HC Deb 06 November 1967 vol 753 cc773-95

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the 70 miles per hour Speed Limit (England) Order 1967, dated 13th July, 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled.

Mr. Speaker

I suggest to the House that we take, at the same time, the following five Prayers: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Motorways Traffic (Speed Limit) (England) Regulations 1967, dated 13th July, 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the 70 m.p.h. (Temporary Speed Limit Continuation) (Scotland) Order 1967, dated 13th July, 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Motorways Traffic (Speed Limit) (Scotland) Regulations 1967, dated 13th July, 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the 70 miles per hour Speed Limit (Wales) Order 1967, dated 13th July, 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Motorways Traffic (Speed Limit) (Wales) Regulations 1967, dated 13th July, 1967, a copy of which was laid before this House on 19th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled.

Mr. Walker

As I see that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is to reply to this debate, I would like to begin by welcoming him to the Dispatch Box in his new capacity. Certainly, we can assure him of a busy time during the present Session, and we look forward to hearing him from the Box tonight.

By putting down this Prayer against the 70 m.p.h. speed limit Order, the Opposition are giving the House the opportunity of debating the 70 m.p.h. limit, which is now to be permanently imposed by the Government. Without doing this, there would have been no opportunity for the House of Commons to discuss a Measure which has a considerable impact on large numbers of motorists and is a matter of considerable public importance.

I suggest that on future occasions, when Orders like this are introduced, the House should try to provide more facility for debate, as I am certain that there are many hon. Members, on both sides, who have views on the subject. On this occasion, however, we are restricted to a fairly short debate on the only basis which is open to us, and that is by means of a Prayer to annul the Order.

The Report of the Road Research Laboratory has come in for a good deal of criticism, and since the Report was made we have had the Twelfth Report of the Estimates Committee, and in this considerable criticism was made of the possible influence of the Ministry of Transport on the Road Research Laboratory. This allegation was made by the motorings organisations; it was made by the motor manufacturers, all of whom detected in the Report of the Road Research Laboratory indications that the Ministry of Transport had in some way influenced the nature of the Report.

Indeed, the Estimates Committee decided to make certain recommendations, one of which was that in future the Road Research Laboratory should not be asked to conduct polls as to the popularity or unpopularity of a particular Government measure; if the Government wished to do that they should do it themselves in their own name, through the Ministry of Transport. Certainly, I very much support that recommendation of the Estimates Committee. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tonight be able to indicate Government acceptance of that proposal.

The reason why this Report has been given so much criticism is, I believe, that it is not of a kind which can be considered to be a scientific document worthy of the respect a scientific document normally receives. I would refer the House, for example, to a very interesting article about the analysis of this Report in the "Newsight" feature in the Daily Mail on 19th August. This feature pointed out the criticisms of the Estimates Committee and the doubts expressed in the evidence given to that Committee as to the independence of the Road Research Laboratory, and then went on to make a number of what I believe were very valid criticisms of the Report. First, the criticism was made that the Minister, in her statement accepting the 70 m.p.h. speed limit, had stated that it resulted in a reduction of about 20 per cent. in accidents.

This gave a very false impression, because it was not, in fact, a reduction of 20 per cent. on, for example, the number in the previous year; indeed, the previous year the reduction was 0½58 of 1 per cent. It was a reduction upon the estimates of the Road Research Laboratory as to what accidents would have taken place if the 70 m.p.h. speed limit had not been imposed. So it was a reduction on the Laboratory's forecast.

It may be argued that these forecasts are very accurate and, therefore, should be acceptable, but in fact the same forecasts made by the same Laboratory in 1961, in 1962, in 1963, in 1964 and in 1966 all proved to be inaccurate and wrong. Therefore, it is surely very wrong for the Ministry of Transport to stand at that Dispatch Box and claim that there had been a 20 per cent. reduction in accidents when what she should have said was that there had been a reduction on the forecasts which the Laboratory had made as to what accidents there would have been, and she should have added that, in the majority of previous years, the Laboratory's forecasts had proved to be wrong.

Further, there is little account taken in the Report of the Road Research Laboratory of the many other factors, and this brings me to the general criticism of the whole manner in which the experiment was carried out.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

Before the hon. Member leaves the inaccuracy of the Road Research Laboratory's forecasts, would he say within what margins the errors came, so that we can judge what, on either side, the estimates should have been?

Mr. Walker

No. I cannot give the margins. I do not know the specific figures. The point I am making is that this was a reduction of a forecast and not of actual accidents.

