HC Deb 26 June 2001 vol 370 cc613-20

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Angela Smith.]

10.16 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)


Mr. Speaker

Order. An Adjournment debate has started. Could hon. Members please leave the Chamber quietly?

Mr. McWalter

I am grateful to the House—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We must have quiet in the Chamber.

Mr. McWalter

I am grateful to the House for providing me with an opportunity to broach the subject of speed limit policy and, with it, the philosophy of risk which our current speeding policies incorporate.

Most people agree that current speeding law is not in a good state. Speed limits are widely disregarded, and there is widespread sympathy for those caught infringing that law, which, according to an official Government document, is breached by almost all members of the British population at one time or another. One response to a law that is widely disregarded is authoritarianism, or the imposition of the will of the Government on those who are governed. However, we do not live in authoritarian times, and when a law is to be applied, it is a better and more durable solution for those to whom the law is to be applied to accept that it is a good law and worth honouring. The Kantian view of the law is that the people should embrace it as something that they themselves would have wanted to make.

Is there a way of persuading motorists to accept that there should be much stricter enforcement of speed limits? I believe that there is. My angle is to suggest that many roads need to be reclaimed by non-motoring users, although roads that are devoted explicitly to motorists could have a higher limit in relation to which there would be strict compliance. My theme is that information technology offers opportunities that previous generations did not have. I anticipate that such a policy, even if it did not lower average speed—as I believe it would, should or could—would result in speed being used more appropriately.

I am therefore approaching the debate from the perspective not only of safety but of motoring being an enjoyable although admittedly dangerous pastime. I feel that if we could break motorists' habit of disrespecting all limits, we could achieve greater compliance with limits which had as their object the reclamation of streets for playing children, when the limit could be as low as five miles per hour; of country lanes for cyclists and equestrians, when the limit could be perhaps 45 mph but with bespoke limits at hazards; and of roads through villages, with a speed limit of 20 mph.

My quid pro quo for that is something that will probably meet with alarm in some quarters: a much higher limit on motorways when conditions permit, and a higher limit again for those who are advanced drivers or riders. I am asking for consideration to be given to strict compliance zones m monitored by computerised cameras, and for those speed limit signs to be indicated by a double red ring. The disc with two red rings would show the motorist that he should not exceed that speed, that his movements are likely to be monitored and that infringement will generate a prosecution. Of course we already have the requirement to halt at some junctions but my approach generalises that idea.

At the moment, we are sleepwalking into an era of much greater monitoring of traffic, but without the radical rethinking that needs to be done. On the A414 dual carriageway in my constituency, for instance, hidden cameras are being installed by a road which even local pensioners regard as negotiable at more than 40 mph. If we ask motorists to obey limits that they do not understand and do not respect, and if we then multiply by a factor of 10 the number of prosecutions for speeding—as is beginning to happen in some areas—our administration of the law will be anything but Kantian in the sense of our having a law of which motorists themselves would approve. Laws that people do not respect are not embraced but resisted.

I want higher motorway limits under appropriate conditions and I want reclamation of country lanes and roads and residential areas for use by non-motorists. I expect that many computer models and statisticians will say that reclamation would of course lower fatalities on the roads but that those higher limits would raise them. I am not sure that there are any computer models that would assess how much safer it might be if we replaced a culture in which speed limits are ignored virtually universally with a culture in which 95 per cent. of motorists thought it right to comply with the limits because they perceived them to be intelligently worked out and a reasonable compromise between their desire to enjoy their motoring and their responsibility to those who use roads not for motoring.

What should that higher limit be? With modern vehicles and dry conditions, and where there is close monitoring of motorists' behaviour, I am suggesting that 100 mph would be an appropriate limit. Furthermore, I think that the Government should have as an aspiration a higher limit—say even 120 mph—but only for those who have passed an advanced motorists' or riders' test, and then only when the technology exists to ensure that the vehicle has been adapted to transmit messages to receptors that clear it for such speeds in the appropriate conditions. This builds in the idea that those who have demonstrated proficiency and thoughtfulness can be entrusted to use a larger range of speeds responsibly.

