HC Deb 10 March 1976 vol 907 cc577-86

11.4 p.m.

Mr. William Whitlock (Nottingham, North)

I hardly expected when I learned that I was to have the Adjournment debate tonight that I would be speaking on so momentous an occasion—an occasion when a number of Members of this House have given notice that unless the Government carry out their dictates those Members will no longer support them. However, whether the Government stand or fall because of what has happened tonight, the small matter that I wish to raise on the Adjournment will remain an issue whatever party may form the Government.

Like so many of man's inventions, the internal combustion engine has brought us not only its blessings but its attendant problems. The convenience of road transport has caused the motor vehicle to be used to such an increased extent that more and more we are becoming all too acutely aware that it brings atmospheric pollution, the need to build ever more expensive roads, congestion in our cities, towns and villages, and more deaths and injuries on our roads than were caused by Hitler's bombing. More and more we have to think of ways of learning to live with the motor car rather than to be choked or crushed to death by it.

With the growing awareness of all these problems, coupled with the present high cost of petrol, many people are turning once again to the bicycle as a convenient and healthy means of transport, and I am convinced that as the voracious appetite of the motor vehicle swallows up more and more land, at more and more cost, and as the prohibition of motor vehicles in our city centres is inevitably extended, so will the bicycle become an increasingly popular means of transport.

However, many cyclists and potential cyclists, particularly those of the less athletic type, would welcome some assistance when pedalling under adverse conditions, uphill or against a headwind, and while various gear systems that are available for bicycles go some way towards providing that assistance, effort beyond what some riders may be prepared to make is still required. And so, in a number of countries the "moped", as it is called, has emerged to assist those who need assistance, and there has been added to what started off as basically a bicycle frame a small internal combustion engine that is capable of propelling both rider and bicycle, with a very small amount of pedal assistance where necessary. These "mopeds" have developed to such an extent that some versions available today are in fact small motor cycles with pedals.

What I want to talk about is not a motor vehicle or a motor cycle with pedals, but a bicycle that provides a small degree of assistance when the rider is battling against headwinds and inclines.

Any system of power assistance should preferably be one of the utmost simplicity, quiet and clean in use, as lightweight as possible, with the lowest possible cost and with ease of control. Such a system developed by Raleigh Industries Limited involves the use of a fractional horse power electric motor, powered by a lead acid battery, or a battery of similar type, driving into the existing bicycle chain through a suitable reduction gear.

The important aspect of this system is that the small electric motor is switched on automatically only when the rider is actually pedalling, and even then only when his pedalling effort reaches a predetermined maximum. In other words, he must be pedalling rather harder than usual and must have developed a certain torque to obtain assistance, and at all other times he provides the total motive power. This system, which is sensitive to torque developed by the rider, offers several advantages, in that assistance may be provided automatically only when it is needed and will be automatically cut off when it is no longer required—when, in fact, the "going" eases. As it is not necessary to have a manually operated switch, the likelihood of forgetting to switch off in an emergency stop is avoided, also, the battery is conserved.

As the system is sensitive to the torque developed by the rider, the availability of assistance to the rider will not be dependent upon the speed of the bicycle, and it will not enable the rider to travel at speeds other than those which can be attained on a conventional bicycle in normal circumstances. Assistance would be provided from a standing start and would then quickly fade out as the speed of the bicycle picked up, but the most benefit to the rider would come when climbing hills at low speeds, enabling him to climb an incline with less effort than would otherwise be required.

It might be said that the system is an automatic and more effective way of assisting the bicycle rider when he encounters an incline or a headwind than is the Sturmey Archer gear. In my view it is as ridiculous to say that the power-assisted bicycle is a moped as it would be to say that the bicycle fitted with a Sturmey Archer gear is a moped. I repeat that the motor cannot come into operation unless the rider is pedalling and is encountering conditions in which the assistance is warranted by the degree of torque developed. The degree of assistance envisaged would be little more than that provided by a following wind and would operate only at lower speeds. It is not thought that more than 0.25 horse power would be required to give adequate assistance—considerably less than the 1.30–2.5 horse power normally available on mopeds.

The system will not prevent the rider from using the bicycle in a perfectly normal way. He can stop pedalling, or back-pedal when he wishes. He can free-wheel and also wheel the bicycle backwards without having any of these operations affected by the motor. It will not be necessary for the rider to learn how to operate the system, as it will be entirely automatic, and it will be necessary for him to ensure only that the battery is recharged at intervals. Should the battery become fully discharged during a journey, the bicycle is not in any way immobilised and the rider can continue his journey, but of course without the benefit of assistance from the motor.

