'. In section 84 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (speed limits on roads other than restricted roads), for subsection (1) there shall be substituted—
(1) An order made under this subsection as respects any road may prohibit—
(1A) An order made by virtue of subsection (1)(c) above may—
(1B) The Secretary of State may make regulations governing the provision which may be made by orders of local authorities under subsection (1)(c) above, and any such regulations may—
§ Brought up, and read the First time.812
§ Mr. Chope
As I said in Committee, we have been considering the possibility of taking powers to enable a more flexible approach to speed limits. This new clause is intended to give mandatory force to variable speed limits that are indicated by traffic signs. It will provide both the Secretary of State and local authorities with a new, additional power to enable them to introduce variable speed limits.
The idea arose from the Department's M25 review, and was originally recommended by the consultants as a means of improving traffic flow at peak periods. However, I believe that there may well be much wider benefits to be gained from having enforceable variable speed limits in other circumstances. It would be reasonable to enforce lower speed limits on motorways when there were adverse weather conditions or when a major accident had occurred. That would, however, require signs that complied with existing requirements—that is, with a red outer ring—and these could be introduced only when the technology had been developed and was in place.
Another, equally important, area of application is local roads, where lower speed limits may be beneficial at certain times of the day to protect vulnerable road users, such as children or pedestrians. A good example is outside a school on a busy road, where it might be appropriate, depending on local conditions, to introduce a lower speed limit, which would apply when children were entering or leaving school. We would need to design and to implement such schemes carefully, to ensure that they operated satisfactorily and were cost-effective in reducing casualties.
This new power would, I believe, give us the opportunity to develop a more flexible approach to speed limits, so that they might more closely reflect actual driving conditions.
§ Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)
Does this new clause relate solely to the reduction of speed limits on a variable basis, or would it enable the Secretary of State to increase speed limits?
§ Mr. Chope
The new clause is drafted very widely. It is not envisaged that my right hon. and learned Friend would use the power to have speed limits higher than those that would normally apply.
I hope that the taking of this new power will be welcomed by the public at large. It would be a very useful additional tool in the range of measures that we have for improving road safety, particularly in relation to the more vulnerable road users.
§ Ms. Ruddock
There is grave anxiety among Opposition Members that the measure could be used to allow increased speed limits. I do not think that the Minister's answer was absolutely clear. My understanding of what he said is that an increase would be possible. I think the Government share our concern that higher speed leads, if not to more accidents, certainly to more severe injuries resulting from collision. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that it is not the Government's intention to use a measure of this kind, which could very sensibly be used to lower speed limits, to take account, say, of roadworks or of accidents, for the purpose of increasing speed limits. It would be quite inappropriate to increase speed limits by the back door.
§ Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)
The Minister has mentioned the part that could be played by parents. I think that schools were mentioned. In Committee, I referred very briefly to a case in which, following an increase in the speed limit outside a school from 30 mph to 40 mph at certain times of the day, a child who stepped out from behind a tree was killed. I wonder whether road signs that specify 30 or 40 mph will cause confusion among parents. Would it not be possible to stick to 30 mph on roads outside schools?
§ Mr. Chope
At present, the standard procedure is to have speed limits that apply at all hours of the day and night. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, however, that in certain circumstances—especially when children are going to or coming from school—extra care should be exercised by drivers, and that there is a case for having a lower speed limit then than at other times of the day or night. We are including the new power in the Bill to make available the necessary flexibility.
§ Mr. Fearn
At present, local authorities install flashing lights outside every school to let drivers know that they should slow down. The warning continues during the period in which the children are on their way to and from school, and seems to be quite effective. If we introduce a different system which varies the speed limit between 30 and 40 mph, it could lead to confusion.
§ Mr. Chope
I am sorry that the hon.Gentleman thinks that there will be confusion. I hope that most hon. Members will consider that this important new power will increase the ability to be flexible. I am not prescribing the circumstances in which the power should be used.
As for the question of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock), the power cannot be used to override existing speed limits. We do not need primary legislation to do that. As I shall say during a later debate to be initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King), the power already exists through secondary legislation to alter speed limits.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.