HC Deb 02 December 1968 vol 774 cc1183-203

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [18th November], That this House takes note of the Paper entitled the Highway Code, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th October, and approves the revised Highway Code contained in pages 4 to 44 thereof.

Question again proposed.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) has the floor. Mr. Graham Page.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

Theoretically, I have been addressing the House for a fortnight. I am sure that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen are pleased that I have not actually been doing that. So far as the debate has been concerned. I have been silent for that period, and that perhaps is a blessing.

But it is not a blessing that the Minister has been silent also. A fortnight ago hon. and right hon. Members from both sides of the House and all parties made some very impressive criticisms of the draft Code which the Minister brought before the House, and not only criticisms but valuable, constructive proposals for amending and improving the Code.

The adjournment of the debate gave the Minister the opportunity to revise and improve the Code, taking into account the proposals and suggestions made by hon. Members, and to bring it back in a new form. But he has remained silent during these two weeks. He has stubbornly refused to take the opportunity offered. Perhaps I am understating it when I say "opportunity". There was, I think, a clear directive from the House that the Code in its present draft form was unsatisfactory. The House refused to give him the Closure but he has ignored that and has brought back the same Code, hoping to steamroller it through.

One wonders why the Government bothered to bring the draft Code before the House at all if we are not allowed to have any influence over its contents. It is ironical perhaps that the House is the only interested body which has no power to influence the contents of the Code or effectively to propose any amendments to it. Sixty interested bodies have been consulted. They have all had a go at the draft. Some of them have proposed, and have succeeded in achieving, substantial amendments to the draft. But Parliament, apparently, must not touch it, although we can talk about it, of course.

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)

That puts us on a par with the Cyclists' Union, which has not been consulted.

Mr. Page

It puts us on a par also with the Pedestrians' Association. But in that case I have been more fortunate than I am as a Member of this House, being art officer of the association, and I should say here that I am grateful to the Minister for submitting the Code to the association in draft and adopting a substantial number of the association's proposals. On the other hand, we have heard from other associations, in particular, the Cycling Council of Great Britain, an old-established, respected and moderate body, that they were not properly consulted.

However, I am happy, after what was said about this in the earlier part of the debate, to put on record the Minister's very courteous apology to the Cycling Council of Great Britain. I have here a letter from the secretary of the union, which says that, as a result of the debate … the Minister personally has apologised to me for the way we have been treated … during the preparation of the new Code. It is right to put that on record. But it is also right to quote further from the letter. The Secretary also states: I naturally appreciate this gesture, but it does not of course solve our problem, and the least he can do to make amends is to re-open the case' …. I do hope Members will continue to press the Minister to withdraw the Code so that important matters of contention can be properly considered …. Of course we all realise that the Minister cannot please everyone. He cannot put in the Code everything that everybody wants. The major difficulty in drafting a code of this sort is surely the selection of material. One cannot fill the book with rules of ideal conduct. It should contain only the most important rules of reasonably safe conduct—not, as I have said, ideals, and for a practical reason. The draft Code quotes, on page 4, Section 74 of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, as follows: I quote extracts from that Section: A failure on the part of a person to observe a provision of the highway code … may in any proceedings … whether civil or criminal … be relied upon by any party to the proceedings as tending to establish or to negative any liability which is in question in those proceedings. If in the Code we direct one kind of road user to take certain exceptional precautions, we may deprive him of compensation if, at the time of an accident, he is not taking those exceptional precautions.

For example, further down the same page it is said in paragraph 4: You can be more easily seen in the dark or in poor light if you wear or carry something white, or light-coloured, or reflective. This is important on country roads without footpaths. But one has to couple that direction with the direction in paragraph 34 to motorists: Never drive so fast that you cannot stop well within the distance you can see to be clear. and that in paragraph 90: When it is dark, drive so that you can stop well within the distance you can see in your headlamps to be clear ahead. If a pedestrian is knocked down when he is not carrying something white, it may be held to be contributory negligence on his part and while paragraph 4, about carrying something white, is good advice, its very existence in the Code may easily result in an injustice to an injured person.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Is it not astonishing that the Government should be giving this advice and at the same time charging Purchase Tax on luminous arm bands which fulfil it?

