HC Deb 17 December 1980 vol 996 cc504-15 8.25 am
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Before introducing the topic of road safety, I should like to pay a tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. He spent eight hours on his Bench listening to a debate on London. It was a worthwhile debate, but I think that many of the contributions of Labour Members were far too long. They ought to have appreciated that there were others who wanted to raise matters, both in the London debate and in connection with other topics. I hope that in future we shall use the Consolidated Fund Bill debate to introduce as many topics as possible, so that the patience of Ministers and others is not stretched too far. I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has done and on the temperate way in which he replied to the debate.

I start by saying that road safety, in so far as it affects my consitituency, would start with the Rochester Way relief road. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport is aware, this has been a long-running saga—longer than the debates tonight on the Consolidated Fund. It has been running for 40 years, ever since the A2 started being used. I appreciate that many of my constituents have been asking for meetings with my right hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and with the Prime Minister. I think that the best advice I can give them is to wait until I have published the letter that I received saying that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport hoped to announce the result of the public inquiry within the next three or four weeks. I think that we shall have to see what the result is. My experience of the inquiry was that all the evidence overwhelmingly supported the building of the road, and I hope that that is the decision that will come forward.

Recognising that road safety can be much improved by having specialist roads, as suggested recently in the Armitage report, one ought to recognise further that, even though road improvements are worth while in themselves, the greatest saving that can be made in terms of road safety and protecting the individual lies not in building new roads but in making sure that as many of us as possible in motor cars wear seat belts. I think that the time has come when we ought to recognise that the cost of not wearing seat belts could pay for a large number of the extra benefits for which many of us have been asking. Just because there is no one on the Labour Benches, I hope that no one will think that Labour Members are not interested in the wearing of seat belts. I believe that their absence is because of the length of some of the speeches in the London debate.

I am not here to argue for a change in the law. I think that that would be out of order in this debate. What I do argue is that if, in one way or another, we could raise the proportion of motorists wearing seat belts from about 30 to 95 per cent., the cost savings would be enormous. The one request that I put to my hon. and learned Friend is that he should consider whether there can be an inquiry, bringing together Government Departments, to see what the total savings would be if the proportion of people wearing seat belts were raised to the 85 to 100 per cent. level.

We know that there would be savings in the National Health Service if seat belts were worn. The Department of Health and Social Security can tell us how many bed nights are used by people who are unnecessarily injured or unnecessarily need extended hospital treatment as a consequence of road accidents when they were not wearing seat belts. The savings go much further than that. There is the cost to the community as well as to the individual of people who are handicapped for many years or for life. There is the cost of social benefits to people who are injured and the cost of social benefits to those who are widowed or orphaned before their time as a result of road accidents. There is the loss of tax revenue to the Treasury, and I imagine that there are a number of other Government Departments that could contribute to cost savings. I hope that if my hon. and learned Friend cannot provide the information this morning he will say that he will bring together the various Departments so that up-to-date estimates can be brought before the House of the total savings that would come if seat belts were used universally. I can think of many more worthwhile ways of using public money—taxpayers' money, ratepayers' money—than paying for the unnecessary consequences of people driving around who are not belted up.

Finally, I make the point—I have no reason to apologise for being brief, after my earlier remarks—that the greatest chance that I have of being killed comes from other people's drunken driving. I do not think that we should concentrate solely on the seat belt issue today. I think that the Government need encouraging to make it far more dangerous for people to drink and drive—dangerous not in a road safety sense but in the way that they might lose their licences and have severe penalties visited on them if they are caught driving after drinking too much.

The habits of many of us in this country have become far more lax over the years. I hope that the Government will see their way to either promoting or encouraging action in the House which will both reduce the proportion of us who drive around without wearing seat belts and reduce the proportion of people who drive having drunk alcohol.

8.30 am
Mr. J. F. Pawsey (Rugby)

When I came into this Chamber some 12 hours ago, it was with the purpose of speaking in a debate about student loans, but since then a metamorphosis has taken place and I find myself speaking not on the question of students but rather on the question of streets. But who am Ito say which is the more important of those two issues?