Of course, if such changes were introduced without any amendments to the existing system—as I believe was suggested in the Conservative manifesto—the results would be utterly unacceptable. Being tailgated at 70 mph is frightening and there is also very little enforcement of the general guideline that says that motorists ought to be able to stop in the distance that they see to be clear. The prospect of being tailgated at 100 mph rather than 70 mph is horrific, so if we have a new contract with the motorist, strict enforcement is essential. The penalties for behaviour such as tailgating must be harsh; in the worst cases, such behaviour is nothing short of attempted murder.

I think most drivers would welcome strict enforcement, which should ultimately take the form of an intelligent speed adaptation—speed limiters in the vehicle linked to the global positioning system—in return for increased motoring freedom and for greater protection from death-engendering irresponsibility. I note that the Government are interested in intelligent speed adaptation, but that they have not come round to the view that an ISA vehicle can slow down if it approaches another vehicle at the wrong speed. That feature of ISA suggests that it makes possible safer faster speeds.

Once we have clear speed limitation—initially through digital cameras, but later through more sophisticated devices—we put ourselves in a position to reclaim the streets and the country lanes. Of course, I welcome the Government's home zones initiative, but it is just a three-year pilot which only began last year. Something more radical is needed to change motorists' attitudes.

The children who are denied the chance to play in rat-run streets in my constituency, such as Masons road in Adeyfield, which are primarily residential, and the horse riders and cyclists who would like to use in safety the cut between the villages of Nettleden and Great Gaddesden, would welcome a system in which it was recognised that roads are for all of us and not merely for motorists. I noticed in the Minister's speech in the previous debate that whenever the subject of roads was mentioned, it was entirely in terms of the benefits to motorists. I submit that we could get the motorist who has bought a sports car or a fast motor cycle to embrace such a policy and use speed only when it is appropriate.

The problem is that successive Governments have developed speed policies that have more to do with statistics than with psychology; they have more to do with a middle-aged emphasis on caution than with any carefully reasoned policy about producing a law that would be obeyed by at least 95 per cent. of the population. We have motorways with a 70 mph limit, to which, on a clear road at night, virtually no car conforms. The occasional exception might be the motorist like me—I was not sure at what stage we were going to end tonight—struggling back from Westminster at 2 am in a 1.2 litre Vauxhall Corsa. A speeding policy that is not respected generally—even if it is respected by people like me under those circumstances—brings the law into disrepute.

I believe that this has major consequences away from the motorways as well. On my journey here today, I travelled along a winding country lane where, in many places, there is not room for two cars to pass. Cars regularly travel along that road at 60 mph, with the potential for a head-on collision at 120 mph. Country lanes are dominated by cars, large vans and other dangerous vehicles, and those who wish to proceed at a gentler pace are subject to what one can only describe as a death-threatening attack.

Enforcement policy does not extend to country lanes, so the chances of being fined for speeding in a country lane is negligible. Indeed, the Government document says that the limit is complied with. I am not surprised—it is ludicrously high. Sometimes, when there is a fatal accident, the tracks show the speed of the vehicle that killed the horse rider, cyclist or pedestrian, but that is information which it might hate been better to have earlier.

I note that the Government paper on this subject argued in favour of lowering speed limits in most circumstances, although it was remarkably blasé about the 30 mph urban limit, which I believe should be generally lower, and the 60 mph limit on rural roads, which, as I have indicated, should be a lot lower. A claim was made that some lower vehicle speeds could contribute to global warming targets—although not the lowering of 30 mph to 20 mph. That aim is obviously laudable, but I question its rationality.

Someone visiting her mum in a rural area 130 miles away might drive for an hour on a clear motorway at 70 mph and then along narrow country lanes at 60 mph. If we had a universal limit of 30 mph, that would make a major contribution to global warming. However, the five-hour journey that separated her from her mum would mean that she would visit her mum a great deal less frequently. That brings home the fact that our current social arrangements have presuppositions about speed and journey times built into them.

In my view, if that person is to visit her mum and get there in something like two hours, I would like her to do it more safely. She could do it by cutting her speed in the country lane by X miles per hour and increasing her speed on the motorway by X miles per hour. With 54 per cent. of road deaths occurring on rural roads and 4 per cent. on motorways, it is clear that there are many values of X which would make that journey safer. Of course, if a higher speed were used inappropriately, the balance of argument would not be nearly as strong. The Government paper said: speed policy involves difficult decisions on trade-offs". However, the advantages of targeted increases in speed limits as a trade-off were given no consideration.

As a youth in the days before general speed limits I must confess to having been a rocker on a fast motor cycle—[Interruption.] Yes, I had hair as well. Doing that was dangerous, but it was also enjoyable—some people might say that it was enjoyable because it was dangerous.

The role of the state is to prevent people from doing things that endanger others who have not assented to be part of the dangerous pursuit. I want us radically to rethink our speed limit policy in that light. We need a policy that at least 95 per cent. of motorists think is reasonable. For instance, in my constituency, hidden cameras have been introduced on a dual carriageway, but when the limit seems to be too low that sort of measure receives little public support.

There is a consistent thread through what I have said, which echoes the Government's agenda. People have the right to use their motor vehicles for enjoyment and I am aware that that includes driving and riding fast. With rights come responsibilities, however, and we must have in place effective monitoring systems so that those who wish to avail themselves of such rights but do not wish to act responsibly can have the right withheld.

I have also said that roads do not belong to motorists. Some roads do; others are multi-functional. Increasingly, we should make it clear that on many roads the motorist is an interloper whose first law of behaviour should be to show consideration for others.

Our policies on speeding need radical revision. Our attitudes to roads and motorists need revision. Using modern technology and a new policy that emphasises the interplay between rights and responsibilities, we can aspire to reclaim the streets and yet we can get the motorist—passionately, perhaps—to help in that task.

10.32 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) on his success in securing this debate so early in this Parliament on a matter that is clearly of such importance to us. I also pay tribute to his record on the subject. I congratulate him too on being the first Member to draw me to the Dispatch Box in my new role—rent as I am from the Trappist silence of the Whips Office.

I also thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has delivered this debate and raised the subject in such a measured manner. Clearly, he has a deep understanding of the subject—that may have been gleaned either from his days as a rocker on a motor cycle, or more possibly, from his three years in the 1960s as a lorry driver.

I do not want to oversimplify my hon. Friend's speech, but I think that he was trying to tell us that, as a pay-off for lower speed limits on certain roads, we might be able to consider higher limits on others. Often, in our youth we are guided by our hearts and sometimes we seek exhilaration. As a formidable academic and a thoughtful, philosophical man, he will know that, just as we need to be ruled by our hearts, we also need often to engage our brains. I will briefly describe the wider context of the Government's road safety policy and then I will try to answer, in a general way, the important questions that my hon. Friend raised.

The Government consider road safety to be a priority. It affects everyone and plays a fundamental role in our society—in health, environment and education. I very much subscribe to my hon. Friend's view that the roads belong not only to the motorists but to pedestrians, in particular, children and elderly pedestrians—the groups that are most often injured on our roads.

During the previous Parliament, we published a road safety strategy to underpin our goal for 2010 to reduce deaths and serious injuries by 40 per cent. overall and, in the case of children, by 50 per cent.

The strategy will also help to achieve the Government's overall target to cut accidents from all causes, and to improve our child road safety record. In addition, it will contribute to wider environmental objectives by cutting carbon dioxide and other emissions and reducing noise.

The strategy will help to build stronger communities, and it will form part of measures to regenerate urban areas and marginalised communities. It will reclaim for our children streets such as Masons road, which my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech. The strategy will also tackle road crime such as dangerous driving, and thus play a key role in the wider crime reduction agenda.

Given the subject of this debate, I shall now concentrate on speed and speed limits. Vehicle speed is a serious issue which touches us all, whether we are travelling in a vehicle, living beside a road, or engaged in other activities such as walking or cycling. Speed limits are the focus of most people's attention. My Department issues guidance, but it is the local highway authority, which in most cases is the local authority, that is responsible for setting speed limits on roads. Those highway authorities have the power to set limits between 20 mph and 70 mph, depending on the nature and function of the road.

