HC Deb 19 April 1995 vol 258 cc185-92

2 pm

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Mr. Ian Farnworth, aged 17, of Whitley Bay, was killed last November by a bull bar. His father asked me to mention his son's name in today's debate, because both his parents, his surgeon, Mr. Charles Goring, and the local newspaper, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, are convinced that Mr. Farnworth would be alive today if the vehicle that hit him had not had a bull bar. I could fill the next half an hour with a litany of similar sad stories. This one is particularly harrowing because it involved a young man in the prime of life, who had just left school and was about to embark on his first job. His life was destroyed by a part of a vehicle that has no practical value and is merely a fashion accessory.

There are many other vivid reports. I shall mention one of them, but I will not mention the man's name because I do not have the permission of his family. The son of a man killed in Cleveland described his father's injuries. He said: My father's spine was broken in five places and his pelvis was so bad that his leg virtually fell off. His body was shattered. The doctor said it was as if he had been hit by a ten-ton going at 70mph. The bull bars made a terrible impact. The man was hit not by a truck but by a police van, travelling, as in the other case, below the speed limit.

These terrible adornments on cars concentrate the impact of the collision on a tiny area rather than a larger area, as would be the case if someone were struck by a car that did not have a bull bar. I am grateful to the researchers in this country, including the Transport Research Laboratory, and the researchers in Germany, New Zealand and Australia, who have sent me a huge number of reports and information, all of which come to the same conclusion: bull bars turn slight injury accidents into serious injury accidents, and serious accidents into fatalities.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important subject today. I shall give him one example—a personal example. My son, two years ago, when he was two, was involved in an accident in which a car hit him. The car was probably travelling at about 10 mph at the time. He ended up with a very bloody head injury, which caused him and his parents enormous distress for 24 hours, but fortunately that was all it was. If that car had been equipped with bull bars, my son might not be alive today, so I hope that the Minister will pay due attention to the debate that my hon. Friend has introduced.

Mr. Flynn

There is a particular peril for children, because the height of the bar is often the same height as a child's head. The research from Germany shows that 95 per cent. of children would be expected to survive the impact of a crash at about 20 mph, but a vehicle fitted with bull bars would inflict life-threatening injuries on all children if it were travelling at 12 mph, and that they could possibly die even at 10 mph. Those are horrific figures. In fact, the German researchers stopped using the plastic domes to represent a child's head in any of their trials because they were shattering at such low speeds.

The argument against bull bars has been proven. Figures from the TRL, backed up by all the other research, show that the fitting of bull bars in the United Kingdom could lead to 35 additional deaths and 350 additional serious injuries each year by 1996. But things are far worse than that, because, as the Royal Automobile Club pointed out—it has conducted a splendid campaign on this matter—the figures were based on a projection of 2.4 per cent. of the vehicle fleet being fitted with bull bars. Now that they are increasingly being fitted to delivery vans, pick-up trucks—even—ambulances—the total potential market for bull bars is about 12 per cent. of the UK vehicle market. If we extrapolate from those figures, we are talking about an additional 175 fatal accidents and an additional 1,750 serious accidents.

What is the purpose of bull bars? They started in Australia, and even as long ago as 1980 the Australians said that they were dangerous and that they had no useful purpose other than in agricultural use. In Australia, they were known as "roo" bars, because kangaroos were attracted to vehicles and the bars were used to protect the headlights of vehicles. There is a case to be made, as many people have told me, for the use of bull bars on farmland and so on. It is quite reasonable that they should be used, like other farm implements, on agricultural land, but banned on the road. It is quite simple to make them demountable, as many of them are at the moment. That is simple. We are talking about the cars that are used on public roads.

I am grateful to the Minister and to his predecessor for the many letters that they have sent me, which have been considerate and thoughtful. They understand the position precisely, but the area with which I disagree is that they have not taken any effective action to reduce the numbers. The Minister told me in July last year that his Department was asking the motor industry to act and not to fit bull bars or advertise them. Unfortunately, that was a failure. Only one company—Volvo, I understand—has banned them, to its great credit.

