HC Deb 24 November 1977 vol 939 cc1915-44

11.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

I beg to move, That the proposed alterations contained in the new Highway Code, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved. It will be seen that on the Order Paper it is noted that The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments in their First Report, dated 8th November 1977 (H.C., 16-i) have drawn the special attention of the House to the Instrument. Before introducing the new Highway Code I should like to comment on that technical point, because I see the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page), in his place.

It is the view of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments that the revisions should be set out against the existing code; in other words, that we should be debating a document setting out the present code with the revisions, not the new Highway Code in its entirety.

The Department, in its evidence to the Joint Committee, pointed out: The problem is that where the alterations are extensive and complex … they either do not make sense or are not fully intelligible when taken out of context: even identifying the alterations in the revised Code presents difficulties because of problems of omission and textual rearrangement. We think that the procedure which has been adopted over many years, whereby the House has the existing Highway Code and the new Highway Code and can compare them one with another, renders comprehension easier. To look at a document which simply sets out the revisions is a complicated process. On practical grounds, we thought that the procedure which we have adopted over the years was better.

Secondly, on strictly legal grounds, we believe that the present approach is well precedented. The code was introduced in 1930, the revisions of 1935, 1946, 1954, 1959 and 1969 were all done according to the procedure that we are adopting tonight, and the wording of the Act is precisely the same as it is now. We therefore think that we are fulfilling the reasonable technical requirements of the Act, though I understand the point made by the Committee.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

The hon. Gentleman will realise that it is the duty of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments to report to the House when it considers that a power indicated by the parent statute is not being used by the Secretary of State. At the same time, the Committee's report indicated that a practical way of dealing with it was by the method adopted by the Minister, and it may be that the House will not feel quite so strongly about the validity of the proceedings as did the Joint Committee. The Committee suggested that one way of getting over this was by the Minister in some way putting the alterations before the House. Perhaps that is what the hon. Gentleman proposes to do.

Mr. Horam

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for being so reasonable about the matter. I intend to refer briefly to the main changes, but any hon. Member who wishes to have them in a handy form can go to the Vote Office and get the First Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. He will see that in the annex to Appendix B the main changes are set out in a page and a half. My summary will be an encapsulated version of that summary, so I think that the House will have the information that it requires.

I turn to the code. The document that we are considering tonight—the proposed new Highway Code—is the end result of a long process of drafting, consultation and redrafting. The present version of the Highway Code was published in February 1969. When Parliament gave its approval to publish the code at the end of 1968, Members were critical of the lack of opportunity to consider the draft at an early enough time to influence the detailed drafting of the code. The Government of the day gave an assurance that such an opportunity would be provided before the code was next revised.

In accordance with that assurance, we published a Green paper entitled "A Proposed New Highway Code" in February 1975. This served as a basis for consideration by Members of Parliament and also for widespread consultation with interested organisations and members of the public. An amended draft of the code was then prepared in the light of the comments received on the Green Paper. This was included in the paper for parliamentary debate which the House considered in November last year.

When I opened that debate, I explained the main proposed changes in the text of the latest draft as compared with the text of the published code and the earlier drafts. I am sure that hon. Members would not wish me to go over all the details again. Those who were present on that occasion—and I see a number of them here tonight—will recall that we had a full debate. Many sensible and helpful points were made, and afterwards I wrote to all those whose suggestions I had not been able to deal with at the time. I explained what we proposed to do about them in every particular. The code that we are considering tonight will therefore not contain any surprises.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn). Welling-borough (Mr. Fry), Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross), Southgate (Mr. Berry), Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt), Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey), St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs), Newton (Mr. Evans) and, last but not least, Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), who all participated in the previous debate. I am grateful for the comments that they made then. One or two of those hon. Members have explained that they cannot be here tonight.

We have not changed the text to take in all the points that were made during the earlier debate—that would be impossible—but the code has been influenced by a long and widespread process of consultation and the points made by hon. Members have been considered. A number of the points made were contradictory, and many others that I have seen were not in themselves suitable for the Highway Code. None the less, many amendments suggested by hon. Members have been incorporated in the text before the House.

Let me mention the main changes. For the road user on foot, the Green Cross code has replaced the kerb drill, and pelican crossings have been explained fully. For the road user on wheels, there is mention for the first time of the safety of children in cars. There is a reference to the problems of driving in fog. Mention is made of the need to be aware of motor cyclists, and new features that have come in over the past eight years, such as bus lanes and mini-roundabouts, are explained. There is also a section on parking, with particular reference to parking at night and without lights. For cyclists it mentions for the first time the use of bus lanes, and it gives further advice on the use of roundabouts.

On motorways, information on warning signals is updated, and there is quite a lot of new information and advice on vehicle markings to take account of markings applying to dangerous loads and disabled persons which have come into being since the last Highway Code was published.

Another general point is the widespread criticism voiced about the cumbersome nature of the process for revising the Highway Code. This stems mainly from the need to get parliamentary approval for any change in the main body of the code, however small. I am afraid that legislation would be needed to make a substantial change in our procedure, and we have not yet decided how the procedure should be changed. It will be necessary at least to allow for some amendment of the code to keep it in line with other statutory changes without the need for affirmative resolutions.

One tries to make a distinction between changes that are a consequence of other changes and changes that are substantial in their own right. It might be possible to proceed without an affirmative resolution on this.

One small change is that the House is being asked to approve the code between pages 6 and 45. It does not include the section on traffic signs, signals and markings which are dealt with on pages 46 to 60. Part of the existing code is in the body of the text approved by Parliament. The signs illustrated in this section are only a selection of the more important signs in common use. It has been found during the life of the current code that it would have been desirable to vary the selection from time to time in order to keep the information in the code up to date. The signs in this section—and any others that might be selected for inclusion—already have the force of law because they are prescribed in regulations or are authorised for use in special circumstances.

