HC Deb 05 March 1969 vol 779 cc420-6
The Minister of Transport (Mr. Richard Marsh)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

Since we published the Green Paper, "How Fast", last July, we have talked about speed limits to 40 organisations and corresponded with hundreds of individuals.

We are clear that speed limits, properly applied, can help safety. Our discussions have confirmed my own view that there is no novel departure, no single remedy, no new general limit which would radically improve safety.

We considered the possibility of introducing a new blanket limit of 60 m.p.h. on all single carriageway roads outside towns. But we have concluded that a measure of this kind would be too blunt an instrument.

Instead, we propose a package of measures to develop the existing system; to direct it more specifically to those roads and vehicles where speed limits will most contribute to safety, and to ensure that limits are set and kept at realistic levels.

Within this broad policy we propose the following measures:

  1. (i) the use of more 50 m.p.h. limits and some experimental 60s on stretches of road with bad accident records;
  2. (ii) the adoption of 40 m.p.h. limits in some villages on main roads, and
  3. (iii) in towns, retention of 30 m.p.h. as the basic limit but with more use of 40s on main traffic routes.
We thought carefully whether the time has come to put the urban limit generally up to 35 m.p.h., but have decided against. Again, this would be too blunt. We cannot accept the risk that speeds on residential roads might rise significantly, and accidents with them. It is better to differentiate main traffic routes where higher limits will not increase risks.

The Greater London Council and Metropolitan Police asked for a 35 m.p.h. limit in London, but I think that the same arguments also apply. I am, however, suggesting to the G.L.C. an immediate joint review of London limits, on trunk and principal roads, to get the main traffic routes right. I very much hope that it will join me in this.

On vehicles, I propose to raise the non-motorway limit on light goods vehicles of 30 cwt. and below from 40 m.p.h. to 50 m.p.h. Similarly, I propose to raise the limit on motorways and non-motorways for touring caravans from 40 to 50 m.p.h., with some conditions to prevent badly matched combinations of car and caravan. But, for the time being at least, I propose to reduce the motorway limit for heavy goods vehicles from 70 m.p.h. to 60 m.p.h.

The Government have already decided that this country should move towards a metric system. We propose, subject to further consultation, that speed limits should become metric in 1973. The lower end of the scale will then be 50, 65 and 80 k.p.h. and the experimental lengths of 60 m.p.h. limit will become 100 k.p.h. If we can get a much-needed improvement in driving behaviour, I should like to raise the present 70 m.p.h. limit slightly to 120 k.p.h.—about 75 m.p.h. This overall limit will apply as at present to all roads where no lower limit is in force.

Speed limits depend on enforcement. Police manpower is limited, but more realistic limits should themselves make enforcement easier. My right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland will also be putting to the bodies concerned proposals for fixed penalties for speeding.

My Department, together with the Scottish and Welsh Offices, will shortly issue to local authorities new, more precise criteria for all levels of limits. We will ask them to keep those limits for which they are responsible under regular review, using these criteria, to ensure that they are reasonable and accepted as such by drivers.

Mr. Michael Heseltine

As a result of the reduction in the motorway speed limit for heavy lorries, what switch-back of heavy lorries will take place from motorways to non-motorways? What conclusions has the right hon. Gentleman drawn about the lesser number of accidents on motorways as a result of the reduction of the speed limit for heavy lorries? Will he tell the House whether the proposals for fixed penalties for speeding will remove all flexibility from the courts. How many categories of speeding does he propose to introduce?

Mr. Marsh

The present problem of enforcing the law in this field without freedom of police activity is neither desired by the police, nor by the motoring public. We could do this more efficiently if we could look at the possibility of a fixed penalty; and this can be argued when we consider the proposals. At present, we have no proposals, but we are looking for a more efficient way of saving time of police and motorists in dealing in this problem.

On the question of heavy goods vehicles, it is impossible to quantify exactly what saving in accidents there will be, but there is a great deal of evidence that such vehicles, travelling at 70 m.p.h., present a problem for the motorist who wants to pass them and who becomes frustrated; and there are safety problems. We shall be able to consider this before the new generation of vehicles comes on the road and we see how it will turn out, but all the evidence points to the need for a lower speed limit for heavy goods vehicles than for private cars.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that we have an important debate ahead.

Mr. Ogden

The package deal announced by my right hon. Friend includes many things, most of which will be welcome. As he has consulted so many organisations outside, will he give an assurance that there will be no firm decision until the House has been able to debate the matter? What consideration has he given to the fact that only 10 per cent. of passenger vehicles on the motorways are able to maintain and sustain a cruising speed of 70 m.p.h.?