I welcome the growing emphasis which is being placed on road safety. I speak as a former chairman of a road safety committee in my constituency during my service on my local authority. It is a great compliment to successive Ministers and Secretaries of State that, despite the growing number of vehicles on our roads, the accidents, fortunately, are not keeping pace with that ever-growing number. Accidents have not increased pro rata.

However, perhaps there are two specific measures which could be considered. The first is the mandatory use of seat belts. Here I acknowledge what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley). Certainly this is one single measure which could do a great deal to reduce the accident toll. I appreciate that the Ministry has placed great emphasis on propaganda and has launched a major campaign over a considerable period—the "Clunk-click" campaign—designed to persuade people into using seat belts, yet despite enormous expenditure enough has not yet been done and avoidable casualties continue.

Will my hon. and learned Friend the Minister now consider introducing legislation making the wearing of seat belts obligatory?

Secondly, I take up a point also mentioned by my hon. Friend—the need to stress the dangers of drinking and driving. I can speak with perhaps greater experience on the effect of seat belts rather than alchohol. Some years ago, during a particularly busy time in my life, I had the misfortune to experience accidents both with and without a seat belt on. I still bear the scars across my eyebrows, where I hit the windscreen without the seat belt. It took that experience to convince me that seat belts would save injury and save life.

If propaganda, unfortunately, has not worked, it is time to turn to legislation. I shall listen with more than usual interest to what my hon. and learned Friend the Minister has to say on this matter.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that for my peace of mind he will avoid inviting legislation in the rest of his speech.

Mr. Pawsey

I am grateful for your intervention, Mr. Speaker, and I am particularly grateful for the guidance that you have just given.

There are other measures which could be introduced. For example, we could consider improvements in vehicle design to protect drivers and their passengers, Indeed, perhaps further thought could be given to improved road and highway design. Many of our roads are still not designed to meet the demands of heavy traffic.

I should also like to hear my hon. and learned Friend's reply on the question of improving and increasing the training given to motor cyclists. There are certainly too many casualties still occurring to our young people who pass a test on a low-powered motor cycle and then immediately move to a motor cycle of much greater power. Consideration should therefore be given to that point.

Greater emphasis should be placed on road safety training and education in schools. That does not mean the occasional visit of a road safety officer calling in once or twice a year to talk to primary schoolchildren for only 15 or 20 minutes. A more determined approach is needed in the high schools as well as the primaries to include those who will shortly be leaving school and becoming drivers and motor cyclists.

8.36 am
Mr. Richard Needham (Chippenham)

I welcomed the comments by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment about the help that is given to country areas by the change in the rate support grant. Labour Members do not realise the degree of rural poverty that exists. It is linked indirectly to the problems that face people in rural areas.

One of the great difficulties in rural areas is that of old people having transport. The obvious best solution is a concessionary fare. Unfortunately, the constraints on local authority and Government spending render that impossible. It is difficult for hon. Members to appreciate the distress and loneliness that many people in rural areas undergo because they cannot get about. It becomes worse and more worrying for them as they get older.

If the Government want to act in this, they should examine the whole question of road safety. My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) was commenting on the cost of road accidents. In another place last week, it was stated that if seat belt usage rose from 30 per cent. to 100 per cent. there would be 12,000 fewer serious or fatal accidents. The medical savings at 1976 prices would be £75 million. Of those 12,000 accidents, 600 or 700 are fatal. The amount of space taken in hospitals as a result of road accidents is 150,000 bed nights.

There is also the additional cost—the supplementary benefit that needs to be paid to families, the unemployment benefit and the invalidity benefit. There are obviously the community cost—the loss of productive work and skill—and also the loss to society of people involved in such accidents. There is the psychological and family cost. It is difficult for male hon. Members to appreciate what it means to a woman to go through a windscreen, with the appalling psychological problems that it can cause women who suffer so dreadfully. The vast majority of accidents caused by not wearing seat belts result in injuries to the head. I have the greatest difficulty in persuading my wife to wear a seat belt, which is one reason why I feel so strongly on this matter. I do not want her to suffer in any such way.

