HC Deb 22 February 1980 vol 979 cc914-26

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Berry.)

2.35 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)

I am delighted to have secured at very short notice, this opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the important matter of motor cycle safety. When I entered the Chamber this morning I had no idea that I would be standing here at this time speaking in the Adjournment debate. Nevertheless, I am delighted that through the withdrawal of another debate, it has been possible for me to raise the matter. I believe that it is vital to so many people, particularly young people. It also provides me with an opportunity to show that whatever we may have believed and still believe about the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill that we were discussing just before the red herring—if I may so describe the Bill related to fishing, with which we dealt so quickly—we are concerned for the safety of the individual.

Motor cycles have become increasingly popular during recent years. That is largely a reflection of the road conditions today. Motor cycles are able to move more quickly through congested traffic, they use less fuel than cars, and they enable a great deal of time to be saved. They also provide many people, including the Government Chief Whip, with a great deal of pleasure, even though some people prefer to gain that pleasure during the summer months when the weather is good.

During the last year or two the rise in fuel prices has increased the trend towards these two-wheel vehicles. Between 1972 and 1978 the number of motor cycles in use rose from 1 million to 1.2 million. In terms of distance travelled, the increase is even greater.

Motor cycle riders are predominantly young people. A high proportion are under 21, and a high proportion of those injured in accidents are also under that age. Regrettably, the injuries have risen seriously and tragically. In 1972 there were 42,600 casualties from accidents involving motor cycles. By 1978 the figure had risen to 70,000. Of those over 1,100 were killed and 20,000 seriously injured.

It is slightly comforting—if one can so describe it—that in relation to the number of motor cycles and the number of miles travelled, the accident rate has fallen. However, we must take into account that a motor cycle rider is 30 times more likely to be fatally or seriously injured than a car driver. Thus, while the increase in accidents is a reflection of the increased popularity of motor cycles, it should give us no cause for complacency. We should be all the more concerned because there are so many more people now at risk. Almost 20 per cent. of casualties occur as a result of accidents involving motor cycles.

The Government are right to look at all issues in relation to the cost that they impose on the community. The Department of Transport has worked out that the cost, in direct terms, of those accidents is around £205 million—a considerable amount.

Mr. Donald Thompson (Sowerby)

My hon. Friend did not mention how many accidents involved pillion passengers, and how many involved people who were not old enough to ride a motor cycle. Sometimes young girls are involved. Does he not realise the terror that he is spreading amongst the families of those people who own motor bikes? They are frightened.

My hon. Friend knows, as I know, that in our constituencies motor cycles are more popular than pedal cycles, because it is very difficult to ride a pedal cycle round West Yorkshire. Therefore, many young people need motor cycles to get about and to get to work.

Mr. Waller

My hon. Friend has made an important point. I cannot give him the statistics for which he asks, but it may be possible to obtain them for him later.

My hon. Friend also made an important point about motor cycles and pedal cycles. In London traffic I feel safer on a two-wheeled vehicle equipped with an engine than on a pedal cycle. I have had the experience of finding myself totally immobilised in the middle of Parliament Square when with a little motor power I could have extracted myself.

Some work has been done on the training of motor cyclists. The report of the advisory committee on motor cycle rider training, produced for the Ministry of Transport last October, pointed to the excellent schemes that exist. The RAC runs an excellent scheme, to which the Government in 1978–79 gave £57,000. It is good that the Ministry supports the scheme in that way, but, in relation to the cost to the community of the accidents and the tragic cutting off of young lives, it is an amount that the Ministry might consider increasing.

The schools traffic education programme, which is operated in co-operation with local authorities, is also a good scheme. When the report was produced 429 courses were operating.

It is difficult to show the positive benefits of such schemes. Some research statistics have shown that motor cycle training produces a positive change in performance, notably among 17-yearolds, and an improvement in machine control. But we are talking about a relatively small sample, and it is difficult to provide proof. I hope that more research will be done and that it will be possible to obtain more information. Most people certainly believe that the benefits of training outweigh the costs. That is a particularly good reason for wishing to spend more money on motor cycle training.

There are weaknesses in the present system. One of the greatest is that a person can obtain a licence, put an L-plate on a machine and drive it out of the shop, even though it is capable of reaching 100 mph. That is what a 250cc motorcycle is capable of doing these days. There was a time when a 250cc machine was capable only of much lower speeds, but such has been the research and development during the past few years that a 250cc motorcycle is now capable of going very quickly.