Mr. Marsh

The question of a debate is one for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

We have had exhaustive consultations. I do not know of many issues on which we have gone to the whole public for consultations. We have had interesting contributions from ordinary members of the public and we have consulted 40 organisations. We have not satisfied everyone, but there is a general consensus of opinion on this matter.

Of course, motorways always cause a great deal of controversy in terms of speed limits, but recent experience has shown that there is still a large number of people who drive extremely dangerously on motorways—a minority, but, none the less, a number. The evidence at the moment is that 70 m.p.h. has a direct relation to the prevention of accidents. If, over a period of time, we could see that we could reduce the danger, we could move up the limit, but we should not place people at risk purely so that someone may drive at an extra 20 m.p.h.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

On fixed penalties, has the right hon. Gentleman in mind that if a motorist pleads guilty and writes to the magistrate he will know the fine which will be imposed on him in any part of the country for a speeding offence, or, is the right hon. Gentleman's mind moving towards a sort of ticket system which is used in America, by which the fine is paid direct to the police?

Mr. Marsh

Exactly how the police will operate this will be a matter for the Home Secretary. I would prefer not to be drawn into details, because, as I have said, I shall discuss this principle with my right hon. Friends and return to the House with firm proposals. There are a number of ways of doing this, but I think most people agree that we are wasting a great deal of the time of police at present.

Mr. Bessell

Is the Minister aware that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I will welcome his statement, based as it is on considerations of safety? What steps does he propose to take to enforce the reduced speed limits for heavy goods vehicles on motorways? Is he aware that a small number of drivers appear to use the motorways as race tracks? Will the cost of switching speedometers from the present system to the metric system be borne by the Government?

Mr. Marsh

Without having given the hon. Gentleman's last point due consideration, and discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I would only think it was unlikely.

On the question of the heavy goods vehicles, there is always a minority who behave badly. We consulted industry on this and it was generally content, not least because the ceiling on speeds has a considerable economic value to hauliers. Enforcement is a matter for the police, and they will continue to do their best.

Mr. Brian Parkyn

Instead of changing to kilometres per hour, will not my right hon. Friend give very serious consideration to accepting the now internationally-accepted S.I. units, which will mean changing to metres per second?

Mr. Marsh

All hon. Members will be well aware of the international S.I. units in metres per second, but I have a suspicion that there is probably a proportion of the 17 million motorists who are not as well-versed in this as the House is.

Mr. Kitson

When giving consideration to an increase in speed limits on motorways, will the right hon. Gentleman also consider imposing minimum speed limits on motorways, which would improve the accident rate?

Mr. Marsh

A great deal of thought has been given to this problem. The difficulty about it is twofold. One problem is the danger of forcing people to travel at a speed which is not the speed they would naturally choose. The other is the possibility of diverting some of this traffic from the motorways. The suggestion is reasonable—this is tried in many North American States—but on the whole we have come down against it, and I think that the general consensus was also against it.

Miss Herbison

My right hon. Friend told us that there were exhaustive consultations. Among those whom he consulted, what organisation, if any, represented pedestrians, of whom we still have some millions?

Mr. Marsh

I am sure that they are somewhere in the list. There could not have been anyone that we left out, but I cannot immediately find a specific organisation. I can only say that the consultation with pedestrians was not least in the public debate. We had several hundreds of letters from members of the general public, including pedestrians, putting forward their views, which were all considered.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

If the Minister is not impressed by the arguments for minimum speed limits, will he think seriously about legal enforcement of a power-to-laden-weight ratio and gearing of commercial vehicles, so that they can go up steep hills without dropping to such a slow pace that a queue of reasonably impatient traffic builds up behind them?

Mr. Marsh

Power-to-weight ratios open up a considerable topic, not least the sheer cost of the exercise and the power related to weight necessary to achieve what the hon. Gentleman has in mind. The matter is being discussed with the industry, which has very strong views on it, but it is not taken into account in my statement.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Has my right hon. Friend considered the prohibition of heavy goods vehicles on motorways from going into the fast lane, the lane on the right-hand side?

Mr. Marsh

They are not supposed to be there. The outside lane of the motorway is not intended to be a fast lane. It is intended to be a lane in which people can overtake others. The rules of the motorway apply to goods vehicles as much as to private vehicles.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House. Mr. Peyton.