Although the system of power assistance for bicycles is, as I have said, little more than a built-in following wind, operating only at lower speeds, the Department of the Environment has said that a bicycle so equipped must be treated in the same way as considerably higher-powered devices, and has decreed that it must be taxed, insured, MOT tested and ridden by a driver who is licensed and wearing a protective helmet. I do not agree with this ruling, for the power-assisted bicycle is not a motor cycle with pedals, as is the moped.

The attitude of the Department is more restrictive than that which is in evidence in other countries—in Holland for example, where I believe about a fortnight ago the Minister of Transport stated that all mopeds with a maximum speed of less than 20 kilometres per hour—12.50 mph—will be exempt from all legal requirements such as the Department of the Environment say must apply in this country to the power-assisted bicycle.

The Department's ruling will prevent the development of the power-assisted bicycle here, and it will involve the loss of future export potential in the new bicycle. My learned Friend should remember that at the moment bicycles bring us £45 million per year in exports, and that this figure is growing. Considerable interest is being shown in power-assisted bicycles in many parts of the world, and there is little doubt that this country will, under the Department's ruling, be restrained in developing this bicycle while other countries appear willing to accept this type of machine as a true bicycle.

I urge my learned Friend to reconsider this matter, I suggest that like me, he should try out the Raleigh power-assisted bicycle. I am sure that Raleigh Industries would be only too willing to arrange a demonstration for him, and I am confident that if he will attend such a demonstration he will be as convinced as I am that there is a considerable future for the new machine. It will have a future, however, only if it is accepted as a true bicycle. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say that there is some prospect that this decision can be taken.

11.15 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

I apologise to my hon. Friend for the fact that I was not here at the precise moment that he started to speak. I was not aware that the previous business had been withdrawn.

I take note of the general points that my hon. Friend has made about the importance of the bicycle and the significance of its exports. I thank him for the offer of a demonstration, which I shall take up, I hope, at an early date. I congratulate him on the clarity with which he expressed his views. The topic that he raises is one that is new to me, but I know that he has been pursuing the question for some time.

The suggestion that power-assisted bicycles should be treated as pedal cycles rather than motor cycles has been made from time to time. It may be of help if I first set out the present position. The situation is—although I do not think my hon. Friend accepts this—that under existing legislation a two-wheeled vehicle fitted with any form of power assistance must be classed as a motor vehicle. This being the case, the vehicle has to comply with the appropriate Regulations.

This is not a diktat of the Department of the Environment but a decision of this House. We have taken advice on it. If my hon. Friend and the firms concerned think that they have different advice, that is a point we must consider again. The main requirements are that the bicycle must be taxed and insured, and must undergo an annual MOT test, and that the driver must possess a valid driving licence. Also, in road safety terms, the driver must wear a protective helmet, although an exemption from the wearing of the helmet could be obtained through Regulations. There have been no such Regulations since the passing of that Act, however.

My hon. Friend argues that these requirements are inappropriate to the sort of power assisted vehicle he has in mind. He suggests that this vehicle is much more akin to a pedal cycle, as it is, than a motor cycle, and that the law should therefore be changed in order to remove it from the present category. Quite apart from the arguments against doing so, to which I shall turn in a moment, this cannot be done as easily as may at first be thought.

It has been suggested, for example, that the present requirements could be altered fairly simply by an amendment to the Regulations, and that the proposals for re-defining a moped in terms of its maximum designed speed, which are now being considered by the Department, would offer an opportunity to re-define the power-assisted bicycle. This is far from the case, however. Any change in the law to allow for the re-classification of such a vehicle or to provide for its exemption from the requirements that I have described would require a new Act of Parliament to amend definitions in the Road Traffic Acts of 1960 and 1972 and the Road Traffic Regulations of 1967. My hon. Friend will appreciate, therefore, that this is a much more ambitious undertaking than would be required solely for a change in the definition of a moped.

Quite apart from the problem inherent in securing time for additional legislation—and my hon. Friend will appreciate the pressures on the Government's limited time—we must consider the desirability of making such a move as he suggests. The point has been made that these power-assisted bicycles are so desirable that we should take steps actively to encourage their use.

I do not propose to take issue on the question of the possible advantages to be gained in terms of energy saving, freedom from pollution, and so on. We are certainly not unmindful of such benefits, though I am far from convinced that much wider use of these power-assisted bicycles would lead to a significant contribution to the economy and the environment. But even given an overwhelming case on these grounds there are other and, perhaps, more important considerations, stemming from questions of road safety, to be examined. I ask my hon. Friend to consider carefully the very real road safety implications in the proposals.