Of course, advertising can do much. We should all pay tribute to what Mr. Jimmy Savile did in the "Clunk-click" campaign in getting the usage of seat belts up from 14 per cent. to 30 per cent. But advertising on its own probably ends there, and the argument that is constantly paraded against doing anything further is that of the freedom of the individual to do what he wishes, whenever he wishes. That is an argument to which I cannot give very much weight in respect of this issue. I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, as a man of principle, when you get into an aeroplane you would think twice before not wearing your seat belt. Certainly, if you did not wear your seat belt, I doubt whether the aeroplane would take off. I do not think that anyone argues that people who travel in aeroplanes should not wear seat belts, no matter what state they are in when they board and leave the aircraft.

The argument can be broken down if one looks at it more closely. We cannot drive through a red light, and we are told that the reason for that is to save other people from injury. That might be true. But what about a person who drives dangerously? It can be argued that he will hurt others, but he might equally hurt himself. People who ride motor cycles wear crash helmets, and no one argues for any change there.

The principle has been established that something needs to be done. The Government dither in this area, because they have a conflict between standing by the bogus argument of freedom of the individual and the argument that they could do something to save on the costs involved. They should look at the costs involved. This is an area where the Government have some sort of responsibility to look at the issue by any means that they think fit. It would be of enormous benefit to the medical service and to people generally. It would allow funds to become available to help those who cannot get around and who need to get around. It would he humane and sensible if the Government were to try to get savings of these enormous magnitudes. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will consider his future actions carefully.

8.43 am
Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon)

I am glad of the opportunity to make some points in this important debate. The subject of road safety, and especially the subject of seat belts, has been debated many times in the House. I suspect that the House is divided on the matter, as is the nation. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley), Chippenham (Mr. Needham) and Rugby (Mr. Pawsey) on their speeches. I agree with all of them

The arguments on the subject of seat belts appear to be split into various divisions—the acceptability of them by the nation as a whole and the problems of enforceability. The arguments of compulsion versus the freedom of the individual always cause the most tremendously acrimonious arguments, and all the lawyers in the House thunder along in the most erudite way. Fears are nurtured by many people, both inside and outside the House, that seat belts can cause injury and that some people would be injured and killed if they were wearing seat belts where otherwise they would not.

A recent survey shows that three out of every five people are against compulsion and two are for it, whereas 90 per cent. of all drivers believe that seat belts would be most effective if they were worn.

I am also sure that all of us would much prefer seat belt wearing to be made more effective by the use of persuasion and advertising rather than legislation. Far be it from me to call for legislation in a speech at this hour, but I touch on the point because I cannot believe that we could increase the incidence of seat belt wearing very much by means of the excellent advertising campaigns which have been waged. We do not seem to be able to persuade people, and campaigns have short-lived effects. A great deal is spent—I think that the figure is about £6 million a year—but two months after an advertising campaign the effect seems to wear off completely.

While these arguments rage in this House, in another place and in the media, at least 600 people die unnecessarily every year and 11,000 people have serious injury who otherwise would not.

According to figures for 1977, when there was 90 per cent. seat belt wearing on the Continent there was a decrease in deaths of 24 per cent. and a decrease in serious injuries of 36 per cent. These are very conservative figures and are probably an underestimate.

It is also said that 85 per cent. of children, if they were restrained by using seat belts, would be saved from going through windscreens and so on. It is further said that 70 per cent. of injuries to children would also he prevented.

I should like to attempt to explode some myths that are sincerely held inside the House and outside concerning whether seat belts make matters worse and whether one could be injured more horribly when wearing a seat belt than when not wearing it. Many people are afraid of being caught in a burning car when wearing a seat belt and feel that such restraint would limit their chance of survival. But only 0.5 per cent. of accidents involve cars burning, and in a recent survey it was shown that all those caught in that plight would have been better off wearing a seat belt than not wearing one.

The same arguments apply to those in a car that has been trapped in water. In a survey done by a very energetic gentleman called Hobbs, it was shown that of those who were thrown clear of a car one-quarter of the occupants ejected were killed. Had they been restrained in the car, clearly that would not have happened. Also, in 2,879 incidents that he carefully looked at and analysed, all those involved would have fared better if wearing a seat belt than if not wearing one.

