HC Deb 12 July 1967 vol 750 cc821-8
The Minister of Transport (Mrs. Barbara Castle)

Mr. Speaker, with your permission and that of the House I wish to make a statement.

The Road Research Laboratory has now completed its assessment of the 70 m.p.h. speed limit trial, and its Report was published on 8th June. The Report estimated that in 1966, with the 70 m.p.h. limit in operation, fatalities and casualties on motorways were 480 fewer than would have been expected without the speed limit. This was a reduction of about 20 per cent. and included 58 fewer people killed. Also, in clear weather on a 73-mile length of the M1 /M10/M45 complex during the trial period, the accident rate was the lowest recorded —10 per cent. lower than the average for the previous five years. The proportion of injury accidents was also the lowest recorded.

The Report concluded that accidents on main roads were about 3½ per cent. fewer than would have been expected without the limit. On less important roads subject to the limit there appeared to have been virtually no change in the number of injury accidents compared with those expected. There were greater reductions in fatal and serious acc dents and casualties on dual carriageways than on single carriageways, but the extent to which this could be attributed to the 70 m.p.h. limit was uncertain. The limit probably had little or no effect on the single carriageways because speeds as high as 70 m.p.h. are possible only on a few of them.

An inquiry undertaken by National Opinion Polls in February this year showed that 61 per cent. of motorists questioned in favour of a permanent 70 m.p.h. limit on motorways.

Before making up my mind on the course of action to follow I invited and received the views of a wide range of interested organisations. The Report has also been discussed in the National Road Safety Advisory Council. In the light of the evidence now available, it is clear that we must distinguish between motorways and other roads.

So far as motorways are concerned, I accept the evidence of the Road Research Laboratory as clearly establishing that the 70 m.p.h. limit has reduced casualties on the motorways. None of the arguments advanced against the limit convinces me that we should forgo this saving of life and injury. I have, therefore, decided to continue the 70 m.p.h. limit indefinitely on motorways.

I have also decided to retain the 70 m.p.h. limit for roads other than motorways, at any rate for the time being. But the Road Research Laboratory Report makes it clear that if we want to achieve a really worthwhile reduction in accidents on these roads then we may need to consider lower limits for them.

Seventy m.p.h. may well prove to be the right limit for the majority of dual carriageways. But there are others bearing particularly heavy traffic where a limit of 60 m.p.h. might be more appropriate. And this might also prove to be the best limit for main roads other than dual carriageways.

I am not putting these limits forward as firm proposals at the moment. There has been a good deal of Press speculation about my plans for these roads and I want to say now that there is no question of a general limit lower than 70 m.p.h. being imposed before the summer traffic peak. But these are the kind of limits which we are now to investigate and about which I shall be consulting all those concerned.

I also intend to continue indefinitely the ban on slow-moving vehicles from the off-side lane of three-lane motorways which I introduced on a trial basis on 23rd May, 1966. This had been widely welcomed and should help to keep this lane free for the faster moving traffic subject to the 70 m.p.h. speed limit.

The White Paper on Road Safety published last week stressed that we cannot rely on hunches to reduce the appalling total of casualties from road accidents. The R.R.L. Report is, I believe, clear evidence that the right decision now is to keep the 70 m.p.h. limit on motorways.

We shall continue to watch the effect of this and other limits. I recognise that there are conflicting views among responsible people about just where limits should be fixed, and I can assure the House that if experience shows that it would be right, as our highways network develops, to consider other possible limits or variations of them, upwards or downwards, then we shall not hesitate to do so.

Mr. Peter Walker

May I, first, ask the right hon. Lady, as this is a matter of considerable public interest, where views differ, and since the House has never had an opportunity of debating this subject other than on an Opposition Prayer, whether she will do all that she can to see that the House has a full debate upon both the Report and her decision today?

Secondly, may I ask whether the right hon. Lady is aware that there is considerable objection to the fact that those statistics which support the 70 m.p.h. speed limit have been given considerable publicity by the Ministry and in the Minister's statement today, while those which do not support it, and there are some important ones, have not been given that same publicity?

For example, is the right hon. Lady aware that Table 9 of the Report shows that the fall in the number of people killed and seriously injured between 1964–65, when there was no experiment, was a greater drop than between 1965–66, when there was the experiment? This is an important statistic against the right hon. Lady's case.

Would the right hon. Lady also agree that matters such as the increase of police activity due to there being a speed limit, the installation of different fog lighting, the fact that she has imposed this regulation on commercial vehicles going into the fast lane, will all have affected the statis- tics on the motorway during the period? Even with these effects, the drop is less than the previous year.

As far as any experiment with a 60 m.p.h. limit—[HON. MEMBERS: "TOO long."] The Minister made a long statement. May I also ask her, if experiments are to take place on a 60 m.p.h. limit, whether this can be done at the same time as the use of the existing limit instead of doing what the Minister has done in this experiment?

Mr. Heffer

On a point of order. I would like your guidance and Ruling on this point, Mr. Speaker. Just now, you pulled up my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) who was asking a supplementary question on a Private Notice Question and yet the right hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench opposite seems to be making a speech on this occasion. May we have a Ruling about these supplementaries?

Mr. Speaker

I am quite sympathetic to the point raised by the hon. Gentleman. I think that I have given a Ruling before. I usually allow some latitude to Front Bench spokesmen on their own particular subject.

Mrs. Castle

I would be only too happy to have this matter fully discussed in the House, but, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, this is a matter for the usual channels. I would be very glad to have this debate, because I believe this to be an important subject. When the right hon. Gentleman tried to accuse me of having been selective in the figures to which I have given publicity, he was being grossly unfair. The right hon. Gentleman also proceeded to give the figures that suited his argument from the same Report by the Road Research Laboratory.

