HC Deb 17 March 1972 vol 833 cc933-8
Mr. Hastings

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will make a statement on the multiple crash which occurred yesterday on the M1 at Ridgmont in Bedfordshire.

The Minister for Transport Industries (Mr. John Peyton)

I very much regret to have to inform the House that nine people died and 51 were injured in a multiple crash on the M1yesterday in fog. About 120 vehicles were involved. I have, of course, called for a full report.

I should like to express my sympathy and that of the House with those injured and with the relatives of those who died. I am sure that the House would also wish to express its thanks to those who took part in the relief work.

Mr. Hastings

I endorse what my right hon. Friend has said and express my own sympathy and deplore this senseless and tragic suffering and loss of life. May I also express my appreciation of the exemplary way in which the Bedfordshire police, particularly the casualty bureau, the fire service and the hospital and ambulance services coped with this emergency? My right hon. Friend will recall that this is the second appalling accident on this stretch of road in recent months.

May I ask him two further questions: first, will he now bring forward the programme for gantry lighting which I understand is seriously behind schedule and which would permit the police to flash an appropriate speed limit to the traffic in fog? Secondly, will he institute a study as to how such a speed limit in fog conditions can be enforced without increasing the danger?

Mr. Peyton

I gladly endorse my hon. Friend's comments about the Bedfordshire police who, in facing a terrible task, made an immense contribution to the relief of suffering. I will look into the question of gantry lighting most carefully. I would only add that the whole question of motorway lighting, particularly in the danger spots, is being looked at with great thoroughness.

The question of enforcing speed limits is a very difficult one to answer, particularly in fog. As my hon. Friend has said, these crashes are caused by people driving far faster than conditions permit.

Mr. Freeson

May I on this side of the House join the Minister and his hon. Friend in the expressions of sympathy which have been made to the relatives of those who died and to those who have been injured in this terrible incident, and also in commendation of the speedy and efficient action of all those—the police and others—who helped in the rescue operation?

In view of the examination that is being undertaken generally in the Department on matters relating to this kind of accident, and in view of the report which the Minister has said that he has called for on this horrible affair, may we have an assurance that some kind of statement will be made to the House as soon as possible, so that some consideration can be given by hon. Members to a matter that is causing growing concern both here and outside?

Mr. Peyton

I am very much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said and for the way in which he has said it. I should certainly like to look at the question of an early statement, because a report following an inquiry which I set up after the last of these horrible accidents is just about due. It covers such things as the lighting of both vehicles and motorways, the segregation of heavy traffic, and a special code for driving in fog.

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has approached this. It is essential to bring home to the public the point that, whatever precautions are taken—I do not wish to avoid the responsibility of Government departments, the police or public authorities generally—the overwhelming responsibility is on the motorist. I should like very much to endorse the comment in the leading article of the Daily Mail today: Anyway, in fog the only safe pace is a crawl. And every motorist in the land knows it. I read reports this morning of people saying that when they came to the fog they slowed right down to 50 m.p.h. Such crass unrealism indicates how fearfully distorted is some drivers' view of a perilous situation.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Is the Minister aware that when I constantly travel to Watford on the M1, between London and my constituency, at between 60 and 65 m.p.h., mammoth lorries overtake me at breakneck speed, at perhaps 70, 80, or even 90 m.p.h., while private cars flash by doing, perhaps, 100 to 120 m.p.h., all driving nearly as madly in fog as in normal conditions?

I have a suggestion to make which, if implemented, would reduce this horrible loss of life on our roads. The maximum speed in fog when visibility is below 100 yards should be 15 m.p.h. The maximum speed for lorries in normal weather should be 40 m.p.h. Really severe penalties should be imposed for any infraction. I suggest a minimum of two years' imprisonment for any infraction of 10 m.p.h. over the permitted speed, a minimum of five years' imprisonment if such an infraction results in serious injury, and a minimum of 10 years' imprisonment if it results in death. I think that the right hon. Gentleman would find that such penalties would help to solve this problem.

Mr. Peyton

Penalties are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but I shall certainly look into the other points made by the hon. Gentleman. I am sure, however, that he and the House will have in mind the real difficulty of enforcing the law in conditions of great danger. It is not easy for the police, in clear weather or in fog, to chase vehicles on densely trafficked motorways. That is a problem which must be faced.

I cannot repeat too often the need not to suggest that somehow it is someone else's fault—that perhaps some local authority has slipped up, that the police have not done what they should have done, or that the Government should have done something else—but to accept that the basic responsibility is that of the motorist. An acceptance of that fact is the shortest way to safety.