The original criticism which I made about the nature of the experiments was that one could not have a successful experiment on speed limits if one compared figures with the past. The reason is that, in previous years, for example, conditions on the motorways have been very different. There is the difference in the density of traffic and whatever effects that may have. There is the difference during the period of the experiment, as opposed to the period with which it was compared, that the Ministry installed fog warning lamps on the motorways which presumably had some effect.

There is the difference that, during the period of the experiment, the Ministry introduced Regulations forbidding commercial vehicles to go in the fast lanes of motorways. There are climatic differences between one year and another, and probably the biggest difference of all is that, if a speed limit of any kind is imposed, with the decision that the police will enforce it, there is much more police patrolling of the motorways during that period, which of itself adds substantially to safety and improved driving on the motorways.

Our first criticism is that, by comparing with the past, one was not comparing like with like. I have always maintained that by far the best form of experiment to obtain the right speed limit on motorways is to compare one or two motorways subject to a particular speed limit with another speed limit on two other motorways over a similar period and see the difference that occurs. If there are the same basic conditions, the same climatic conditions, the same police patrols and similar densities of traffic, and one speed is shown to be better in terms of public safety than another, I am sure that both sides of the House would be in favour of that limit.

I have always considered that there should be a maximum speed limit on motorways and on all other forms of roads. As a motorist, I feel that 70 miles per hour for motorways is the wrong limit, but I am willing to admit that statistics and experiments could show that it was the best limit.

However, the Government have not proved that 70 m.p.h. is the best limit.

They have compared no limit at all with one of 70 m.p.h. It may be that if they had conducted their experiment with a limit of 80 or 85 m.p.h., the figures would have been better than those produced by the current experiment.

Instead of deciding that this is to be the permanent speed limit, with the possibility of lowering it on some roads to 60 m.p.h., I urge the Government to conduct a series of proper scientifically-based experiments to find out what is the best speed limit in the interests of road safety and the motoring public at large. One of the other great faults of the experiment was that no preliminary work was done. It was decided suddenly to conduct the experiment, and there were not the sort of tests which should have been made in the period beforehand.

The Road Research Laboratory has produced a Report which presents very great doubts to anyone wishing to make a judgement. To illustrate that, I have been through the final Report, and I should like to read to the House some of the comments made in it which show how unscientific the experiment was.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Morris)

Before the hon. Gentleman comes to that point, as I understand the gravamen of his charge so far is that the Government have been comparing an actuality with a forecast. He cast doubt on this because the Road Research Laboratory has been in error in the past. The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) has asked for assistance on this score. If hon. Members will look at page 24 of the Report, they will find that, in the past, the error has been very marginal. While it is difficult to be precise about it, it would seem to have been well within the range of the 20 per cent. which we were discussing earlier.

Mr. Walker

Certainly the Parliamentary Secretary is right in pointing out the degree with which the forecasts have been wrong. All I am saying is that the Minister should have made it clear that it was on forecasts of the Road Research Laboratory and not on actuality.

For example, looking at Table 9 on page 47 of the Report, which deals with those killed or seriously injured per million vehicle miles—and this is prob- ably one of the best of the tests in that it is directly linked with the density of traffic—it will be noted that the fall in the number of people killed or seriously injured was greater between 1964 and 1965, when there was no 70 m.p.h. speed limit, than the fall which took place between 1965 and 1966 when there was a 70 m.p.h. speed limit. So on that fact, which is an actuality of killed and seriously injured, there is evidence that the fall has been less during the period of the speed limit than beforehand.

I am certain that we can dispute the various figures and tables, because my whole point is that the Report, to any person who is objectively looking at it, does not give a firm indication one way or the other.

For example, looking at "Speed Studies" on page 6, we have the phrase: The results were adjusted for possible under-estimation by assuming … and then it goes on to say what it is assuming.

On page 11, it says: Although measurements at only two sites cannot be expected to give an adequate assessment … My word, it cannot.

On bunching, also on page 11, it says: It is now extremely difficult, if not impossible, to check whether bunching has in fact increased … On page 12, again talking about bunching, it says: The role played by the existence of the 70 m.p.h. speed limit is difficult to determine but it may be quite small. … This matter has not been studied but it might be expected that the speed limit has increased the frequency of such occurrences. On page 16 it says: The prohibition of heavy goods vehicles from using the third (offside) lane might have contributed … On page 18 it says: There have been difficulties in making the above comparison … The period for which the data were available was too short.… On page 20 it says: The number of fatalities alone was too small to enable reliable conclusions to be drawn. On page 22 it says: The increased use of improved tyres might have contributed. It might also have been affected by the use of the warning light system. As far as accidents are concerned. it says that With such small numbers it was obviously not possible to draw reliable conclusions.… I can go on for several pages of remarks like these, with which this Report is absolutely packed.

