HC Deb 14 April 1964 vol 693 cc380-92

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

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I desire to call attention tonight to the road casualties caused by heavy vehicles. I will refer to them as lorries, as perhaps they are better known by that term. A few weeks ago a lorry out of control careered down Highgate Hill, ran across a crowded pavement, killed two pedestrians, and crashed through the wall of a bank. The lorry was overloaded by more than 3½ tons. Part of the braking system was misplaced, and had been so for some considerable time. The driver changed down only after he had applied the brakes and found that nothing happened. The driver had started work with the lorry owners only on the previous day.

These facts highlight some of the points which I would like to make. But this is only one of very many similar accidents which happen every day throughout the country, accidents causing death due to mechanical or human failure of the lorry or its driver. What further disasters could have happened in that case had the lorry been loaded, as it ploughed across a crowded pavement, with some dangerous substance such as oil, petrol, gas, acid or even red-hot steel ingots, which sometimes travel by lorry, do not bear thinking about.

It is fair to say immediately that for milage travelled lorries are involved in fewer accidents than other vehicles, but a lorry, on average, travels about 20,000 miles a year, whereas the private car travels, on average, about 8,000 miles a year. So, per lorry, the accident rate is probably the worst for all types of vehicle. For fatal accidents alone the involvement rate for lorries is noticeably higher than for private cars or light commercial vehicles.

Accidents to lorries happen not merely by reason of careless driving. Of course, careless driving is the cause of accidents to many vehicles. In the case of lorries, however, other factors are involved—factors which are easier to eradicate, perhaps, provided that one is determined to do so and that the problem is tackled vigorously.

I would divide these factors into six categories: first, mechanical defects, and, in particular, defects in the braking system; second, mechanical inefficiency; third, dangerous loading; fourth, human lack of experience and skill; fifth, physical strain; sixth, speed. I will deal with each factor separately.

In the case of mechanical defects, the Ministry's qualified engineers, who spot-check lorries on the road, in one year took off the road immediately one out of every 11 lorries they stopped. That number of lorries was forbidden to go another yard on the road because they were a danger to life and limb. The figures for the north-western area, which are of particular interest to me because my constituency is in that part of the country, show that out of 6,682 vehicles stopped for spot checks, 1,055 were taken off the road at once. That means that three out of every 20 were murder vehicles. Of the rest, two out of three stopped were served with delayed prohibition notices.

These figures are terrifying. I do not believe that the public realise the incredible fact that lorries, which travel pehaps three, four or even five times as far every year as private cars, are not subject to any test except spot checking.

On my second point, not only defects in accepted construction cause accidents in which lorries are involved, but I believe that the construction itself is, in many cases, inefficient. Can we afford to have on our roads vehicles which, even in the best conditions, take perhaps three times as far to pull up as an ordinary car? I am told that articulated vehicles take even further to stop, frequently as far as 100 yards at 40 m.p.h. Coupled with this, it must be remembered that these vehicles often travel nose to tail at speeds faster than the vision-and-braking distances safely permit. Is it any wonder that "concertina" accidents take place on the motorways? I do not believe that the public realise that although standards of braking are laid down by the Ministry for private cars, no such standards are laid down for lorries.

My third point concerns loading. Regulations about dangerous loads—such as petrol, acids, gases and explosives—are, I submit, wholly inadequate. I appreciate that they do not come under my hon. Friend's Department, but under the Home Office. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend has power to make regulations and I hope that he will agree that adequate ones should be made for the protection of the public against dangerous loads. Apart from the intrinsically dangerous loads, there is almost a complete absence of control over the security of loading and the possibility of overloading; and, of course, too many heavy loads go by road when they should go by rail.

I turn to the human element. It is astonishing to think that there is no assurance that a driver of, say, a 24-ton lorry has had a moment's experience, let alone instruction, in the skills of lorry driving. He can take a test on a Mini-car and slip straight into the cab of a 24-ton lorry. It is a question of luck whether he knows anything about the skills of lorry driving, which are quite different from the skills required to drive an ordinary car. It is easy, for example, to fade the brakes by starting off down a hill too quickly, ending up by bringing death to innocent passers-by or drivers in the path of a runaway lorry.

My fifth point concerns physical strain. There are too many of what are called "cowboy" drivers on our roads. These are the "day and night merchants" who deliberately break the law concerning the hours of driving. They know that they should drive for only 11 hours out of every 24, yet they do the Liverpool-London Liverpool trip—these "up and downers", as they are called—in a day, that is, more than 400 miles at a stretch. They flog their lorries along the motorways, with the result that the condition of those vehicles, the physical strain on the drivers, and the speed at which they travel all add up to murder on our roads.