Mr. Edward Taylor

Some of us who drive up and down this motorway regularly think that a special problem exists because heavy lorries find it difficult to stop quickly, either in normal daylight or in fog. Is there any expert support for this layman's view?

Mr. Peyton

I am sure that any view expressed by my hon. Friend will always find support from some expert or other. We are always concerned, through the Construction and Use Regulations, to see that vehicles are fit for our modern roads and are safe at the speeds at which they are driven.

Mr. Lipton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that according to the Chief Constable of Bedfordshire the number of fog warning lamps on this motorway was reduced by half about nine months ago, so that instead of having a fog warning lamp every mile there is one every two miles? Will the Minister look into this serious state of affairs, for we all have a contribution to make—even the right hon. Gentleman, by means of improved lighting.

Mr. Peyton

The last part of that supplementary question was a little unworthy of the hon. Gentleman. Of course I have a responsibility in this matter. I have never attempted to deny it.

There was a shortage of fog signals because of a hold-up in production. The signals available were distributed throughout the country so that, as far as possible, every road had a minimum number. I want to get the most efficient system of fog warning lamps that we can obtain. The signals that were there yesterday were, I am informed, working. The difficulty is that when people are driving in fog they do not want a warning from outside; the fog itself is there, and it is a source of great peril. I have been told time and again by hon. Members and others of horrifying experiences of motorists driving without any regard whatever for their own safety and the safely of others in circumstances of obvious danger.

Mr. Bob Brown

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the time has come to have a crash programme to complete the installation of these emergency signals and that immediate legislation should be introduced to make the advisory speed limit mandatory? Is he aware that this would give the police power to deal with the lemming-like attitude of the few who risk the lives and limbs of the many? In the meantime, does the Minister agree that the most important task is to have the motorways regularly policed at short intervals?

Mr. Peyton

Yes, Sir. I agree that everything the hon. Gentleman has said is desirable. Whether legislation would help I am more doubtful, because of the basic difficulty of enforcement, to which I keep referring. Having the police readily available at the right places and at the right times is a problem in itself. There is then the question how they are to catch the culprits. That is immensely difficult.

Mr. Bidwell

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that hooligans on the road do not wait to get on the motorways before behaving badly? This accentuates the need for more stringent police supervision of all roads. Is the Minister aware that speed limits are being exceeded all the time, and that we should be thinking more in terms of taking this lethal weapon away from motorists and encouraging them to use public transport a great deal more? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that encouragement to use public transport would be a great help, and that the driving methods that I have described lead to gross misbehaviour on the motorways in fog?

Mr. Peyton

This is not a question of public versus private transport; it is really a question of barbaric behaviour by a minority on the roads.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Will the Minister resist the attempts that have been made to put the primary share of blame on lorry drivers? Is he aware that the time has come for the imposition of a universal maximum speed limit in conditions of fog? Will the report which he is about to issue on the studies that have been made into this subject include a reference to the provision of a regular series of diversionary routes for use when motorways become blocked?

Mr. Peyton

The question of diversionary routes is always being looked into, but it is much easier to talk about than to put into practice. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that his comments on that point have been noted.

I appreciate what the hon. Member says about the tendency of some people to yield to the temptation to suggest that it is always the heavy goods vehicle driver who is at fault. I do not think that we have any evidence of this. However, it is fair to point out that those who are in charge of these heavy vehicles have a murderous weapon under their control if it is not driven with great care. I have no reason to suppose that negligence and villainous driving is in any way more prominent with one section of drivers than with another.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Whilst this may not necessarily be enough alone, will my right hon. Friend examine the possibility of ensuring that before people are allowed to pass a driving test in future some effort is made to put them through simulated conditions during their instruction, to give them some idea, before they go on the roads alone, of what driving in fog is really like?

Mr. Peyton

I shall certainly consider that point. But what the driving test does is to exclude from the road incompetent drivers. It does not exclude and cannot cater for the exclusion of very skilful drivers who drive wickedly. That is the difficulty. But I shall certainly consider the point about simulated conditions. One might particularly consider the question of teaching people more clearly just how long it takes to stop a vehicle travelling at 50 m.p.h.

Mr. Molloy

Would the Minister agree that, in so far as mechanical warnings and fog itself are obviously not deterrents, he should consider introducing a form of highway patrols and fog squads? We all know that the most effective deterrent on any highway is the sudden appearance of the police car with its flashing lights. We know how all the traffic slows. Perhaps for an experimental period we could have special squads to try to bring back sanity to those who do not realise that they are driving guided missiles. The appearance of the police car could make a real contribution.

Mr. Peyton

I do not deny that. The difficulty is the enormous pressure on police resources. I wish that I had the power to conjure them up where they are most required at just the right moment.

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