Mr. Page

That is certainly an anomaly. The Government ought to assist those who are walking on roads at night to be seen clearly.

There is another example of the difficulty of reconciling paragraphs in the Code. Paragraph 16, which is a direction to pedestrians, says: When you cross at a road junction look out for traffic turning the corner, especially from behind you. That has to be coupled with paragraph 47, a direction to motorists, which says: When turning at a road junction, give way to pedestrians who are crossing. It is reasonable to tell a pedestrian that he should not start to cross the road without looking behind him to see whether there is turning traffic coming across his path, but as paragraph 16 stands it means that a pedestrian must have eyes in the back of his head to see whether, while he is crossing, traffic is turning in behind him.

This is extremely badly worded and one can imagine the cross-examination of a pedestrian who has been injured crossing at a T-junction: "Did you look behind you before you started to cross?"; "Yes, I did, there was no car in sight"; "When you were half way across, did you look behind you to see whether traffic was turning from behind you?"; "No, I did not"; "But ought you not to have done so, according to paragraph 16 of the Highway Code?". He should have done so, as the paragraph is worded. It is nonsense.

This is the sort of difficulty which will arise not only in court at the hearing of a claim for damages, but during negotiations for damages with an insurance company. When the law provides, as I am sure it eventually will for compensation for those injured in road accidents irrespective of whose fault it is, we shall not have to worry about this sort of thing in the Highway Code and we shall be able to include in it the highest standard of conduct.

It is a long time ago that Parliament recognised the principle of compensation, irrespective of fault. It recognised it in the case of workmen's compensation. In another place, as long ago as the 1930s, a Bill received its Second Reading recognising this principle in connection with road accidents. It is only a matter of time before the principle is applied to road accidents by extensions of third party insurance, and indeed, senior judges have been recently advocating that it should be applied to road accidents, and that we should not be concerned with fault when considering the compensation of those injured. Until that is the law we have to be careful of what we write into the Code and not write into it a conduct of perfection; otherwise we may deprive victims of the compensation which they deserve.

Perhaps to this extent the Code is a memorial of our failure to ensure that law reform keeps pace with public opinion. This is certainly evident in other respects in the Code. What about level crossings? The public are horrified by the automatic half-barrier crossing. The Minister has a report about the dangers of these crossings. He cannot fail to do something about them eventually, and yet we have them on pages 32 and 33 of the Code, in glorious technicolour. Incidentally, there is no guidance, in the Code, for pedestrians at these crossings—not a word.

One cannot help feeling that pages 32 and 33 are something like a Round One success to the Ministry where, contrary to popular feeling, one knows there is a determination to go on with this type of crossing. There is a similar example of the perpetuation of bad law on page 9. Here there is a picture of an ice-cream van, with a child running across the road from the van. It comes under paragraph 41, which says, as a direction to motorists: Be careful near a parked ice-cream van—children are more interested in ice cream than in traffic. One would scarcely believe that from those two gentle lines one child a week is killed from this very cause; 10 children a week are seriously injured; and 20 children a week are slightly injured. More than half the casualties are children under 6 years of age, more than three quarters of the casualties are under 8. Yet we have just this gentle reminder in the Code. Even the reminder is watered down by a rather poor joke. There is nothing in the Code to tell the ice-cream vendor not to stop and sell ice cream unless he has a mate with him to control the traffic, and to see children safely across the road. This ought to be the law and if it is not, let us have it in the Code.