Mr. John Morris

Are these not all examples of the fair and objective way in which the Road Research Laboratory conducted its researches to show the difficulties of such an inquiry and to place all the facts before the House?

Mr. Walker

Not at all. They are indications that a proper scientific examination was not made. These are examples showing that it did not measure the effect of commercial vehicles not being allowed in the fast lane, that it did not measure the effect that tyres may have contributed, and that it did not measure the effect of the warning light system. They are not reflections upon the Laboratory; they are reflections on the fact that it was not a proper and full scientific experiment, and this is the criticism that we have of the whole atmosphere of this Report.

I suggest that the Government give careful consideration to some of the many suggestions put up to them, one of which was to carry out an experiment at another speed limit.

I am genuinely concerned about the increasing prospects of accidents due to bunching. I have just returned from spending three weeks in some of the major cities of the United States looking at and talking about transport problems there. As the Parliamentary Secretary will know, in many of the cities of the United States and throughout most of America speed limits apply, but they are very concerned at the increasing effect of enormous multiple accidents as a result of bunching.

In this country in the last fortnight alone I have heard of three reports of considerable bunching accidents on various motorways. Only last Friday I believe that about 100 vehicles were involved on the M4 in a multiple accident. It so happens that multiple accidents to date have produced no serious injuries: just over 100 vehicles damaging each other; but one day, if bunching increases, as a result of speed limits being at the wrong level, serious multiple accidents will result.

I admit that I have no evidence to show that a higher speed limit would be any better than the one suggested by the Government. All that I am asking the Government to do is to carry out a really scientific inquiry with the Road Research Laboratory, comparing like with like, under the same conditions, with the same restrictions, applying one to the other. I ask the Government to look at the possibilities suggested by the motoring organisations for an advisory speed limit. Let us see how that operates. The Ministry uses an advisory speed limit during fog. Drivers are advised not to travel at more than 30 miles per hour when fog lamps are being used. It may be interesting to see the effect of an advisory speed limit of 70 miles per hour. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) suggested that the Government might try to do away with, or to increase, the speed limit between midnight and 7 a.m. to encourage drivers who wish to go fast to travel on fairly empty roads and motorways.

I think that the Government must recognise that although speed, breathaylsers, and things like that create a great deal of interest and emotional feeling, the real solution to cutting down accidents lies in the spheres in which a great deal is not being done. I am thinking now of tyres, and perhaps more than anything else, lane discipline on motorways. The strict imposition of laws for lane discipline would have a much greater effect than the 70 miles per hour limit. We know from the Report that even with the 70 m.p.h. limit 15 per cent. of vehicles travel at above this speed on the motorways. It would have been interesting to have found out from the Road Research Laboratory whether the accident record among that 15 per cent. was any worse or any better than among those who kept to, or below, that speed.

One of the dangers of the speed limit is that drivers of vehicles which can do 70 miles per hour and more tend to travel at that speed. This imposes a greater strain on them than travelling at a higher speed when conditions permit. We may find that more drivers fall asleep on the motorways because the speed limit is fixed than would be the case if it were not, or if there was a higher speed limit.

These are all generalities, with no scientific evidence to support them. It may be that the Government are right, and 70 is the right speed. I drive many miles each year in a car which can do 70 and above in complete safety on a motorway. I think that this is the wrong limit, and that it should be higher. I ask the Government to experiment with other speed limits, and not to fix for all time, on the basis of a fairly unscientific Report, a speed limit of 70.

I would not ask my hon. Friends to divide the House on this issue tonight because I think that a speed limit should be continued, and if the Government were defeated there would be none on the motorways, but I do not apologise for raising this matter. It is right to discuss it in the House. I ask the Government to give the Road Research Laboratory a chance to produce a scientific report to give guidance to the House and to the country on what is the right speed limit, instead of the one originally thought out by the Minister and supported by this Report.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

The Minister is endeavouring to persuade us to accept as a permanent measure an extension of the 70 m.p.h. limit so that it covers not only motorways, but all roads. She is doing this on the basis of inadequate information, inconclusive conclusions, and unreasonable assumptions, and she is even stooping to using false figures. This is quite a major indictment and a sufficient reason for us to divide the House on this matter. It does not mean that we would have no speed limits; apparently the Minister could make a new temporary limit if she wanted to do so. Since she does not see fit to be present at this debate I can only hope that the substance of what I have to say will be conveyed to her.

