that when green changes to red on a contractor's signal it must do so instantaneously without any perceptible interval of time between the two, and that when the red comes on it is an absolute prohibition to passing the signal even if one is six inches away from it at the time that it changes. This may be justified as a sort of situation that one has to put up with when dealing with rough and ready arrangements, portable and temporary, but surely the comment is justified that in that case it really cannot be added to the offences in the Schedule any three of which will lead to disqualification.

It may be necessary to make it an offence to disobey the signal and pass it, but surely it should not be elevated into that category of offences which goes into the arithmetic of disqualification—not automatically but semi-automatically—if one commits three of them. It is also perfectly possible for a careful motorist, driving along the road, using his eyes and giving his attention to what he is doing, to pass one of these contractors' lights at red and not realise he has done so until he has passed it.

One can imagine a position one could be in. One is driving along at night not expecting a traffic light because it is an ordinary stretch of road, not an intersection, when one suddenly comes across some road works. They are and must be surrounded by red lamps. At the commencement of the road works there is a tripod with a traffic light showing, shall we say, red. Under the Minister's instructions—the Traffic Safety Code for Road Works, No. 36—at night on unlighted roads the base of the signal pedestal which I refer to as the contractor's traffic light, must be marked by a separate red warning lamp to allow for the failure of the signal lamp. There are red lamps all round the obstruction and at the end is red lamp, as a safety measure in case the traffic light fails at night, and just above it is another red light which, is, in fact, a traffic light. It is easy to go past the red traffic light without recognising it. If it were green one would know it was a traffic light.

The lights are often very badly placed and the weather may not be very good. I think that this situation will be within the experience of many hon. Members and that perhaps this has happened to them on the roads. I am sure that if the county surveyor has time to get round he improves the situation and says,"This light has got to be moved from here to there." But this is all done on a rather quick, practical basis, and the lights are not always very well placed.

Sometimes these lights are hand-operated. Sometimes, of course, they are left on at night when they ought to be switched off, because under the Safety Code these signals are appropriate only"during periods of heavy traffic" and the implication is that they should be switched off when the traffic ceases to be heavy. I think it is within everyone's experience to have come upon these lights lefton at night—not on a bend but on a straight bit of road. The obstruction may be only ten yards long. The traffic lights are installed to introduce order out of chaos at a busy period, so that traffic can go first one way and then the other.

If the lights are left on at night and the motorist can see no traffic a quarter of mile ahead—at any rate quite a long distance before the obstruction—is it sensible and practical to ask him to stop two minutes if the lights are at red? Of course, it is not. If this is a criminal offence, it is my submission that it should not be one of the specially serious criminal offences.

I hope my hon. and gallant Friend will take these thoughts back to his Department. I know what a pessimistic business praying is and how it happens that Statutory Instruments laid by the Government of either party are hardly ever annulled by Prayer; but these Regulations are supposed to be submitted to Parliamentary scrutiny and I venture to submit that there are matters here calling for reconsideration. I hope, therefore, that my hon. and gallant Friend will venture to give them that reconsideration in his Department.

10.34 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

It is our common experience, when we deal with matters which involve millions of motorists, that we tend to find here only one somnolent Member of the Liberal Party and one or two Labour Members, when on this side of the House we are taking a keen interest in matters of this sort. This is a picture which is only too frequently so, so far as the motorists are concerned, and I apprehend that if we get anything said upon the other side it will favour the pedestrian and be"anti" the motorist.

These Regulations are the most ridiculous that the Ministry of Transport has managed to produce. While I agree with every word that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) has said in a very able dissertation on the matter, I will try to be brief and show why it is really a ludicrous monstrosity.

First of all, I really rather object to government by Wimpey's. I have nothing against Wimpey's. I object to government by Costain's. I have nothing against my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain)—indeed, he is a great friend of mine—but I do not want government by Costain's. I do not want government by Neuchatel Asphalt. I do not want government by the contractors. I am not at all sure that the people, estimable gentlemen that they are, who are responsible for waving red flags on the road are perhaps the most appropriate people to be brought in as the witnesses for the prosecution to secure the strike-off of motorists. There could not be more ludicrous nonsense than to include in the Measure control by contractors' lights as leading to the disqualification of a motorist. That is one of the most absurd things that any regulation could lay down.