I do not consider that 8,500 prosecutions a year for failing to keep records hit the right people. Too many of them are against the small, local C licensed vans. The real danger lies in the "cowboy" drivers and, indeed, in the owners of the tramp lorries, who are too greedy financially, and who are prepared to flog themselves and their lorries just to earn a little more money.

My last point is the speed limit. The limit for lorries over 3 tons unladen weight was increased from 20 miles per hour to 30 m.p.h. in 1957. In a couple of years, personal injury accidents in which lorries were involved had increased by nearly 50 per cent. It was the utmost folly then to increase that speed limit from 30 m.p.h. to 40 m.p.h.—a folly matched only by the absence of a speed limit on motorways.

Coming back to my six points, what are we to do about each of them? First, on mechanical defects, tests for lorries should be provided in the same way as they are provided for private cars. It is quite incredible that we should go on allowing lorries to go on the road, and merely be spot checked, without the proper annual tests. I know that there is difficulty in providing for such tests, but we really should make that provision right away.

Secondly, there is mechanical inefficiency. I would hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister could set up a special investigation, by the Road Research Laboratory or a special committee, into braking systems in particular. We need a wholly new approach to the braking system on lorries. There are new systems, such as those used with the big civil engineering projects in Australia where normal braking systems on the very heavy vehicles used there would have been quite useless. There are systems of exhaust baffling, gearbox locking, and so on, all of which need careful investigation, because, as I say, we need a new outlook towards the braking system of the lorry.

The solution of the dangerous-loads problem is realistic regulations to protect the public from the dangers from explosives, gases, acids and the like, carried on the public highway. Also, I would hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister could increase his overworked and undermanned examination staff. There are too few of these men on the roads to carry out proper examination, and I would hope that he could soon put into operation the plating system that would expose the overloading of lorries.

As to human skill, we must restore the pre-war heavy-vehicle licence, and make it compulsory for the lorry driver to hold it. My right hon. Friend has the power to do that under Section 192 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960. I hope that he will soon restore that form of licence, and see that every lorry driver holds it, so that the public has some assurance that the driver has experience of driving lorries.

The physical strain that I mentioned among those driving over 400 miles a day should be dealt with by an increase in the Ministry's examining staff who can stop these lorries and examine their records. But it also needs more police co-operation, such as the three-county patrols used on the M.6. If there were more of those on the M.1, then I am sure that some of these dangers on the road would be detected.

Finally, I would hope that my right hon. Friend, now having seen the accidents that are being caused by the lorries, would have restored the 30 m.p.h. speed limit for heavy vehicles, and would also have imposed a 50 m.p.h. speed limit on heavy vehicles on motorways.

These steps really must be taken at once in order to stop the increasing terror to other road users from too many badly-constructed, badly-maintained and badly-driven lorries.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

I intervene for a moment only because I know that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport would like the rest of the time to reply. I am grateful to him for allowing me a few moments. I am most indebted to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) for his powerful speech. I look forward to studying it tomorrow in HANSARD and I shall do my best to ensure that the horrifying facts which he has revealed are made known widely throughout the country.

In January this year, on the day of the concertina accidents on the M.1 and the A.1, I had a most horrifying experience south of Scotch Corner. I drove about 10 miles on the A.1. It was twilight and fog was beginning to close in. An hour later there were 40 accidents within a mile just north of Doncaster. Lorries were passing me at 60 m.p.h. and 70 m.p.h. My windscreen was covered with mud at every moment. I retreated from the A.1 at the first road I could find which took me by the old kind of motor road to the city of York where I prudently spent the night. I felt that I had come out of a madhouse when I left the road, and it was the lorries that were making it so. I should like to know how many of the horrifying abuses revealed by the hon. Member for Crosby apply to the vehicles and services of British Road Services. I know that the B.R.S. never paid its drivers for the number of journeys done, which is the main root of existing evils. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can tell us.

The only remedy is to put a great deal of this heavy traffic back on to the railway. I have frequently called to the attention of the House the heavy coal lorry, steel lorry and other heavy vehicle traffic through my constituency of Derby. It amounts to hundreds per hour, or four, five and six per minute carrying 10 tons. Only this morning I was informed that Dr. Beeching is proposing to close seven or eight coal distribution rail depôts in Derby with the result that 50,000 tons of coal will now have to be distributed through Derby by road instead of by rail. These facts alarm me very greatly, and I hope that the Minister will do something effective to put them right.

10.17 p.m.