Perhaps it would not be irrelevant if I were to give the House some idea of the scale of the accident problem to riders of pedal cycles and mopeds over recent years. Hon. Members will be able to draw their own conclusions. The rise in the number of casualties to 16-year-old riders of mopeds has coincided with the increasing popularity and performance of these machines. In 1972, 278 moped riders in this age group suffered fatal or serious injuries; in 1974 this figure had gone up to 932. There was also a significant increase of nearly 1,000 in the total fatal and serious casualties to moped riders over the same three years——

Mr. Whitlock

Is there not the same increase in the incidence of accidents involving motor cars? If my hon. Friend is making a case for not having more bicycles, he is making exactly the same case as regards motor cars.

Mr. Marks

No, there has not been the same increase in accidents involving motor cars. There has been a decrease in the number of fatalities involving four-wheel vehicles.

Turning to pedal cycles, the picture is much brighter, with reductions in casualties over all age groups over the same period. In this case there has been a reduction of nearly 1,000 in the total, namely, from 5,401 in 1972 to 4,444 in 1974. To put the statistical risk another way, per mile covered it is twice as dangerous to ride a powered two-wheeler as it is to ride a pedal cycle. I accept that my hon. Friend regards the powered bicycle as a pedal cycle.

Given the extent of the figures it must be questionable how far we should go in making it easier for young people to ride what can be lethal machines, although I am well aware that the type of machine which my hon. Friend has in mind has no pretentions to spectacular performance. He is thinking of a bicycle on which the rider would be assisted in his own efforts rather than carried along by the power of the engine alone. It may seem easy to draw up a definition of such power assistance in terms that would really place a definite limitation on the performance of the machine, but I must confess to serious doubts on the feasibility of this.

At present any vehicle which is power-assisted is classed as a motor vehicle. The advantages of such a clear distinction may not at first sight be all that obvious, but I assure my hon. Friend that once the distinction is allowed to become blurred, we could well be faced with road safety problems of no mean order, and I am afraid that the greatest risk would be to young people.

As soon as the dividing lines between different categories of vehicle cease to be clear-cut, there is almost bound to be a strong incentive for manufacturers to produce vehicles which press against the borderline of the new definition, as has happened with mopeds. However stringent and straightforward that definition may seem to be, there is an almost un- avoidable temptation to exploit its provisions and to provide machines with a higher performance than we intend.

For example, we know only too well in the Department how this can and did happen in the case of mopeds. I have already given the detailed figures. In 1971, when the high number of accidents to 16-year-old motor cyclists was countered with new minimum age Regulations, the intention was to limit this vulnerable age group to machines of modest performance capabilities, and the moped of those days fitted that description. The striking saving in casualties which was brought about by that measure initially saved about 1,200 fatal and serious injuries a year.

However, since 1971 more and more machines have come on the market, which, while managing to conform with the definition of a moped, have the appearance and characteristics of light motor cycles. The sad fact is that accidents to 16-year-olds have risen sharply. In the case of mopeds we are now faced with the need to hammer out a new definition. A concession of the sort that my hon. Friend is recommending in the case of power-assisted bicycles would almost certainly lead to real problems. Any definition which allowed vehicles below a certain power or a certain speed to be classified as bicycles without any licensing would create difficulties of enforcement which hon. Members will easily recognise.

Perhaps most of all, we are concerned about the possibility of children having access to machines which are beyond their capacity to control. As soon as licensing requirements are removed, this possibility becomes very real indeed.

I do not want to draw too many analogies with the experience of other countries, but the ideas that my hon. Friend is asking us to consider seem to lead to the practice of some of our Continental neighbours, where there are few, if any, restrictions on the use of low-powered motorised bicycles and they are often ridden by children. To take the case of France, where there are few limitations on use, these machines are certainly popular. It is estimated that there are over 5 million of them. But in 1973 no fewer than 2,500 people lost their lives on this one form of two-wheeler.

I do not intend to overplay the French experience, but it does provide an example of what happens when there is liberal use of low-powered motorised bicycles, even if they are capable of performance higher than that of the type of machine which my hon. Friend has in mind. There is no doubt that the lack of most of the safeguards which we impose on all users of any powered vehicle—such as licensing, testing and third party insurance—does result in their very wide use, and the accident totals can then be quite staggering. I am sure that my hon. Friend would find that the situation is also much worse in any other country that has more relaxed rules than ours about the use of powered vehicles.

The situation is summed up by the fact that riders of two-wheelers are the only group to show an increase in casualties at a time when the number and severity of road casualties generally is showing a welcome decline. In these circumstances, I am sure that it would be unwise for us to consider a measure which would introduce extra risks, especially to young people.

I assure my hon. Friend, however, that we shall take careful note of what he has said, including the situation in Holland and other countries, when considering a future road traffic Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Eleven o'clock.