HC Deb 08 July 1991 vol 194 cc701-7

Lords amendment: No. 98, in page 75, line 3, at end insert—

  1. ".—(1) Section 41 of that Act (regulation of construction, weight, equipment and use of vehicles) shall be amended as follows.
  2. 702
  3. (2) In subsection (2) at the end of paragraph (e) there shall be added the words "(by means of the fixing of plates or otherwise) and the circumstances in which they are to be marked,".
  4. (3) In subsection (2) after paragraph (j) there shall be inserted—
  5. (4) After subsection (4) there shall be inserted—
    1. "(4A) Regulations under this section with respect to speed limiters may include provision—
      1. (a) as to the checking and sealing of speed limiters by persons authorised in accordance with the regulations and the making of charges by them,
      2. (b) imposing or providing for the imposition of conditions to be complied with by authorised persons,
      3. (c) as to withdrawal of authorisatiions." "

Mr. Chope

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 99, 100 and 142.

Mr. Chope

In the interests of road safety and fuel efficiency, we already require coaches to be fitted with speed limiters, and we have recently proposed that new heavy goods vehicles over 7.5 tonnes gross weight should be fitted with limiters.

The reason for introducing this amendment is to enable us to exercise control over the way speed limiters are calibrated. If they are to fulfil their function of restricting the speed of vehicles to the motorway speed limits, or to any lower speed selected by the vehicle operators, they must be properly installed and calibrated to the characteristics of the particular vehicle. That is best achieved in a workshop specially equipped for the purpose.

The amendment would enable the Secretary of State to require the checking and sealing of speed limiters only by persons authorised by him. That means that only an authorised person would be able to seal the system against tampering, but before doing that he would have to ensure that the speed limiter was properly connected and also that it had been calibrated at or below the speed limit. It would enable the Secretary of State to impose conditions to be complied with by the people authorised to check speed limiters; to set charges; and to withdraw authorisations —for example, if they failed to meet the necessary standards.

In addition, the amendment would make it an offence to forge a speed limiter seal or any plate containing particulars required to be marked by the construction and use regulations. It would also make it an offence to impersonate a person authorised to check and seal speed limiters.

I commend the amendments to the House as a necessary means of ensuring that speed limiters function correctly in practice and that there are reasonable safeguards against tampering or other interference.

Ms. Ruddock

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will appreciate the consensus that has been arrived at during the passage of the Bill and the way in which the Opposition have been able to support and commend the amendments from the other place. This may be my last opportunity to express an opinion on the measures remaining in the Bill. I therefore wish to record the Opposition's support for Lords amendment No. 98.

We have no doubt that the limiting of the speed of heavy goods vehicles and coaches has been an important step in terms of road safety. All of us who use our roads are constantly concerned about the way in which speed limits are breached. Such breaches are more serious where large numbers of people are being carried, as on coaches, or where the weight of vehicles is important, as with heavy goods vehicles. Any measures to ensure that proposals to limit speed work effectively are welcome. The Opposition very much welcome the amendment.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I agree with the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock). There have been significant improvments to the Bill and amendment No. 98 about speed limiting is important, but its importance must be kept in perspective.

The number of people who have been killed and seriously injured has fallen dramatically over the decades —there has been a 25 per cent. drop in the number of serious injuries in relation to the distance travelled over the past three or four years—and that is a tribute to using measures that work. One of the things which distinguish this country from other European countries is that we tend not to have a blind political response to every tragedy that is drawn to our attention.

There are times when, sadly, people are killed, but in circumstances that are unlikely to recur and in circumstances where legislating against behaviour would not make much difference. It is also important to realise that, when the Transport and Road Research Laboratory or other bodies carry out pilot schemes or collect data for analysis—it is analysis rather than proscription that is important—it is possible to introduce measures which are likely to receive more public understanding and more likely to have an effect because they will work.

Limiting the speed of heavy vehicles is unlikely to reduce the number of crashes, but it is likely to reduce the consequences of those crashes. As we discussed earlier, some measures will reduce the number of crashes. Mixing together the virtue of reducing the causes and consequences of crashes is part of the job of people working in the area of road casualty reduction.

It is important to continue to exert as much effort as possible and to devote as many resources as possible to identifying the changing and continuing patterns of crashes and of people's behaviour leading to 5,000 to 5,500 deaths and 270,000 to 300,000 injuries every year.

About five or six years ago the Government set a target of cutting the number of injuries and fatalities by one third by the year 2000. I now believe that that target was mistaken. It should have been a reduction of one third in relation to distance travelled and a reduction of one third, if possible, in absolute numbers of deaths and serious injuries.