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

To answer one point raised by the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker) I cannot tell him without notice the number of accidents suffered by B.R.S. vehicles or drivers, but I will look into the matter and will write to him.

I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) for raising this subject tonight. He has fought hard for many years for road safety. We do not always agree with all his proposals, but I have no doubt that he does a very valuable public service in helping to keep this problem before Parliament.

It is right that all of us, Government legislature and public, should be compelled to pause and think of the shameful toll of accidents on our roads and it is good that we should frequently discuss ways and means of reducing them. As long as my hon. Friend is in the House so much at least is ensured, but having said that I am bound to add that there is a tendency in the public mind to look upon heavy vehicles as a source of particular danger because they appear to be large and menacing on the roads and because some of the accidents in which they are involved are so spectacular. While, therefore, I have no wish to play down the importance of improving the safety of heavy goods vehicles I ought, in fairness, to set the matter in its correct perspective.

The fact is that heavy goods vehicles as a whole have an accident record which compares favourably with that of other classes of vehicles. Heavy goods vehicles are usually regarded as those of over 3 tons unladen weight. There are about one-third of a million of these on the roads. Our figures do not allow us at present to calculate the accident rates per mile travelled for goods vehicles of over 3 tons as distinct from vehicles of over 1½ tons unladen weight.

We do know, however, that in 1963 there were 12,000 vehicles of 1½ to 3 tons and about 19,000 vehicles of over 3 tons which were involved in accidents causing injury. Taken together, these classes of vehicle accounted for 8 per cent. of all the motor vehicles involved in accidents during the year. Taking into account the mileage covered by goods vehicles, which is much greater than that of other vehicles, it can be calculated that goods vehicles over 1½ tons have a lower accident rate mile for mile than any other class of vehicle. I think that my hon. Friend recognised this.

There are also figures to show how the accident rate has varied from year to year. Before 1963, it was decreasing. Last year, the trend was reversed and the rate increased by 7 per cent. We cannot fully explain this increase, although it seems clear that it was caused partly by the severe weather early in the year, which, of course, hit the goods vehicles very hard because they had to keep essential supplies moving. However, that is not the whole explanation as there has been a general increase in accidents involving not only goods vehicles but private cars and other classes of vehicle as well.

The accident figures do not at the moment support the suggestion often made, and made by my hon. Friend, that the raising of authorised speed limits has been an important factor. However, the authorised speed and the speed at which heavy vehicles are sometimes driven are two very different things. No one can deny that excessive speed is dangerous, particularly with heavily laden vehicles and particularly on narrow and winding roads. I have noted what my hon. Friend had to say about the importance of strict enforcement of the speed regulations, and I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to his observations.

My hon. Friend is, of course, right to urge that the whole problem of improving the safety of heavy vehicles needs to be tackled. I wish now to refer briefly to some of the ways in which we are going about it. First, there are several ways in which we are encouraging an improvement in the standards of drivers of heavy goods vehicles. It has been suggested, and my hon. Friend suggested it this evening, that the pre-war special licence should be reintroduced, together with a special test. We rather doubt whether a once-for-all official test of this character would add much of value to the existing ordinary driving test. At the very most, it would ensure that a man who passed had a minimum standard of skill on the particular kind of vehicle on which he was tested. But this is seldom in doubt with the professional driver. It would not be easy to evolve a test to cover the handling of a vehicle in bad visibility or in an emergency. Besides that, no test can ensure good behaviour on the road afterwards.

There are in existence various schemes to foster the interest of drivers in developing their skill and maintaining a safe driving record. Many drivers are entered by their employers in one or other of three special competitions designed to promote a better standard of driving.

The largest competition is the National Safe Driving Competition which is organised by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. This is open to drivers of all types of commercial vehicles, and awards are made according to the extent to which entrants have maintained their records free of accidents and free of driving convictions. About 200,000 drivers participate annually, most of whom are goods vehicle drivers.

There is a similar competition organised by the Road Operators' Safety Council, which attracts about 80,000 entrants annually. There is also a more specialised event called the "Lorry Driver of the Year Competition", open to drivers of the heavier vehicles. The competitors not only have to have a good record but they are also required to undergo practical tests of both driving skill and knowledge of the Highway Code.

We believe that these competitions can and do make an important contribution to the general standard of driving among professional lorry drivers. Yet there are always the black sheep who can be caught only by strict enforcement of the traffic laws. The new "totting-up" procedure should prove an invaluable weapon against the persistent offender and make it impossible for him to be protected against the consequences of his actions by having his fines paid for him by his employer—a practice which, I say in passing, I regard as contrary to the public interest.

