HC Deb 09 June 1976 vol 912 cc1633-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Walter Harrison.]

1.54 a.m.

Mr. Alexander Wilson (Hamilton)

This debate is of paramount importance. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and the Government will treat it with all the seriousness that it deserves. I also want its subject matter to be treated in a very urgent manner. It is the A74 trunk road, which has caused so much trouble and controversy over the years.

The A74 is a dual carriageway road. For far too long it has been described in newspapers and elsewhere not as the A74 but as the "killer road". There are about 66 miles of this dual carriageway. I say to the Under-Secretary at the very outset, and in doing so tell the Government, that the only cure for the problem of this road is to bring it up to motorway standards, so that we could then have a motorway from London to Glasgow, the first part being the M6, and then the M74.

At each end of this dual carriageway there is motorway. Whether drivers are travelling north-south or south-north, they seem to condition themselves to the faster motorway driving, which is a type of driving that is entirely different from that on any other road. Drivers do not seem to adjust themselves when they strike this dual carriageway. Consequently, speeds seem to be over the permitted limit and speeding seems to be the done thing. In fact, on the A74 it seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

I travelled on this road last Tuesday, in blinding rain all the way. Travelling in my car, I found that I was forced to reduce speed to 40 mph and sometimes less on the motorway but on the A74 I could see no reduction in speed by either commercial vehicles or a considerable number of private cars.

I believe, as do the Automobile Association, the Strathclyde police authorities and many other people, that at least 80 per cent. of the accidents on this road are caused through sheer bad driving of one form or another. I am not suggesting that improvements to this roadway will make good drivers. They will not. However, at least the consequences of the actions of bad drivers would be less serious if the road was brought up to motorway standards.

The statistics have been hammered over the years. The statiscs for the last full year, 1975, seem to imply a slight underestimation of fatalities because they record the incidence of accidents. The number of incidents in 1975 on this stretch of roadway was 16. Looking at in print, that number suggests that there have been only 16 fatal accidents. But that is not so. There have been 16 incidents, in which about 50 or 60 people have been killed. Similarly with the number of accidents resulting in serious injury, in 1975 the figure was 48, but this completely hides the true number of casualties to human beings involved.

The total number of incidents in 1975 was 163, and this again does not tell the true story. In the past four years on this road there have been 800 serious accidents and 69 fatalities. In the Lanarkshire stretch alone, which covers my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart), since 1972 36 people have been killed.

These statistics are bandied about in newspapers, on television and radio, and by individuals trying to make political capital out of them, but I still say that there is a false sense of safety engendered in the minds of drivers when moving from the motorway on to this road, which seems to be a continuous stretch of roadway. The drivers feel that they can continue at the same speed, or go at even greater speeds in certain sections where there is less traffic. This seems to have bred a new, hard brand of impatience in some people who are refusing to accept that the A74 is inferior to a motorway. The A74 merely looks safe by appearing to be almost a motorway, but it is not.

When I travelled south last Tuesday in blinding rain, the experience was terrifying. When I travelled back on the Thursday, near or adjacent to the constituency of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro), I was confronted by a lorry which was facing south on the northbound carriageway. No other vehicle was involved. It had merely for some reason or other crossed the central reservation. There were police cars all round it. I immediately drew up and stopped, because there was a car coming behind me, flying like the wind. I had to draw up for my own safety. Any vehicle stopping on this roadway immediately creates an extra hazard. This roadway is of vital importance in Scotland and it is greatly used by the Scottish National Party for the purposes of political propaganda.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is worthy of note that not one SNP Member is present during this very important debate, despite the fact that the SNP Members have persistently tried to make political propaganda out of this road by claiming that it should be brought up to mortorway standards?

Is is not disgraceful that the SNP Members have not even the courage or interest to turn up tonight to take part in the debate in order to show where their priorities lie, especially in view of the fact that figures were published earlier this week for public expenditure in Scotland, and the SNP is always talking of the relative per capita expenditure?

Mr. Wilson

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's intervention. He has anticipated a part of my speech to which I was coming, although probably I would not have put it as succinctly as he has done. It should certainly be noted that on an occasion solely affecting a Scottish area not one Member of the SNP, which is so compassionate towards the people of Scotland, has attended to take part in the debate.