In other words, the House has the facts in front of it. All hon. Members can and should read that Report and come to their own conclusions in the light of the evidence contained therein. This is what we have all to do, and this is what I have done. I am perfectly satisfied that, in the face of the evidence in this Report, I would be failing in my public duty if I were now to abandon the 70 m.p.h. speed limit.

The right hon. Gentleman said that there were other factors influencing this, and instanced police on the road. Of course, this is one of the purposes of having a limit. This is exactly what happens. Because there is a limit there are more police on the road, and the result of that is a marked reduction in speeds, to which the Report also refers. There is no doubt that a causal connection is established between the reduction in speeds and the casualty figures.

Mr. Hooley

Can my right hon. Friend se y what investigations are going on into the techniques of supervising and checking speeds of vehicles? In my experience, the 70 m.p.h. limit is very widely disregarded—far too widely. I would be interested to know, since she has the extension of speed limits under consideration, whether investigations are going on into the techniques of checking speeds.

Mrs. Castle

All these enforcement problems are primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I am in constant touch with him about how we can improve our enforcement mechanism and procedure. There have been a number of prosecutions for exceeding the speed limit, and the overall result has been just what we wanted, namely, to produce a marked reduction in speeds. This is really what we are more concerned with, rather than merely penalising the motorist.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Surely the right hon. Lady does not want to go down in history under the motto, "Let's Go Slow With Labour"? The real point is that what requires to be done now is to evaluate what are the true causes of the accidents in respect of death and serious injury. Is it not a fact that the main contributory cause in all correlations of accidents arises out of the failure to keep a proper look-out, and that speed plays a very small part?

Mrs. Castle

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to intensify our evaluation of the causes of accidents. This is the whole theme behind my White Paper on Road Safety, which I published last week. This is the whole theme behind my policy, why I am extending the area road safety units and why I am proposing extensive new responsibilities for the local road safety officers.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no one single cause of an acci- dent. It is always a complex of causes —very rarely indeed is it one cause. I remain satisfied, not only on the evidence gained in this country, but upon that from other countries, that speed is an important element. I would remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said in my original statement, that 61 per cent. of the motorists want to go "70 miles an hour with Labour".

Mr. William Price

Is my right hon. Friend aware that her efforts to reduce the terrible road toll will meet with the approval of all of us on this side of the House? Will she give an assurance that she will not be deterred by the discreditable activities of the motoring organisations, who are not so much concerned with road safety as with the dubious rights of a minority of lunatic drivers?

Mrs. Castle

I have always said to the House that I do not think that I have any right to make subjective judgments on this matter. I have no right to be influenced by my own personal emotions on any matter. What I sought to do, and this was why we extended the experiment, was to get reliable evidence. I have given the evidence very careful consideration, as I have given all the arguments which have come from different quarters, for different sorts of levels and no levels at all, very careful consideration. I have reached the conclusion that it is my duty to continue this limit indefinitely.

Mr. Bessell

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the 70 m.p.h. speed limit will be widely welcomed and that we also welcome her statement that she will not introduce a blanket 60 m.p.h. speed limit without further consultation? In considering a final decision on the 60 m.p.h. speed limit, will she take into account all the evidence of the effects of a variable limit between 40 and 80 m.p.h. which has been tried in many other countries with great success?

Mrs. Castle

That is one of the things which I want to take into account. I wish to consider the speed limit picture generally on the non-motorways—the variable limit, a blanket limit and all the possible alternatives we could supply. I shall, with consultation, give very careful consideration to those matters before making recommendations to the House.

Mr. Heffer

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all sensible and intelligent motorists will be very happy to go slower on the motorways with Labour rather than to madness and destruction with the Conservative Party? Would she consider bringing in lower limits before the summer traffic reaches its peak, because it is precisely motorists who use the motorways and other roads only in the summer whom I find are very dangerous?

Mrs. Castle

I would rather have further consultations and make further studies before altering the limits on other roads, but, apart from the merits of my hon. Friend's proposal, there is a little legal difficulty. There is a kind of quirk under the Road Traffic Act, 1962, whereby there has to be a gap of two months after an experiment before a new limit can be introduced. Therefore, I may be faced with a choice of having to have a gap or changing the Act.

Mr. Kitson

Would the right hon. Lady consider introducing a minimum speed limit on the motorways very quickly as the practice of driving very slowly along motorways is dangerous? Would she also consider the possibility of increasing the speed limit to 80 m.p.h. in the early hours of, say, the summer months, when there is practically no traffic on the motorways?

Mrs. Castle

I admit that at first sight a minimum speed limit is an attractive proposition. I have given it quite a lot of thought because I realise that dawdling drivers can be a danger. But there are difficulties of enforcement. There may be certain conditions—weather, traffic, and so on—which make it unavoidable to go below the minimum speed limit. The enforcement difficulties would be great and might succeed in forcing some heavy traffic to use other roads off the motorways, thus increasing the congestion and danger elsewhere.

Mr. Booth

Since the figures show a very marked reduction in casualties on motorways, and to ensure that we do not reach the accident level of 1 million per year by the 1980s, would my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that she will stick to her guns in the application of these speed limits?

Mrs. Castle

I have told the House that I am extending the 70 m.p.h. speed limit indefinitely, but I also pointed out in my statement that as our experience as a motoring country develops, as our motorway network develops, as our driving usage of the motorways improves and as we get a bigger and wider road network, it might be possible and desirable to vary the limits up or down. Although I believe that 70 m.p.h. is right now, I should not like to say that it would be right for ever.