I turn now to the enforcement of the regulations governing the hours worked by drivers of long-distance lorries. The licensing authorities devote a great deal of attention to this subject and they have about 140 staff engaged on enforcing these regulations and, as was mentioned in td in the House only the other day, over 12,000 convictions were obtained last year for breaches of the law.

It is sometimes suggested that we ought to put more enforcement staff at the disposal of licensing authorities for this work. The numbers have increased from time to time and, broadly speaking, they have kept pace with the increase in the number of goods vehicles on the roads. Whatever further increases may be made, we must be realistic and accept that it will never be possible to check a high proportion of vehicles. At best enforcement can aim only at providing a deterrent to the breaking of the law.

We are at present reviewing our methods of enforcement, because we think that new methods may prove more effective than a mere increase in the number of enforcement officers.

I turn now to overloading. There is reason to think that overloaded goods vehicles are involved in many accidents. There are regulations governing maximum loads, but they are designed primarily to protect road surfaces and bridges from damage. They are not adequate to ensure that no vehicle is loaded beyond its safe carrying capacity. To deal with this problem, a Departmental Committee has been set up to consider ways and means of developing a scheme whereby a maximum permitted weight would be assigned to every goods vehicle.

This is likely to entail the application to them of standards of minimum power-weight ratio, and of braking efficiency, and possibly of other standards. Application of these standards will certainly make for increased safety. Because of the difficulty of applying them fairly to existing vehicles, it may take a little while to develop a comprehensive scheme. Nevertheless, we are satisfied that a workable scheme can be developed, and we shall press ahead as rapidly as possible.

I should like next to say something about the question of vehicle maintenance and the methods of inspection which we use to see that heavy lorries are mechanically safe. For many years examiners have inspected vehicles, either at organised roadside checks in conjunction with the police, or when vehicles have been parked stationary by the roadside, or even in the premises where they are maintained. As my hon Friend the Member for Crosby knows, when a vehicle is found on inspection to be defective the vehicle examiner can issue a notice prohibiting its use.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, a disturbingly high proportion of lorries fail in this test. We do not consider, however, that casual inspections of this kind are sufficient. The annual inspection scheme for private cars also embraces light goods vehicles up to 30 cwt. We intend to introduce a comparable scheme to cover heavy goods vehicles as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it is not practical just to extend the existing scheme to include these vehicles. There are few commercial garages which have the heavy equipment necessary for dealing with them. Moreover, the majority of garage mechanics deal only with private cars or light goods vehicles. Nevertheless, we are determined to make arrangements for their regular inspection. But, in view of the difficult problems which have to be solved, the introduction of a scheme for this purpose will still take some time.

Braking is a difficult problem. This was a problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby particularly referred. The Construction and Use Regulations require that heavy motor vehicles should be equipped with an efficient braking system to meet conditions specified with some precision. The brakes must at all times be maintained in good and efficient working order and be properly adjusted. For vehicles which are subject to the annual statutory test, the standards of efficiency required are clearly laid down. But for reasons which I have just given these tests cannot, at any rate yet, be extended to heavy lorris. We have recently circulated revised proposals for weights and dimensions of vehicles, and these are now being considered by the interests concerned.

My right hon. Friend has decided that these new higher weights should be permitted only in new vehicles which can comply with the stopping distances laid down for cars and goods vehicles up to 30 cwt. unladen weight—that is, those subject to the annual test. In addition, these vehicles will have to show a plate showing the maximum gross weight recommended by the manufacturer. That is a step in the right direction.

I hope that I have shown that we are very much alive to the need to improve the safety of heavy goods vehicles and that we are taking realistic measures to this end. I should also like to remind the House that some important aspects of this problem are being considered by the Committee under Lord Geddes which is at present examining the fundamental basis of the goods vehicle licensing system. Control over the safety of goods vehicles has historically been closely bound up with carriers' licensing, and, although I do not know how far Lord Geddes' Committee will look into the detailed points raised tonight, we may expect it to make an important contribution on this subject.

It remains, however, a fundamental and inescapable truth that any measures by the Government, or the other bodies concerned with accident prevention, cannot of themselves prevent accidents. This is the responsibility of all concerned— of employers, mechanics and drivers—and the greatest single contribution to a reduction in the toll of the roads would be a wider realisation of this fact.

Mr. Graham Page

The Committee on standards which my hon. and gallant friend mentioned is extremely useful, but may I ask him whether he would consider setting up a research committee on this question, particularly on the braking and steering systems of heavy vehicles?

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half and hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock