HC Deb 11 December 1984 vol 69 cc909-11 3.32 pm
Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch) (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the serious motorway accident this morning which resulted in death and injury.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

A multiple accident occurred in thick fog over a length of some 40 yd on the westbound carriageway of the M25 at 6.15 am today near the Kent boundary with Surrey. I understand that 22 vehicles were involved. Wreckage has not yet been cleared and it is feared that at least nine deaths have occurred, but this figure may not be the final total. The total number of injured is not yet known.

The westbound carriageway is completely blocked and is not expected to be opened until tomorrow, Wednesday, at the earliest. The eastbound carriageway has been closed except for use by the emergency services. The police have set up an emergency telephone service for news of casualties. I thank all the emergency services involved in dealing with this motorway tragedy.

I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing condolences to the relatives and friends of those so tragically killed and in sending the injured our best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Mr. Adley

I thank my hon. Friend for her statement. I join in her thanks to the emergency services for yet again turning out at short notice in awful conditions and in expressing condolences to the relatives of those who were killed and to those who were injured, so near to Christmas, but may I ask her a number of questions? First, will there be a specific—

Mr. Speaker

Order. One question.

Mr. Adley

May I ask my hon. Friend whether a specific inquiry will be set up into this accident, as is done with other modes of transport, and whether the police have powers to close motorways in certain weather conditions to prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future? Will my hon. Friend now examine the attitude of her Department, which seeks to increase rather than to reduce the speed of heavy lorries?

Mrs. Chalker

In the event of a road accident, it is up to the police to decide whether to prosecute as a result of their inquiries, but I assure my hon. Friend that my Department will examine all the data, using all the relevant resources, to see what we can learn from this terrible tragedy. I can tell my hon. Friend that a 30 mph limit had been in operation for all vehicles throughout the night, in an effort by the police to prevent such an accident.

Mr. George Gardiner (Reigate)

How regularly is this section of the M25 vulnerable to fog, and has it any previous record of accidents as a result of fog? Is my hon. Friend satisfied with the lighting arrangements along substantial sections of this motorway?

Mrs. Chalker

I cannot tell my hon. Friend how regularly fog will fall on any section of the motorway. To my knowledge, there have been no major accidents on this stretch of motorway, but I shall check and write to him about that. Motorway lighting, which may be helpful in some cases, is not necessarily helpful in fog; it depends on the height of the fog. I cannot say that the lack of lighting at the point of the accident was necessarily unhelpful until we know the prime cause of the original and subsequent crashes.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

Will the hon. Lady undertake to look into speed restrictions and their observance on motorways? Does not this accident show the Department of Transport's wisdom in resisting the pressure to increase the speed limit from 70 to 80 mph? The public do not generally understand that an amber flashing light warning of the necessity for a reduction in speed is only a recommended limit. Will the hon. Lady try to ensure that the law is changed to make that limit enforceable?

Mrs. Chalker

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has just said. I thank him for his comment on the Government's common sense in retaining the 70 mph speed limit in good weather conditions. I am aware that the amber flashing lights are switched on by the police only when they believe that speed should be reduced to the level shown on the matrix signals. All drivers should heed that warning. In this case it was 30 mph, but it may be even less. Drivers should seek, not only to slow down, but to keep a sensible distance from and as far behind the vehicle in front as possible, so that they have room to pull up in bad weather conditions. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall look fully at all the evidence in the case.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

I thank my hon. Friend for making a statement on this tragic accident. It gives the House the opportunity to express our condolences to all the victims. I support what she has said, but will she re-emphasise that on the motorways each driver depends for his life and that of others on the responsible driving of other people? It is only by keeping a safe distance and driving at speeds which suit the weather conditions at the time that safety can be increased and ensured. Too fast and too close is all too often the cause of this kind of tragedy.

Mrs. Chalker

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. He is right in the guidance that he gives. I would add that every driver should consider whether it is necessary to go onto the road in bad conditions, and, if so, to ensure that all his lights are in safe and working order and well cleaned so that he may be seen as well as see others. I recommend all motorists to look at paragraph 50 of the "Highway Code" entitled "The Fog Code", which contains sensible advice.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

I do not wish to prejudge the cause of the accident, but will the Minister accept that many such accidents are caused by motorists going too fast? Will she urge the police to crack down on these law-breakers, especially those who travel at more than 70 mph?

Mrs. Chalker

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. I do not yet know the cause of the accident, but there is no doubt that to drive faster than is safe in bad weather conditions, or in any other conditions, is motorway madness, as it has been dubbed. I very much hope that motorists will learn from this terrible tragedy that, whatever the weather conditions, they should obey the law, which lays down a maximum of 70 mph in good weather conditions.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

Will my hon. Friend consider the design of this motorway, about which she will remember I have had extensive correspondence with her? The problem is as much that of a traffic jam building up eastwards for many miles as anything else, as it is impossible to leave the motorway for a distance of about 20 miles. If there were only an interchange capability where the motorway meets the A21, many hundreds of drivers could have been eased out of the traffic jam which caused so much chaos for so many hours.

Mrs. Chalker

I do not think that any change in the distance between junctions would have made any difference to this tragic accident. I shall consider what my hon. Friend has said, but if drivers would obey the "Highway Code" and take notice of police advice we would not be dealing with a private notice question about a tragedy of the sort that took place this morning.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

In view of what my hon. Friend has said, will she seek the consent of the House to give the amber lights the full force of law?

Mrs. Chalker

As I said to the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell), I shall be examining the matter.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The whole House will join the Minister in sending condolences to the unfortunate relatives of those who have been killed and injured. Will she consider closely the history of the lighting along this stretch of motorway, where several accidents have occurred, as there may be some connection between accidents and the lack of lighting? Will she bear in mind that there is no point in giving advice to motorists if it is constantly ignored? Will she satisfy herself that the police can impose restrictions where motorists consistently break the speed limit that is imposed in bad conditions?

Finally, will she tell the Secretaries of State for Social Services and the Home Department that it is not only on occasions such as this that we should remember the worth of the emergency services? The ambulance, fire and police services are increasingly under attack while doing their jobs. They need the support of a proper budget and the ability to provide proper cover at all times.

Mrs. Chalker

On the information so far given to me, I am content that the police will impose all necessary restrictions on a motorway when this is necessary. I am considering lighting on motorways. I cannot say that the absence of lighting was necessarily a good or bad thing in this instance.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will note what the hon. Lady said about the emergency services. I know of no circumstances where our emergency services have been anything but first class. They have been on the spot immediately. That should be said, whatever the political background to the hon. Lady's question.