My third example of what I call unreformed law being perpetuated in the Code appears on page 20 in paragraph 91. It says: Use dipped headlights at night in built-up areas unless street lighting is so good that they are not needed. The Minister has the Report of his Working Party on Vehicle Lighting, issued in 1967, entitled "The use of headlamps "; it deals not only with headlamps, but with all vehicle lighting. The Report shows clearly the dangers of glare from dipped lamps in bad street lighting and the way that dipped lamps impair good street lighting. It also showed the great advantage of dimmed lights, but in the Code there is not a word about dimmed lights.

In the Report of the Ministry's Working Party, the Home Office, the police and the Road Research Laboratory all came out strongly in favour of dimmed lights. The A.A. and the R.A.C. favoured them. There is no mention of that in the Code, however, and, as far as I know, despite the Report of his Working Party, the Minister has done nothing to encourage the installation or use of the dim-dip procedure.

Finally, I want to ask: Who is going to read the Code? The learner-drivers, perhaps, so that they shall pass their test, and right hon. and hon. Members of this House and a handful of other people who are interested in the contents of the Code. But will anyone pay 1s. 3d. to buy it? It is a very fine publication in many ways, and well got up, but it is not the sort of thing that people will buy off the bookstall to read on train journeys or take home to read in bed. Local authorities may buy it at the cost of the rates to distribute amongst schools, and so on.

I would like to have seen the Government be a little more generous about this and distribute the Code free. I know that there is the argument that it costs something to produce and that people treasure something more if they pay for it. The Code should be distributed free to and by the voluntary organisations—the Women's Institutes, the Townswomen's Guild and organisations of that sort—which are deeply interested in road safety and would like all road users to know its contents. I do not think that anyone would begrudge this as a public service at the taxpayer's expense. It is so important that all road users, not just people who are learning to drive a motor car or a motor cycle, should know the Code. It seems petty and wrong to make this charge for it.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

I wish to raise one short point which does not appear to have been raised earlier. I was not fortunate to hear the whole of the debate on the last occasion, but I have read HANSARD and I did not see any reference to Rule 140, dealing with the road user and animals, which states: If you are herding animals along or across the road and there is someone with you, send him along the road to warn drivers at places such as bends and brows of hills where they may not be able to see. Carty lights after sunset. That seems to me to be much too vague and not sufficiently explicit to meet a substantial problem.

I have a constituency interest in this rule. Most roads which are not motor ways and highways and anyone is entitled to use them; he has a right to pass and repass, including people who are driving cattle. In Cornwall, however, we have only two major roads leading into the county, the A30 and the A38, neither of which is a motorway and both of which are used extensively by traffic throughout the year.

It is a mistake to suppose that Cornwall is only a holiday county and that the traffic is there only in the summer. It certainly doubles in the summer, but there is heavy use of these roads throughout the year for the carriage of agricultural produce, china clay and all sorts of industrial uses as well as passenger traffic. In Cornwall, there are many cattle, beef cattle in the north and dairy cattle more particularly in the south. It is inevitable that the cattle have to cross those two main highways, and there have been a number of complaints about difficulties which have arisen with the herding of cattle, particularly at night.

The rule does not give any specific instructions as to what sort of lights there should be, or how they should be carried, or whether they should be at the back or front of a herd. It says only that if one has somebody with one, he should warn other traffic. There have been quite a number of accidents, and complaints have come not only from motorists, who find the cattle a considerable danger, but also from farmers who have to use the roads.

The Minister has said that this Code will have to be revised frequently—every five years, I think he said. In view of some of the proposals which have been made not only tonight but on the previous occasion, I hope we may have revision in less than five years, and I suggest that we have another look at Rule 140 which does not go far enough and is not explicit enough.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Mr. Marsh.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

On a point of order. Would you clarify the position, Mr. Deputy Speaker? I understand that because this is an adjourned debate hon. Members who spoke on the previous occasion are now excluded from speaking, although things have developed since then. May I have your Ruling on that?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Yes. The Ruling is that as this is an adjourned debate those who have already participated in the debate have exhausted their right to speak.

Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)

Further to that point of order. Many of us cut our remarks short the last time because the Government allowed only two hours for the debate. This Motion raises great issues. May I ask you to reconsider your Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am bound by the rules of the House and I gave a Ruling accordingly.

