HC Deb 19 April 1995 vol 258 cc227-9 4.18 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to improve the safety of motorways and motorway driving; and for connected purposes. I seek permission to introduce a Bill which would improve safety on our motorways and on all roads throughout the United Kingdom. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London on the Front Bench. My hon. Friend has contributed much to motorway safety in his time at the Department of Transport, including the very sensible measure of banning coaches from the third lane of motorways. That is something on which he knows I am keen. I hope that my hon. Friend will look sympathetically at the proposals I am making today.

The Bill covers two main provisions, one relating to driver visibility in adverse conditions and the other to the behaviour of drivers on our roads. Issues of road safety are particularly relevant to my constituency, not least because we are close to the M25 and the M40. The last census revealed that my constituency is second only to Beaconsfield in the number of three-car families.

Science and technology have made a great contribution to the increased safety of drivers. We all now drive vehicles which give greater protection to drivers and passengers in the event of an accident. The transport and chemicals group of the Technology Foresight process reported last month, and introduced three achievable objectives—the informed traveller, who will be able to make the best decisions on a journey; the foresight vehicle, which would be more environmentally friendly as well as incorporating collision avoidance systems; and the clear zone, to provide high-quality access to central shops through nil-emission public transportation.

In all these future developments, technology will increase safety and reduce environmental impact from motor vehicles. In the meantime, there is a role for Parliament in tackling some of the simpler aspects of motoring safety, where the technology exists but needs stricter enforcement and monitoring, or where we are dealing with the most complex piece of technology—the human being.

In 1993, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 6,863 accidents on motorways. Some 201 people were killed, and 11,046 injured. More than 15,124 vehicles were involved, and 34 per cent. of accidents occurred when the motorway was wet or flooded.

I am sure that everyone in the House has found themselves driving on a motorway in wet conditions and—like me—knows the problems of overtaking heavy vehicles. The spray emanating from the rear of those vehicles can be frightening, and effectively one is are often overtaking blind for 10 or 20 seconds, or longer. If it is at night on an unlit stretch of motorway, it can be more hazardous for the smaller vehicle. I know of many normally excellent drivers who have been unnerved by the experience.

In 1984, the Department of Transport issued regulation 46E on spray suppression and, in 1989, EC directive 89/377 laid out comprehensive rules on spray suppression from HGVs throughout the Community. Many aspects of the regulations are still unsatisfactory, and work is continuing on the technology of both road surfaces and suppression devices to improve the situation.

In the meantime, there are vehicles on the road complying with the regulations at the time of their 12–monthly inspection for roadworthiness which, during a journey, sustain damage to their spray flaps or lose them completely. That immediately causes a vehicle in wet weather conditions to produce extra—often life-threatening—spray.

At present, under the Road Traffic Act 1988, a vehicle can be stopped and tested for brakes, silencer, steering, noise, tyres, lights, excessive fumes, smoke or vapours. I wish to add to that all spray suppression devices, including wheel guards, valances, wheel flaps, air/water separators and any longitudinal strips or flaps of spray suppressant material. Any driver in charge of a vehicle which has sustained damage to its spray suppression equipment should not be permitted to take that vehicle on to the highway until it has been remedied, in just the same way as if a brake light had failed or the tyres were bald.

Last week, while travelling to my constituency—a mere 45–minute drive—I counted no fewer than five heavy vehicles with broken flaps or missing a flap at the back. This simple measure would ensure that HGV drivers paid more attention to a simple device which could save lives by reducing spray in wet weather conditions. Drivers would have to make sure that that important piece of equipment was well maintained at all times.

The second part of the Bill relates to the driver, and to a relatively new phenomenon which appears to be an unwelcome import from America. It has been called road rage, or red mist. The issue first came to our attention in the 1980s, when four people were killed and several injured on Los Angeles freeways in a spate of armed violence. We are now seeing an increase in the number of incidents on our own roads, which must be addressed.

A driver in Newcastle had his nose bitten off in a row with another motorist. At traffic lights in Wakefield, a 78–year-old man died when he was punched by a much younger driver during a dispute at traffic lights. A young woman on the M6 at night was forced off the motorway by a male driver, which left her upside down in her car. The Royal Automobile Club, which was most helpful in helping to prepare my Bill, reports that one of its patrolmen was attacked by a motorist whom he stopped to help. I have been on the receiving end of aggressive driving by other motorists—not least, women. In securing support for my Bill, I spoke to several colleagues, and they repeated alarming stories.

Last November, a driver was given a jail sentence for attacking two other motorists in the space of 15 minutes. Mr. Justice Keane, sentencing the offender, said: You become highly aggressive behind the wheel. People should be allowed to drive around without being attacked. The courts will not tolerate aggression of this sort on the road, and the message must go out to other drivers loud and clear. My Bill asks the Government to reinforce that message by introducing a campaign similar to the successful one against drink-driving, to improve driver awareness of the problem and of the discourteous behaviour that can turn a normally mild-mannered motorist into a fiend of the road.

Where road rage may be an element in an offence, the courts should have an additional power to require the offender to undergo a psychological assessment and counselling for anger and stress management before having his or her driving licence returned. Rage counselling could help overcome attitude problems on the road, in the same way as drink-driving rehabilitation courses have helped offenders.

The RAC identified a number of incidents that cause great annoyance to drivers. They will be familiar to every motorist. Number one are drivers who cut into traffic queues at roadworks at the last minute. Others include the middle-lane monopoliser, motorists who drive too close at high speed, drivers who overtake on the inside, and parking-space stealers.

The RAC has also produced tips for avoiding confrontation on the roads. One should try to stay calm and avoid any challenge, leave room between one's one car and the vehicle in front so that one can drive away if necessary, avoid eye contact with an aggressor, keep the doors locked, and, if one cannot get away, draw attention by flashing one's headlights, sounding the horn or, if one has a mobile phone, calling the police.

Edmund King, head of campaigns at the RAC, and Richard Woods, campaign co-ordinator, have been doing sterling work in spreading the message. It is time for the Government to help spread the message of safety through courtesy on the roads, and to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.

I hope that my Bill will heighten awareness of safety matters, not at the leading edge of technology but at a more basic level, by improving the maintenance of, spray-suppression devices and highlighting the need for a courtesy campaign, coupled with appropriate penalties to prevent accidents and violent and dangerous behaviour on our roads.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Cheryl Gillan, Mr. Peter Butler, Mr. Bob Dunn, Mr. Hugh Bayley, Mr. Richard Spring, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr. Oliver Heald, Ms Liz Lynne, Mr. Harold Elletson, Mr. Bernard Jenkin, Mr. Patrick McLoughlin and Mr. Hartley Booth.