HC Deb 21 June 1963 vol 679 cc905-14

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

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Leonard Cleaver (Birmingham, Yardley)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the success of the City of Birmingham's dipped headlights experiment, and I will explain how it came to be made, describe it and then draw one or two conclusions from the result thereof.

With the object of endeavouring to take some action to reduce the appalling accident rate in the City of Birmingham as shown by the figures for the year 1961, it was decided that for a fortnight motorists should be asked to drive with their headlights on and dipped, and not with their sidelights on only. This scheme resulted in such a fall in the casualty rate and there was such cooperation from motorists—and it was welcomed so wholeheartedly by pedestrians—that it was decided to hold a much longer experiment for five months from the end of October, 1962.

This pilot scheme had shown that the discomfort of being followed by dipped headlights or meeting opposed dipped headlights was not sufficient to prevent their use by the majority of road users. It had clearly intimated that the use of dipped headlights would reduce the accident and casualty rates, but it was felt that the short period of the experiment and the good weather which had attended it did not allow the scheme to prove conclusively that dipped headlights would save lives in all weather conditions. It was decided, therefore, to carry out a long winter experiment from October, 1962, to March, 1963.

The scheme was supported by the R.A.C., the Automobile Association, the Pedestrians' Association, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the police, the city authorities, the Road Research Laboratory and also the Traffic Department of the Birmingham University. Moreover, publicity was given to it by the Press and on television and notices were erected on all radial roads leading into Birmingham.

As a result of this propaganda—and, more important, the co-operation of motorists—whereas before the scheme was introduced less than 5 per cent. were using dipped headlights on well-lit roads and about 10 per cent. on badly-lit roads, these figures increased to 50 per cent. using dipped headlights on well-lit roads and 70 per cent. on badly-lit roads by the end of the experiment. At the same time, the flashing of headlights in retaliation to dipped headlights became a thing of the past, and very soon after the campaign had commenced, and as motorists began to appreciate the advantages of driving in this way—in fact, the longer the campaign continued—the greater became the number of motorists co-operating.

The results were absolutely remarkable. During the experiment, there were 138 fewer accidents—a reduction of 16.9 per cent.; 19 fewer fatalities—a reduction of 49 per cent.;. 84 fewer injuries—a reduction of 8.5 per cent.; 16 fewer pedestrians killed—a reduction of 66 per cent.—and a reduction of 63 per cent. among those over 60; 28 fewer pedestrians injured—a reduction of 9.2 per cent. All those figures are in comparison with the figures for the same period in the year 1961–62. There is no doubt that a large proportion of these reductions was made possible through the use of dipped headlights.

There are three factors on which the success of the experiment must be judged: first, the overall reduction of accidents relative to previous years, and to other cities; secondly, the specific cause of accidents; and, thirdly, the possible deterioration of driving due to alleged glare. On all these counts, the experiment was a success. The reduction of accidents was 16.9 per cent., and of pedestrians killed at night, 55 per cent. In only three out of 677 accidents was glare alleged to be a contributing factor.

A comparison with four other major cities—Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds—shows that night accidents per 100,000 registered vehicles for the same period of 22 weeks were: Birmingham, 312; Leeds, 518; Manchester, 683; Liverpool, 783; and Glasgow, 765. The only city to carry out a dipped headlight campaign was Birmingham, with that excellent record of 312.

The opinion of the public was also sought during the experiment. The Highways and Traffic Engineering School of Birmingham University asked members of the public to complete a questionnaire. A report compiled from the answers showed that in answer to the question: Do you feel that dipped headlights give you a better warning of the approach of a vehicle? 93 per cent. of motorists and 92 per cent. of pedestrians were of the opinion that dipped headlights did give them a better warning of the approach of a vehicle. In addition, 60 per cent. of motorists and cyclists and about 80 per cent. of pedestrians expressed themselves in favour of all moving vehicles using dipped headlights at night on well-lit streets.

Some people are afraid that driving on dipped headlights will cause a lot of discomfort because of dazzle. The plain fact is that there will be no dazzle provided one's headlights are aimed properly, so that the beam does not strike the driver of the oncoming car. In view of this, it was considered important to ascertain whether motorists' headlights were aimed properly, and whether their electrical equipment was in an efficient condition.

For this purpose, 72 garages co-operated in carrying out checks on headlight aim during the campaign, and about 1,000 cars were checked in this way. Unfortunately, only 35 per cent. were found to be aimed correctly; 19 per cent. were found to be aimed too high, and 40 per cent. were found to be aimed too low.

To sum up, the experiment has been a complete success, as is shown by the reduction in all types of accidents. The lessons that have been learned are these. It is a great advantage, particularly to old people, to be able to see clearly a vehicle when it is approaching. Sidelights alone cannot be seen and when they can be seen it is extremely difficult to judge the distance they are away and decide whether the vehicle is moving and if so at what speed. The driver gets a better view of the road. He is able to see pedestrians more easily, as the majority wear dark clothing and cannot be seen easily with the use of sidelights only. He will be able to pick up the reflectors of other traffic on the road, such as bicycles and lorries, whereas reflectors do not reflect from sidelights.

