§ Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)
(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the crash on the M6 between Garstang and Preston which occurred at 1.30 p.m. on Monday 21 October.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing condolences to those so tragically bereaved in this terrible accident and in sending to the injured our best wishes for a speedy recovery.
The accident to which my hon. Friend referred occurred on the southbound carriageway of the M6 motorway between junctions 32 and 33 in Lancashire. A coach and 13 other vehicles were involved in the accident. Thirteen people were killed and 34 were injured, some seriously. Three of the fatalities were in the coach and 10 in the other vehicles.
The site of the accident was 600 yd before a point at which the nearside and middle lanes of the southbound carriageway were closed to enable essential repair works to be done. The weather at the time of the accident was fine and bright, and the carriageway was dry.
The precise circumstances of the accident are not yet clear. The accident is being investigated by the police, and by my Department's vehicle inspectors, who are examining the vehicles involved. We shall consider all the reports very carefully, in order to see what lessons can be learnt for the future.
§ Mrs. Kellett-Bowman
I thank my hon. Friend for her reply and for her expression of sympathy to the relatives involved, and I pay a warm tribute to the nurses and police and members of the ambulance services who in my constituency, sadly, have faced this sort of sad task twice in 17 months, first at Abbeystead, and now on the motorway. I especially draw my hon. Friend's attention to the quick wit of the fire fighting services in managing to create a small bath in which they were able to soak gas cylinders which otherwise would have exploded and destroyed many more lives.
I ask my hon. Friend to look once more at the urgent necessity for banning coaches in the fast lane, which is already used by lorries. At the same time, I should like to pay a tribute to her for the speed with which repairs are being carried out since she adopted the motorway rental system, so that this menace to my constituents of restricted carriageways will be removed at the earliest possible moment.
§ Mrs. Chalker
I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks and join in the tribute which she has paid to the nurses and doctors, and all the emergency services who gave such outstanding assistance. One of the things that I will look at is the lanes in which coaches may travel safely, and I shall also look at all the other evidence which the police will provide following their inquiries. I spoke to the chief constable of Lancashire at 3.15 this afternoon. I may not have a full report for a week or two, but I hope by early next week to have established the preliminary facts of the awful situation. I thank my hon. Friend for what she said about lane rental, but the House will note that this accident did not occur on a restricted part of the motorway and that the weather was fine, clear and dry.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I should draw attention to the fact that the question refers to the tragic accident between Garstang and Preston, and not to other motorways. I have no knowledge, of course, of which hon. Members have constituents who were involved.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I am sure that all hon. Members will wish to send their deepest sympathy to those who lost relatives in this appalling accident, and their very best wishes to those still in hospital as a result of the injuries that they sustained. It is also important to pay tribute to the work of all the emergency services. Their speed of reaction is vital in helping people who are desperately injured, and we are deeply grateful for the part that they played.
I hope that the Minister will look very carefully at the whole question of contraflow in this area. Am I right in believing that there was another accident in that area a very short time previously? Will the Minister satisfy herself that roadworks are adequately signed, as 600 yd is not a long distance on a motorway, given the speed at which modern traffic travels?
I hope that the Minister will also look closely at the whole question of enforcement of speed limits in relation to coaches, as well as coach safety in general. The design of coaches is extremely important in view of the danger to those travelling in them if there is a serious accident.
Is the Minister absolutely certain that the present policy of carrying on roadworks into the winter season is justified, given the difficulties which can arise, not just in relation to weather, but as a result of the restrictions invariably brought about by various barriers on the motorway?
Finally, whatever evidence emerges, will the Minister undertake to come back to the House very soon and ask her right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to arrange a debate on the whole question of road safety in relation to motorways? The increasing traffic on our road system puts many more people at risk, and we must be satisfied that there is sufficient protection for the traveller.
§ Mrs. Chalker
I thank the hon. Lady for what she has said. We shall, of course, give very careful attention to all aspects of this terrible tragedy.
The contraflow systems, which have clear separation between the carriageways, are far better than they used to be, but we shall not stop revising them if further revision is needed. I give the hon. Lady that assurance.
The earlier accident to which the hon. Lady referred occurred in totally different conditions, although it was not very far from the site of yesterday's accident.
I am told that the first indication of the roadworks 600 yd south of the site of the accident was about 1,500 yd before the roadworks, and not merely 600 yd as some press reports have suggested. Nevertheless, I shall consider the sufficiency of signing in these and other circumstances.
The enforcement of speed limits is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I am discussing these very matters with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, who is here with me today.
This country has led the world in coach safety. In Europe we have been pressing for greater protection for those who travel by coach, and we shall continue to do so following the discussions in Europe in July on greater safety for coaches.
147 Roadworks are carried out where they are essential. In a sense, we are doing no more now than we were before, but essential repairs must be carried out, because there is nothing so unsafe as an unsafe surface. I intend to ensure that our road surfaces are safe, but I need the co-operation of drivers in this country. They must keep within the speed limits, slow down if weather conditions are unsuitable and keep a safe distance behind other vehicles, a distance which will be greater if the weather is inclement. It is also important that they use their lights and that they clean their lights before setting out on a journey.