This stretch of road must be examined carefully. There must be no more shilly-shallying about it. It is a three-lane motorway at Caldespark Zoo with hard shoulders on each side and nicely curved egress and access roads. At Hamilton the same stretch of road, which is still a motorway, becomes a two-lane section, but when it reaches Blackwood, a small village, it suddenly becomes the A74 and the hard shoulder disappears. There is no apparent evidence that it has become a dual carriageway instead of a motorway stretching about 60 miles to the north of Carlisle. It is a clearway for about 56 miles.

No cognisance is taken of the safety of the road. Hitch-hikers, who are numerous particularly in the tourist season, cannot stand on the motorway, but they can stand on a dual carriageway and vehicles stop to give them lifts. By stopping they cause an immediate hazard. No cognisance is taken of the breakdown of vehicles or of the egress and access roads. It is common to see a bus or articulated lorry coming from Lockerbie half-way across two sections of the road so that both carriageways are reduced to a single lane. Often, when a vehicle travelling north or south signals to go right, following vehicles cannot tell whether it is intending to pass the obstruction or to turn right. That creates a further hazard.

To cross the A74 from the Douglas road end is a hazardous experience. It is a form of A74 roulette rather than Russian roulette. There are no clear markings but there are two lanes to cross on a long, slow, dipping bend on the north side. It is almost suicide to attempt a right-hand turn at that point. One must be very brave to veer right on the road or to cross it.

We are all shouting out for tourists to come to the lovely country of Scotland. Apart from the increased tourist traffic, we still allow vehicles to stop on the A74 and we still allow hitch-hikers and small, narrow lay-bys where caravanners can and do stop and picnic.

I hope that my hon. Friend listens to my plea. If a motorway is not constructed, let us have continuity of the hard shoulder right through, crash barriers on the central reservation all the way through, access and egress points made safer and clearly marked, and extra police surveillance. We should pay a big tribute to the work done by an over-stretched police force at accidents. We must also pay tribute to the hospitals involved, to all the nurses and medical people. We are grateful to all who have to do dangerous and dirty jobs because of our incompetence in not legislating for a proper road.

I am shortening my speech so that I may have answers from the Minister. How long has the carnage to continue? If the same number of accidents, with the same degree of resultant deaths and serious injuries, occurred in industry—in a factory or coal mine—there would be uproar in the country and immediate action. Therefore, I ask my hon. Friend to use his good influence within the Government. I hope that he will give me and the House some satisfactory answers.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant God-man Irvine)

Mr McElhone.

2.13 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Frank McElhone)

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Wilson) for initiating a debate on the A74. He has raised many matters which have been of interest for a long time.

The question was last debated in the House shortly before Christmas, when my right hon. Friend who is now Secretary of State outlined the steps which had been taken and which it was proposed to take to improve the road further. More recently, in reply to a Question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart) on 12th May, he outlined further measures which he now proposes to take.

It may help to put matters in perspective if I give some facts and figures about the accident record on the A74 since 1973, when a programme of improvements was set in hand. In 1973 there were 198 accidents involving 352 casualties, in 1974 there were 178 accidents involving 310 casualties, and in 1975 there were 163 accidents involving 352 casualties. The number of accidents has been decreasing, and I am glad to say that in the first five months of 1976 the encouraging downward trend in injury accidents has continued and this year the figure for the 66 miles, at 34, is less than it has been since 1971. The casualty figure of 73 for the same period is not much below average, mainly because there were 22 casualties in the tragic coach crash near Beattock Summit in March. However, the overall picture is reasonably bright and the accident rates are, in so far as comparison can be made, no worse than, and in some cases better than, those on similar roads.

It would accordingly seem that the various measures that have been taken are having some effect. We, of course, accept that there is scope for a continuing programme of improvements.

Representations are sometimes made to convert the road into a motorway or to build a motorway as an alternative. While there is no likelihood of a complete motorway replacing the A74, we have made a preliminary circulation to interested bodies of our draft proposals for extending the M74 some 16 kilometres from Draffan to Millbank and I hope that these draft proposals will be published later this year. This proposal will provide an improvement which will supersede a stretch of the A74 built before the war. A motorway throughout would be a mammoth task and would probably cost well over £100 million. This is not practical politics in the present economic climate, especially when the present road has, in general, plenty of reserve capacity for carrying much more traffic.

Mr. Monro


Mr. McElhone

I cannot give way.

Mr. Canavan


Mr. McElhone

I apologise for not giving way, but I am trying to give answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, who initiated the debate. He left me only a limited time to reply and it would be grossly unfair if I did not answer his points. If other hon. Members have points to raise and will write to me I shall write to them, but I cannot give way.

