HC Deb 09 December 1974 vol 883 cc38-44
The Minister for Transport (Mr. Frederick Mulley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about speed limits.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has informed the House that the Government propose to reduce speed limits on the roads as a contribution to fuel saving.

In assessing the amount by which speed limits should be reduced there is a balance to be struck. Lower speeds save fuel and reduce accidents; but slower journeys may be uneconomic. Moreover, if speed limits do not command general support from road users, their enforcement puts serious extra strain on police resources.

In the light of these considerations, we have concluded that the 70 mph limit should be retained on motorways, but that a limit of 60 mph should be imposed on all other dual-carriageway roads and of 50 mph on all single-carriageway roads, unless these already carry a lower limit.

Motorways confer important economic benefits in the movement of traffic, particularly freight. They are designed for higher speeds than other roads and even so are by far our safest roads. The 70 mph limit on the motorways also provides a differential in speed limits between heavy lorries and other traffic, while allowing these lorries to travel at economic speeds. As motorways carry only a small proportion of total road traffic, a significant saving in fuel would require a drastic reduction in speed, which could be achieved only by a major enforcement effort and loss of efficiency. I have therefore decided that it would be wrong to change the present limit.

The bulk of traffic flows on other main roads, where a reduction in average speeds by even 5 mph would save about £10 million a year in fuel costs. Recognising that in present conditions few single-carriageway roads permit sustained speeds much over 60 mph, we are aiming for an effective reduction in speeds on both single and dual-carriageways of between 5 mph and 10 mph.

I should also remind the House that efficient driving and proper vehicle maintenance can save petrol as effectively as lower speeds. The motoring organisations and others had a lot of sound advice to offer about this last winter. If, as past experience has shown, lower speeds and more careful driving lead to fewer accidents, we shall obtain a double benefit from these measures.

The new limits apply to all roads in the United Kingdom. On order in respect of roads in Great Britain will be made tomorrow, Tuesday, and come into operation at midnight on Saturday 14th December. In respect of Northern Ireland a separate order will be made.

Mr. Channon

Can the right hon. Gentleman answer two questions: first, what is his estimate of the likely total saving in fuel costs as a result of the measures that he has announced? Secondly has he had full consultations with the police, who will have to enforce these new measures, particularly as they will now have to deal with five separate speed limits? In differing circumstances the speed limits will be 30, 40, 50, 60 or 70 mph. Is the Minister satisfied that the measures he has announced can be properly enforced? Secondly, are the police satisfied about that?

Mr. Mulley

If, as we believe, and as I said in my statement, these measures lead to a fall in average speeds—and it is the average speed of travel, and not speed limits, that determines the result— we shall make a saving. If average speeds come down by 5 to 10 mph we shall save £10 million a year, represented by 50 million gallons of imported oil fuel at 18p to 20p per gallon. That is the basis of the calculation.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's second question is that these various speed limits are already in operation. Motorists know when they are on a motorway, when they are on a dual carriageway, and when they are on a single carriageway. This is, therefore, a simple and understandable scheme. It avoids the need for great alterations to signs, and so on, which would be costly. It seems to me that most people will understand what is proposed. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, through the Home Office, my right hon, Friend the Home Secretary has discussed the scheme with the police, and I understand they feel it is workable.

Mr. Cryer

Does not my right hon. Friend's statement indicate that there should be a switch from motorway to railway expenditure? Will he try to persuade our right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that a larger tax on more powerful cars would produce fuel savings? Finally, will he consider cancelling Concorde—that would be a good example to set—and switching those resources to more socially useful manufacturing industry?

Mr. Mulley

My hon. Friend has posed some tempting questions but, for good or ill, matters relating to tax and Concorde are outside my ministerial responsibility.

I do not think that the fuel situation requires any change in the Government's policy vis-à-vis the railways and motorways. As my hon. Friend knows, we have greatly increased our expenditure in support of the railways and carried through the reductions made by the previous Government in the motorway building programme.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that his speed limit proposals will penalise unequally the peripheral areas of the country which do not have motorways—the West Country and areas in the North of Scotland? Will he include within the motorway speed limit what are now termed dual-carriageways built to motorway standards? How does he justify penalising those areas of the United Kingdom where the average income per head is well below the national average? That will inevitably be the effect of these proposals?

Mr. Mulley

I am at a loss to understand what the hon. Gentleman means by "penalising", because if these measures have the effect of saving fuel—which is what the Government and, I think, the whole House want—that will provide a financial benefit to the owners of cars driven at lower speeds. There will be no financial cost involved. The main reason why it is possible to have the different speed limits is that motorways are much safer than dual carriageway roads, which in turn are much safer than single carriageway roads.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

What about dual carriageway roads built to motorway standards?

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the speed limits that he has announced are far more sensible than those we had 12 months ago, particularly for the economic use of commercial vehicles on dual carriageways and motorways.

Will my right hon. Friend also accept that the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) has a point, because some dual carriageways are built to the higher standards of motorways? Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a case for permanent signposts at the side of dual carriageways and motorways?