Many of the anecdotes told by people are mischievous—for example, when they say that they were not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident but that had they been wearing one they would have been killed. The anecdotes are rather like miracles. One hears about a miracle with bated breath in the bar, but when one analyses it, or when a devil's advocate applies himself to the miracle, it is amazing how, sadly, it often melts like an icicle in a strong sun. I suspect that many of the arguments put forward about the non-use of seat belts would also melt in the same sort of way.

Even if it were the case that two people in 1,000, for example, would have been saved had they not been wearing seat belts, it would not invalidate the case for wearing seat belts. It would be like saying that efficient brakes are dangerous because of the possibility of their causing skidding. Some injuries can be caused by the wearing of seat belts, but the conclusion is that injury would have been caused anyway. These myths can easily be exploded if one looks at the matter dispassionately.

One must consider the countries that have made the wearing of seat belts mandatory. Those who have studied this subject will know that there are 40 per cent. fewer deaths in Victoria, Australia. In addition, Victoria shows a 50 per cent. drop in the number of skull injuries. More work must be done on perfecting seat belts and on making them more effective. No doubt many companies are undertaking such work.

In Victoria, moderate police activity led to a 90 per cent. use of seat belts. That gives some idea of the power of legislation. It is said that the Australians first considered the wearing of seat belts effeminate but that after a while they came round to the idea.

Exemptions are a lawyers' paradise. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Sir R. Bell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) have only to get to their feet to have a marvellous time. They can tell us about the fat ladies who cannot get seat belts round them.

However, in Sweden few problems exist in practice. In the first year, some exceptions were made. They included deformity, immobility, obesity and heart trouble. There were some 1,300 exceptions to the mandatory wearing of seat belts. However, few problems arose and the system worked extremely well. With the exception of Italy, the system works in Europe. Far be it from me to call for legislation. But the House should consider the costs involved and the savings that could be made, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West so ably pointed out.

In a characteristically elegant and eloquent maiden speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) spoke about liberty and the use of seat belts. He said: It is not the same as drunken driving or speeding where the lives of others can be endangered. The only person who suffers is the individual who chooses whether or not to wear a seat belt".—[Official Report, 20 July 1979; Vol. 970, c. 2212.] As always, there was great weight in my hon. Friend's argument. Nevertheless, on that occasion my hon. Friend's argument was somewhat specious. Many people suffer in addition to the individual directly concerned. Families suffer. The chap who hits the other car suffers when he finds out that he has inflicted serious injury or death. He has to live with that on his conscience for the rest of his life. The police, hospitals and the ambulance men suffer who have to scrape victims off the road. The taxpayer suffers because scarce resources are diverted elsewhere.

A written answer by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister on 1 July 1980 shows that in 1979 a fatal accident cost £113,400. With inflation, a fatality in 1980 will cost the taxpayer something over £130,000. A serious accident cost £6,100 in 1979 and will now cost over £9,000. A slight accident cost £790 in 1979, and a damage-only accident used to cost £350. In 1979, the total cost of the carnage was £1,730 million. On the most conservative estimate, it is estimated that at least £130 million could be saved if seat belts were worn. Indeed, I suspect that a great deal more could be saved.

Many hon. Members, including my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, argue about liberty. My hon. and learned Friend once told me that he regarded part of his role as being to come to the House to stop us passing laws that his constituents did not want. That is an honourable mission, but from time to time my hon. and learned Friend may have gone too far. This is not the first time that we have been hung up on liberty. It has happened before on many occasions. One notable occasion was in 1854, when Mr. Chadwick, who was a pioneer in public health legislation, was defeated on some measures. Mr. Chadwick disappeared from public life. He was attempting to pass legislation on the subject of cholera. The Times, in an editorial, thundered: We prefer to take chances with cholera than to be bullied into health. The subject of freedom has been raised for a very long time. Occasionally, nations seem to get obsessed on the point. An objective viewer of America would probably think that that country had got hung up on hand guns. How can the Americans sustain an intelligent argument for allowing people to walk about with hand guns? It is a peculiar libertarian argument.

An individual from outer space coming to this country would be amazed that, in the name of liberty, we allow people to kill themselves and others.