There is no need for a rider to take a test for as long as he or she wishes not to do so. There is no inducement to take a test, except perhaps that one can carry a pillion passenger when one has passed. Therefore, we should consider what incentives we can give young people to obtain training and pass their test early.

We might consider making the test considerably tougher. Some people think that all they need do is to ride round the block being observed by the examiner in order to pass the test. If the test were made tougher, more people might feel it necessary to obtain training. The advisory committee examined this matter.

There is a great deal to be said for the committee's suggestion that training centres in the private sector—for example, of the kind run by the RAC—should be approved to run the first part of the test and that there should be a second part carried out at one of the Ministry's own centres. That would be one way of reducing expenditure and making the test tougher at the same time. The advisory committee did not propose that training should be compulsory, although it is something we must now move towards, because apparently so few people are willing to take training courses. Only about 15 per cent. of motor cycle riders have any kind of training, compared with 90 per cent. who take professional tuition when they put L-plates on a car.

One of the proposals made was that L-drivers should not be allowed to ride motorcycles with a brake horsepower exceeding 12. That is a useful proposal. If we continue to define capacity in terms of cubic capacity motorcycles will become increasingly powerful, at whatever level we set the capacity.

It is interesting to note that the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) initiated a similar Adjournment debate in the autumn of last year. At that time he did not come down in favour of compulsory training, but he has now decided that we must move in that direction.

It is difficult to see how to improve things without incurring additional cost. One suggestion is that a levy should be imposed on the sale of every machine. There might be problems there, but this matter is so important that it is something that should be considered.

This very day, by some strange coincidence, I received from The Institute of Motor Cycling a copy of the submission to the Minister of Transport by the Motor Cycle Association of Great Britain Limited, in which some useful suggestions are made. That submission proposes that there should be a greater variety of categories of machine, such as a cycle motor with a maximum capacity of 15cc and a single speed. The moped will stay the same. A third proposal is that there should be a lighweight motor cycle or scooter with a limited performance not exceeding 15 brake horsepower. So that Association sets the brake horsepower slightly higher than the advisory committee. It is further proposed in that submission that there should be a middleweight motor cycle, not exceeding 30 brake horsepower.

The different types of machine having been defined, a rather complex scheme is then set out whereby a person will be able to ride larger bikes, whether having taken a test or not, at different ages—16, 17 or 18. This is something that we should look at, but there are complications. We would need to ensure that the legislation was relatively simple, because people of that age may find it difficult to understand. There might be problems between the police and young motor cyclists if we introduced such a complicated scheme.

I have not had time to deal with motor cycle helmets, but they are vitally important. One hears so much about young people putting transfers on their helmets which damage their effectiveness. That is something that cannot be too strongly emphasised.

I welcome the opportunity that I have had thrust upon me to open this short debate. Speaking as one who enjoys motor cycling, I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend's reply.

2.48 pm
Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)

I declare an interest in that I have two sons who ride motor cycles and I have ridden solo and combination motor cycles over many thousands of miles of United Kingdom roads.

This debate is timely. There is continuing concern about the serious numbers of young people who are injured through riding motor cycles. There is a need for an increase in training facilities. The more traffic there is on city roads the less suitable they are for young people to ride powerful motor bikes on.

There is an unanswerable case for saying that any youngster who is prepared to go into a proper training centre to learn to ride should do so. There is much less likelihood of his being killed or seriously injured during his first few miles of motor cycle riding if he can do it at a training centre with the proper facilities.

I congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary on having examined this problem. I am optimistic that he will be able to forward the aim while in his present post.

I put to the hon. Gentleman only two further considerations. The present licensing system does not provide sufficient incentive to young people to take a test. The time when motor cyclists took a pride in throwing away their L-plates has long passed. Having talked to many young people, I find that today they do not care if they go on riding for years renewing their provisional licences, with a cheap celluloid L-plate lashed on their telescopic forks or somewhere else. There is a need to provide a real incentive.

I think that this can be best done in two ways. The first is to enable those who go into good training facilities to have the opportunity to obtain a full licence more cheaply. The second is to impose a condition on continuing to ride under a provisional licence that beyond a certain date people would be obliged to take a test within a certain time, or to undertake a properly recognised training course. Both of these things could contribute in some way to reducing the number of injuries, reducing much worry for many parents and making our roads somewhat safer.

I throw in the afterthought that motor cyclists are more vulnerable to badly maintained roads than are car drivers. If a youngster within his first few months of handling a machine hits a pothole with his front wheel, he is likely to come off his machine, whereas comparable dangers do not face the driver of a car, who will be under supervision anyway whilst learning to drive. The youngster riding a motor bike is not under supervision.