It is evident that those concerned in the Ministry of Transport were unaware of the construction that would be placed on these Regulations. They must have been unaware of it, because they could not otherwise have set out to achieve such a preposterous result. That is hardly surprising when one reads the Regulations. I do not know whether the public will believe these words. I hope the Press will print them. This is what is said: the light signals prescribed by Regulation 27, by Regulation 27 as varied by Regulation 28, or by Regulation 29 of the said Regulations… under the provisions of Section 260 (2) of the Road Traffic Act, 1960. These are provisions under the 1962 Act.

Unless one was a highly trained lawyer, as my hon. Friend is, one could not understand that. I asked him, naturally, what this meant, and then he told me. Being myself trained in that regard, I turned it up, only to find that the Regulations are concerned not only with the traffic lights that we ordinarily understand—where one has cross traffic lights, going both ways—but included those where the little man with the flag puts up the flag in the middle of the road with"stop" on one side and"go" on the other. Then off he goes for a"cuppa", and when he is having his"cuppa" one cannot go through—but of course one always does—and then he will come out and see one passing.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)


Mr. Rees-Davies

It is not nonsense. It happened to me three weeks ago. I came across a sign marked"stop" and"go" on the way from Thanet to London, and I went through when it was showing"stop". The man came out from having his"cuppa", or whatever else he was doing. I said,"I have gone through" and he replied,"You should not do so." I said,"How long was I to wait?", and he said,"Until I came back." I said,"Wait till you came back? Like hell!" What happened? He is going to prosecute me. He is going to be the witness. Like hell he is! But he will turn up and prosecute. This is not government by legislation; it is government by Wimpey's.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I gather that my hon. Friend is referring to some flag or sign. Surely the Regulations refer to light signals?

Mr. Rees-Davies

They are light signals. In the old days there was a flag, but now one is not allowed any more to wave a flag. One has to have lights. I know that it is more expensive. Nonetheless, it has been changed from the flag, which was a simple system and worked very well. Now one is not allowed to have a man waving his arm up and down. It is too much exercise for him. So one has a light instead. There is only one way to deal with these Regulations, and that is to ridicule them as they deserve.

I am content with the"Halt" regulations and that there should be a totting-up process, although I do not think that I necessarily like it. I remind the Government that they would have made fools of themselves if it had not been for my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South, others of my hon. Friends and myself, for the Government would otherwise have found themselves with a mandatory order disqualifying people automatically. However, they took our advice and I urge them to take it again now.

Those of us who speak on these matters do so from considerable knowledge and experience, and I advise the Minister to pay a little attention. It is unfortunate that he is not here. He has left the Parliamentary Secretary to deal with this and he will have to turn our representations down. We shall find ourselves in the usual position of having to consider our position when the House comes to vote on this. [Laughter.]

The trouble is that there are only half a dozen members of the Labour Party here, but I see that the Liberal Party has woken up, which is splendid. Perhaps we shall now have one more vote. If my hon. Friends get a taxi we can probably get the other Liberals here, but perhaps they are waiting outside ready to vote us down.

Mr. Arthur Holt (Bolton, West)

The Conservatives put this through.

Mr. W. Ross

The colleagues of the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) are only kept here by the Whips to vote against him if by any strange chance he has the courage to take the matter to a Division.

Mr. Rees-Davies

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) always deals with courage in these matters, but I think that it might be better to use wit which sometimes is a more suitable weapon.

Now I want to deal with the double white carriage line. All the motoring organisations are against this, for very good reasons. What was this line originally intended for? It was intended for one purpose only—to provide the ability to prove that a person was, prima facie, driving without due care or dangerously if he drove on the other side of it. It was to enable one to see the centre of the line, if it was not obscured, and to provide prima facie evidence against someone who in the wrong circumstances crossed it. That, of course, is perfectly right and proper.

What it was not intended to be was a regulation in itself, making a person guilty of a criminal offence if he crossed the line. This was for many good reasons. First, this is government by civil servants. The length can be altered without any adequate representations being considered. This will be dealt with by local highway authorities and there will be no general yardstick. The length will vary from county to county.

One official might decide that, by a mound in the road, it should be a distance of six feet. The official of a neighbouring county might decide on nine feet; I myself might choose 12 feet, if I had the choice, while the Minister might choose 15 feet. There is no question of a"stop" sign, something easy to understand. There is no question of proper traffic signals. It is entirely dependent on the civil servant who happens to decide in each area.