Mr. Webster

Further to that point of order. I am sorry to delay the Minister, but does that Ruling apply to the Minister who moved the Motion? He spoke twice. He had a right to reply. We are very glad the Minister is to speak even though it means Ministers speaking again, and I do not intend any discourtesy to the right hon. Gentleman, but does this Ruling mean that Members who curtailed their speeches and have heard all these Ministerial replies, which we hope will improve in due course, cannot speak?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Minister's speech is a matter for the Minister.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

Surely, hon. Members who have not yet participated in the debate will at last be able to do so?

11.7 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Richard Marsh)

I wonder whether I may intervene at this stage, because the last debate and the shape of this have taken an unusual course. It had been believed that it would be a very noncontroversial debate. The last debate showed that there were issues which disturbed hon. Members on both sides of the House very considerably indeed and I should like to refer to some of those.

In reply to the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson), I certainly will look at the point he raised and will write to him separately.

The second half of the debate, if that is the right description of it, was opened by the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) who has always played a very considerable part in this sort of matter. He raised a number of points and one was fundamental to the consideration of the Code. He raised it in particular on Rule 41 in relation to ice cream vans. In dealing with that I can reply to a number of queries which have been raised.

It is not the purpose of the Code to be a sort of backdoor legislation. It is not the purpose of the Code to direct owners of ice cream vans to do particular things—or to direct anybody to do anything. One has to get this clear, because if Parliament wishes to lay legal obligations upon people it is for Parliament to do that by legislation. What we are concerned with this evening is the Highway Code, which is based on the best advice which advisers can produce about how best to behave on our roads. The hon. Member for Crosby referred particularly to Rule 4. This was changed as a result of consultations. The original rule read: When walking at night wear or carry something white. This has been changed to read: You can be more easily seen in the dark or in poor light if you wear or carry something white … ". If one takes exception to this statement, I think that one is calling in question the necessity to have a Highway Code at all. I do not think that anyone can challenge the suggestion that one can be more easily seen in the dark or in poor light if one wears or carries something white.

The basis of the Code is a series of commonsense suggestions, in an effort to cut down what is an appalling carnage on the roads. We are talking of about 40,000 casualties a year, a figure which in any other context would horrify the House and the nation. That is why I say that hon. Members have to bear in mind that we are seeking as best we can to produce advice which is applicable to all road users, in an effort to get them all to conform to some extent to a system of rules which will enable the roads to be perhaps a little less unsafe than they would otherwise be.

This means that various groups have to play their part. There is reference to all of them, whether they be motorists, or people moving cattle, or cyclists, or pedestrians. Advice is applicable to all of them in an effort to produce a situation in which rather less damage is caused to society on our roads than is the case at present.

I do not wish to intervene in the debate for long, because a number of other hon. Members wish to speak. However, a number of matters were raised during our first day's debate which it has been necessary to study. After all, there is no point in having Parliamentary debates unless somebody takes notice of what is said in them. That may be a rather novel approach, but I think it is rather a useful one.

Having listened to the debate on the last occasion, I want to make a number of comments. The hon. Member for Crosby bemoaned the fact that in the last two weeks nothing had happened. This is a Point to which I shall come in a moment, because one of the problems which we face here is the procedure which we have to follow in Parliament. I have no power to amend the Code.

Mr. Graham Page

The right hon. Gentleman has power to withdraw the Code and bring out another one.

Mr. Marsh

This is a possibility, but it is a course which, if we followed it, would lead to considerable delay. We could not withdraw the Code and change parts of it without reopening the whole of the consultative process which has led us to this particular stage, and that would take a very long period indeed.

Mr. Webster

I apologise for interrupting the Minister, but does his remark apply to the signs at the back of the Code? They are not part of the general Code. In fact, I gather that they are the "sixpenny bonus" that we are getting. Do they come under the statutory limitation which applies to the rest of the Code?