I realise that it is not possible to repair all of our roads within the next few months. However, I urge that we have good warning signs to warn motor cyclists against riding unawares into conditions which could be fatal to them.

2.51 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) on raising this subject at present. I entirely agree with him and with the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) that there is widespread public interest and concern at present. It is not surprising when one reflects upon the figures that my hon. Friend has just given to the House. The present casualty levels are far too high. I think that people are looking to us to take some steps in the fairly near future to try to reduce them.

My hon. Friend is quite right when he says that in recent years the main change in road safety legislation affecting motor cyclist has been the compulsory wearing of helmets. There is some feeling against that measure. Although the overwhelming majority of motor cyclists accept that they ought to wear a helmet, some people feel so strongly that they continue to complain about the legislation of a few years ago. I have to make it clear that at present the figures for motor cycle accidents are so bad, and the position is so serious, that there is no question whatever of the Government's contemplating a repeal of the motor cycle helmet law.

We are now hoping to take matters further. We waited until October of this year for the report of the advisory committee on montor cycle training, which the previous Government set up. It produced a very valuable report. Since then I have been having discussions with a wide range of interested groups on the question of motor cycle training, and have been widening the discussion beyond training to motor cycle satety as a whole. The groups, of course, are the main interested bodies—those interested in motor cycles, road traffic affairs and road safety. But I have also tried to bring in some representatives from the general public, in so far as one can do so in these matters, because lobbies can sometimes give one an unbalanced impression of public opinion, and representatives of women's institutes and parent-teacher associations have been rather a valuable source of information, reflecting, I think, the sort of views that one would expect from bodies of that kind—great concern that something should be done to improve on motor cycle safety.

We have tried to widen the discussions beyond training because, first, there is almost universal acceptance of the need for more training—the need, one way or another, to get more people to undergo training, particularly when they first acquire a machine, as my hon. Friend has said, and in the first months thereafter. It is the inexperienced motor cyclist who is most at risk and it is there that the accident figures are worst.

I have no real reservations, because I agree entirely that the present situation is wrong, and that STEP, the RAC and local authorities that are providing training are doing a very valuable job. I occasionally wonder whether too much weight is put upon training. We should accept that training is important, and we should look at ways in which we can encourage people to go in for more of it, or even make them do so; but I do not think that training is the sole answer. It will produce an improvement, but we have to look at other aspects of motor cycle safety as well.

As an interim stage—discussions have still to be held with many other interested bodies—the Government have not closed their minds against compulsory training of some sort. Perhaps it could be applied when a vehicle is first acquired by a novice, who can receive some training to roadworthiness before he goes on the road. There is widespread support—somewhat to my surprise—for an element of compulsory training. On the other hand, there are difficulties. Obviously, we would need to be satisfied that the various bodies, most of which are voluntary—STEP is financed by the motor cycle industry itself—can provide a nationwide service of training that would meet everybody's requirements. In any element of compulsion, the Government have to take an interest in uniformity of standards of training provided. Methods should be allowed to vary. Voluntary bodies and private organisations should be allowed to choose the methods that they prefer. However, there must be monitoring of standards if we are trying to introduce a national system.

We shall look at ways of extending training and getting more people to go in for training. We are considering a suggestion that training might be linked with the test. Many criticisms have been made about the adequacy of the Ministry of Transport test. It tends to be disparaged by people who do not thoroughly understand how it is carried out. Nevertheless, we would wish to have the highest possible standard of test. Almost half of those who take it fail it, and it certainly fulfils a purpose. The failure rate reflects a great deal on the standards of driving of those who feel that they are ready to drive. We shall investigate the possibility of improving the standards of the test, but we cannot contemplate that, with the resources that might be involved, until we have dealt with the immediate problem of the test—getting down the waiting list so that those who need to take it can do so.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness that we must find a way to encourage more people to take the test. We must give them a positive form of incentive or inducement to take the test and hope that they will take training to get through the test. About 90 per cent. of car drivers pay for professional driving instruction to drive their car before taking a test. They pay out a lot of money and they do not do that for the love of driving schools. They do so because they have a distinct desire to get rid of the accompanying driver and the L plates, and to get through the test as quickly as possible. They are convinced that the test is of such a standard that they need to be trained by a professional to take it. About 15 per cent. of motor cyclists take training. Some motor cyclists do not bother to take a test, because they feel that it is not worth paying the fee. We must look at what can be done to alter that.