I received a letter from a gentleman in London, who told me that, in the interests of road safety, he wanted to fit two additional lamps on his Rover Discovery, but the only way of fitting them was to install a bull bar and to screw them to the frame. So to achieve the safety that he needed on the road, he had to do what he thought to be unsafe and install a bull bar. The rest of the industry has not responded to the Government's attempt to remove bull bars and reduce their number. In fact their number is increasing.

There have been other attempts by the Government to reduce the use of bull bars. In 1992, the Government asked the TRL to consider whether a code of practice could be a way of avoiding the increased risk in the short term until the European directive could be agreed and implemented. The TRL carried out a very limited test programme. It showed that the suggested code was impractical, because a prototype bull bar made to the code gave a worse test result than a standard bar.

Sadly, the TRL, in a letter that was written a week ago today, tells me that it does not see any further research taking place, apart from the police statistics that are being collected, because it does not have a sponsor for further research. It is a side issue, although an important one, but no one has a vested financial interest in saving lives, particularly those of people whose identity we do not know. It would be terrible if the work of the TRL was skewed into serving the motor trade, which is mainly responsible for encouraging these bars, rather than serving the interest of the future casualties and their families; we need someone to undertake that research.

The insurance companies have been helpful and are concerned. The Norwich Union told me that, when such devices are fitted to vehicles after manufacturing stage as modifications and the appropriate modifications have not been notified to it, it would consider voiding policies if it believed that bull bars had contributed seriously to the accident. The insurance trade is doing a great deal of research in that area. But there seems to be no way out.

In a letter to me in the early part of this year, the Minister suggested that we have to rely on a European directive which is on its way. I shall not give the figure from memory, but the Minister said that a large number of casualties might result from future accidents in the European Community. But we are informed that the directive is unlikely to come through the machinery of the European Union for at least a decade. Commissioner Neil Kinnock assures us that there is no need to wait for that directive, and that we can act now.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

It is possible for vehicle owners to be required to inform their insurance companies if they make modifications to their vehicles, especially if the result is to make them less roadworthy. There are regulations which the police and others can, enforce for vehicles in an unroadworthy condition. Given that roadworthiness is designed to protect the road user, which should include bicyclists and pedestrians as much as the person inside, should not insurance companies invalidate insurance if bully bars or injury bars are put on the front of vehicles? Is not it open to Government to say that, unless putting a bull bar or bully bar on the front of a vehicle reduces the risks to other road users, such vehicles are unroadworthy?

Mr. Flynn

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has a distinguished record in opposing bully bars, as he rightly called them. The Royal Automobile Club has identified two pieces of legislation which can be used now in order to prosecute owners of vehicles with such bars because they are in an unroadworthy condition. There has been one conviction in the Manchester area. That remedy can be taken up immediately.

The suggestion that there can be some kind of soft bull bar was investigated in several countries. Australian researchers came to the conclusion that it is not possible to design a bull bar which is friendly to pedestrians because even a soft bull bar is more dangerous than a standard vehicle. Regardless of the specific design, severe head and pelvic injuries seem to be the inevitable consequence in a collision with a pedestrian where a bull bar is fitted.

During his period as a Minister, the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) told us that one of the great improvements in casualty reduction was achieved by making the front of cars pedestrian—friendly so that the front of the car absorbs the force of the collision by giving. Everyone is at more risk from a bull bar, even the driver of the car and his passengers. The effect of a bull bar is to make the car a more rigid object so that the force of the impact, instead of being taken by the body of the car, is taken by the passengers. There are also other disadvantages.

Bull bars certainly pose a greater risk to cyclists and pedestrians. The Pedestrian Association has given me a great deal of information. Pedestrians and cyclists who have written to me feel intimidated by such bars. The psychology of those who add them to vehicles is difficult to understand. They seem to be part of a fashion for having vehicles that look threatening and dominating on the road. They are big and they look aggressive. That fashion has reached unreasonable proportions. A huge number of such vehicles are on the road at the moment, reflecting the growing popularity of bull bars.

Bull bars appear to be a fashion accessory. They in no way add to the safety of vehicles. Not one researcher has come up with the idea that they make a vehicle safer. There is a hallelujah chorus from those with a vested interest in the safety business and other road matters saying that they are highly dangerous and should be banned. The only argument in their favour comes from the farming community. I have already said that a case can be made for their use on farms.