Mr. Marsh

They do. It is the book holus-bolus. I think that hon. Members will agree that I am trying to meet the House as best I can.

Three main points worried the House during the first day's debate. First was a point which was raised by the hon. Member for Crosby and others who criticised strongly the procedure for discussing the Highway Code. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House complained that they were being afforded the opportunity of debating the Code, but were denied any possibility of amending anything contained in it. This point has been made again this evening.

I find it impossible to disagree with these complaints. It is an absurd situation that Parliament should debate a document but have no power to change any part of it. Nor has the Minister power to take into account the representations made by hon. Members. The present procedure has been in operation for nearly 40 years and, despite the criticisms which are made of the modern Parliament, this controversy shows that previous Parliaments on this issue were more passive than the present one.

The procedure which we have followed for the past 40 years is now unsatisfactory, and I am grateful to hon. Members for bringing this fact to light. It is the first time that I have brought the Highway Code before the House, and to me it seems an absurd situation. It is impossible for me to change the procedure in the middle of a debate, which is where we are at this moment. Consultations have been conducted with some 70 organisations and, whilst one or two organisations are still dissatisfied with one or two points of the Code, and this is inevitable, as a whole the Code is acceptable to the vast majority of those whom we have consulted.

Mr. Heffer

I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend. It has been mentioned that my hon. Friend has apologised, and I have also a letter from the Parliamentary Secretary concerning consultation with cyclists. As there was no meeting with representatives of the cyclists, would my right hon. Friend reconsider meeting representatives of the cyclists for discussion of the points that they have raised?

Mr. Marsh

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There are about 70 organisations, most of whom have not had meetings. I have looked closely at the representations made by the Cycling Council, but I will come to that in a moment.

If I may pursue the point of the procedure for dealing with the Code, we will presumably have a Highway Code for a long time to come, though with a bit of luck somebody else will be dealing with the future one; I am not sure which of my hon. Friends will be doing so, but I wish him well. We have had consultations with some 70-odd organisations. Virtually all those organisations accept the Code as it is, with one or two reservations. I think that the House would agree that it would be highly undesirable to postpone publication of the Code for what could be a considerable period of time, particularly since the existing Code is very much out-of-date.

One reason for the urgency in the publication of the new Code is that it is nine years since publication of the last one, with the result that the Code is out-of-date in a number of major respects. It would not be right to allow such a long period of time to elapse before the next publication. There will have to be revisions of the Code in the not too distant future to enable us to conform with international practices which are now being discussed.

Therefore, while accepting the criticisms of the procedure, for which I do not accept responsibility, I propose to bring a revised Code to the House within two years and, to enable the House to be consulted properly, I propose to circulate a draft Code as a Green Paper for consideration and discussion, which could be debated should the House so wish, and reconsidered by the Minister in the light of the debate.

Sir H. Harrison

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I think that the House was wise not to let the Code go through without full debate and not to give the Government the Closure. The Minister was most encouraging. I congratulate him on what he said. I can understand that he has no power to alter the Code, and nor has Parliament. Will he consider consulting the Motor Schools Association, which teaches——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman spoke in the debate a fortnight ago. He must make only a brief intervention.

Sir H. Harrison

I congratulate the Minister on the work he has done during the last fortnight. I am sure that what he is now saying will meet with the general approval of the House.

Mr. Marsh

I am very grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman. The wisdom of the House is always there, but it is not always apparent to Ministers at the immediate moment. It is always useful to consider what has been said in the House of Commons in the cold light of dawn——

Mr. Webster

Can the Minister tell us what the procedural changes will be, and what will be the date of the next Code?

Mr. Marsh

I cannot say what the date of the next Code will be—I hope within two years. In any case, the Code ought to be changed to conform with international practices now being drawn up.