Secondly, one cannot necessarily see it by night. Thirdly, in the country side, if one goes to a first-class point-to-point in winter, there will be dirt and muck all over the road and the line will be obscured so that no one will be able to see it.

Those are three reasons for a beginning, but the most unfortunate aspect is that there is not a proper unified authority in the country which can determine any sensible set of principles upon which the position and length and width of a double white line can be decided. At present, the positioning of double white lines by the Ministry has been fairly sensible, but as the days go by we shall see them being added to, and added to simply in order to catch the motorist.

It is well known that whereas in some areas there are motorist magistrates who have a proper and sensible understanding of these things, in others there are magistrates with the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page). If it were left to him, there would be a double white line practically throughout the countryside to ensure that nobody passed anywhere, and we would be in the position shown in that excellent little cartoon strip"Flook" in the Daily Mail, with all the cars end to end in a permanent traffic jam. That is what we shall be brought to.

These are statutory Regulations which may have the effect of depriving people of their livelihoods or being able to drive a car simply because they have crossed a double white line in circumstances—and let this be remembered—which do not amount to dangerous or careless driving. If they did, the charge would be dangerous or careless driving. The whole purpose of this part of the Regulations is to give the police an escape clause when they have a bad case. When the police have a good case, they always charge the motorist with dangerous driving and with careless driving in the alternative.

In this case they will add the third charge—crossing the double white line. If a magistrate finds a man not guilty on the dangerous driving charge, he will still have to find him guilty on the charge of crossing the double white line. What is the purpose? Where is the saving of accidents? Where is the protection of pedestrians?

I challenge my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby, who speaks for pedestrians, to instance any case in which any pedestrian would suffer one iota if a motorist were not guilty of dangerous or careless driving but guilty of crossing the double white line, or where a motorist was found not guilty of dangerous or careless driving but guilty of driving through a contractor's light signal in circumstances in which he could see down the road.

The reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby is that the difference between police-controlled traffic lights at ordinary crossings and a contractor's lights is that usually, although not invariably, the contractor's light controls merely one way into one stream of traffic and the man approaching at the other end can be seen. It is a matter not of safety but of convenience. The contractor's light is used not for safety but for"Wait in the queue brother; it is your turn now and it is the other chap's turn next". Yet there is no danger about it because the traffic from the other direction can be seen.

Mr. Willis Why not wait in the queue?

Mr. Rees-Davies

Why should I be prosecuted because Wimpey's man wants to allow people in one queue to move and not in the other? I am a member of the anti-queueist league, a founder member. Being a member of the anti-queueist league, I have the initiative and desire not to want this country turned into a ridiculous bombastic set of Regulations produced by the Ministry of Transport without consideration.

I have said enough. I hope that I have said enough to ridicule these Regulations, and if they get past we shall live to ridicule them another day.

10.50 p.m.

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

The hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) has indicated quite clearly where he stands. When he says that he is president of the anti-queueing league, one has only to listen to the hon. Gentleman to appreciate this. I have never heard the hon. Gentleman speak other than on behalf of this wild scramble. He speaks either for privilege or some other form of undesirable activity in the community. This is quite a common speech which the hon. Gentleman makes when he comes to the House.

The hon. Gentleman complained about not many hon. Members being present tonight. If we were to add up the number of occasions on which he has been absent from debates in the House, the result would be quite illuminating. Those of us who come here regularly, both during the day and at night, know how often the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Rees-Davies

I was a member of the Standing Committee which considered this Bill, and there were 20 sittings.

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman apparently thinks that it is a great achievement to have been a member of a Standing Committee which met 20 times. If he were a Scottish Member, he would accept that as a regular occurrence every Session. The hon. Gentleman ought to be much more active in the House before he starts accusing other hon. Members of not being here.

The hon. Gentleman trotted out something that happened in the Isle of Thanet. I am not surprised at what happens in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I imagine a great many queer things happen there, one of them being the fact that they returned the hon. Member to the House. I should have thought that there was nothing queerer than that. To quote what happens in the Isle of Thanet as a reason for rejecting these Regulations seems to be very thin proof indeed.

We, too, travel on the roads, and I have always thought that the double white line was one of the best things introduced on the roads. At least, people are given an indication of where it is safe, and where it is not safe, to overtake. I do not see anything wrong with the system, and I do not see anything wrong with making crossing the double white line a punishable offence.