There is, therefore, no change in the degree of Parliament's control over traffic signs; the only difference will be that in future the selection of signs and markings shown in the code can be altered without reference to Parliament to reflect the changing pattern of use of different signs. I hope that this is a sensible small change.

Mr. David Walder (Clitheroe)

I think that we have examples in the code of traffic signs which have the force of law. But those not included also have the force of law. By what process of selection might the Minister change the examples given in the code? By what standard will he judge this? It is reasonable to Fay that someone reading the code might think that those selected were more significant than those that were not selected.

Mr. Horam

No, it is a matter simply of keeping the signs up to date. For example, pelican crossings have come in since the last code, and these have been included. Some signs cannot be included under the existing procedures. This will give us flexibility to bring them in, because signs are not a part of the Highway Code.

During the last debate, several hon. Members asked about the price at which the code will be sold. On the front cover of the copy issued to hon. Members, the price is shown as nought pence. I am afraid that this does not mean it will be given away free. It means that until Parliament has approved the new code and Her Majesty's Stationery Office has obtained tenders for the bulk printing, the price cannot be determined. It is clear that the new version will cost more than the 15p which is the latest price of the current version, but the increase will be kept as small as possible.

There may have been some confusion during the last debate with the price of the Green Paper, which was 50p. The cost of the new Highway Code certainly will be less than that. It will be somewhere between 15p and 50p, and I hope much nearer to 15p than 50p.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Does not the Minister agree that, depending on the punctuation used, the price at the bottom of the Highway Code could read "HM SOOP"?

Mr. Horam

I am sorry if the printing is not entirely to the hon. Gentleman's satisfaction.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

How long will it be before the new Highway Code is on the bookstalls?

Mr. Horam

We hope that it will be on the bookstalls in the new year.

We have waited a long time for the new Highway Code—many would say too long. The present text of the code was laid before Parliament in July but, unfortunately, it was not possible to find time to take this motion before the Summer Recess. I hope that the House will now agree that the code can go forward for publication. It has already been approved in another place. If it is agreed, it will, as I have said, be on sale to the public in the new year.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

I intend to be brief. I wish to thank the Minister for the work which he and his Department have carried out in meeting the points we put in the last debate on this topic. What he has done has substantially met our case.

I am not sure I agree with the Minister that it is necessary to have new legislation to avoid delays in producing a new Highway Code. It is worth remembering that the last time we debated the Highway Code was in December 1968 when Richard Marsh was Minister of Transport. Therefore, we must try to bring the Highway Code up to date with more regularity than has been the case in the last few years. Some parts of the code were out of date, and since it is the country's road safety manual we should ensure that it is regularly revised.

No doubt we shall all make speeches based on what is or is not in the Highway Code, but the basic trouble with the code is that few people actually read it. It is true that to pass his test the motorist has to have a knowledge of it, but once that test is passed the L-plates go into the dustbin and the Highway Code is put on a bookshelf, where it remains gathering dust like some unread reference book. That is the problem. We all have our ideas about new developments that should be reflected in the code, but any disagreements that we have this evening are not, I suggest, fundamental. The fundamental point is how to persuade the public to read the code. It is our basic road safety manual. It sets down guidance not only for the motorist but for all other road users—the cyclist, the motor cyclist and the pedestrian. As such, the message or messages in the code should get to the audience for whom they are intended.

Let me give one piece of evidence in order to make my point. The AA magazine Drive carried out a survey with 100 motorists. It asked the motorists to answer 10 questions set by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents based on the code. The result was that 78 motorists out of 100 scored less than 50 per cent. and 18 motorists scored less than 25 per cent., while the lowest score came from motorists who had been driving for three years—namely, a score of 6 per cent.

Another survey which was carried out among primary schoolchildren aged between 8 and 11 years—a much simpler test—showed results that were a little better, but, even so, 70 children out of 180 returned scores of less than 50 per cent. That is a point well worth emphasising, because there are several organisations, in particular the Pedestrians Association, which take the number of child casualties extremely seriously, as we all do.

The difficulties involved in making children conscious of road safety is a real problem for the Government. The road accident is now the most common killer of schoolchildren. Each year 51,000 children under the age of 15 are injured or killed in road accidents. About half of all pedestrian casualties are aged under 15. There is a problem here in getting the message over not only to children but to their parents—and early enough.

On the last occasion that we discussed the Highway Code, I argued the increasing importance of persuasion in road safety. Persuasion rather than legislation was the case that I then made, and I continue to do so. There is a limit to the amount of legislation that we can ask the police to enforce in road safety, as with anything else.

I raise this point again because at that time the Government were declaring their intent to introduce new legislation in the matter. Compulsory seat belt legislation was one example of what they intended, but only one. Now, the Government have abandoned that attempt. I shall not argue whether that decision was right or wrong, but I am bound to tell the Minister that I am not over-impressed by the Government's reasons for not proceeding.

However, as a result of that we are all persuaders now, because if the law is rejected as a matter of course—and the Government have rejected it—persuasion can be the only alternative policy to be followed, unless we are satisfied with the present level of accidents, which I assume that the Government are not.

There are some questions that I should like to put to the Minister. When on an earlier occasion the Secretary of State talked about road safety, he promised the House a statement on the subject. It was an explicit promise, and that promise was certainly also explicit in the White Paper on Transport. The Government have since abandoned plans for legislation in a number of important areas. It would, however, be a great mistake if the Government abandoned plans to bring out a statement on road safety, and the House would like an assurance that a statement will be made soon setting out the Government's view. I should like the Minister to give that assurance tonight.