I think that the way I suggest is the easiest way round, although I am open to suggestions if hon. Members care to make them. That way will be to make a draft in the form of a Green Paper, circulate it to the House at the same time as to other bodies—I see no reason why the House should not be consulted as well as anyone else—then to have a debate on the Green Paper, if that is wished, and then for the Minister to make changes in the Code if he thinks fit. I hope that hon. Members will feel that this would be a more satisfactory way of dealing with the matter than the present procedure, which seems to make a nonsense of Parliament.

The second point which caused some feeling, and featured in the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas) and Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heller), and other hon. Members was the way in which the correspondence from the Cycling Council of Great Britain to the Ministry and myself had been dealt with. Complaints like this are serious. This is a body of repute, representing a large number of people. Immediately after the debate I looked into the matter personally, and the council's complaint I felt to be fully justified. I telephoned the general secretary of the council the day after the debate. and apologised to him for the way in which the matter had been handled. Action on this issue has been taken within the Department, and I hope that the House will agree with me that we can now regard this matter as settled.

Rule 132 featured prominently in the previous debate, and caused some concern. I have looked very carefully at the points raised by hon. Members and by the Cycling Council both before and since our discussion on 18th November. They have objected to the proposed new paragraph on cyclists, which reads: Ride in single file on busy or narrow roads. As the House is aware, and as I said earlier, the Code is advisory; it is not law. It is not a breach of the law to disobey the Code. I think on safety grounds that that is an extremely foolish thing to do, but it is not a breach of the law. There are already penalties in the Road Traffic Acts for recklessly or carelessly driving cycles, as other vehicles, but the problem in this respect is very serious.

The number of cyclists is declining every year, but each year the cyclist is becoming more and more liable to be involved in a road accident. The casualty rate for cyclists in relation to cycling miles is rising every year, and the, percentage of serious or fatal cycling accidents is increasing at the moment. I will just quote some figures. In 1957, 21.4 per cent. of cycling casualties were either fatal or serious: in 1967, the corresponding figure was 24 per cent. In short, the cyclist is becoming, through no fault of his own, more and more prone to accident. And, of those cyclists involved in accidents, more are liable to be killed or seriously injured.

I would be the last person who would wish to place impediments in the way of sporting or recreational cycling—indeed, riding cycles has a great deal of precedent in my Ministry, which I do not intend to follow. It is, I am told, a cheap, healthy pastime which gives pleasure to tens of thousands of people, but. I do not think that the paragraph will raise the problems which some hon. Members fear. The advice in the present Code is to ride in single file should road or traffic conditions require it. A great deal of work has been done by the Road Research Laboratory in an effort to establish just how far the Code is really understood by people, and how much it confuses them. The evidence from the Road Research Laboratory is that the rather vague phrase "when traffic conditions permit" means very little to many people. I hope that the House will agree that where the road safety position in relation to a group of road users is as I have demonstrated it is important that the advice we give should be clear.

I understand that cyclists generally do not quarrel with the stipulation that they should ride in single file on busy roads; what they are really concerned with is the reference to narrow roads, particularly in the country. But narrow roads also occur in towns. A wide road with double parking becomes a narrow road for the purposes of traffic. But there is also the problem of narrow roads in the country, which, because they bend and twist, can be extremely dangerous for cyclists because motorists cannot see them. They often have high hedges and sharp bends, and are, therefore, very hazardous. Cyclists may not always see or hear approaching traffic and, therefore, may not be able to get into single file in time to avoid being involved in an accident.

We have enough confidence in the cycling organisations to recognise that bona fide cycling clubs are properly run; they have their groups and they understand the problems and will themselves be able to follow a rule which is pure common-sense. It is not law; it is advice. We therefore think that this rule will not present them with the difficulties they fear. If that is not so, in the shortened period we would hope to have evidence, and we will be able to revise the Code if it is necessary.

But we have to strike a balance between the conflicting claims of road users and to bring into decision at the same time the need to preserve and enhance safety on the roads. It is not an easy decision to make, and I know how keenly cyclists feel about it; how they feel that we are making conditions on the road less comfortable and less pleasant for them. That is not the intention, and I do not think that it will be the result, but, as Minister of Transport, I cannot avoid the responsibility for doing what seems to be right in terms of giving advice to make things safer not only for cyclists but for other road users.