The number of slight injuries will be determined by the number of vehicles on the road, which may cause the numbers to increase, but we can continue to have a great deal of success in dealing with the number of deaths and serious injuries. I do not wish to stray beyond the bounds of amendment No. 98 by saying more than a word about the dramatic decrease in the incidence of drink-driving since 1967, when Barbara Castle first began to take the issue seriously. It took the public some years to catch up with the legislation.

It became law for adults to wear seat belts in the fear of vehicles a week ago. That will not just save 100 lives; it will save half the lives that would otherwise be lost if people sitting in the rear of cars—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not pursue that line. I do not see it anywhere in the amendments.

Mr. Bottomley

The second part of that sentence—to take your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker and to continue what I hope to say—applies equally well to cutting the effective speeds of heavy goods vehicles, which is the point of the amendment. When the United States lifted its federal ban on legal speeds of more than 55 mph, in some states in the first six months the number of deaths on the equivalent of our motorways rose by more than 40 per cent.

We have a high disregard for speed limits in this country. In general, people will not pay attention to them unless there is a semi-automatic enforcement, such as speed limiters or cameras on motorway bridges so that someone who drives at excessive speed from, say, Bristol to Birmingham will receive a ticket or account stating, "You have persistently exceeded the speed limit—please pay £100 for the journey." That is the kind of excess speed road pricing which might work.

It is unacceptable for 12 to 14 people to die on our roads each day. It is very boring to say common-sense things, whether or not they apply to the families who tragically died in a crash in Scotland at the weekend, but we must continue to make the point that those 12 to 14 deaths per day, most of which never even make the newspapers, matter just as much as deaths on the railways or in air crashes.

I do not want to say that the Government could do a great deal more—the Government and local authorities are doing an immense amount—but, within the bounds of order, I wish to make it plain that heavy goods vehicles which do not exceed the speed limit will make as much difference as persuading all cyclists that it is not just good style but common sense to wear helmets, because whoever caused the crashes, 80 per cent. of dead cyclists died only because of head injuries, and 80 per cent. of those head injuries could have been prevented by wearing a helmet. Motorcyclists, especially those under 21, could find themselves as safe as drivers of heavy goods vehicles with speed—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Let us get back to the Lords amendment, please.

Mr. Bottomley

On the speed limit, inexperienced drivers seldom drive heavy goods vehicles at or above the speed limit. What they tend to learn through experience could be shared by others. If we could find ways not just of lecturing pedestrians who are involved in crashes, not necessarily with heavy goods vehicles travelling at more than their legal speed limit, we shall find that this is the safest country in the world, leaving aside those in which people do not drink and do not have motor vehicles. We could continue to cut the casualty rate by 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. year after year. In a relatively civilised country, we should be able to get road deaths down to below 4,000 a year by the year 2000. We shall not know which families will have been saved tears, but we shall be able to say that our statistics prove that we have been effective.

Mr. Fearn

This is an excellent Bill. We did an awful lot in Committee. The Minister will recollect that I referred to speed limiters and their manufacturers. I asked whether speed limiter inspections are to be made in factories or whether they will be left to inspectors from the Department of Transport, who will wait until speed limiters are fitted to vehicles before determining that a speed limiter is accurate and working.

Mr. Gale

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the amendments that he has been able to accept and for his undertakings in Committee and in the House, which have been honoured in another place. There is no doubt that they have made a considerable improvement to the Bill.

As a Kent Member, I am particularly concerned, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) about the speed at which heavy goods vehicles travel on our roads between the channel ports and London. The matter seriously affects our constituents. For that reason, I certainly welcome the steps that were taken in another place to tighten controls on heavy goods vehicles and to introduce the limiters that we believe will assist in the control of lorries within the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend the Minister has taken this point on board and I hope that he will pursue it in future, but it will not be enough simply to control the speeds of United Kingdom lorries—we must make sure that the speeds of heavy continental lorries, in particular, are also controlled if our roads are to be genuinely and fully safe, as we would all wish them to be.

Mr. Corbyn

Like others, I welcome any improvement in road safety and anything that can be done to reduce the speed of heavy goods vehicles and coaches in particular. I cannot be the only person who, when travelling along a motorway, has been truly frightened by the size and speed of very large double-decker buses swaying in the wind in the third lane and travelling at obviously excessive speeds. Bearing in mind the timetables of some coaches, they have to break the speed limit to adhere to them. I hope that the Minister will bear that point in mind and consider the commercial pressures on some coach operators.