Mr. Monro

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not most unusual that in a debate which is 90 per cent. concerned with my constituency the Minister will not give way to me?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

In an Adjournment debate, the agreement of the Minister and the hon. Member who initiates the debate is essential before another hon. Member can take part.

Mr. Monro

They have broken an agreement again.

Mr. McElhone

While the improvements that have been taking place over the past two or three years may not in themselves have been spectacular, they do seem to have been generally effective. These include the provision of hard strips, kerbing, planing and resurfacing, improvement of super-elevation on curves, extension of deceleration lanes and the closure of gaps in the central reserve. In the last two financial years we spent over £2 million on such works on the A74, and we shall be spending over £1 million again this year. Last year we started with the provision of central safety barriers and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced last month, we are to provide additional lengths where these appear to be justified. There will be 10 kilometres on the M74 and eight kilometres on the A74.

As my right hon. Friend made clear, we have some reservations—if hon. Members will permit the use of that word—about such barriers. From their nature they are intended not to prevent accidents but to mitigate the effect of accidents which would otherwise be more serious. They are obviously of limited effect in stopping heavier vehicles such as lorries and buses. Moreover, they may cause accidents which might not otherwise take place. Accordingly, we propose to monitor very carefully the effect of the provision of barriers to enable us to identify other stretches of road where they might most effectively be provided and to which priority should be given.

In his statement last month, my right hon. Friend also indicated that he was arranging for the erection of signs to remind car drivers of the current 60 m.p.h. speed limit. An appropriate sign has now been designed to remind car drivers of the 60 m.p.h. limit and lorry drivers of the 40 m.p.h. limit. Arrangements are now being made to produce these signs which will replace the exist- ing signs reminding commercial vehicle drivers of the speed limit, and I hope that they will be ready for erection some time next month, just before the onset of the peak tourist traffic in July.

We have received numerous suggestions, many of them helpful, for improving the road at meetings with representatives of the road users and others. These have been considered and taken into account in planning our programme of improvements. The comments made, while indicating that the road is far from ideal, have been unanimous in agreeing that the greatest single factor which could contribute to a reduction in accidents would be improved behaviour on the part of drivers. This is undoubtedly true, though we too often tend to think of the bad and discourteous driver as being someone other than ourselves.

The A74 has gained a bad reputation. Whether this is justified in comparison with other roads is to some extent a matter of opinion. The improvements made and to be made will, we hope, also help. As I have indicated, the reduction in the number of accidents on A74 so far in 1976 is most encouraging, and I am sure we all very much hope that this improvement will be continued throughout the year and thereafter.

We shall, of course, continue, in association with the regional councils as our agent authorities and with the police, to keep the accident record under close review. I associate myself with the tributes paid to the police, doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers, who do so much, often in difficult winter conditions, to care for the injured.

We shall continue to examine road conditions at the places where accidents are concentrated and to carry out improvements which are designed to reduce the chances that accidents will happen. We are convinced that it is work of this nature over the past two or three years which has helped to produce the reasonably encouraging general accident record and which will produce the best results in the future.

There has been police activity relating to driver performance. Between November 1975 and April 1976, 462 drivers were reported for speeding, 104 in Strathclyde and 358 in Dumfries and Galloway. The police have been active in ensuring that drivers who break the speed limit or who behave in a way which endangers other drivers are stopped and reported. I hope that this will continue, along with the other responsibilities of the police.

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for the cogent way in which he put forward the case for improvements to this road. He has a constituency adjoining the road and a deep knowledge of the whole stretch. My right hon. Friend is very aware of the matter. Indeed, he replied to the debate initiated last December by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro).

Because of such titles for this road as "killer road", it is important to make some comparisons. This is not easy, because conditions vary. In Perth and Dundee they are flat, whereas the A74 is hilly. Traffic on some roads is more seasonal than on others. The only comparable figure available for Class 1 rural roads in Great Britain is 0.56 accidents per million vehicle kilometres. The figures for the A74 are similar to those for the A8, Newhouse to Baillieston, the A82 west of Glasgow and the A80 Glasgow to Stirling.

Mr. Alexander Wilson

It is not fair to compare a stretch of the A8 with a stretch of the A74. The A8 is almost a derelict road with the M8 running alongside.

Mr. McElhone

Without having any information on that, I accept what my hon. Friend says as absolutely correct. I will check it with my advisers.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-five minutes past Two o'clock.