Patrick Hutber died in a tragic road accident two years ago. I talked to Patrick Hutber about this subject, but I made the mistake of talking to him in the company of a lawyer. The lawyer dominated the entire dinner party on the liberty of the subject. I remember Patrick Hutber saying that he thought that some freedoms were not worth having and that the freedom of going through a windscreen at 40 miles an hour was probably one of them.

It is all very well for people to talk about their own liberty, but when it comes to the liberty of allowing their children to sit in the front seats of cars and to go through windscreens at between 40 and 60 miles an hour the aspect of liberty takes on an extremely unhappy light.

I accept that any form of compulsory restraint on people inevitably means a loss of liberty. But, when put against the additional freedom that can be given to others by spending £130 million on other more constructive areas, I believe that this subject should be considered in a different perspective.

Only last week we had a debate on perinatal mortality. Sadly, the Minister for Health reported to the House that we could not find the £80 million to spend on perinatal mortality preventive medicine which would directly save 5,000 babies and mean that 11,000 children would not be born abnormal. If we could divert the money that is wasted in the carnage on the roads to a more constructive area, we could save at least 1,000 lives in road accidents and 5,000 babies' lives, a total of 6,000, which is not a bad tally for any Government.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West in asking for an interdepartmental inquiry to work out the costs and savings and how we can divert these resources more usefully and to report to the House.

8.58 am
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

My hon. Friends and I have waited eagerly through the night for this debate. The enthusiasm of my hon. Friends has created a lively House in the time that we have been discussing road safety. It is particularly cheering, given the importance of the subject, that my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) has been attracting into the Chamber an ever larger number of Members to listen to his oratory. We now have a strong all-party gathering in the Chamber from all parts of the United Kingdom. Obviously, hon. Members were drawn here by an interest in seat belts and road safety and no doubt regret having missed the earlier stages of the debate.

This is an important subject, and I congratulate my hon. Friends on having managed to secure a debate upon it. The country cannot afford to neglect this matter. If we suffered equivalent losses in terms of death and injury from any other single cause, each day our newspapers would be full of the scandal that that represented. Anything that we can do to improve our road safety figures and, therefore, reduce the human suffering that road accidents cause is to be welcomed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) did us all the favour of getting himself drawn in the ballot for this subject. He began his speech on the topic of road building and its implications for road safety. When we manage the trunk road programme and finance the local authority road building programme, road safety is an issue that we have uppermost in our minds. We evaluate potential road schemes from all sorts of points of view. New roads can produce environmental benefits by taking traffic out of towns and economic benefits by reducing delays and lowering industrial costs. A properly purpose-built new road that takes heavy, fast-moving traffic out of crowded communities cart also have positive road safety advantages.

My hon. Friend went on to deal with the Rochester Way relief road, in which he has a particular interest. It is not the first time that he has managed to introduce that topic in debates in the Chamber. He has always left me in no doubt about the importance that he attaches to it and the urgency with which he believes that a decision should be obtained. He and many of his constituents hope that that decision will give the GLC the ability to go ahead and produce a proposal for the relief road.

The present position, as my hon. Friend knows, is that the GLC has made all the necessary applications for the statutory powers that it needs, and a public inquiry has been conducted. Applications are before the Department of the Environment, principally for the necessary planning permissions. Applications are also to be decided by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport for the compulsory purchase order, the side roads order and other orders. The public inquiry has been held and a decision is now required from the Government. I know my hon. Friend's impatience for that decision. It has been a difficult and contentious matter and has taken some time to decide, but we are very near to producing the final decision.

My hon. Friend has written to the Prime Minister and others asking for a Minister to meet a group known as the Dover radial action group, which wishes to press upon us the urgent need for a decision. However, I confidently expect that a firm decision will be announced within the next few weeks. I regret that it is unlikely to be before the end of the year, but I expect it to be in the first two weeks of January. It has been considered whether a Minister from the Department of Transport might meet the action group in response to my hon. Friend's request, but there is a serious danger of the decision being postponed in order to fit that meeting into the timetable, which would not be in the best interests of the action group or my hon. Friend's constituents. It is essential from every point of view, whatever one's views on the roads, that we have a definite decision. I hope that my hon. Friend and his constituents will understand our reluctance to meet them at this late stage. As we are about to announce a formal decision on statutory orders that have been considered at a public inquiry, I cannot in this debate express a view on the merits of road proposals.