It is an interesting fact that a reflector can then be seen as much as five times further away when headlights are used. Motorists also get better vision, enabling them to see all cyclists and parked cars. They can also see better in dark shadows between pools of light, and particularly when pedestrians step into the road. Dipped headlights help too at cross-roads and give warning of the approach of another vehicle.

Finally, the experiment has shown that the essential point to remember is that by using dipped headlights motorists can see and can be seen by other road users. The sponsors of this scheme would like this method to be adopted over the whole country, so that it would be known that when one saw a vehicle with its headlights on it was a moving vehicle and that when one saw a vehicle with its sidelights on only one would know that it was stationary. If this could happen it could contribute immensely to the safety of our roads.

The imposition of the 50 m.p.h. speed limit resulted in a reduction in the number of fatalities by 34 per cent. The Birmingham dipped headlights scheme resulted in a fall of 49 per cent. in the death rate. Therefore, if the speed limit is worthy of regulation, how much more is the use of dipped headlights which have proved themselves over 22 weeks and not just over a few weekends. Inquiries have shown that 60 per cent. of pedestrians favour the use of dipped headlights on all vehicles, even in well-lit streets, and over 90 per cent. of all classes of road users feel that dipped headlights give them better warning of the approach of a vehicle.

I ask the Minister, therefore, to make the use of dipped headlights at night compulsory in the United Kingdom next winter, either by temporary regulation or by a voluntary national campaign sponsored by the Ministry. I estimate that a national campaign would save at least 950 lives and prevent 15,000 injuries. These figures have been compiled by applying the Birmingham reductions to the national casualty figures for 1961–62. I hope that we can have an early decision on this matter. These experiments take some time to organise, and if we have to wait until August it might well be too late for anything to be done this winter.

Not only are Birmingham citizens convinced that this method of driving is the safest but many coroners and judges, whose duty it is to deal with the aftermath of the carnage on our roads, are constantly advocating the use of dipped headlights. For example, the coroner at Middleton in June last, when bringing in a verdict of "Accidental Death" on a motor cyclist said: Here again is an example where dipped headlights might have saved a life. Again, the deputy coroner of Leicester said in May that a motorist might have seen a man lying in the road had he been driving on dipped headlights. Unfortunately, he was not, with tragic results.

Mr. Justice Glyn Jones said in the High Court: With street lights, shop windows and advertisements, little sidelights on an approaching car are missed over and over again. That is why I think it is quite a good thing for motorists to drive on dipped headlights, not for their own benefit but so that they are more clearly visible. I understand the Minister to be waiting for a report from the Road Research Laboratory. I should have thought the information given by the Birmingham experiment was quite sufficient to justify him taking action straight away. It is really remarkable that when 80 million out of 125 million motorists in the world already drive on dipped headlights, we have to experiment about it.

This method of driving with dipped headlights on has proved over an extended period to have reduced the death and casualty rates on the streets of the City of Birmingham. If applied nationally it could do the same thing. We cannot afford to ignore any means whereby we can make our roads safer for motorist and pedestrian alike. The remedy to many accidents is at the motorist's finger tips. He should put his headlights on. I ask the Minister to make it compulsory for him to do so.

4.16 p.m.

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

I wish, first, to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Cleaver) for the interest which he has taken in the safety of road users at night. It was in pursuit of this interest that he played a leading part in organising the first experiment which was carried out in Birmingham last year between 12th and 25th March. Although that experiment was too short to provide any conclusive results, all concerned were agreed that a further experiment should be held lasting throughout the winter months.

My hon. Friend has given us a most interesting and informative account of this further experiment. May I say on behalf of my right hon. Friend that we are grateful to him for what he has done, and also to the other authorities and bodies which helped in making the arrangements. In this connection, I should like to mention the then Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Alderman Ernest Horton, and the chief constable, Mr. Dodd. Their work in support of the experiment has been invaluable.

The Highway and Traffic Engineering School of Birmingham University also made a very valuable contribution by collecting the material for a report on public opinion about the experiment. I should also like to mention the work done by Messrs. Joseph Lucas who, incidentally, I understand, arranged a free service of headlamp adjustment to prevent dazzle by dipped headlights.

Before going on to talk about the experiment itself there is one point that I must make. There is no substitute for good night vision and constant alertness to ensure safety on the roads at night. We in the Ministry of Transport do what we can by helping to improve street lighting and by making regulations about the lighting that vehicles must carry, but these do not relieve anyone using the roads at night, be he pedestrian, cyclist or driver, of his individual responsibility.

In considering the Birmingham experiment I want to make it clear to the House what my right hon. Friend hopes will be gained by it. He hopes that it will help him to decide what use to make of his new powers under the Road Traffic Act, 1962, so as to promote greater safety on our roads.