We are investigating the ability of people to have endless provisional licences for motor cycles with no limit on holding them without taking a test or training. There is much support for setting a limit on the duration of a provisional licence without test or training. We are looking at the size of machine that can be driven by a provisional licence holder. There is almost universal acceptance—my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough agreed with this—that vehicles of 250 cc are too big and the 12bhp limit that has been advocated by the advisory committee has wide acceptance. The Motor Cycle Association has sent in its submission and I have considered that and discussed it with care with the association. I pay tribute to the manufacturers and traders for their genuine interest in safety. Obviously, they have a perfectly legitimate interest—anything that improves the safety of motor cycles or reduces the fears of parents makes more people happy to contemplate buying them. There is genuine public interest as well in its approach and it finances the major training organisation, STEP. I was interested in the reactions of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough to this survey and the complexity of the rules about moving up to different sizes of machine at different ages. I believe that such rules are unattractive.

Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden)

Does my hon. Friend recognise that the RAC/ ACU volunteers who work through the county council road safety committees are doing a good job?

Mr. Clarke

I have visited both organisations, and I was impressed. Every person is a volunteer doing the work because he believes that it is a valuable public service to get down the amount of deaths and injuries among young people on the road.

When I mention the deaths of and injuries to young people on our roads, the subject ties in with the suggestion that we are considering from the MCA that 15-year-olds might be introduced to powered two-wheel vehicles by being allowed to ride very low-powered motor cycles on the road. There is some support for that. Senior police officers have supported it because they see the case for getting people familiarised with low-powered vehicles before they move on to more powerful machines. But there are serious reservations as well.

At the moment, the figures for 16year-olds on low-powered mopeds are particularly bad. About one in four on mopeds will have an injury or accident during that year. If we were to take any step which produced a dramatic increase in the number of 15-year-old casualties on another new form of low-powered vehicle, I think that the public would be extremely critical.

We are looking also at motor cycle design. I have learnt a lot from my discussions so far—and I emphasise again that I have not closed my mind to any suggestion yet, because I await the remainder of my discussions—about the limited performance of some motor cycle brakes in wet weather, for example, where there are distinct problems with exposed disc brakes. We must look at the regulations on brake performance and consider various innovations such as sintered brake pads, and so on, with a view to seeing what can be done to encourage the wider use of brakes of a form which will produce better performance.

Mr. Waller

The Transport and Road Research Laboratory produced a rather interesting machine, which had a device for preventing a motor cyclist being thrown forward over the handlebars. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen it. Is this a possibility, or is the complexity of such a machine such as to make it impractical?

Mr. Clarke

I have not yet seen it, but that is my fault and no one else's. I keep having to put off my visit because of the pressure of parliamentary business. But I have heard of it. It is described at the TRRL as the "superbike". Amongst other devices there is a fitting in front of the chest of the motorcyclist. There are a number of other devices as well. We are interested in that. We are interested in research on that sort of idea, but again my initial reaction is that we are a long way from its widespread introduction. They are rather involved and complicated safely devices. However, in future years I think that there will be some dramatic changes in the design of motorcycles and safety fittings which will make riders a little less exposed than inevitably they are at present on any sort of motor cycle.

Conspicuity is very important. It is accepted that a great many motor cycle accidents are caused because the drivers of other vehicles—admittedly themselves making errors and driving carelessly—fail to notice the motor cyclists, who are small and inconspicuous road users. There is far more chance of driving out of a side road into the path of a motor cycle than into the path of a pantechnicon lorry, which is a rather obvious on-coming vehicle. Motor cyclists could help themselves by wearing "dayglo" jackets and contemplating other measures, including bright clothing, the possible use of dipped headlights in daytime, and so on, all of which improve the conspicuity of motorcyclists. Again, we are having discussions about it, and I am not sure that we have yet reached the stage where there is general agreement that there is a case for compulsion on the issue of conspicuity, although a great deal of useful advice could be given to inexperienced motorcyclists to think about how they can make themselves more conspicuous on the roads.

I do not think that I can take the matter much further today. We are still in the middle of discussions, which I hope to finish in a few weeks. But the Government realise the importance and urgency of bringing these discussions to an end and putting forward some conclusions as the basis for possible action. We do not want to carry on debating the subject. The debates and discussions have to be assisting us towards coming to the earliest possible widely acceptable conclusions. I hope to be able to give my conclusions to the House in the not too distant future.

Meanwhile, the casualty figures go on rising. They must be extremely worrying to anyone concerned about road safety. The largest single cause of death among teenagers—both boys and girls—involves motorcycle accidents. One could produce many other appalling figures, and I share my hon. Friend's concern that we should get on to doing something about it and get the figures down to a more tolerable level.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Three o'clock.