First, is the sampling of this Report adequate? No, it is not. Statutory Instrument No. 1040, dealing with all roads other than motorways, covers roads the vast majority of which have not been covered by the samples taken, as is shown by page 5 of the Road Research Laboratory Report. According to page 5 the speed studies do not cover any of the normal two-lane roads. Yet this is what the Minister solemnly offers the House as a reasonable, scientific, statistical justification for putting permanent 70 m.p.h. speed limits on all our roads. What a lamentable travesty of science-based action.

As we go through the Report we see that there are multitudinous qualifications. It is quite fair for the Parliamentary Secretary to say that this does credit to the authors of the Report. It does. But it does not do credit to the Minister, who wants to use the Report for justifying more than the evidence contained in it justifies. That is not a criticism of the Road Research Laboratory; it is a criticism of the Minister, who wants to abuse the fruits of its labours, and it is a very significant criticism.

There are also unreasonable assumptions, and this is a criticism of the Laboratory. On page 16, we are told that: There were not likely to have been sudden increases during 1966 in the use of safety belts, improved tyres or other safety devices on vehicles. Were not there, indeed! What is the basis of this assumption? No statistical evidence is given in the tables to support it. I have observed that it was during 1966 that there was the greatest increase in the use of safety belts that there had ever been; that a greater proportion of tyres sold as original equipment on cars were of the braced-tread type, and better than previous years, and that a greater percentage of those sold as original equipment of new cars had a high-hysteresis tread—the type of rubber which has outstandingly improved grip on wet roads. These factors are exemplified in the decreased circuit times of racing cars, which employ versions of the same things, and are extremely relevant, but for some reason are written off by the Road Research Laboratory without any justification for ignoring them.

Presumably the point of producing the tables in the Report is to enable people reading it to draw logical inferences from them. Looking at the tables on pages 24 and 25 the logical inference we draw is that imposing a 70 m.p.h. limit on Trunk Class I, Class II and Class III roads, which previously had no speed limit, had no material effect on their safety record, whereas the roads which already have a speed limit of 30 or 40 m.p.h. actually decreased their accident rate. Therefore, if we are invited to draw logical conclusions, the logical conclusion we should draw is that the imposition of a 70 m.p.h. speed limit prevented there being a similar decrease to that which there was when conditions were not altered on other roads. I do not say that this logical inference is an accurate inference.

The Report also contains false figures. Table 30 claims to record public opinion as measured by national opinion poll surveys in terms of percentages. In answer to the question, "Do you feel it would be a good thing to have a permanent speed limit of 70 m.p.h. or not?", there is an extraordinary column headed, "Electors who are motorists in England and Wales", which contains the answers: Yes, 62 per cent.; No. 36 per cent.; Don't know, 72 per cent. That adds up to 170 per cent. Which figures are wrong? There is no erratum in the front. Yet the Minister has used these bogus figures to claim popular support. She should read them through—[Interruption.] Yes, of course it is a mistake, but we are offered this document as statistical basis for the Minister's actions.

If the Minister feels—she cannot know; there is not enough evidence yet—that the limit is justified, she should come here tonight and say that she intends to make an Order for another year's temporary limit. To make an Order of infinite duration, presumably hoping that no one will notice, imposing a limit on roads to all intents and purposes not covered by the Report and then to expect the House to pass it on a hotch-potch of irrelevancies, inaccurate assumptions and inconclusive conclusions which, among much interesting and relevant data, permeate the Report is to try to take the House of Commons and the people for a ride.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I will not quarrel too much with the Order which states that a 70 m.p.h. speed limit should be imposed on the ordinary roads, because the sight lines on some of these curly roads are so inadequate that it is probably justified for a further temporary period, but I cross swords with the Minister and the Road Research Laboratory over their conclusions about motorways, which were built for traffic wihout speed limit. It is a retrograde step to limit them.

The Report, which intends to show that there was a better result on motorways after the limit, is full of difficulties and contradictions. First, there was an increase in the number of those seriously injured on motorways in the trial year of the limit over the previous two years. That is odd, and does not show that the roads are safer.

Second, there were several differences between the trial year and the two previous ones. The fog conditions in those years were different. In 1964, 15 per cent. of all casualties on the M1 and M4 were caused by serious fog. In 1965, there was much less fog and the total fell to 3 per cent. Safety belts were coming in quickly in 1966, and then there was the correct experiment of heavy vehicles not being permitted in the fast lane.