Mr. Mulley

My hon. Friend speaks with great knowledge on these matters, and he has a point. But I must tell him that I was under pressure to bring the speed limits down even more than we have done. The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) drew attention to the possibility of confusion with the different speed limits. I think that it would be exceedingly confusing if some dual carriageways other than motorways had one speed limit while another set of dual carriageways had a different speed limit. The situation would be extremely complicated. When a dual carriageway that is not a motorway is improved, as it sometimes is, to motorway standards, largely by having large separate intersections, it is then classified as a motorway and the speed limit automatically increases.

Mr. Freud

As it seems a different offence to drive faster than the speed limit when the speed limit is imposed for fuel conservation rather than for safety, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether a breach of this order will result in a fine or an endorsement?

Mr. Mulley

Arrangements for dealing with breaches of the new order will be the same as at present. I hope the hon. Gentleman will not go away with the illusion that these are not sensible road safety proposals as well as fuel economy measures.

Mr. Greville Janner

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that during the period when lower speed limits were in operation on motorways there was a substantial saving in both lives and health, and that in the United States, where there is a very much lower highway limit, the public co-operate? Will he reconsider the possibility of having a lower speed limit on motorways?

Mr. Mulley

For the reasons that I have given, I do not think that one should reconsider the speed limit on motorways. As my hon. and learned Friend knows, the accident rate on motorways is much lower than on any other kind of road. There was a welcome saving in accidents during the period of the 50 mph speed limit. Happily, the improvement in the number of fatalities and injuries compared with last year continued after the ending of the lower speed limit.

Mr. Alan Clark

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the calculations that have led him to think there will be a saving of £10 million are somewhat imprecise, and that in any case this figure is minuscule as a proportion of the total fuel bill? Further, does he agree that, other than inducing an atmosphere of torpor and congestion, this is a propaganda exercise? Will he confirm that, whatever his right hon. Friend may have discussed with the police, this will lead to a massive extra work load for them and the alienation of their relations with a section of the community that is otherwise law abiding?

Mr. Mulley

I am at a loss to understand the hon. Gentleman. First he says that this is a minuscule provision, and then he tries to throw doubt on what he describes as the little that we are doing. He cannot back a horse both ways, or tell a bookmaker he will give him the name of the horse after the race, which is what he is proposing to do.

We cannot give a precise figure, but I believe that in the interests of safety and fuel economy most motorists will want to co-operate. I accept that any speed limits that are not broadly accepted by road users are virtually unenforceable. I believe that this is the best package to meet the objective of saving fuel costs. I shall be delighted if we save much more, but we have no means of measuring the amount exactly because other factors such as weather and prices determine the demand for petrol.

Mr. Ashton

Does not the attempt to save £10 million out of an oil deficit of £2,500 million by these means smack of Austerity Cripps, which got us a bad name after the war? Would not it be better to make real savings by bringing in petrol rationing if my right hon. Friend means to achieve anything?

Mr. Mulley

My right hon. Friend announced a little earlier today that these are interim measures in the sense that he is considering a number of other measures, and that is within his field rather than mine.

Mr. Cormack

Will my right hon. Friend set an example by coming to my constituency in a ministerial mini and acknowledging to my constituents that he would save about £50 million or £60 million by axeing the M54? My constituents do not want this motorway, and many people do not want motorways. Now is the right time to cut back on the motorway programme.

Mr. Mulley

The cuts made in the road-building programme generally have been very substantial. I think that I can do better than the hon. Gentleman suggests. I do not know about a ministerial mini, but if I do not come at all I shall save even more petrol.

Mr. Powell

With regard to Northern Ireland, is it proposed to impose a 70 m.p.h. limit on the motorways or to leave them as at present without limit?

Mr. Mulley

Although this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my understanding is that Northern Ireland will have the same speed limits as the rest of the United Kingdom but that a separate Northern Ireland order is required. However, I shall direct my right hon. Friend's attention to the right hon. Gentleman's point and I will let him know the answer. I am sorry that I do not have the answer now.

Mr. loan Evans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in order seriously to conserve energy in Britain we need a co-ordinated road and rail service and that we should get the goods which are at present carried by the heavy juggernaut lorries—which travel great distances while empty and consume a great deal of petrol—carried on the railways and reopen some of the rail passenger and freight services?

Mr. Mulley

It is much easier to talk about a co-ordinated road and rail policy than it is to achieve it. However, if my hon. Friend has any ideas on how we can get more freight, or, for that matter, more passengers, on to the railways, I and I am sure the Chairman of the British Railways Board will be glad to hear from him.

Mr. Brittan

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problems of enforcement cannot be swept under the carpet as easily as he has indicated? Further, does he agree that the measures which he has announced will impose a considerable extra burden on the police? What extra steps are being taken to recruit more police and to pay them for this extra work?

Mr. Mulley

I do not know of any proposals to pay the police extra for traffic as distinct from other duties. This is essentially a matter for the Home Secretary. However, if we took the hon. Gentleman's point to its logical conclusion, we should have no limits on any roads anywhere. I plead guilty to having exceeded the speed limit from time to time in the past without being detected. I do not drive at present, so that there is no problem, but if any hon. Gentleman who is a car driver were to indicate that at no time in his life had he exceeded any speed limit I am sure that the House would be keen and interested to hear from him.

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