I also ask what new measures the Government have in mind to get over the lessons now included in the Highway Code. On the last occasion, I suggested that a campaign could be conducted with the help of the Swansea Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre, which could send out material with reminders. That was, perhaps, an optimistic hope, bearing in mind the trouble that there has been there. I have since heard—although I thank the Minister for considering the suggestion—that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre would be unable to do that. I am a little surprised that the Centre should find it impossible or that the cost would be impossible.

However, since that idea is ruled out, will the Minister say what can be done as an alternative? In other words, may we know just what the Government intend to do to publicise the Highway Code and the other safety measures that they are taking? Are they planning campaigns using the media—television, radio and the newspapers? Unless they do so, all the words used in two debates will be wasted and the toll of dead and injured will continue unchecked.

That is the point that I make especially to the Under-Secretary. We certainly wish the Code to be given approval, but we wish to emphasise that not only must it be given approval; we must find means whereby its advice is brought home to the public in a much better way than previously.

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

We expect the House to approve the Highway Code. I have not been able to make a profound study of it; my reason for wishing to take part in the debate is to draw attention to a major malady—the total non-observation of the existing speed laws on the highway.

I have in mind the remarks of the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), who leads for the Opposition on transport matters. He used the phrase "persuasion rather than legislation". I agree that we do not want to bemuse people with a great galaxy of legislation on this subject: we have had enough over the years. The key question is the enforcement of the provisions of the various Highway Codes that we have brought into being. If we embellish the previous law with a new law we shall not get down to the brass tacks of enforcing its observation either by educative exercises or by police diligence in the form of intervention from time to time. Unless we are prepared to do that we may as well not have a Highway Code.

It is true that many parents use motor cars and that that may make them a little more cautious than people without children. I noticed that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield talked about the necessity for educating children by making them conscious of the dangers of the highway. In my view the need for understanding rests with the motorists—those in charge of lethal weapons on the highway, who half the time are not awake. Most pedestrians who do not use motor cars, or have not yet arrived at the age when they qualify to drive motor cars—people such as schoolchildren—are totally unaware that a large percentage of motorists who were examined on the Highway Code and who passed a driving test many years ago are not necessarily completely alive to the situation for the whole time during which they are behind the steering wheels of their cars.

I understand the Government's position in bringing forward a Highway Code of of this kind but I was disappointed by the contribution made by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield. In my view his job is to probe these road safety matters and to be much more alive and militant.

Mr. Norman Fowler

Before he makes silly charges like that, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will reflect that we have debated this matter once before. I am not clear whether he was here on the last occasion.

Mr. Bidwell

I was not here on the last occasion, but I happen to be here on this occasion, and I am taking this parliamentary opportunity to make these observations on this very important matter—albeit at twenty minutes to 12 o'clock. This matter requires—one would imagine that the hon. Member would agree—a much more painstaking examination by means of a full-scale debate in this place.

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the lack of observation of speed limits.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield seems to be getting a little feverish. He should remember that he is the hon. Friend of a Member who picked up the Mace and waved it in the House, and who has contravened the speed limits of the Highway Code. It is important that Members of the Opposition, who generally drive very high-powered cars, should set an example on the highways. At present, the code is being flagrantly breached.

Mr. Anthony Berry (Southgate)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bidwell

No. It is common for motorists to refer to the outside lane on motorways and lesser highways as the "fast" lane. That is wrong. It is the overtaking lane.

Some cars are becoming progressively more powerful and those in privileged positions who drive them—including hon. Members opposite and their friends—are not observing the Highway Code.

Mr. Berry

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bidwell

Not at the moment.

Mr. Norman Fowler

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As far as I can understand the incoherent ramblings of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell), he appears to be making allegations about hon. Members. Would it not be in order for him to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) who has been seeking to intervene? If the hon. Gentleman will not give way, should he not withdraw some of his more incoherent ramblings?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) must be allowed to make his speech in his own way. However, I hope that he will have regard to the rules of the House in this matter.

Mr. Bidwell

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall certainly have regard to the rules of the House. I am making my speech in my own way and I shall give way when I think fit and not when hon. Members opposite think that I should give way.

Mr. Berry

Will the hon. Gentlemen give way?

Mr. Bidwell

No. The principal reason that I have intervened is to make a plea for the observation of speed restrictions. I do not want to be personal in this matter. I do not know how hon. Members opposite drive and I can only observe them from time to time, but one Conservative Member has been convicted in this regard. There may have been hon. Members on the Government side who have been so convicted, but I have not heard of any lately.

It is essential that people in public life—and that includes hon. Members—adhere stringently to speed limits. The failure to observe limits is a major factor in the annual slaughter on the roads. I suggest that we should consider a return to the system of the old days, with a warning followed by punitive measures. In the old days, we used to have courtesy cops.

Other motorists become incensed if one does not drive at 40 m.p.h. in a 30-m.p.h. area or at 50 m.p.h. in a 40-m.p.h. area. One is regarded as a nuisance by those who drive high-powered cars. Those who are in leadership positions must set an example on the highway, or driving becomes a rat race. That is a big part of the reason why we slaughter children going to and from school.

The manipulation of the modern cat does not require 100 per cent. attention. Cars with manual gearchanges require more attention than those with automatic gearboxes, and the tendency is for automatics to gain the ascendancy. In the United States most cars are automatics. The need for physical activity when driving makes the driver more alert, and that is especially important in view of the distractions to which many drivers are subject. I live close to a pedestrian crossing that is used by children, and I see the problems every day of the week.

I may have rubbed some hon. Members up the wrong way in making my plea, but I make no apology. As a member of the Transport and General Workers' Union, I have an interest in the use of buses, which are involved in the lesser part of road accidents. Another form of public transport—rail—is involved in the lesser part of inland transport accidents.