On top of those two, one of the most dangerous elements in road traffic, namely, the ordinary motor cycle, was rapidly decreasing on the motorways in the last year or two. All these things vitiate the comparisons made by the Road Research Laboratory between the trial year and the previous years, and I do not think the case is proved by any means that the 70 m.p.h. limit has produced better conditions for road safety.

My hon. Friend has made some fun of the Gallup poll produced by the Road Research Laboratory on what people thought or were supposed to have thought on the 70 m.p.h. limit. The Institute of Advanced Motorists did a Gallup poll among their members, using exactly the same wording as the Laboratory used, line for line. The first question was, "Do you drive on motorways?" To this, 7,032 members said "Yes". They were then asked, "Do you think a permanent 70 m.p.h. limit on motorways would be a good thing?" Only 740 said "Yes".

The next question was, "Do you think that a permanent 70 m.p.h. limit would not be a good thing?" To that 6,337 agreed. Only two did not answer. The next question was, "Do you think the speed limit on motorways should be less than 70 m.p.h.?" and 71 said "Yes", and 6,318 said that it should be more than 70 m.p.h. Asked if they favoured a limit of 80 m.p.h., 693 said "Yes", and 1,960 favoured 90 m.p.h.; and 2,838, 100 m.p.h.

There are many cars on the market and about 60 which can do more than 100 m.p.h. I am not arguing for a 100 m.p.h. limit. I am only saying that people who have passed the advanced test and know what they are talking about in motoring think the speed limit could be between 70 m.p.h. and 100 m.p.h. I think that an advisory speed limit on motorways would be desirable for the next year or two, just as there is an advisory limit of 30 m.p.h. in fog. While I am not quarrelling with the Minister in the case of ordinary roads, I think that it is premature to bring in a 70 m.p.h. limit on motorways. It is too low a speed limit.

I think that the experience of most other countries with their motorways is that 70 m.p.h. leads to bunching and is not satisfactory. The American experience has not been very satisfactory in reducing accidents. Therefore, I agree with my hon. Friend that we are going too fast with regard to motorways.

10.54 p.m.

Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

I want to draw attention to a feature of this topic which has been referred to obliquely by my hon. Friend on the Front Bench (Mr. Peter Walker), the recommendation in the Twelfth Report of the Estimates Committee. Considerable fault has already been found with the Road Research Laboratory's comment on this topic, but it was vague and qualified in a series of points which have been referred to. I want to highlight the fact that it is quite wrong for the Laboratory, which purports to be independent of the Minister of Transport, to be concerning itself with public opinion on whether or not the 70 m.p.h. limit is a good thing.

It is quite essential that the Road Research Laboratory should be seen by all to be independent. We all know the old phrase about the law being seen to be fair as well as being fair. As long as the Laboratory is asked to collect the views of members of the public on whether or not a particular proposal of the Minister will be popular, so long will it be thought that the Laboratory is a tool of the Ministry, and that is the last thing the Laboratory would want. Therefore, in the interests of the Laboratory itself and of all those who wish to give credence to its findings, it is essential that nothing should be done to impair its independence vis-à-vis the Ministry of Transport. This point is made very strongly in paragraph 22, page 12 of the Twelfth Report of the Estimates Committee.

I stress that the independence of the Laboratory is suspect at the present time. Evidence given before the Estimates Committee from more than one quarter showed that those concerned were not at all happy about a tendency which indicated that it was not independent. It is said that the Laboratory is independent and we hope that it is, but as long as it is asked to find out whether or not Ministers' proposals are popular, nobody will believe in that independence. The sooner any suggestion of polls organised by the Laboratory is dropped, the more likely will that independence be upheld.

10.57 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

First, I thank the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker) for his kind remarks about my first appearance at the Despatch Box, and for his promise that in the next few months we will probably meet each other fairly frequently in all sorts of circumstances and on the Floor of the House.

This is the third debate on the 70 m.p.h. limit. The last debate took place on 17th May, 1966, and I do not think that we need to go over all the history again. Time is short, so I want to speak of the positive side—why we have taken the decision, what we expect to gain from it, and how it fits into our thinking on speed limits generally. I shall try to answer some of the criticisms that have been made of the decision, but I cannot hope now to tackle them all, and analysis of some of the detailed and, I agree, conflicting statistics is perhaps better handled elsewhere. I shall try to deal with the main points.

It is unfortunate that the 70 m.p.h. speed limit has been considered so often in isolation. This was, perhaps, inevitable from the manner of its introduction. A single, highly-controversial measure, introduced as an experiment and subject to periodic examination must become something of a target to be shot at, but in our view the 70 m.p.h. limit should now be seen as something more than this. It should be seen as part of a comprehensive speed limit policy designed to strike a fair balance between the convenience of motorists and the need to reduce accidents.

