HC Deb 19 May 1999 vol 331 cc1076-8

4.8 pm

Dr. Palmer

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make regulations on the fitting, maintenance and use of bells on pedal cycles.

Among the Bill's virtues is simplicity, and I will take 10 seconds rather than 10 minutes to describe it. The current law permits the Secretary of State to require bells to be fitted on bicycles. The Bill simply amends the law to make it mandatory, thereby restoring the position as it was until 1983.

The Bill has generated considerable interest, not least because the Government are currently brooding on the results of a consultation exercise. In May 1997, Baroness Hayman informed another place that the question was being considered with priority. In August 1997, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions wrote to the Lakes parish council, which has campaigned on the issue for some years, to say that an announcement was expected "in the near future". In September the Department wrote to the Lakes parish council again, stating that a decision was anticipated "very soon". In April 1998 the Government completed a consultation exercise in which 150 responses were collected, and said that they hoped to make an announcement "soon". The baby seems to be somewhat overdue.

The Bill is intended to stimulate the debate and encourage an early, favourable decision. I am aware that the black hand of Bromley and Chislehurst will close its clammy grip on the Bill, as it has on so many others, but I hope to influence the Government's decision.

The originator of the initiative was a constituent and newly elected councillor in Broxtowe, Janet Thorley, who typifies the indomitable spirit of so many poorly sighted people. When her guide dog was hit by a bicycle, her response was to organise a petition for the restoration of bells on all cycles, for which she amassed no fewer than 2,487 names, including those of my hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Liz Blackman), for Luton, South (Ms Moran), for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson), for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) and myself. I shall present that petition, by leave of the House, this evening. I was delighted to receive support from Maureen Colloquhon, whom many hon. Members will remember from her time in the House.

I am extremely grateful to all those who have written to me, in particular the environmental campaign Sustrans, which sells more cycle bells at £3 than any other product and warmly supports the proposals, and the Royal National Institute for the Blind, which has given me strong support in the context of a major new transport and mobility campaign, which it is launching this week.

It is important to stress that all the organisations supporting the Bill are also strongly in favour of cycling. The Bill is not a veiled criticism of cyclists, as we recognise that only a small proportion of road accidents are due to cycling. We are seeking to achieve a reinforcement of cycling's image as a safe, environmentally friendly form of travel that threatens no one.

The RNIB's briefing notes that bells will also help cyclists to avoid collisions with each other, as well as the injuries incurred in collisions with pedestrians. I am encouraged that whereas in 1984 nearly all cycling organisations opposed the idea, on this occasion the Bicycle Association has no strong view against bells being fitted.

Is there a real problem? In 1997, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents reported that there were 329 cyclist-pedestrian incidents, in which there were 427 injuries. Fourteen cyclists and 86 pedestrians were seriously injured, and three cyclists and three pedestrians were killed.

The RNIB notes that accidents and near-misses are frequent enough to be a factor in discouraging poorly sighted people from going out. A survey of 500 active blind and partially sighted people showed that 73 per cent. were worried about cyclists, and that that was the strongest reaction on transport issues in the survey.

It is, of course, possible to shout instead of ringing a bell. Sometimes that will be the best action in an emergency, as the highway code points out. However, shouts tend to be intimidating and cause poorly sighted people to freeze, whereas a bell gives a clear directional indication that can enable the pedestrian to step out of the way.

The figures mentioned are dwarfed by those for car accidents, but they are sufficient to suggest that there is a problem. If a £3 add-on to bicycles will make a useful difference, should we not take that step?

In summary, the Bill will help to reassure elderly and blind people, the cost to individual cyclists will be minimal, and the image of cycling will be enhanced. If, as we all hope, cycling becomes increasingly popular in the years to come, interaction with pedestrians will increase further. The measure will help to preserve good relations between the cycling and pedestrian communities, to the benefit of all. I commend it to the House.

4.14 pm
Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

It gives me no pleasure to speak against the Bill, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) brings it to the House with the noblest of motives. I should declare an interest in that I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on cycling, which now has a record membership. I cover about 200 miles a week by bike, both in my Exeter constituency and in London.

Although the Bill is well intentioned, I speak against it because I do not think that forcing people to fix bells to bikes is the most effective way either to improve pedestrian safety or to reduce accidents. My hon. Friend has already mentioned that the number of accidents between pedestrians and cyclists is remarkably low; in fact, bicycles are involved in only 0.07 of accidents in which pedestrians are injured. That is seven in 10,000.

My other objection to the Bill is that anyone who knows about bicycle bells knows that they are extremely unreliable and rather quiet. Indeed, my hon. Friend pointed out that it is often much more effective to shout. In my experience, on occasions when a bell might be useful—for example, when one is cycling along a road and a pedestrian is about to step off the pavement without looking, or when a pedestrian is meandering across a cycle path where he or she should not be—in fact it is worse than useless, especially in urban areas. Pedestrians cannot hear a bell. I find it far more effective to give a loud shout or a scream as a warning. The pedestrian can hear that. In the unfortunate case involving my hon. Friend's constituent and her guide dog, I am not sure how the guide dog's movements would have been affected by the rather quiet tinkling of a bicycle bell.

I do not believe that the Bill will improve the atrocious behaviour of a small, but regrettable, number of idiotic cyclists, who will disregard it—as they already disregard far too many of our traffic laws. To burden responsible cyclists and the parents who are trying to encourage their children to use bikes with even more requirements and legislation will be a deterrent. Cycle use is extremely low and the Government are committed to doubling and redoubling cycle use in this country by 2012. The Bill would be yet another impediment to achieving their admirable aim.

Our aim should be to improve the behaviour of all road users. The most effective way of protecting pedestrians is to concentrate on the proper separation of pedestrians and cyclists. In recent years, there has been a regrettable move to encourage pedestrians and cyclists to share the same pavement space. That is not the way forward and I am glad that the Government are not practising that system.

In conclusion, I regret opposing the Bill; it is well intentioned, but it will not help pedestrians and it might deter cyclists.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. Nick Palmer, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Mr. Kelvin Hopkins, Ms Margaret Moran and Mr. Alan Simpson.