It is not good enough on a Thursday night, when most hon. Members are leaving the House, simply to approve in a cool way a new Highway Code without making this plea for the strict observance of speed limits. It should be brought about mainly by an educative process. Motorists should have their ears pulled, be warned for contraventions, and then lose their licences. This matter is important when every year sees more and more motorists crowding on to our roads and the production of more and more lethal weapons to assail the public, and particularly schoolchildren.

11.49 p.m.

Mr. David Walder (Clitheroe)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) on achieving a sort of miracle. Looking at the subject of the debate, I should have thought it impossible, whatever one's ingenuity, to introduce an element of party politics, but the hon. Gentleman has succeeded. It would now seem that a good way to judge how people will vote at the next election is to see whether they drive fast in expensive cars or slowly in less expensive cars.

The significant thing about the Highway Code was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler). He used the expression "reading it". One hopes that people do so. I have come to the conclusion, as the code is presented, that it and, more important, perhaps, the signs on the road are largely designed for the illiterate. There has been an increasing tendency to remove words and substitute symbols. The signs are important. They are not entirely consistent. Warning signs, for instance, are mostly triangular, but there is no consistency. As a frequent road user, I am at times confused by symbols which have no explanation.

On page 39 of the new booklet there is an inexpressibly melancholy picture of a small motor car—obviously, therefore, owned by a Labour voter—falling to the right, incidentally, into the water. On page 38 of the old booklet, there is what looks like a couple of parallel nails with heads. Faced with that sign, is it not a tremendous stretch of the imagination to work out that it means that there is a level crossing with automatic half-barriers ahead?

There was an experiment some time ago on the whole question of what a motorist took in at speed. There was an experiment in writing a town direction—Leicester, for example—entirely in upper case letters. It was then decided that people passing at speed did not necessarily see which town was indicated. We then went back to capital and lower case, it being reasonably thought that there was a sort of pattern to the title of a town and that if a motorist was in a hurry he was better directed by a more clearly written indication.

All the tendencies of the signs would seem to be towards pictures. I think that leaves an area of doubt. The classic example is not yet familiar on our roads, because we do not have legislation of that sort, but it may happen, and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) is probably living in apprehension that it will come over from Europe. Those with expensive cars who go abroad—they must be Tories, of course, according to the hon. Member for Southall—will be familiar with the sign in Europe which says that priority must be given to mail vehicles. The sign is a post- horn lying on its back. A friend of mine said that, having looked at it for a long time, he thought it meant "Snails on the road". One can understand that.

My favourite sign is a written one, but it gives the motorist no indication of what he might do. It says "Subsidence", occasionally "Beware of subsidence".I do not know what I am expected to do—accelerate, go slower, get off the road, dismount, or subside.

But the real point is this: I think there is a danger that the motorist will be faced with a galaxy of signs. There are examples in both copies of the Highway Code. On any motorway there is a battery of signs and flashing lights, and these are very confusing. The odd simple word would be of great assistance to the motorist. Curiously enough, the only place where the authorities seem to be lavish in using words in on the flat surface of the road. I find them incredibly difficult to decipher on a dark wet night. I must confess—although probably I confess to committing crimes in the process—that usually I realise that there is writing on the road only when I have passed over it.

My plea is quite serious. We really must consider what is an effective and informative sign. I suspect that all these lovely illustrations do not really help to any real extent.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Walder) about the quality of signs, although I think they have been improving and I hope they will improve further still.

I rather regret the somewhat silly speech of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell). Of course, it is important to observe speed limits, but the proportion of motorists who exceed the speed limit is far greater than the proportion of those who drive what the hon. Member would call powerful cars. His point about powerful cars is not related to the question of speed limits. All sorts of motorists tend to exceed the speed limits.

I turn now to a road safety matter of far greater importance than the observance of speed limits, which can only make a relatively modest contribution to road safety—the use of seat belts. Paragraph 28 of the new Highway Code states that If you are involved in an accident, wearing a seat belt halves the risk of death or serious injury. The important word here is "halves". We live in a motorised society in which about 60 per cent. of all households possess cars. In a constituency such as mine the proportion is probably nearer 70 per cent. Of the 6,000 deaths annually on the roads, only about half occur to people in cars, either drivers or passengers. These statistics relate directly to the wearing of seat belts. At present 25 to 30 per cent. of drivers and front-seat passengers wear seat belts.

Repeated campaigns of persuasion—and the recommendation in the Highway Code is part of that persuasion—to get more people to wear seat belts have had very little long-term effect. The experience has been that it is useless to demand and hopeless to expect a very great longterm difference in the proportion of people who will wear seat belts as a result of propaganda in the Highway Code, on television, or anywhere else. Such propaganda, whether in the Highway Code or in any other form, makes very little difference to the proportion of people wearing seat belts. Therefore, the advice in the code is not enough, and I deplore the fact that we do not have now the sanction of the force of law behind that recommendation in the code.

The experience in Australia and other countries which have compulsory wearing of seat belts has been that the wearing rate has increased from 25 or 30 per cent. to about 80 or 90 per cent. within two years of the legislation, reducing deaths on the road by about one-sixth. In this country that would mean a reduction by about 1,000 out of 6,000 deaths per year, and serious injuries would be reduced by about 10,000 per year. By any standards this is a very large saving of lives and of injuries. Every year we would save more lives on the roads than the whole of the deaths in Northern Ireland from violent causes in the past six years. No other road safety measure is remotely comparable one for potential effectiveness.