As the House will know, the whole policy has been under review. My right hon. Friend has already undertaken to inform the House further of her proposals for speed limits, particularly for non-motorways, when these have been worked out. I cannot tonight anticipate any announcement, but I can say that it will present a comprehensive policy and that the 70 m.p.h. limit will fit sensibly into this policy.

A safe speed for any individual driver at a given time depends on many things, among them the quality of the road, his skill as a driver, the traffic on the road, road conditions and the quality of his vehicle. Some people have suggested that, because of this, each driver should be left to strike a personal balance between these variables and arrive at his own safe speed.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) spoke of advanced motorists. I agree that such motorists are skilled and that, in most cases, they have high performance, or good performance cars. However, the important point to remember is that we are not concerned —and the safety of these people is not concerned—with their own ability and equipment. Tied up with this are things like road conditions and the behaviour of other drivers. A decision cannot, therefore, be taken—and the Ministry cannot take its decision—just on the basis of a single driver and his ability on a quiet road. There are others on the road.

This is also true when one considers that no driver, however good, can be aware of all hazards, particularly on a road that is strange to him. Even more important; every driver is part of the general traffic on the roads. His behaviour can, and does, influence other drivers. This is particularly so at high speed, in conditions of heavy traffic—like on motorways—and while it may be reasonable to rely primarily on the individual's judgment in these circumstances, it has been found necessary to reduce speeds to a level at which it is safe for people to drive as a group.

There is a mass of evidence on this subject from other countries. It reflects that when speeds are reduced by speed limits accidents are also reduced, both in terms of numbers and severity. For example, a recent analysis of accidents and speed limits on toll motorways in the United States—roads equivalent to our motorways—revealed that on roads with a speed limit of 70 m.p.h. there were 2½7 deaths and 118 accidents per 100 million vehicles miles. On roads with an 80 m.p.h. limit there were 7½1 deaths, nearly three times as many, and 162 accidents. Even granted the difference between conditions here and in America, these figures strikingly confirm the general relationship between speed and accidents.

There are many technical reasons why accidents increase in number with overall speeds, but few people would disagree that there is a basic difference between what is a safe speed for the individual and what is a safe speed for the group of drivers. At the root of this difference is the great disparity in the driving standards of individual drivers and the performances of their vehicles.

Some experienced drivers are accustomed to referring to the "rabbits" of the motorways—the timid or inexperienced, sometimes even the plainly incompetent drivers—who seem to obstruct and, perhaps, cause danger to the more experienced driver. While we may regret this disparity, we must accept that the "rabbits" have a right to be there and that we cannot just shoot them off the road. They are legitimate members of the group of drivers and we must consider their needs. However, we can try to improve their driving by training and education, although this is a long-term aim. We can also, by imposing a speed limit, narrow the range of speeds, and so reduce the risk when things go wrong as a result of these differences in driving behaviour. I appreciate that when speed is cut, there is a loss of convenience for the best drivers, but we are trying, in setting a speed limit, to balance convenience and the safety of the majority.

Some people will always want to go just a little faster than is safe for the group as a whole, but the really good driver will see the need for a limit and will accept it. Our object in trying to set an overall limit has been to find a level of speed restriction which will reduce accidents and, at the same time, be accepted as reasonable by motorists, motor manufacturers, the police and all other interested bodies.

The positive aim of the measure was, therefore, to establish a generally safer speed, a reduction in accidents by an acceptable restriction. That is not an easy decision, nor is it an arid technological decision. The Road Research Laboratory Report was a valuable guide to the right answer, but in the last resort this is a political decision, a judgment between the competing interests of individuals of different groups.

So much for the overall aim, the general context. I should now like to deal with some of the criticisms that have been made. Taking first those of the Road Research Laboratory Report, the principal complaint seems to have been that the Report compares the number of accidents that actually occurred during the experiment with the number that could have been expected if the limit had not been in operation. This is the only reasonable comparison, we believe. It is standard statistical practice. An analogy can be drawn with the recent difficulties of the motor industry due to the credit squeeze. There the loss of production has been measured as the difference between the actual number of vehicles produced and the estimated number that would have been produced but for the squeeze. The alternative, simply to compare the figures before and after the imposition of the limit or the squeeze, would be seriously misleading since one would not be comparing two like periods. For example, the actual difference of 12 in motorway casualties between 1965 and 1966 is not a true measure of the speed limit's effect because, among other things, between those two years the mileage of motorways in use increased by 17 per cent. and the volume of traffic using them grew by 25 per cent.