Perhaps I could say a word about the present position. At present the only condition imposed on drivers at night is to use their sidelights. There is as yet no requirement for any vehicle to carry headlamps in any circumstances. The only regulations about headlamps are those laying down the conditions they must comply with if they are used, including the prevention of dazzle which is, of course, very important.

The present practice which drivers should follow at night in city streets is set out in Rule 50 of the Highway Code which advises the use of dipped headlamps at night in built-up areas unless the street lighting is good. In practice, not many drivers use headlights when there is any street lighting. There is, of course, something to be said for leaving the matter to individual judgment where street lighting is good because the standard of night vision varies so greatly from one person to another. Nevertheless, we do not think these provisions go far enough.

My right hon. Friend therefore obtained additional powers in the Road Traffic Act, 1962. These new powers are contained in Section 15 of that Act. They enable my right hon. Friend to require vehicles to carry headlamps; to prescribe the conditions with which they must comply; and the circumstances in which they must be used. My right hon. Friend is, as I have said, looking to the results of the Birmingham experiment to help him in the exercise of these powers. He attaches great importance to this question of controlling the use of headlamps. It is too early to forecast what regulations will be made under these powers. I can, however, say that there is certainly a case for requiring the use of headlamps on unlit roads. In deciding what regulations are desirable in towns we shall certainly be assisted by the results of the experiment which has been conducted in Birmingham.

May I say a word about pedestrians? One thing I think is clear: the use of headlamps often helps pedestrians. It has been pointed out that it is difficult for them to judge the speed of an approaching vehicle at night when all they can see is two points of light from its side lamps. A moving patch of light thrown on the roadway by dipped headlights is much more helpful. Yet even here a word of caution is necessary, since a pedestrian, after seeing a mass of headlamps, might perhaps fail to notice a bicycle.

As my hon. Friend stated, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham has sent a most interesting interim report to my right hon. Friend giving considerable detailed information about what happened in Birmingham during the period of the experiment. Some of the figures in that report are most encouraging. We have heard them from my hon. Friend. But we must be careful about making an appreciation of the actual results. It is probable that the mere fact of the experiment taking place had some effect. It may be that the publicity which it was given and the safety consciousness which the experiment inspired in both the public and the police played a part in reducing the accident figures. Another difficulty lies in the fact that on average only about 60 per cent. of the drivers in Birmingham used their headlamps. It has unfortunately not been possible in every case to distinguish between cars which used their headlamps and those which did not.

To arrive at an objective assessment we need to know how the experience in Birmingham compares with what happened in other districts. I know that certain comparative figures are contained in the report. The Road Research Laboratory has been asked to make an investigation of accident statistics both for Birmingham itself and for selected control areas. The Laboratory is also analysing the accident figures by reference to the standard of street lighting in various Birmingham streets. We hope to have its report very soon, and that it will be possible for it to be published during the Summer Recess. We are grateful to the Road Research Laboratory for undertaking this task with dispatch.

Until we have the Laboratory's report it would clearly be wrong for me to express any views to the House about the results of the experiment. What I can say is that the decrease in casualties, and particularly in fatal casualties, during the experiment is most welcome. However, work already done by the Road Research Laboratory shows that the fall in night-time accidents was accompanied by an almost identical fall in day-time accidents. This is just one reason for awaiting the Laboratory's full report before we attempt to form conclusions.

My right hon. Friend suggested that if the evidence of the Birmingham experiment does not prove to be conclusive we should have a nation-wide experiment, making the use of dipped headlamps at night compulsory throughout the country next winter. Similarly, it is being suggested that an experiment should be carried out covering the whole of the Metropolitan Police District. I do not wish to pre-judge the Road Research Laboratory's conclusions, but I must say that if further experiment is shown to be necessary, I do not think that this would be the best form in which to carry it out. To obtain the best results we should probably need a carefully controlled experiment covering an area small enough to permit more detailed study. Other similar areas where conditions were normal would then have to be selected for study so that a true comparison could be made. In any case, it is premature to consider a further experiment until we have a full evalution of the Birmingham one.

I must, however, add a word of caution. Even if it were proved conclusively that accidents were substantially reduced as a direct result of using dipped headlights, we should still have to think carefully before making their use compulsory everywhere. It would be a major departure from existing policy to make dipped headlamps compulsory on all roads after lighting-up time regardless of the standard of street lighting. But anything short of that would involve yet another classification of roads within built-up areas, together with suitable signs to indicate where dipped headlamps would be required. We should also have to consider the adequacy of batteries and electrical equipment if vehicles had to be used in urban traffic with their headlamps switched on all the time.

We hear much nowadays of the harrying of the motorist and we really would have to be convinced of the necessity for such action before imposing additional burdens upon him, both, perhaps, financially and by adding yet one more to the list of offences for which he can be punished. But, as I have said, before we go further we must await the report of the Road Research Laboratory. At this stage, therefore, I can only repeat our appreciation of the valuable work which has been done in Birmingham and thank my hon. Friend again for raising this interesting and important subject today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Four o'clock.