On 1st March 1976 the House gave a Second Reading—to reinforce the recommendation in the Highway Code— to the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill, by 249 votes to 139, a majority of 110. There was a free vote. It was a Government Bill. Among the 139 who voted against the Bill were the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip. Those two right hon. Gentlemen have succeeded in frustrating the will of a large majority of the House, and the result is that about 1,000 more people will have died in 1977 than would otherwise have been the case, while about 10,000 additional people will have been seriously injured. The same thing will happen every year until this legislation is enacted. The Government cannot dodge responsibility for those deaths and injuries. It is true that the Bill had some determined opponents on both sides of the House, but the Government failed to arrange the timing of the business so that the will of the majority had a reasonable chance of prevailing.

The facts are clear. The Second Reading took place on 1st March 1976. There was a two-months' delay until the beginning of the Committee stage, which was completed in about one month, roughly coinciding with the month of May. There-after, there was another delay of one month until the Report stage on Friday 25th June. We all know that attendance on Friday is relatively low and that a large proportion of hon. Members are in their constituencies. To take controversial business on Friday amounts to a standing invitation to opponents of a controversial Bill to filibuster.

Nothing more happened throughout July and before the Summer Recess. We returned on Monday 11th October 1976 for the spill-over period and the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill was listed for debate on the following Thursday 14th October. It was fifth in line in the debates before the House. First that night was the Electricity (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Bill, which took three hours. Then came the remaining stages on the Maplin Development Authority (Dissolution) Bill, which took two hours. Then there were Lords amendments to the Armed Forces Bill. Fourth was the Public Lending Right Bill, which took until 1.15 a.m. on Friday 15th October.

In practical terms there was no hope of keeping a sufficient number to obtain a closure on the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill, despite the large majority which the Bill had received on Second Reading. The Government deliberately put the Bill on when they knew it could not get through. As a direct consequence, it is not on the statute book. There is no legal sanction to reinforce the recommendation in the Highway Code that we are now debating and the code is not an effective way of getting the public to comply.

The Bill has not been reintroduced by the Government, and they must take direct responsibility for the consequential 1,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries this year which would otherwise have been avoided. In that sense the Government in general and the Leader of the House in particular have blood on their hands. I want to know when the Government intend to bring back this legislation.

12.5 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Berry (Southgate)

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) has spoken with great sincerity and in a very special way. I am sure that the Minister will take seriously what he said, because he knows my hon. Friend's depth of feeling on the subject.

I feel that I am almost a founder member of the club which debates this subject, having taken part in the one in November 1968 and again last year. It is always November, and here we are again in November.

I want first to criticise the Minister. Although he kept the pledge given by Mr. Richard Marsh and allowed us to debate the Green Paper on the Highway Code last year, there has been a great delay in implementing what was proposed. It is now 22 months since the Green Paper was first published, and it is 12 months since the debate. We pressed him last year about when the Highway Code would be approved, and he said: All I can say is that it will be at some stage in 1977. I do not think that even he thought that it would be the last week in November 1977. Certainly he would not have wanted to tell us then if he had thought so. It is rather late. However, there is no point in going back over what could have been.

It is right for me to thank the Minister for the courteous and full way in which he dealt with all the matters raised in last year's debate. I raised a number of points, and, having thanked me for doing so, the Minister said that he would write to me about them as soon as he could. His words were: I know that … he will not expect me to speak to them all this evening. I shall write to him and cover as many as I can. It will be a long letter and it may be some time before it comes, but I shall endeavour to meet his points."—[Official Report, 8th November 1976; Vol 919, c. 171.] The first letter was not all that long in coming. It came on 14th January. The last letter came by urgent mail yesterday afternoon. But it came, and I am grateful to the Minister for that.

The Green Paper was a Green Paper in the best sense of our parliamentary system. It was discussed fully, and the Minister acted on a great many of the matters raised in the debate, quite a few of which I raised. I mention them briefly to emphasise them again, because they were considered important enough to make changes following last year's discussions.

One matter concerned zebra crossings, and encouraging, if not exhorting, pedestrians always to use them if there was one nearby. That is now incorporated in the new Highway Code.

I also pointed out that one should not park just opposite another car if the road was narrow, and not even near another car on the other side of the road. That. again, has been incorporated.

We had some discussion about signals, and the Minister has changed the wording of the code so that it now advises a driver to give the appropriate signal if necessary. The hon. Gentleman agreed that on some occasions signals were harmful rather than constructive.

I invited the hon. Gentleman to put in a paragraph about disc zones. I said that these were increasing all the time and that there should be more information about them in the new Highway Code. Again, he said that he would give more information, and this is now incorporated in the new code.

Finally, I raised a matter concerning bus lanes. I felt that there should be more information and advice to uses of the road about how to act in bus lanes. Here again, the hon. Gentleman has responded in a most helpful way.

The matter which caused the long delay in the Minister's replying to me con- cerned mini-roundabouts. I said that by the time one had got into one there was no time to signal that one was leaving by the first junction, because the junctions were so close together. The Minister said that he thought that if he took up my point he would add to the confusion. I have no wish that he should do that. On the whole, I think that he is right. We must see how it goes. The last thing that I want to do is confuse the motorist. On this occasion, perhaps, we should leave the wording as it is and hope that it is clear for the future. I note that on roundabouts the code includes a reference to cyclists. That is important, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) will be referring to that in due course. Most important of all, a roundabout is shown on the cover of the code. The diagram has been designed to emphasise the importance of observing the right procedure when negotiating roundabouts.

I mention three matters in my concluding remarks. Although they appear in the code they should be emphasised for the future. I hope that my remarks will be taken up by those who are listening to the debate. Last year we referred to cars displaying L-plates when a learner driver is not at the wheel. The Minister accepted that it was not right to do so. There is a phrase in the code directed to that subject, but the wording should be stronger. I hope that it will be stated in the next code that L-plates must on no account be displayed when drivers are on motorways. On motorways we all see cars bearing L-plates. On some occasions the standard of driving is such that we think the drivers are learners, although they should not be in that category. There should be a separate sentence that emphasises that on no account should drivers continue to display L-plates when on motorways.

Secondly, paragraph 60 refers to the importance of giving way to pedestrians who are crossing the road into which the driver is turning. The Americans have a better procedure, because in New York one sees the traffic stop to let the pedestrians cross. We do not see that happen in this country. Perhaps such a provision will be included in the next code. I hope that more emphasis will be placed on allowing pedestrians to cross the road into which the driver is turning.

The third and most important point is to persuade parents who are picking up their children from school not to park within the area of the school. In my constituency there are two or three schools from which hundreds of pupils emerge at almost the same time in the afternoon. I am afraid that some parents are selfish. During the Summer Recess I went to two or three schools in my constituency and spoke to the parents. I saw what they were doing and I spoke to them about it. I used words that perhaps one should not use to constituents with a General Election approaching. I did so because I felt so strongly.

We must do everything possible to ensure that when parents are picking up their children they do not park in the area immediately outside a school. It is terribly dangerous to park outside a school, because the children go out into the road and accidents can and do occur. I hope that the Minister will be able to refer to this matter above all others when he replies. I hope that he will ask parents not to park immediately outside a school when collecting their children but to park down the road and pick up their children in safety, even if it takes two or three minutes longer. In so doing the parents will instil in the children an appreciation of the dangers that are presented by cars.

Let us hope that our words on all the subjects mentioned will be helpful in future. I hope that the new Highway Code will be issued as soon as possible. I welcome it in the strongest possible manner. I hope that it will lead to greater safety on our roads.

12.14 a.m.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) made an informed and informative contribution. I endorse his remarks about the need to instruct parents on matters relating to collecting their children from school. The road safety officer for the borough of Ealing recently undertook a survey that was published in the Ealing Gazette last week. The survey demonstrated that many of the dangers faced by children on leaving school are solely attributable to parents. More surveys of that nature should be carried out.

At the risk of shattering the prejudice of the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell), I wish to speak not on behalf of those who drive fast cars but for those who ride slow bicycles. I shall address myself to paragraphs 35 and 36 of the code. First, I welcome the fact that cyclists now have nine out of a total of 185 paragraphs as opposed to six out of 150 in the former Code. I am sure that that is a reflection of the increased interest in and concern for the cyclist.

I refer briefly to three matters, on two of which the Under-Secretary of State touched in his opening remarks. In paragraph 129 it is stated: At night you must have front and rear lamps and a rear reflector. At the moment there is nothing to stop a cyclist having lamps that are powered by hub or tyre dynamo, but these go out when he stops, and the cyclist is thus often left in the middle of the road waiting to turn right without a headlight. He is extremely vulnerable.

We should consider tightening this up. In the United States it is not necessary to have a lamp; one can have a reflector in front and at the rear. The cyclist is not bothered to see where he is going. He is much more concerned about being seen by other traffic. The time might come to switch the emphasis away from lamps and to reflectors. On a more domestic note, it is worth remarking that the bicycles in the House of Commons bicycle pool have been equipped with flashers on the spokes so that the cycle can be seen from the side, a vulnerable point from which the front and rear lamps cannot be seen.

I do not want this to be compulsory, but perhaps if these side flashers are seen to be successful we can have a similar recommendation next time that cyclists should instal them.

My second point was mentioned by the Minister. It concerns the use of bus lanes by cyclists. Paragraph 133 contains the rather dogmatic sentence You must not use other bus lanes. The Minister has in mind here the contra-flow bus lanes. But the statement is too categoric. In Nottingham, where there was an experimental scheme, cyclists were allowed to use these contra-flow bus lanes, and I can envisage circumstances in which that would be quite safe.

In Piccadilly there is such a lane, but it is separated from the non-contra-flow traffic by a sizeable pavement, so that there is no risk of the cyclist's being run over by traffic coming the other way. But the Minister's statement in the Highway Code will stop cyclists in all future traffic schemes using contra-flow bus lanes even though it may be safe for them to do so. I know that the Cyclists' Touring Club is concerned about this, as are one or two local authorities.

I am concerned also about the question of roundabouts. The document "A proposed new Highway Code Paper for Parliamentary debate" advised the cyclist to dismount his bicycle and to negotiate the roundabout preferably by a pedestrian route. These five words have been deleted in the new document before us because of a case before the courts, I believe. It seems that if a cyclist is pushing his cycle on a pedestrian crossing he may not have the protection afforded to a pedestrian not pushing a cycle.

It is important, however, to clarify the position of cyclists on zebra crossings. Since the phrase has been left out of the Highway Code there is no recommendation for cyclists to use zebra crossings, but that should be the advice to them because that is the safest way of crossing a busy road, particularly one that is approaching a roundabout.

If the Minister can deal with these points it would show his enthusiasm for the cyclist—an enthusiasm which was never doubted—and would clarify these matters for those of us who go round on two wheels.

Mr. Berry

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will have observed that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell), who was not prepared to give way to me, has been talking nonstop throughout the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young).

Mr. Bidwell

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I heard every word that the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) spoke. I did not think that it was of a powerful substance, but I listened carefully to it.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) was making was that we on the Opposition Benches could hear every word that the hon. Member spoke during the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It has always been among the best of parliamentary traditions that hon. Members should listen to the speeches of other hon. Members without interruption.

12.20 a.m.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

I shall limit my remarks to a few specific points. I trust that after your endearing words to the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, hon. Members on both sides will listen to what I have to say.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) at the outset of his speech discussed the difficulties of getting the public to read this admirable document. Indeed, he referred to the document as a work of reference but did not carry that point any further.

The Highway Code has developed considerably over the years since most of us took our driving tests. At the outset it was very simple. It had large lettering, a few numbers, and so on, and very few pages. Since the 1969 equivalent, which had 51 pages, it has now grown to 70 pages. Not only has it grown to 70 pages, but the print in many instances is smaller and therefore the contents are greater. In my view, people will not read this code any more than they read works of reference generally. Nevertheless, one hopes that we can encourage more people to buy it. Price is important. I hope that the Government will keep down the price as much as possible. The Highway Code is not classical bed-time or other reading. Regarding its status as a work of reference, if more and more things are poured into it, it will grow even larger and may end up as a hard-backed tome of considerable substance.

I make one specific point about the validity of the Highway Code in courts of law. Its validity is referred to in very small print at the bottom of page 5. I suggest that this is a matter of considerable importance to the reader. I hope that the Government will take this point on board for the future. I believe that it deserves more emphasis. The vital words are: A failure on the part of a person to observe a provision of the Highway Code shall not of itself render that person liable to criminal proceedings of any kind, but any such failure may in any proceedings "— it points out that it applies both to civil and to criminal preceedings— be relied upon by any party to the proceedings as tending to establish or to negative any liability which is in question in those proceedings. That is an important statement. Indeed, this code is referred to in motoring proceedings, as some of us know. I certainly have experience of that fact. If anybody is in breach of the code, it is gloatingly referred to by the other side in both civil and criminal proceedings. It is not enough for this important statement to appear in small print at the bottom of page 5.

I turn next to the delay. The Minister's only comment was that the delay was due primarily to the necessity to get parliamentary approval. That is not sufficient explanation. I appreciate the difficulties of our procedures and of parliamentary time, but to go from January 1975 when the Green Paper came out until now—three years, in effect—and to have had two debates on the Floor of the House seems a cumbersome way of doing things. I suggest—I hope that I shall not be unpopular—that this is the kind of thing which, parliamentary rules and customs permitting, could be dealt with rapidly upstairs where we could have a more interesting and longer debate about it. Members who are particularly interested in these matters could participate just as well upstairs as on the Floor of the House. That is just a thought, but such a procedure might counter considerable delay.

I suggest that, bearing in mind the length of the document, an index should be considered for the future. There is a helpful list of contents at the beginning, but there is no detailed index and it is difficult to find many items.

Rule 92, dealing with box junctions, is a humble little paragraph hidden away in the middle of many other matters. There is no mention of the fact that the rule applies not only where there is a box junction but where there is not one. This is one of the rules of motoring that are most disobeyed. It is infuriating, as one struggles through the traffic to get to this place, to find oneself in a queue because of the abuse of this rule.

I mention dipped headlights only briefly because there is no mention of the fact that their use is very much a double-edged sword. This is a slightly controversial matter. The use of dipped headlights in built-up areas makes it easier for the pedestrian to see a car, but in the face of oncoming headlights it makes it difficult for the motorist to see a pedestrian.

Paragraph 28 deals with the wearing of seat belts, and here I disagree with the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), although I respect them. This is the only part of the report that deserves to have strong language used against it. I wear my seat belt but I do not believe that I should make everyone else do the same. It is not good enough to have such a small paragraph dealing with a matter that is so crucial to road safety. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree with that.

Those are the specifics, and I invite the Minister to reply to the point about procedure and delay.

12.26 a.m.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

I shall be brief because I understand that the debate must end at 12.43 a.m. and I want to allow the Minister ample time in which to reply.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The debate must end at 12.42 a.m.

Mr. Moate

I refer first to the procedure, a matter which was touched on by my right hon. Friend for Crosby (Mr. Page) and on which the Minister commented. It will not have escaped the notice of the House that we are discussing not the Highway Code but the proposed alterations to it. The Select Committee, on which I serve, felt that this was not in accordance with the terms of the Act. Despite the sensible answers that we have received and the sensible procedure that has been adopted, I do not feel that what has been done conforms to the original intentions of the Act. I hope that if we are to consider new procedures we can tidy up that aspect of the matter.

How much easier it would nave been tonight had all hon. Members been able to look at the proposed alterations. They could have done so had they looked at the First Report from the Select Cornminttee where the alterations are listed. Hon. Members have been referring not to the alterations but to the code.

The hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Bidwell) referred to speed limits, but these are not mentioned in the proposed alterations. That emphasises the need for a debate on road safety generally, but it does not meet the terms of the motion. I think that there is a case for the House to have before it the alterations that are being made, and in this case that object has been achieved by the Select Committee, although most hon. Members were not aware of it.

I take this step further. Is there not a case for saying that the next time there is a major redraft the alterations should be shown in the code? It might be of advantage to diligent hon. Members, road users and others who read the code to be able to see at a glance the significant changes that have been made since the last print, instead of having to read the code from beginning to end.

My next point is on whether the code is read. I shall not revert to the previous debate tonight and the arguments about how we spend our money. The Government are proposing to spend £10 million on direct elections to the European Parliament. How much better it would be if we had £10 million to spend on advertising the Highway Code.

I urge upon the Minister—although I suspect that I need not do so—the priority that should be given to road safety. Last year, 300,000 people were injured on the roads, there were about 7,000 deaths and nearly 60,000 people were seriously injured. Road safety is the Department's most important responsibility. I do not wish to be personal about this, but I do not believe that the Minister or his predecessors have injected into the question of road safety the energy and drive that they ought to have injected. I believe that that is a very serious criticism of the Government.

We were promised a road safety statement at the time the White Paper was issued. We were then told that a statement would be made at the time of the Queen's Speech. We have had the Queen's Speech, but we have had nothing about road safety—nothing about seat belts, or motor-cyclists. This is a serious failure on the part of the Government, and I hope that we shall have an early statement to compensate for it.