What will it mean to the motorist? He will be held up for half a minute, or perhaps a minute, and I should have thought that the possibility of saving life was worth that much of any motorist's time. I have heard the hon. Gentleman speak about this before. I have heard him making the most preposterous statements. I once heard him say that speed was not the cause of accidents, and I thought that that statement was the height of absurdity. I would much prefer to crash into something at 5 miles an hour than at 60 miles an hour. At 5 miles an hour I would probably not kill myself, but at 60 miles an hour I probably would. But this is the kind of argument which the hon. Gentleman always puts forward, and I sometimes wonder whether his only concern is to be awkward.

The double white line seems to be one of the best things—not the best—introduced in our system of road markings during the past few years. It is a great convenience, and I think that it should be a punishable offence to cross it. If it is not made a punishable offence, there is no point in having a double white line because people will cross it knowing full well that they are not committing a punishable offence and that they will not lose their licences. The result will be that motorists will cross the double white line whenever they want to, and in a short time it will become meaningless. I like signs on the roads to have some meaning. I therefore support this Regulation to make crossing the double white line a punishable offence.

I deal next with contractors' lights. What objection has the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet to waiting his turn in the queue? Somebody has to wait his turn, but apparently it must not be the hon. Member for Thanet. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) can wait, so long as the hon. Member for Thanet gets through. This is the doctrine of the hon. Member. That is why he sits on the benches opposite. This is the doctrine of the party opposite,"Never mind anybody else so long as we get through. Let us get to the top. Let us get as much as we can". This is their philosophy. Therefore, I am not surprised at the speech of the hon. Member. But it does not make for good social behaviour.

We have hundreds or thousands of miles of single-track roads in the Highlands, and if that were the philosophy of the Highlanders not many people would get through. If the hon. Member for the Isle of Thanet went up to the Highlands with his doctrine, a crofter on his way to work would find that somebody had jumped the queue and had passed the crossing place, and the crofter would not be able to get along the road, because he would have to wait for the hon. Member, or somebody else from Thanet. We would never got moving.

The hon. Member ought to spend some time in the Highlands and learn a little about courtesy on the road. Up there the people would be only too pleased to say"Good morning" to him, after he had made them wait. This is Highland courtesy. It is a pity they do not practise it in Thanet.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

How can there be a double white line on a single-track Highland road?

Mr. Willis

In the Highlands we do not have to have these lights. We know how to use the single-track roads, simply because of the natural courtesy of the Highlanders. Unfortunately, we have to cater not simply for Highlanders, but for people from the Isle of Thanet—the hon. Member and his friends. Since we have to deal with him and his friends we have to have regulations. We must make regulations and be strict about them, and provide that the hon. Member must take his turn, just the same as other people. What is wrong about that, except to people who come from Thanet? Why should the man with the Jaguar, just because he can go a little faster, be able to go out of his turn while somebody else in a Mini-Minor has to wait? This is the doctrine of the hon. Member.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Is it? Why not the other way round? Why not the lorry driver?

Mr. Willis

I have travelled up from Edinburgh frequently by road during the past few years and, as anybody who travels on the A.1 knows, there are hundreds of miles of roads in which they have these contractors' lights, and I have never seen any difficulty about their operation. But difficulty would be caused if one or two people like the hon. Member, who did not think the lights were important, barged along. Then, before anyone knew where he was there would be half a dozen cars having to back in order to allow the hon. Member for Thanet to proceed.

Mr. Rees-Davies

The hon. Member agrees that under existing law it has worked all right. There has been no regulation. Will he explain why we need these regulations now?

Mr. Willis

The reason is the one that the hon. Member has given. He himself has said,"I came along the road. He had a 'Stop' sign, as though I was going to stop! I went through, and said to the fellow, 'What have you got that sign for?'"That is why we want these Regulations. If we have many people like the hon. Member using the roads, always thinking that they have the right of way and that nobody has the right to stop them—and he gave us a personal illustration—there is a need for these Regulations.

The hon. Member would ask,"Why are you holding me up?" Who does the hon. Member think he is that he must not be held up? What is the vital urgency of his job that he must not be held up? Everybody else may be held up, but not him. That is a preposterous doctrine.

I came here with an open mind about the matter, but having listened to the hon. Member I have been persuaded by his speech that the Regulations are necessary, because I can visualise myself meeting him on the A.1 where they may be doing a by-pass. Before I knew where I was I should be in the ditch at the side of the road, or in the road-works, so that he might proceed upon his way. I should like ordinary folk to be safeguarded against this sort of brigandage on his part. He is like one of the old Lords.