As an alternative, and better, method, the Laboratory calculated what accidents might have been expected to occur without a limit given previous trends and actual conditions during the experiment. Inevitably this entails a calculation of what might have been, and one can never know that with absolute certainty. The main thing is that such forecasts should be made as accurately as possible, and we are confident that the Road Research Laboratory did precisely this.

It is said that the experiment should have been conducted in some other way, for example on one motorway, or on one carriageway of a motorway, or on certain selected roads with control roads for comparison. The problem that the Laboratory found was to get a large enough sample to arrive at conclusive results. To limit the experiment in space would inevitably have meant extending it considerably in time. However, one can only go on experimenting for so long, and this would certainly have exposed us to serious and probably justifiable criticism.

An experiment confined to one motorway would mean finding another motorway sufficiently alike in the traffic it carried and having identical layout and other features. Despite the apparent uniformity of motorways, such close similarity would be almost impossible to find. In any case, the number of recorded accidents on two such motorways would probably be too small for any difference to be statistically significant.

An experiment based on one motorway carriageway only, which has certain appealing features at first sight, would be most unlikely to produce valid comparisons because the accident rates in the two directions are often—in fact, nearly always—different, mainly because of dissimilar gradients, curvatures and driver fatigue depending on whether he has just started off or is nearing his final destination.

An experiment on a group of selected roads with control roads for comparison might have been a valid possibility. However, in this sort if experiment there is always a tendency for the effect of the limit to spread over to the control roads, which makes the comparison much weaker than it would otherwise have been.

There has also been some suggestions —rather strong suggestions that the Road Research Laboratory is now subject to pressure from the Minister of Transport, that in some way the Minister twisted the arm of the laboratory to design an experiment which would produce a particular answer. I would only say that there is no truth in this at all. The Estimates Committee Report has been quoted. All I would say is that the Minister's formal comments on the Report have not yet been made.

I do not want tonight to anticipate those comments, but I give an assurance that specific recommendations will be dealt with and published as soon as possible.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I hope the hon. Gentleman will not omit to cover the question of why anything he says should be taken as justification for imposing a permanent limit rather than extending the existing temporary limit until there is much more conclusive evidence.

Mr. Carmichael

I hope to come to that in detail.

Mr. Peter Walker

I do not want to criticise what the hon. Gentleman has said, but he has stated that he cannot tell us certain results because the Minister is still considering the findings of the Select Committee. This is no criticism of him, but obviously it is criticism of the right hon. Lady. The subject of this debate has been on the Order Paper for some considerable time. The Select Committee produced its Report quite a long time ago and it made a small number of recommendations. Yet the right hon. Lady has been unable to come to a decision on them before this debate.

Mr. Carmichael

I will convey those comments to my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that she will be speeded in her decision and the publication of her comments. The fact that the comments have not yet been made does not mean that when they do arrive, they will not be pertinent and will not cover the points thoroughly.

I feel that the criticism we have had of the Road Research Laboratory, particularly in this debate, is really a reflection on and criticism of the professional integrity of the Laboratory and its staff and is rather unfair. The simple fact is that when the D.S.I.R. was disbanded there were obvious conveniences in attaching the R.R.L. to the Ministry of Transport for administrative purposes. This has in no way affected the independent professional status of the Laboratory and its staff and we intend to preserve that status.

I want to answer the two main criticisms of the 70 m.p.h. limit, particularly on motorways. It has sometimes been suggested that no limit is necessary on motorways, which are our safest and best engineered roads. It has been suggested that a limit of 100 m.p.h. would be acceptable. In general, it is true that the risk of injury on motorways is lower, but the death rate for car drivers on the Ml is regrettably higher than one would expect. Probably the high speed of vehicles at the time of human or mechanical failure contribute to the severity of injury. There is no doubt also that excessive speed contributes in general to the number and severity of accidents.

As speed increases, vehicles become more liable to skid on wet roads, it is more difficult to read road signs and the risk of mechanical failure, burst tyres and loss of control is much greater. I imagine that many hon. Members, as I do myself, regard themselves as skilled drivers. I wonder how many know the stopping distance of a car travelling at 80 m.p.h. and of one travelling at 70 in the best road conditions. At 80 it is in the region of 400 feet; at 70 it is about 315 feet. So there is a difference of nearly 100 feet between the stopping distances of a car travelling at 80 and a car travelling at 70 m.p.h., and that is assuming that tyres and brakes are in perfect condition.