A case can also be made for the jobs provided by the manufacture of bull bars. Nudge bars, as they are called, are manufactured within a few miles of my constituency and almost certainly my constituents are involved in that. One local firm from Gwent has written to the Secretary of State about today's debate. But the interest in those jobs is very much secondary to the interests of future road casualties.

The Minister must tell us today in clear terms what his views are and take this opportunity to make a clear and unambiguous statement that there is no answer to be found in Europe within the foreseeable future and there is no chance of devising an acceptable bull bar. We know that people will die and hundreds will be injured every month because of the growing fashion for crash bars.

The Government must act now. The Minister has in his hands today the chance to save lives. There is a growing awareness of the danger. I look to local papers, such as the Evening Chronicle (Newcastle) and other papers such as The Independent on Sunday and The Times which have led campaigns on the subject, to highlight every single accident, every death and every serious injury that can be put down to a bull bar. I give an assurance that I will bring to the attention of the House every case that I hear of where a bull bar has resulted in a fatality.

The Minister cannot introduce legislation tomorrow, but he can take the course taken in Manchester, where a man was found guilty of driving a car in a dangerous condition, and ensure that the laws that are there are implemented. Most of all, he can send a clarion call from the House today to warn all those who manufacture bull bars, advertise them or profit from them, who are about to buy them or who already have them on their cars, that the time of such bull bars is limited, that a ban will come in the foreseeable future, so it would be foolish to invest in them now.

We want those who would otherwise choose to have bull bars to avoid the terrible experience that might result. None of us ever expects to collide with a pedestrian but, sadly, it happens. Children run into the road unexpectedly. We want to avoid people suffering the terrible trauma of having the guilt of a death on their consciences and the dreadful agony of bereavement for parents. I ask the Minister to make a clear statement today, not of concern which I know he genuinely has, but of action.

2.16 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) on bringing forward this important subject. As he implies, I welcome the opportunity to outline the present position on the subject and to say how we can take matters forward. I am grateful for the contributions from other hon. Members to this necessarily short debate.

The Government are committed to improving all aspects of road and vehicle safety so as to reduce the terrible toll of deaths and injuries on our roads. We have been concerned for some time now that the fitment of bull bars on road-going vehicles will do nothing to help us meet that objective.

Let us be clear. As the hon. Gentleman suggested in his speech, I suspect that the majority of bull bars currently seen on vehicles are fitted as fashion accessories, as he described them. A macho fashion accessory is an adequate description of what they represent. No one denies that in some off-road circumstances they may be of practical value, but few vehicles which carry them are being regularly used in such circumstances. Therefore, it is difficult to see how they provide any worthwhile benefits.

Some bull bars are quite crude in nature and design. I make it clear that such devices can only be detrimental to the safety of vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists who, if they come into contact with a vehicle fitted with such apparatus, will almost certainly suffer more severe injuries. One need only imagine, as has been said, what happens when a child's head comes into contact with a bull bar in the unfortunate event of a collision. Given that both are at the same height, it is not difficult to divine which would come off worse.

The Transport Research Laboratory, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Newport, West, supports that view. It was asked to carry out impact tests using an instrumented child-size headform and other instrumented impactors on a bull bar, to demonstrate the severity of the possible impact and compare it with the severity of collision with a normal flexible vehicle bonnet. The research showed that, if the fitting of vehicles with bull bars continued unabated, it could result in an extra 35 deaths and 350 serious injuries per annum in the United Kingdom among vulnerable road users.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that, because that research was necessarily based on extrapolation from a proportion of the vehicle population, any underestimate of that proportion could mean a higher figure. I believe that he and I—and, indeed, all other hon. Members—agree that, given the current needless loss of life on our roads, which still amounts to nearly 80 deaths a week, we are not prepared to contemplate 35 more deaths and 350 more serious injuries with equanimity.

Because of those findings, our agreement about the seriousness of the issue and our concern about the increasing use of bull bars, we have taken steps to gather evidence of a slightly different nature—evidence of specific injuries caused on the road by bull bars. Sadly, because of the way in which the police collect accident data, until a recent initiative taken by my Department no specific evidence about the impact of bull bars was available.