We have concluded that, on balance, the new rule was better because it was clearer. The phrase "when traffic conditions permit" does not mean very much to many people, but if one suggests that this should be done when the roads are busy or narrow it is a clearer piece of advice, and we thought that that would help to reduce casualties. For those reasons, and for those reasons alone, we concluded that we would recommend Parliament to accept it.

I have spoken for rather longer than I intended, but this is one of those occasions when the debate has been valuable—at any rate, to me. I am sorry if it has kept a number of hon. Members up. In respect of discussions about the future Highway Code, we in the Ministry have learned a great deal from this debate. It will enable us to meet the problem better in future. I hope that the House will feel able to meet us.

Sir Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

Some hon. Members and myself raised some points about horses in the last debate. Can the Minister deal with them now?

Mr. Marsh

A number of points were made about horses. They were rather conflicting points. We have had representations on this question. There are two views as to which side of the road horses should travel. I shall certainly write to the hon. Member about this point, and look into it.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. David Waddington (Nelson and Colne)

I am grateful to the Minister for having stated that he feels that the present procedure is unsatisfactory. I am also grateful for his having said that a revised Code will be brought forward within the next two years and I am, therefore, able to keep my remarks very short, in the hope that I shall have some helpful comments to make.

I assume that the section of the Code called "The Law's Demands" is not strictly a part of the Code and, therefore, can be altered. I believe that this section contains one inaccuracy. I refer to this passage on page 48: When driving you must … stop when required to do so by a police officer". The Section of the Road Traffic Act there referred to provides that a motorist must stop when required to do so by a police constable in uniform". I hope that the Minister will ensure that this part of the Code is altered, because some people may need cautioning that it would be wise not to stop if signalled to do so at night, in a country lane by a person who is not in uniform.

Rule 13 advises pedestrians as follows: You have no priority at a zebra crossing until you have stepped on it, but, when you do, traffic must give way to you. Unfortunately, we all know that it often does not. As pedestrians are notoriously bad at estimating the speed of approaching vehicles, it would have been better to have said something much more positive such as, "If you are not absolutely sure that an oncoming vehicle can stop, do not begin to cross".

Rule 61 says: In one-way streets, choose the correct lane for your exit as soon as you can. Never change lanes suddenly. One thing which is omitted here and which I think is of paramount importance is an injunction to drivers to signal before changing lanes.

Rule 95 is very important: The flashing of headlamps has the same meaning as sounding your horn—to let another road user know you are there. The Government are entitled to say, "Whatever lorry drivers may do, and whatever Lord Justice Russell may have said, we shall not say that flashing lights mean, 'Come forward. I am waiting for you'." If that is the Government's view—I think it is the correct view—they should say so in the clearest of terms, because some people on the roads use flashing lights as an indication to come forward. I wonder why those who drafted the Code did not say, "The flashing of lights must not be taken as an indication to come forward or to cut across another vehicle's path".

Mr. Marsh

Rule 95 says: The flashing of headlamps has the same meaning as sounding your horn—to let another road user know you are there. We have covered it elsewhere.

Mr. Waddington

I am referring to that very rule. In view of the difficulty which has arisen because so many lorry drivers have created their own code, and as the High Court has commented on the informal code used by lorry drivers, it might have been better to have used more positive wording.

I add my criticism to those which have been already voiced about the sign for the automatic half-barrier crossing depicted at page 38. The Minister said that this is part of the Code and cannot be changed. This sign is absurd and conveys nothing. It was strongly criticised at the Nixon inquiry, which recommended that a suitable alternative should be found. Nothing has been done. Now we are apparently stuck for the next two years with a sign which can mean nothing to a person of average intelligence.