I see no difficulty about stopping. It is done for the convenience of people using the road, to try to speed things up and to regulate the traffic.

Mr. Rees-Davies

The hon. Member would regulate everything.

Mr. Willis

There are occasions on which regulations help to make life easier. He would like to live in a society where there is none of that. Irrespective of the subject, his speeches are always the same; he does not believe in regulation.

The hon. Member made the preposterous suggestion that the double white line was introduced to enable people to be convicted and to help the lawyers and the courts to decide. Does he seriously believe that they were introduced for the convenience of lawyers? I know that lawyers think that they are important, but most of the rest of society think they are a bit of a pest. Many of us would like to see them disappear and think that there are far too many of them. They are blood-suckers, living on the difficulties of other people.

The hon. Member said that the double white line was introduced to facilitate the process of prosecution in the courts. I never heard so much nonsense in my life. It was introduced as a means of helping people to use the roads with safety. I am prepared to support any Regulation in the House which enables people to use the roads in safety and which protects people against road users such as the hon. Member for Thanet.

The more I listened to him the more I appreciated that ordinary folk must be protected from users such as himself, and for these reasons I shall have much pleasure in voting for these Regulations.

11.4 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett)

I apologise to my hon. Friends who wish to contribute to the debate, but it has ranged over rather a wide field. The Regulations which we are discussing are of great importance and I think that I owe it to the House to try to give a full and careful reply.

It is seldom that a Prayer for the annulment of traffic sign Regulations raises such important issues as are raised tonight. The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) fell into two categories—those relating to the timing of the Regulations and those relating to their substance. I should like, first, to say a word about the timing, because there has been a great deal of controversy over the fact that some of the new penalty provisions can apply to offences committed before the Regulations came into force.

I will answer the question which my hon. Friend put to me when he asked whether an offence which was committed before these Regulations came into force will count. The answer is,"Yes". They are in the same category as the other offences which count for totting up or adding up.

Mr. Ronald Bell

If my hon. and gallant Friend is going on to answer the next question, may I anticipate him? Can he tell me the position with regard to an offence committed before 6th May, when the Regulations were made and published, but in respect of which the conviction happens not till after 29th May?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I understand that the answer to that is"Yes". I know that my hon. Friend made the point that the motorist could not know until 6th May which of the traffic sign offences would count, but I do not know that he has all that to complain about with regard to the other offences, because the whole lot might have come in. However, I will deal with that later in my speech.

My hon. Friend also made a good deal of play about the question of the review of the speed limits, which is only indirectly connected with the Prayer, but I see that there is a connection. The review, of course, has been completed on the trunk roads, and my right hon. Friend decided that the review on the other roads had gone far enough to justify bringing the Regulations into force. He had really to decide on a balance between the interest of safety, or of accepting what may be a very long delay in waiting for some of the authorities which are not proceeding so fast with the review as we had hoped.

Going back to the question of the alleged retrospective nature of these penalties, as my right hon. Friend said in reply to a Question by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), the Road Traffic Act, 1962, has now been on the Statute Book since 1st August last year, and really there has been no lack of public interest in it. I am sure that the motoring public have had ample opportunity to become aware of the provisions of Section 5(3).

This so-called totting up system and the fact that it could be brought into operation at any time by Order is well known. There has been no secret about it whatsoever. In fact, the House will recall, and particularly those hon. Members who were in Committee upstairs on the Bill, that the Government resisted attempts to make the totting up provision apply to offences for which there was a conviction before the Act came into force. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) moved an Amendment, I think I am right in saying, which would have had that effect. It would have meant that the first conviction after the Act came into force could count as No. 3 in the series, thereby making immediate disqualification automatic.

The Government resisted that as being too severe, but, at the same time, we want the Act to take effect quickly because we believe that lives are at stake. During the passage of the Bill we always referred to the date of conviction as the key date for the operation of the totting up system, and no hon. Member moved an Amendment to substitute the date of commission. So far as we knew at the time the House was with us in our desire to see the new provisions brought into effect quickly.

In practice, it would not now be possible to operate these totting up provisions by reference to the date of the commission of the offences. This is because, for the purposes of the totting up procedure, the offences are those endorsed on the driving licence under Section 7 of the Act, and the date which Section 7 requires to be endorsed on the licence is the date of the conviction, not the date of commission. Had any hon. Member wished to challenge the principle which we adopted during the passage of the Bill he would also have had to move an Amendment to Section 7.