Towards the end of 1993, we asked all police forces to identify specific injury accidents during 1994 involving vehicles fitted with bull bars, using the "special studies" box on the normal STATS 19 accident reporting form that the police must complete for every injury accident. Analysis of the information gathered from that exercise will be used to supplement the earlier Transport Research Laboratory estimates, and I expect the results to be known towards the end of the year. We agree, then, that the problem is serious and that we should do all that we can to end such needless loss of life.

The hon. Member for Newport, West asserted that the Government were dragging their heels. I understand why he should make such an assertion, given the frustration that surrounds the issue; but in no sense are we dragging our heels. -Bull bars are not banned in Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, Sweden or any other safety-conscious country; indeed, the United Kingdom is probably ahead of all the others in recognising the seriousness of the problem. Let me add that, if other Europeans were as aware of the safety problems as we are, we should not have to battle so hard in Brussels to win the safety standards that we all want.

We welcome what has been said by Transport Commissioner Kinnock—a friend of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), whom I am delighted to see in his place. I know that he welcomes the elevation of his former right hon. Friend, and sends him his good wishes.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Keep it up.

Mr. Norris

The hon. Gentleman asks Commissioner Kinnock to "keep it up". No doubt he will ponder that message.

Commissioner Kinnock simply said that, under European law, there was unlikely to be any obstacle to member states' banning bolt-on accessory bull bars. I fear that he actually meant that his directorate, the transport directorate, would experience no difficulty. That is comforting—the same applies to us—but I fear that, as ever when we are dealing with the European Union, it is not the whole story.

This important issue has been raised with me by, for example, Christian Wolmar of The Independent, who—as the hon. Member for Newport, West knows—is rightly concerned. The bull bar itself is not E-marked—marked with a European approval mark, which means that identification of bull bars that are European type-approved would be difficult. Legislation would fail to prevent the use of bull bars on many vehicles, because the more popular vehicles have been type-approved with their optional-bolt-on bull bars fitted at the time of their European type approval. That answers the point by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). Thus, the vehicle and bull bar are, as a whole, European type-approved. I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend—who, as usual, has been hugely helpful to Ministers—that the remedy that he offers would not be available in such circumstances.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

The most important thing, surely, is to ensure that fewer vehicles have bully bars, to persuade more vehicle owners to remove them and to make people understand that they are a deliberate threat to others. Can my hon. Friend also tell us why, although cars are usually constructed so that they collapse to protect those inside, idiots put hard objects on cars that will kill those outside?

Mr. Norris

I am about to deal with that—but it is an important point, and I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention.

As I have said, vehicles fitted with bolt-on bull bars have European type approval. I stress that virtually every Member of Parliament—regardless of party or, indeed, absence of party—agrees that the free circulation of European type approved items cannot and should not be impeded within the European Union.

Mr. Flynn

We are aware of the European laws. Under the Construction and Use Regulations 1986 and other legislation, successful prosecutions have already been carried out, and the RAC tells us that legislation already exists in Britain to stop the use of dangerous bull bars on public roads. Why on earth do we not implement that legislation?

Mr. Norris

I am sorry to have to tell the hon. Gentleman yet again that what he has said is simply not true. Let me assure him unequivocally that, if it were possible to ban such fitments, the Government would not hesitate to do so. The reason why the Government do not do so is that they cannot ban the fitment of items that are in receipt of European type approval as fitments to vehicles, which receive a number of complex European type approvals.

That is a matter of some frustration for the Government, so we have taken two actions. First, we have pressed the virtue of the new directive on pedestrian protection, which we believe is the way to proceed in such matters. As the hon. Member for Newport, West said, it has the virtue of concentrating on the softer front, which is an important part of road safety.

Secondly, we have told manufacturers that although we do not have the power to legislate in this area—as the hon. Gentleman would wish, but I know that he is a fair-minded man—they have it within their power to take action now. Some have been prepared to do so openly; others have taken note of what we have said. It is an important area and I give an undertaking to the hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to bear it very much in mind.

We will press not only Commissioner Kinnock but the other directorates within the Community to ensure that this valuable aid to reducing road deaths is proceeded with. I strongly anticipate that it will be the British Government, once again, who will be the first to bring about, in due course, the welcome abolition of this accessory.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, pursuant to Order [19 December].