Lastly, safety on motorways is better than on other roads. As I believe the hon. Lady knows, motorways are about seven times safer than other roads. Nevertheless, we shall examine every aspect of the matter.
§ Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)
I join in the expressions of sympathy. Does my hon. Friend agree that excessive speed kills? Was there a temporary speed limit in force at the site of the accident? Are temporary speed limits mandatory? If not, will my hon. Friend take steps to make sure that they are?
§ Mrs. Chalker
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Since the accident occurred some 600 yd to the north of the roadworks there was no speed limit in force at that point, apart from the normal speed limit of 70 mph, which applies to all motorways. Temporary speed limits are, in general, advisory. We have been experimenting with mandatory speed limits, which we hope will be more easily enforceable than advisory speed limits.
§ Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)
Does the Minister recall saying in 1982 that she was satisfied that in normal conditions coaches could travel safely at up to 70 mph but that she would consider violations of the speed limit? Is she not aware that there are wholesale violations by coaches on motorways? It is all very well for her to shelve responsibility to the Home Office, but how often are the tachographs inspected by the traffic commissioners' representatives or by Department officials?
§ Mrs. Chalker
The enforcement of speed limits, like the rest of the law, is a matter for the police, but they are well aware of their responsibilities to the House. I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, in the light of the facts of this terrible accident, I shall be examining the whole matter. It would not be right to start going into detail on the violations, of which there are far too many. We have continually warned operators and drivers about the speed of coaches, and we shall continue to do so. There is a responsibility on every driver, not just on coach drivers.
§ Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)
As a nearby resident and regular user of this section of motorway, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) in expressing condolences to the relatives of those who were killed or injured. As the Member who has the privilege of representing the area in which the headquarters of the Lancashire police are situated, may I point out that they performed an outstanding task in difficult circumstances. Finally, does the Minister agree that the standards that are adhered to by manufacturers of coaches, such as Leyland Bus, are among the highest in the world? Is she aware that Leyland Bus, along with many other manufacturers in this country, in other parts 148 of Europe and the world, are prepared to discuss further improvements in safety so that such accidents do not happen?
§ Mrs. Chalker
I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. I have already passed on my personal thanks to the chief constable of Lancashire for the work of the police. I have also thanked the other emergency authorities. I agree that British coachbuilders adhere to higher standards than those anywhere else in the world, but we are seeking to make sure that all coach manufacturers produce coaches to a higher standard, because that is important for all travellers. I shall be happy to have discussions to learn from manufacturers anything that will help to prevent tragedies of this type.
§ Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)
May I offer condolences from the alliance parties to the relatives of those who were injured or killed in this terrible accident. May I encourage the Minister to pursue investigations into the speed limit? As one who travels at 70 mph on motorways and is passed by almost everything under the sun, particularly heavy lorries, I bring that matter to her attention. There was a serious crash at Birmingham the other day which, fortunately, did not cost any lives. Is there now a mandatory speed limit in force in the area where the accident took place, because we do not yet know what the outcome of the accident inquiry will be?
§ Mrs. Chalker
There is a 70 mph speed limit on the road. I note what the hon. Gentleman said about the speed of other vehicles. Like him, I feel like a snail when I am doing 70 mph on a motorway and everything passes me. I ask him to wait for the facts, because then we can use that information to try to prevent accidents.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)
My hon. Friend might not like my saying this, but is it not likely that legislation encourages coaches to travel at excessive speeds to beat the competition? My hon. Friend has told me that the Department of Transport does not have separate statistics for coach accidents. Will she now have discussions with the Home Office to see that that error is put right immediately and, in the meantime, take the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman) and keep coaches out of the third lane of motorways and subject them to a 50 mph speed limit?
§ Mrs. Chalker
No operator or driver is encouraged in any way to break the law. Operators are required to operate within a reasonable timetable and to meet safety standards. I am not prepared to accept that operators have to do other than that. If any operator is doing other than that, that is a matter for the traffic commissioners.
§ Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)
Is the Minister aware that the coach involved in this tragic accident was going from Edinburgh to London and is owned by the Scottish Bus Group, which has an outstanding safety record on that route? Is she further aware that the same cannot be said of other coaches travelling that route? May I observe as gently as I can that it is little use the Minister lecturing the House about speed limits as she must be aware that I wrote to her Department before the summer recess complaining about a bus company, which I shall, not name, which has been charged and convicted three times for exceeding the speed limit on the motorway? The 149 Secretary of State sent me a dismissive reply in which he told me that he did not propose to take any action. The Minister can have that reply if she wants it.
§ Mrs. Chalker
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, who is here, and I are well aware of the good safety record of many bus operators, including the Scottish Bus Group. I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I cannot comment further today.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I remind the House that a private notice question is an extension of Question Time. There are two statements to follow.