It has also been said, though I must say not tonight by my hon. Friends, but I should like to answer the point because it has been mentioned in the Press, that these Regulations have been made after insufficient time for consultation with the interested parties such as is required by Section 260 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960. Since we thought it essential that the Regulations should become effective at the same time as the new penalty provisions, the period which the bodies con suited were given was one month, but it can hardly be said that this was all the notice that they had of their introduction.

The intention to make these Regulations has been clearly stated in the House on many occasions and no one interested in the subject could say that they were ignorant of the proposals or had inadequate notice of them. As a matter of fact, only one of the 17 organisations consulted criticised the short period that had been allowed for consultation, and possibly by no coincidence this was the organisation which was most critical of the Regulations.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Is there any association at all that has supported these Regulations in their present form, or were they one and all critical of them?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I could not answer that question without notice, because I have not studied all the 17. I can imagine one or two associations which, my guess would be, are in favour of the Regulations.

Turning to the substance of the Regulations, it seems to me that the arguments adduced tonight were concerned not so much with the detailed application of the Regulations as with their merits as a whole. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South said that we must accept the policy, but by the time I had listened to all his arguments and those of my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) there was precious little left of the Regulations, or there would have been. I make no complaint about that.

Mr. Ronald Bell

I do not think that is a correct interpretation of what I said. I accepted that the police traffic signals, should be included and also the"Halt" sign. I had a very open mind about the double white line in the middle of the road.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I did not suggest that my hon. Friend alone would have destroyed the Regulations, but when his arguments were combined with those of my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet I think that there would have been very little of the Regulations left.

The principles on which these Regulations rest were embodied in an Act of Parliament passed less than a year ago. If hon. Members wish to challenge the principles, if they think that they have become wrong or mistaken since last year, I suggest that the only proper course would be to amend the principal Act. It is surely undesirable to frustrate the intention of so recent an Act by nullifying Regulations which, after all, my right hon. Friend is required to make under the Act.

Before I turn to the three signs which are the subject of the detailed Regulations, I want to look very briefly at what these underlying principles are. What we tried to do was to gather together those offences which reflected dangerous or irresponsible behaviour on the part of a driver and to prescribe new penalties for them which would do two things—deter the sensible motorist from committing the offences and, in the case of the persistent offender, ensure that the courts had the power to deprive him for a period of the right to be on the road.

Hon. Members will recall that the list of offences to be included in this new system, which now comprise Parts I and II of the 1st Schedule to the Act, was very fully discussed during the progress of the Bill. In the case of traffic signs, it would clearly have been inconsistent with our general purpose if we had tried to argue that the failure to obey every traffic sign was an offence so dangerous in its consequences that it merited the imposition of the new penal ties. What we had to do was to select those signs failure to obey which would, as we thought, unquestionably constitute an instance of dangerous behaviour comparable with the other totting up offences.

The Act provides that these particular signs are to be prescribed by Regulation. Therefore, if I can persuade the House that each of the offences so prescribed is potentially lethal, I submit that there would be only one ground on which it would be justifiable to annul the Regulations—that is, if it were felt that the totting up procedure and the threat of mandatory disqualification would not be an effective deterrent. Nevertheless, it was certainly the opinion of the House last year that it would be, or the principle would never have been accepted. Moreover, although I cannot yet produce any statistics to prove it, it seems clear that since this Part of the Act came into force on 29th May, it has had some effect. If any hon. Member doubts this, let him drive on a restricted road, and I feel sure that he will notice how much less often he is now overtaken when driving at 30 m.p.h.

Let me turn to the three traffic signs to show the House that disregard of any of them can be dangerous. First, I should like to say a word about the"Halt" sign. I recognise that the"Halt" sign was not very seriously challenged. I do not think that anyone can doubt that complete disregard of the sign is obviously dangerous and merits a severe penalty. But it is sometimes argued, and it was argued today by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South, that it is not necessarily dangerous to slow down at a"Halt" sign and, as it were,"trickle" over the line without actually stopping.

Against this, I would argue, first, that we are considering an offence which is intended to be absolute. The test is simply whether a vehicle stops or not. Whether it stops by the line or perhaps two or three feet short of the line is immaterial, but it must stop. If we allowed any latitude, I am very much afraid that a driver accused of this offence, who had the wisdom and the means to retain one of my two hon. Friends who are connected with the law, would have very little difficulty in securing an acquittal. I feel sure of it.

Nor is the argument against condoning the practice of"trickling" across the halt line limited to the question of conviction. It can be highly dangerous. For example, let us imagine a motor cyclist travelling along a major road at high speed, which he is perfectly entitled to do if it is a derestricted road, and who may know that there is a"Halt" sign at the intersection which he is approaching. Therefore, he has a right to expect that a lorry, whose roof perhaps he can see over the hedge, will stop before it emerges into the main road. If that lorry"trickles" across the line, no matter how slowly, instead of stopping, the motor cyclist may have to swerve or brake sharply, which can easily cause a fatal accident.

Because this is an absolute offence,"Halt" signs are only erected with the approval of my righthon. Friend. They are only erected where the road is deceptive, where an unfamiliar driver would not expect there to be a major road perhaps, or where he does not get a clear view of it. It is precisely for this reason that it cannot be left to the judgment of the individual whether to stop or not.

If evidence is needed of the care that we take to ensure that these signs are erected only where they are necessary, then Question Time on Wednesday afternoons will furnish that evidence. We often hear complaints that permission has been refused to put up a"Halt" sign, but I recollect no case of a request for a"Halt" sign to be removed.

I should like to turn to the matter of traffic lights. The case for the ordinary traffic lights is equally clear and I do not think that it was seriously challenged today. Of course, the offence of crossing the red light can arise in a number of ways. A driver may disregard the traffic signal completely because he has not seen it, and this sometimes happens in the centre of cities at night when drivers are uncertain of the road, when there is not much traffic, or there is a blaze of advertisement lights behind the traffic lights. It happens when the driver's view of the traffic lights is obscured by a larger vehicle in front. We know that, and this is perhaps the least culpable case because the average driver is unlikely to commit the offence when there is cross traffic. Nevertheless, here again, it is an absolute offence and we do not feel that any exceptions can be made.

The second class of case is where an impatient driver voluntarily crosses the lights when they are at red and amber, or where they are changing from amber to red. In either case this is highly dangerous, as I am sure the House will agree. It is dangerous not only to other vehicles, but also to pedestrians.

The third and, I think, the worst class of case occurs when a vehicle is being driven too fast to stop. Most traffic lights are to be found in the restricted areas, so that this offence usually involves two offences—speeding in the first instance, and then crossing against the lights in the second instance. After all, a car travelling at 30 m.p.h. will cover 132 ft. in three seconds, and three seconds is the normal time for which the amber light burns before the red comes on. The braking distance of a car at that speed is 75 ft. Therefore, there is no excuse, I think, for a driver unable to stop before the amber turns to red, and thus it is the offence in what I would regard as its most dangerous form.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

There is frequently the case of coming up to lights at about 30 m.p.h., or perhaps a bit over, with a car on one's tail at that point, and it really is rather dangerous to halt suddenly when the light is at yellow. That frequently happens where cars go over the lights, and in that case the drivers cannot really be blamed.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

Well, I would not argue with a motorist of such great experience as my hon. Friend, but I must say that I think that in that case the driver behind is at fault in being so close.

A great deal has been said about contractors' lights, and I want to answer those points. Incidentally, I can relieve the anxiety of my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet at once, because the Regulations apply only to the automatic lights, so that whatever unpleasantness may follow his encounter with his tea-drinking friend it cannot result in qualifying for the totting up offence.

However, it has been argued tonight that the full rigour of the law in its application to these totting up rules should not apply to the special case of contractors' lights. I would agree at once—I will concede this—that these lights can be exceedingly annoying on occasions, when one waits for a long time and the road is obviously clear; but that does not mean they can be disregarded.

Mr. Willis

It applies to ordinary traffic lights as well.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I agree. Of course it does. It does not mean they can be disregarded.

To begin with, I would point out to my hon. Friends that it is sometimes very difficult to tell at night whether the red light is a traffic light, or a contractor's light. It is not always that easy to see, for a driver who does not know the road, and the only safe thing to do, when one sees one or more red lights ahead, is to slow down when approaching, and then, if necessary, stop.

It is perfectly true that to disregard a contractor's signal may not always be as dangerous as to ignore a traffic light at crossroads. Of course not. That is particularly true on a single carriageway when visibility is clear over a long distance, and to disregard it perhaps only results in a monumental traffic jam, but where the single carriageway is not so long, then to ignore the red light, and when travelling at high speed, can easily lead to a head-on collision.

