HC Deb 10 November 1965 vol 720 cc159-64
Sir M. Redmayne

(by Private Notice)asked the Minister of Transport what advice he has now received from police leaders and from the National Road Safety Advisory Council as a result of the meetings held on 8th and 9th November, regarding fog hazards on the motorways.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Tom Fraser)

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary received full reports from the police forces of Lancashire and Staffordshire on Monday, 8th November. The conclusion to be drawn from these reports is that the multiple accidents were caused by vehicles travelling at speeds which were too high for the prevailing conditions. The police representatives are convinced, as I am, that the remedy is to drive more slowly and carefully. Speeds must be reduced, whatever may be the means by which this is achieved.

I have called a conference on Friday of this week of all the chief constables and county surveyors concerned with the control of motorways to consider proposals for action. My National Road Safety Advisory Council has advised me to introduce urgently a speed limit on lengths of motorway during fog of 20 m.p.h. and a general experimental speed limit of 70 m.p.h. on all motorways for the winter months. But, whatever we do, nothing can absolve the individual motorist of his responsibility for adjusting his driving to the prevailing conditions.

Sir M. Redmayne

While I agree with a great deal of what the right hon. Gentleman says, may I ask whether he will not perhaps agree that in fog conditions a speed limit may give a false impression of security and that there are occasions when even a 20 m.p.h. speed limit would be too high? There have been suggestions in regard to the closure of motorways. Has the right hon. Gentleman considered whether a good alternative might be that in emergency the centre lane only should be used so that the speed limit would be imposed, as it were, by the slowest vehicles in the lane, and that no passing should be permitted?

Will he give urgent consideration to the fact that the problem arises largely from the difficulty of judging speeds and distance under fog conditions, and, therefore, there is a strong case for some kind of permanent fog lighting system similar to the airport landing system? I believe that this is under consideration by the Lancashire Police.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also give consideration to allowing the provision of rear-facing fog lamps on vehicles, particularly commercial vehicles, which could be put on in fog and, what is more, could be provided with a flashing switch in the event of a multiple crash" which would tend to halt the traffic behind? May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall support him in any bold and large-scale experiment on these or any other lines?

Mr. Fraser

All the suggestions made by the right hon. Gentleman have to be taken into account. They have to be considered, and considered fully. He will appreciate that some of his suggestions are not proposals which could be given effect to at once. The installation of flood lighting on motorways for fog conditions is a large undertaking which could not be done all at once, nor could we all at once ensure that all our motor vehicles which are likely to drive in fog are fitted with the special new rear lighting system to be used in fog conditions.

Some of the suggestions are obviously a little more long-term than we could perhaps give effect to urgently for the conditions of this winter. The right hon. Gentleman's suggestion about limiting the use of the motorway to the centre lane is another that we should have to consider. I think that there is something in the proposition that if one made vehicles drive in convoy, with no overtaking at all, in fog it would be a very great help. But I do not want to make up my mind before seeing the chief constables and county surveyors about what remedies might be introduced.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

While I agree that some of the speeds by maniacs on the motorways in fog must be reduced and that the golden rule that one should be able to pull up within the distance one sees ahead should be observed, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that in the United States on many motorways there are lights beside the road or overhead indicating the speed that the police think right for the conditions then prevailing? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether such warning lights should be put up at strategic points on our motorway system?

Mr. Fraser

Yes, Sir. But again this is not something which can be done at once. What the chief constables up to now have said to us is that, in their experience, it is very difficult for drivers, particularly in fog conditions, to determine at what speed they are travelling, so even if drivers see a sign which says what their maximum speed should be, one can understand that they do not always read their speedometers to see whether they are in fact driving at that speed. It is far better if the motorist drives within the distance he has in front of him and not up to the limit suggested by a sign set either over or beside the highway.

Mrs. Braddock

Would my right hon. Friend consider, since there are to be many additional roads of this sort, permanent lighting of the sodium type on these roads? This is one of the things I have not heard suggested, but if the roads were lit properly, even in fog conditions, there would be much less difficulty.

Mr. Fraser

Lighting throughout the length of the motorways would be perhaps the best contribution we could make. But it would be a very costly business. We do not even have the wiring on these highways to do it, so clearly it is not something that can be carried out in the short term. I am willing to listen to all the proposals which may be made about what can be done in the short term and the long term, but I am sure that the House will expect me at this point to be concerned mainly with what I can do immediately.

Sir J. Eden

While accepting that the speed limit is a measure which must be considered and that it is one which will almost certainly help reduce accidents, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will not agree that multiple pile-ups could probably have been lessened if there had been really effective accident warning devices in operation? Why have the right hon. Gentleman and his Department shown such obstinacy and lack of imagination in refusing to see the audio-visual system which has been developed in my constituency, which is a new type of warning device which I believe would have been effective in matters of this kind?

Mr. Fraser

Many hon. Members mislead themselves if they think that, with a different device, we can avoid pile-ups. In one pile-up at the weekend a police vehicle was involved. It was well lit up, was light in colour and had a blue oscillating light on top flashing all the time, and still other vehicles came pounding along the motorway, rammed into it and thereby forced it into vehicles in front, causing a pile-up. It is clear that drivers are travelling much too fast for these conditions and will have to drive much more slowly.

Mr. Orme

I am sure most hon. Members welcome the fact that the Minister will discuss this serious matter this week with representatives of Lancashire and the Midlands. Will he bear in mind that the main problem is protecting the motorist from himself? If he will bear that in mind, will he not consider that, when fog reaches a certain density, the motorways should be closed, just as airfields are closed in the interests of safety?

Mr. Fraser

I am anxious to do what I can to save motorists from themselves. The closure of motorways in fog conditions is one of the suggestions I shall have to ask the chief constables and county surveyors to consider. But the difference between motorways and airports is that when one closes an airport one does not put aircraft on to other airports equally fogbound; they do not take to the air at all. But if we close motorways, which are the safest roads we have in this country, we oblige motorists to go on to roads which are less safe. Of course, it may be that by driving on roads which are less safe they will drive more carefully. Experience is that they do. We shall have to take this into account, but if we adopt this suggestion it will prove that at the end of the day we have to take pretty severe measures to bring motorists to their senses.

Sir H. Harrison

This is really a human problem. It is the fault of drivers and their lack of judgment. Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the time has arrived when people who want to drive cars should be taught to drive only by properly qualified instructors?

Mr. Fraser

That is another question which I had better deal with some other time.

Mr. Heffer

Although my right hon. Friend feels that the motorways are the safest roads in the country, is he aware that his view is not shared by people who travel on them? I use motorways twice a week and my experience is that many drivers think that they can go at any speed they like on them. Will not my right hon. Friend agree that, to save them from themselves, the only answer at the moment, until there is a long-term solution, is to close the motorways in dense fog?

Mr. Fraser

I shall invite the chief constables and the county surveyors to consider this among other suggestions. But my hon. Friend must bear in mind, and I ask hon. Members to recognise, that the three-lane road is a very dangerous road. The House will also recognise that when we put vehicles off the motorways, which have either dual carriageways or three lanes on either side, we are diverting the traffic on to three-lane roads, which many hon. Members have told me are the most dangerous roads. In good conditions the motorways are undoubtedly the safest. The accident rate on them is about one-third of the accident rate generally.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must get on.