Additionally, there is a large number of heavy freight vehicles, not just on motorways but on dual carriageways and urban roads. Those vehicles are powerful—they have to be—and they are fast. They often travel at way over the speed limit, which is incredibly dangerous. The speeds at which they travel and their distance from each other are extremely dangerous. Also, cars or lorries overtaking on the inside are dangerous.

6.45 pm

I hope that, in accepting the amendments, which will obviously improve matters relating to speed, the Minister will give us some hope that there will be vigorous prosecution of offences and investigation of background causes, which are often pressure on lorry drivers to maintain unrealistic timetables and the unrealistic expectations that are imposed upon them. Exactly the same often applies to coaches operating to timetables.

Although the amendment does not refer to speed limiters on cars, there is something slightly odd in that we not only advertise but encourage the advertisement of cars and other road vehicles which are capable of travelling at more than twice the speed limit on major roads. Something must be done about that. As the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) pointed out, when speed restrictions on motorways in the United States were lifted, the casualty rate went up. That was inevitable. Those who talk about raising speed limits on British motorways should consider the statistics in the United States. It is a crazy notion. We should not allow the number of deaths on our roads to continue.

It has been pointed out that little publicity is given to road deaths. That is an important point. If there is a train crash and 20 people are killed, quite rightly there is outrage. Quite rightly, there is deep concern about the safety of the railway system and the competence of the operators, inquiries are mounted, and so on. That is absolutely right, but the same attitude is not taken to road deaths. If there is a major crash involving a coach carrying a large number of civilian casualties, there is some publicity for it, but the average death on the road might just get a footnote in a local paper—it is not regarded as a serious matter. I hope that we can encourage the media to be much more vigorous in reporting the number of deaths which occur on our roads as there is carnage on a massive scale.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

The hon. Gentleman helpfully mentioned the media. Does he agree that it might be sensible to have a closer association between the cause and the consequence? Does he agree that it would be very sensible for such issues to be a matter of public knowledge? If there is a crash, fatal or otherwise, and if there is evidence of a vehicle, especially a heavy goods vehicle, in line with the amendment, travelling above the legal speed limit, should not that information be made publicly available as soon as it is known to the police or the authorities, rather than being kept back to produce as a surprise at a coroner's inquest or a court case?

By extension, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would also be sensible for the fact that a driver had been drinking to be put on the public record within hours or days of the crash rather than waiting until everyone has forgotten and the crash has moved from the front page to page 5 of the local paper?

Mr. Corbyn

That is a good point. I can think of horrific accidents which, it has later transpired, have been caused by drunken driving. That fact has not appeared until a long time later, when the issue has passed from the public mind. One must be cautious that the papers do not prejudge whatever prosecution may take place against a driver, but it is reasonable to publicise the fact that a charge of speeding or drunken driving has been laid.

The media should think much more carefully about this issue. As I have said, there is rightly great concern about rail and other transport crashes, but little concern about the deaths on our roads or about road safety. Perhaps the Minister will consider publishing the statistics in a different form, and detailing the causes behind road accidents. If his Department used a different form of publicity, people might be more aware of the problem. It is only when one meets a family who have been bereaved by a road crash, whatever the cause, that one begins to realise the real horror of the situation.

Mr. Chope

I am grateful to all hon. Members who have participated in the debate for their support for these road safety provisions. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) for their support throughout the passage of this important Bill. I am grateful also to the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) for both her kind comments and her co-operation—

Mr. Corbyn

What about me?

Mr. Chope

I shall come to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

It is not every day that the House can consider 144 amendments in such a relatively short time.

I should now like to thank the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) for his considerable contributions to our debate. We have not agreed on everything, but his contributions have always been succinct and to the point. I am grateful to him for that. Nor shall I forget the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn), who has been in his place throughout our debate today and was a persistent and regular attender in Committee. Nobody could ask for more.

I hope that the House will accept the Lords amendment.

Mr. Corbyn

Is there any possibility of the Minister's Department changing the form of its presentation of road accident statistics so that there can be greater public understanding of the danger and loss of life resulting from road accidents?

Mr. Chope

We are always prepared to look at new ways of presenting statistics. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham is joining the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) in holding a celebration at the Royal Automobile Club either next week or the week after specifically to draw attention to the enormous progress that has been made in the past three or four years in reducing the terrible toll on our roads. Neither my hon. Friend nor anybody else is complacent about the situation. If we can further draw the attention of the public to the need to adopt road safety measures, that is all the better.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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