There is no reference to speed limits in the Highway Code. I presume that that is customary and intentional. But the speed limits are still temporary; I believe that they expire some time in 1978. When does the Minister intend to make them permanent?

12.31 a.m.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

I shall make four points, briefly. I shall totally ignore the speech of the hon. Member for Southall (Mr. Bidwell). If he were the man with the red flag, waving it in front of a Conservative car, we would be happier with his speech.

Paragraph 7 refers to advice to people in charge of children. That is very important, and it is right that we should accept responsibility for setting a publicly accepted age at which children can do certain things. I am glad to see these points in the new code.

Page 6 is about a minor change on the reflective strips underneath pedestrians standing at the road side. I think that we should try to get more reflective strips. Many roads are ill-lit and it is important that they should have reflective strips which can be picked up by headlights.

I believe that we should encourage the use of internationally known road signs. In my constituency the heavy continental traffic comes up the A.2. Because they do not know them, foreign lorry drivers frequently ignore the signs which show that a particular stretch of road is very dangerous.

My final point is that the number of road deaths has been held steady recently. This is not only to do with the Highway Code, but also to do with highway construction. I hope that the Minister will get on with building more roads, especially relief roads through constituencies such as mine, which suffer from many accidents.

12.33 a.m.

Mr. Horam

This has been an extremely important and interesting debate. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) asked two questions. He wanted to know what publicity there would be at the time of the launching of the Highway Code. We will have a special publicity campaign to coincide with the launching. Secondly, he mentioned, in that connection, a point about vehicle licensing and asked whether Swansea could do something about it. We explored the possibility, because we thought it was a helpful suggestion, but we found that we could not put the code as such into the machines which packaged the reminder forms because they were too large. We had thought of putting in some wayside pulpit-type reminder such as "Think about motorcyclists today", but we found that this slightly contradicted the general desire to streamline and simplify the process and make it more effective.

The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield and the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) both asked about the road safety statement which the Secretary of State has mentioned more than once. We shall make plain our view about road safety. We have not entirely decided what form it should take—whether it should be a statement or a White Paper, or something else. But we remain committed to making our views known Again, I cannot give a definite answer on that matter tonight.

The hon. Member for Clitheroe (Mr. Walder) has apologised for having to leave, but I want to make one comment on his delightful speech. He referred to the two parellel nails denoting semiautomatic railway barriers. That sign has been discontinued, and that is why it has been dropped from the new code.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell), I must inform him that with the volume of traffic on the roads at present, we believe we have gone beyond the stage where the courtesy type of approach is any longer effective. That is the situation when on compares the modern attitude with the one he mentioned.

Mr. Bidwell


Mr. Horam

I am sorry, but I cannot give way. I have only six minutes to reply to the debate.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) made a forceful speech which, in a remarkable way. illuminated the issue involving legislation on seat belts. We very much regret the fact that there has not been progress. I believe legislation on seat belts will come into force at some stage, but the question is "when?". The hon. Gentleman should recognise that there is a substantial minority of opinion against it, and we must recognise that factor. If that substantial minority had not existed, I think that the Bill would have become law.

Mr. Jessel

There was a majority of 110.

Mr. Horam

There are two sides to the question, but I do not want to take the matter further. I repeat that if that minority had not existed, by now the law would have been in existence.

I wish to thank the hon. Member for Southgate (Mr. Berry) for his remarks. We have got five out of six right, which must be some kind of record, and on the last matter we managed to persuade him that he was wrong and we were right. I was grateful for the three fresh suggestions relating to L-plates, pedestrian crossings, and parking near schools. He will see that that last matter is referred to in Rule 116. We shall try to strengthen that point in future editions of the code—and I hope that on this occasion it will not be as far off as eight years.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir George Young) raised three points about cyclists and asked about the procedure at roundabouts. We have dropped that wording not because of the court case but because of objections by the Cycling Council, which thought that it was not helpful to cyclists because it created a doubt in those places where no crossing facilities were available.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) mentioned the delay in producing the Highway Code. I must accept responsibility for the length of time, but the fact that we did not have this debate in July when we wanted it caused difficulties. He made a helpful procedural suggestion that we should take such matters upstairs. I wish we could implement that suggestion, but it would involve a change in procedure and such a change would involve not merely those of us who are interested in road safety. The hon. Gentleman wanted a fuller contents page. It is fuller now than before, but perhaps we should go further in that direction, although I am not entirely persuaded of that.

The hon. Member for Faversham said that speed limits were not listed. They are listed, in the section on the law's demands. He also asked when they will become permanent. We are in a difficulty with the statutory procedures there, because speed limits are never permanent. They are renewable every 18 months, or some such period, under the legislation according to which speed limits are imposed. They cannot, in the nature of things, become permanent. They lapse after a period unless renewed by legislation. The hon. Gentleman also wanted alterations listed. I take it from that that he was satisfied with the annexe to the appendix of the Committee. I am glad to hear that because we wanted some advice from the Committee, which was not forthcoming, on how we should proceed. However, if the hon. Gentleman is now saying that that was a satisfactory way of proceeding we shall take note of that in future.

The hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley), mentioned the need for road building, and that is a fundamental and correct point. There is no surer way of cutting down the number of accidents than by building roads properly—and motorways are our safest roads. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want Woolwich plastered with motorways, but I agreed that some humble relief roads would help. With the change in attitude to roads we can expect more by-passes rather than fewer.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Before the debate ends I should like to say thank-you to the Minister for his encouragement for relief roads in my constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the proposed alterations contained in the new Highway Code, a copy of which was laid before this House on 20th July, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.