The debate then moved on to the more familiar ground of road safety, and that legislation was touched on without departing too far from the rules of order. Various items were raised touching on the principal problems that still give rise to worrying casualty figures in this country. One cannot discuss legislation in this debate, but, as the House knows, there will be an opportunity to discuss it in detail at an appropriate time. The Government have introduced into the House the first road safety legislation introduced successfully by any Government since 1974. When we get on to debates about this year's Transport Bill, we shall discuss the problems of drinking and driving and motor cycle safety, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Pawsey) also referred to.

Drink-driving is still a serious problem in this country. The most striking figure that one can produce to show that alcohol still plays a fairly significant part in road accidents is that, of all the drivers who are killed in road accidents, one in three at the subsequent post mortem is found to be above the legally prescribed limit for driving. All the evidence is that, although the orginal breathalyser law had a substantial effect on people's habits and reduced to some extent the incidence of drink-driving in this country, its initial effect has tended to wear off. There is a higher incidence than previously of drivers driving above the limit. Alcohol is once more playing a slightly increased part in accidents. One reason may be that the original legislation, although well intentioned and, in part, effective, contained quite a number of technical defects and obscurities which have stood in the way of effective enforcement. It is hoped that the legislation to be dealt with at a later stage in the Session will remove many of the technicalities, that the administration of the law will be simplified and that it will also become much easier and less costly for the police forces to have a proper drive on the question of drink-driving and try to make the legislation effective so that it has the necessary effect on people's habits and, hence, road accident figures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby talked about motor cycle safety. That matter is uppermost in our minds. It is probably the single most worrying feature of the road accident figures. Over 1,000 young people are killed each year in motor cycle accidents. Looking across the whole sphere of road safety, trying to discover the biggest weaknesses and deciding our priorities in the search for solutions, it is obvious that motor cycles are probably the biggest and most worrying problem.

Various aspects of the problem can and will be tackled. Most of the problems arise with the young, inexperienced beginner who is trying to acquire the technical expertise to control what is potentially a tricky and dangerous machine. It seems to us essential that there should be a stricter limit on the power of the machine which the inexperienced beginner can ride on the public roads while still trying to acquire the necessary skill and experience.

For many years, there has been a restriction on the power of the machine that a learner driver can drive. That limit of 250 cc has been overtaken by technical advances. At the time it was set down, a 250 cc machine was presumably, to some extent, a limited machine. Modern 250 cc machines can travel at over 100 mph. It seems to us inappropriate that someone can wheel such a machine out of a motor cycle showroom and play with it, in effect, on the roads when it has a power beyond the capacity of a novice to control.

We have also been examining ways to encourage more novices to have proper training in the riding of their motor cycles. We are convinced that if all motor cyclists had professional training at an early stage they would be in a safe position to acquire road craft and experience on the public roads. Quite a lot of training is now carried out voluntarily, some in schools by bodies like STEP, financed by the motor cycle industry. by RAC-ACU schemes up and down the country and by many local authorities.

There is, by and large, no lack of training facilities in the country. For some extraordinary reason, there is a lack of trainees. Many motor cyclists seem reluctant to take advantage of the facilities available to acquire some useful training in the control of their machines before riding on public roads. The Government must look at ways to induce more motor cyclists to take a course of training at an early stage when they acquire a motor cycle. We are not thinking in terms of compulsory training. but inducements for more people to take up training are required.

At a more appropriate stage, we shall be putting forward proposals for a two-part test to be undergone by learner drivers before they can obtain a full licence. We shall put a limit on the length of time that they can 5licences so that they will have to get through the two-part test within two years if they are to acquire a full licence and be able to continue riding motor cycles. The second part of the two-part test would be the usual Ministry test which we conduct at present, but the first part would be a simpler test aimed at elementary roadcraft and control of the motor cycle. We would expect the first part usually to be carried out not by the Ministry but by various training bodies that we expect to authorise. That package contains inducements to people to get on with reaching the standard required for a full test—

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

Face the Chair.