This Code is two and a half times as expensive as the last effort. It is much longer, far too long. The verbosity of the author will, no doubt, go down in history, but I greatly doubt that its contents will sink into the heads of the average learned driver.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that we have had a long debate. I would hope that contributions now will be brief.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

I shall be brief, especially because of the conciliatory and sophisticated attitude of the Minister tonight, which has been very helpful to us.

I nearly always look forward to the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) being attributed to me in the newspapers, and the one he made tonight is the only one which I should not like to have so attributed.

I recommend to the right hon. Gentleman that the three-yearly fee for a driving licence should be raised from 15s to 15s. 6d. and that it be compulsory for the Highway Code to be purchased when the form is sent in or be taken with the licence. Otherwise, the right hon. Gentleman will be almost condoning perjury, for the applicant has to sign that he has read the Code, and I doubt that many who so sign have, in fact, done so.

I have confirmation for the view that the new Code is over-long and verbose both from my son, who is to take his driving test at Christmas and who is glad that it will not be the one on which he will be interrogated by the examiners, and from a slightly more informed source, namely, the Motor Schools Association of Great Britain, which, I understand, was not officially consulted about the Code, which I think a pity.

I take up two points which the Association makes in its letter and which may have to be covered in the Press hand-out or covering letter from the Minister. The first touches the use of the words, "single carriageway", "dual carriageway" and "double carriageway". The association regards the expression "single carriageway" as extremely misleading. There are either dual-carriageway roads, with a barrier or space between the carriageways, or there are double carriageways. The association goes on to point out that in paragraph 68 of the new Code there is a reference to "an ordinary two-lane road".

The second point arises on Rule 74 and is more important. The rule implies that, if one is the second driver wishing to turn right, the leading driver being prevented from turning only by on-coming traffic, the second driver should not enter the box junction. I think that it is the normal practice in London, when traffic has to turn to the right, that a queue of traffic, so to speak, is allowed into the box. I cannot see the point of allowing only one car into the box. The Motor Schools Association regards this as a matter which should have greater explanation if there is not to be ambiguity and doubt in the minds of driving testers at the time when testing under the new Code takes place.

Now, a personal point on Rule 46. There is a picture of the amber flashing signal, but the picture does not show the white cross at the bottom or the red light at the top. There are a good many motorists in London who still do not know whether they are or are not allowed to go ahead when faced with that rather art nouveau type of flashing signal.

Finally, a compliment to the authors of the Code from the Motor Schools Association. The association is especially happy that the classic phrase, 'certain vehicles carrying slow-moving loads', is not repeated.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Campbell (Moray and Nairn)

I shall be very brief, as I want to raise only one matter to which the Minister did not refer.

I, too, applaud his statement that the Green Paper procedure will be used in two years' time. I hope that that will include a debate in the House on the Green Paper, and that the Leader of the House will take note of this, because it has been part of the procedure so far in the introduction of this new kind of Paper.

I wish to refer to the automatic half-barrier level crossing, dealt with in Rules 147 to 150. It is not clear whether the section has been written in the light of the Hixon Tribunal's Report, which has brought to the country's attention some of the significant matters connected with these crossings. The advice given in this Highway Code needs to be supplemented by publicity on a national scale if safety at such crossings is to be ensured in the future. They will be made safer if there is a longer time for the flashing lights and for the barriers to fall before the train arrives.

Education on a country-wide basis is needed for motorists and others to learn what they are supposed to do, which is fairly complicated, even in this Code, particularly if they have vehicles moving at 5 m.p.h. or less, or long and unwieldy vehicles as described in the Code.

One of my hon. Friends referred to the sign, so I shall say only that I entirely agree that it is not easily recognisable. It has been described by one of my hon. Friends as the "flying tin-tacks", and it certainly needs to be changed in due course to something which is immediately obvious to a motorist, because these crossings are not frequent enough for people to get used to the signs. We need something which will immediately make it clear to the motorist what he will be confronted with.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the Paper entitled the Highway Code, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th October, and approves the revised Highway Code contained in pages 4 to 44 thereof.