We do our best to see that these contractors' signals are properly adjusted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South pointed out, a code has been issued to all concerned with road works, and in this code, which my hon. Friend quoted, advice is given on the siting and adjustment of these lights, but, even if they are badly sited, or even if they are wrongly adjusted, as sometimes happens, that is no reason for ignoring them. None the less we will, I can assure him, pay very careful attention to the points which were made both by him and by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet, to see whether the code stands in need of amendment.

Mr. Rees-Davies

For the sake of clarification, is my hon. and gallant Friend saying that hand-operated automatic lights do not come within these Regulations?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

That is my understanding.

I want to turn now to double white lines, which my hon. Friend again argued as the most doubtful traffic sign included in the Regulations. Let me assure him that he is mistaken in thinking that the object of the double white lines is to facilitate convictions. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) is quite right: their object is to make for greater safety. Disobedience of these lines has been an offence since 1959. There is nothing new in the offence of going on the wrong side of them.

Personally, I regard this particular traffic sign as the most important in the whole of these Regulations. It is for this reason. On a stretch of road which is marked with double white lines a driver is entitled to assume that an oncoming car on his own side of the road will not be met. Dougle white lines are mainly used on the derestricted roads where the speeds may be high and disregard of the lines can, therefore, lead to a particularly serious head-on collision.

To give an example, it may be very irksome for the driver of a car travelling at 65 m.p.h. to follow a lorry even though the lorry may be slightly exceeding the speed limit and travelling at 45 m.p.h. It may be very tempting for the driver of the fast car, if the road appears to be clear, to pull out across the double white line and overtake. Yet if a car is travelling in the opposite direction at 70 m.p.h. a little arithmetic will show that there will be a head-on collision if the oncoming car was as much as 1,000 ft. away from the offending driver when he first crossed the double white line. When it is considered that these lines are not intended to be used where there is clear visibility for as much as 1,000 ft., it becomes obvious how dangerous it is for drivers to exercise their own judgment and break the law.

Moreover, these markings add immensely to the safety of motorists on winding and narrow roads. If they are properly observed, they enable them to maintain higher speeds with safety when the road ahead of them is clear. It is for this reason that when the law is broken there is a particular danger. It is because the consequences of disregarding the double white lines are so serious that we think it is essential that double white lines should be included in the list of offences.

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

Does my hon. and gallant Friend realise that it is a much greater difficulty for the driver of an articulated lorry to observe the double white lines than it is for the ordinary motorist, and that in view of this some highway authorities make very little use of the double white lines?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I take note of what my right hon. Friend says and will certainly look into that. But I think what I am about to say has some bearing on his point.

It is often argued that the signs can be badly sited. It would be very surprising if this were not occasionally so. But it is no reason for disregarding them. Two wrongs do not make one right. If a sign is so sited that compliance with it can be shown to be unreasonably difficult or even impossible, it will be for the courts to decide whether this is a circumstance mitigating the offence or even a ground for an acquittal. But whenever a driver thinks a sign is badly sited or unjustified, it is still his duty to obey it. It is always open to him to complain afterwards to the highway authority, the Ministry or even his Member of Parliament.

I suggest that the real issue is whether we are always to rely on the judgment of the individual driver or exercise control by the enforcement of absolute rules. It is inevitable that rules aimed at avoiding the misjudgments of the average driver will be irksome to those of superlative skill. What might be safe for my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet would be rash and foolhardy for lesser mortals. Nevertheless, we try to fetter individual judgment as little as possible. The sort of absolute control represented by the traffic signs we are discussing should only be used when it is really necessary. We try not to be too rigid.

Only a few days ago I resisted a strong plea in this House that we should make it compulsory for everyone to drive with dipped headlamps in towns at night. It may turn out that this would lead to greater safety, but we are always reluctant to lay down hard and fast rules unless there is proven necessity. At the same time, as our roads become more and more crowded we may, nevertheless, have to face more and more controls. This will slow down the experts, but it will raise the average speed of the average drivers, and, what matters most, it will make for greater safety for all.

For these reasons I ask my hon. Friends not to press their Prayer but to allow the Regulations to go forward.

Mr. Ronald Bell

In view of what my hon. and gallant Friend has said, and his undertaking that these matters will be carefully considered by the Department, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.