Mr. Clarke

I am obliged to the hon. Member, whose concern for order in the House is well known to us all.

The inducement to get through the test in two years and the fact that the first part will usually be carried out by training bodies will mean that many more young, inexperienced motor cyclists will be brought into contact with those training bodies which will, I have no doubt, make a proper course of training a precondition of their agreeing to carry out the tests.

The other main subject that dominated the debate was the wearing of seat belts. There was a rare unanimity of opinion. All hon. Members who spoke were passionately in favour of the wearing of seat belts and they all said that the case for the compulsory wearing of seat belts was well established. I hope that most hon. Members will agree that the wearing of seat belts is desirable, certainly on a voluntary basis. The question of compulsion divides the House more controversially.

The debate will have done a service if it has underlined to the public yet again that there is an appreciable increase in the safety of occupants in cars if they wear seat belts. Dramatic improvements in accident figures could be achieved if the incidence of seat belt wearing were raised, and most of the arguments still heard among motorists against wearing seat belts are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon underlined, usually myths and can be shown as such by careful research into the effects of seat belt wearing on road accident injuries.

Hard and fast evidence is no longer quite so difficult to come by. All my hon. Friends referred to various well-established figures. No mention was made of the report of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in leaflet LF633, which was published in May 1978. It was a careful study of a sample of injuries to vehicle occupants in 1,126 accidents in which there were 2,879 vehicle occupants, including 1,100 who were uninjured. That careful research of a significant sample concluded that the use of seat belts resulted in a statistically significant reduction of nearly one-half in all but minor injuries. There was a significant increase in the proportion of uninjured. Only 28 per cent. of the unbelted occupants escaped without injury, whereas 42 per cent. of those wearing belts were uninjured.

That report is merely one of many pieces of work over the years that indicate that in any representative sample of accidents considerable reductions are achieved in the number of dead and injured when car occupants are wearing proper seat belts.

My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon dealt with a number of myths that motorists still rely on to justify their failure to wear a seat belt. The numbers involved in accidents in which the car bursts into flames or falls into water is minimal. In most of those cases, the biggest danger to the occupant of being either consumed by fire or drowned comes from the concussion that is likely to follow a dramatic accident. The risks of being concussed and trapped in the car are reduced if the seat belt is worn, as most modern seat belts have a quick release mechanism.

Other stories one hears are sometimes true. There may be a tiny minority of cases when the wearing of a seat belt would make the injury more severe than the escape that resulted when the person was not wearing a seat belt. That is a tiny proportion of cases. In view of the serious chances of injury in the majority of accidents as a result of people not wearing seat belts, it is plain that on any sensible judgment it is statistically and in every other way wise to wear a seat belt, especially when sitting in the front seat of a car. The belief of many people that if they are thrown out of a vehicle they may be better off not being restrained by a seat belt is a dangerous myth. A high proportion of fatalities in road accidents are suffered by people thrown out of a car coming into contact with something.

My hon. Friends have done the House and the country a service by underlining again to the general public the case for wearing a seat belt and bringing forward more evidence to indicate that seat belt wearing, if increased, would save both life and cost. My hon. Friends the Members for Woolwich, West and Abingdon asked me to give figures on the estimated economic savings that would be achieved if the wearing rate were improved. I treat some of the figures with scepticism, although I have given parliamentary replies to my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon only this year giving some estimate of the cost to the economy of fatalities and injuries in road accidents.

That there is substantial cost is beyond doubt. It is difficult to calculate exactly as it involves putting some notional figures on such matters as pain and suffering, which is extremely difficult to put into exact financial terms. I have the latest broad estimates of potential economic savings if a 100 per cent. wearing rate could be achieved. The National Health Service would save between £6 million and £7 million each year, the taxpayer would avoid social security payments of £10 million each year, and savings in lost output would be about £100 million each year.

The figures underline the case for wearing seat belts. Obviously, this is not the occasion to delve into the question whether the wearing of seat belts should be made compulsory. Voluntary wearing seems to be stuck at about 30 per cent. Anything that can be done by way of propaganda, campaigning, publicity and so on to improve the rate would be to the general benefit of the country and would make a great contribution to reducing a lot of unnecessary human suffering.