The question of bunching on a road has been mentioned by several hon. Members. It appears that the 70 m.p.h. limit has less effect on bunching than merely the increase of traffic on the road. Bunching is much more closely related to the weight of traffic on the road than the actual speed.

The question of public opinion polls has been raised. I do not see why the Road Research Laboratory, which sets out to find out about motoring, engineering and a section of public opinion, should not be involved in taking public opinion polls so long as the polls are taken in the same way as those by commercial firms. Hon. Members will see on page 31 of the Laboratory's Report the differences in the polls carried out by National Opinion Polls and the poll carried out by the Laboratory. The primary petrol buyer was the person questioned by the National Opinion Polls, whereas the Laboratory questioned people as to whether they drove cars and then asked questions about the speed limit. While there was a different basis, both were perfectly reasonable and scientific.

Mr. David Webster (Weston-superMare)

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he rejects the findings of the Select Committee? He is rather repudiating what the Select Committee said on the whole subject, and he is now repudiating what it said on the subject of public opinion polls. Will he be quite clear about this? This is an all-party body. I believe the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) is the Chairman, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) is Chairman of this section.

Mr. Carmichael

I was pointing out that the Road Research Laboratory asked anyone who could drive a car, whereas National Opinion Polls dealt only with the primary petrol buyer. The reason for the difference in the figures would appear to be the different basis in examining motorists or the definition of the motorist.

Sir S. Summers

Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that whether or not there is a difference is beside the point? The point is that so long as the Road Research Laboratory is thought to be the tool of the Minister by seeking to find whether her proposals are popular or not, so long will its independence be impaired. The results of these two contrasting things have nothing to do with the matter.

Mr. Carmichael

I should not like to become involved in argument about any Select Committee, having served on one myself and being jealous of the reputation of a Select Committee. Perhaps it would be better to leave it and say that my right hon. Friend will be making comments on the question when the opportunity arises.

Perhaps the most significant criticism of the limit is that the level is wrong, that 70 is too low for motorways and too high for other roads. There are a number of technical reasons which support the figure of 70 m.p.h. for motorways, for example, the limitations of the average car tyres. I agree that there may be occasions when high quality tyres, such as the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) referred to, are used, but average tyres have limitations and greatly reduced skid resistance on wet road surfaces at speeds over 70 m.p.h. There are maximum speed limits—rarely over 70 m.p.h.—on American expressways, and fewer people proportionately are killed on them than on motorways in Europe. Some countries on the Continent are now considering speed limits. The question will be up for discussion at the European Conference of Ministers of Transport fairly soon. Italy and Germany, I believe, and even some of the motoring organisations in those countries, are beginning to think in terms of speed limits.

The only other serious suggestion concerning the motorways has been an 80 m.p.h. limit. This would, no doubt, secure some saving, but it would be considerably less in terms of accidents and fatalities, which is the crucial point. My right hon. Friend's view is that the 70 m.p.h. limit is the right compromise between road safety and traffic movement. In a country this size, the hardship which it causes to anyone is minimal. There is certainly not more than 10 minutes' difference between an 80 m.p.h. and a 70 m.p.h. limit on a typical journey between, say, London and Birmingham.

For these reasons, my right hon. Friend decided to continue the 70 m.p.h. limit on motorways indefinitely. She also retained the limit for the time being on roads other than motorways pending further investigation of the possibility of having lower limits on these roads. That work is now going on. We shall continue to watch the effect of these measures, and my right hon. Friend will not hesitate to adjust the limit, either upwards or downwards, if experience shows that to be necessary.

My right hon. Friend is not, however, prepared to give up now the saving of life and injury which was revealed by the Road Research Laboratory's Report, which showed a reduction of 20 per cent. in casualties on motorways in 1966 as a result of the experiment, including 58 fewer people killed. In our view, this is an effective measure which has proved its worth. It is a fair compromise and has been widely welcomed in the House, in the Press and by the majority of road users.

This is the third occasion on which hon. Members opposite have prayed against this limit. Each time, they have said that they wanted an opportunity for discussion but, even now, it is not clear where many of them stand. Are they so convinced that this measure is wrong that they would be prepared to pay the price in life and injury of removing the limit? There is no doubt that that is what the price would be, and that is certainly not our intention. These are real savings of life and serious injury, and nothing I have heard tonight convinces me that we should give them up.

Question put:

The House proceeded to a Division; but no Member being willing to act as Teller for the Ayes, Mr. SPEAKER declared that the Noes had it.