I note my hon. Friend's comments about the speed limits in his area. If he has not already done so, he may wish to contact Hertfordshire county council to discuss the matter further in the context of some of the roads that he mentioned earlier.

Speed limits are important, but there is a common misconception that road safety could be improved simply by changing limits. That was the thrust of much of my hon. Friend's speech. Too often, however, people call for lower limits when what they want is lower vehicle speeds. Sadly, lower limits alone have little effect on the speed of traffic. Indeed, in many cases it is not the speed limit that is the problem but the fact that motorists are driving faster than they should.

If unchecked, that can result in pressure at a local level to impose lower limits where they are not needed. The risk is that that could divert resources from initiatives that would be beneficial. Moreover, the imposition of lower limits could place an unrealistic burden on the police, and bring the system into disrepute with motorists.

Clearly, if we are to have an effective speed management policy we will need to ensure that the discussion is about achieving appropriate vehicle speeds rather than simply about what the signs beside the road say. It is also essential that speeding drivers begin to think about the road conditions and the risks that they pose, especially to pedestrians, when they drive in bad weather, near schools, or on high streets or other roads with many pedestrians.

In the countries that take road safety seriously, vehicle speed is considered the biggest problem. Research has indicated that excessive and inappropriate vehicle speed is a major contributory factor in about one third of all serious accidents. In human terms, that equated to 1,100 deaths and 12,600 serious injuries last year alone. There is also evidence that higher speeds on any given road are associated with more accidents and greater injury severity—a relationship that holds for all drivers, and not only for the less experienced ones.

If speed limits are raised, vehicle speeds tend to increase. Conversely if no other work is undertaken, a lower speed limit tends to result in very little reduction in vehicle speeds. So, if we are serious about reducing deaths and injuries on our roads that result from speed, we need to adopt measures that complement—or even mitigate the need for—changes in the speed limit. That means education, engineering and, as a last resort, enforcement.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Department's conference in Bristol to mark the launch of its road safety guide to good practice. I commend that publication to all local authorities, and anyone with an interest in the subject. It contains comprehensive guidance on dealing with the issue of speed management, to help local practitioners.

In urban areas, there is a high level of public acceptance of the 30 mph speed limit. Sadly, although most people think that the limit is right, they drive faster than that when they are in their cars. That leads to the conclusion that the 30 mph limit is generally correct, but that action is needed to ensure that vehicle speeds do not rise.

Speed management is the combination of engineering measures, such as road humps, traffic calming, road markings to change the nature and appearance of the road and, of course, enforcement—all of which are very effective. Where the most vulnerable, such as children, are at risk, speed research has shown that 20 mph zones are excellent at reducing the likelihood and severity of accidents. These are areas where traffic calming measures are used to ensure that vehicle speeds are kept below that limit. Our policy is to encourage greater use of those zones.

Our home zones initiative will also be beneficial, as it aims to improve the quality of life in residential streets. In home zones, local authorities can design streets as places for people, not just for traffic—the road space is shared between drivers of motor vehicles and other road users. Home zones allow the wider needs of residents, including people who walk and cycle and children, to be accommodated, especially the needs of those on Masons road in my hon. Friend's constituency. Although home zones are not road safety schemes per se, if properly designed, they can make a contribution to overall road safety objectives. The Prime Minister announced in April that a £30 million challenge fund for home zones in England would be created.

In rural areas the problem is different. Few people exceed the speed limit. As my hon. Friend said, the speed limits appear to be set unnaturally high. Generally, the road safety problem in rural areas is people misjudging overtaking manoeuvres and driving well within the speed limit, but at speeds which are too fast to negotiate the junctions and bends.

We have left the national speed limit unchanged, but our policy is to encourage local authorities to adopt a targeted approach to gain appropriate. vehicle speeds on all rural roads, with lower speed limits where they are necessary. Work is well under way to deliver those initiatives. Only today, my officials met with representatives from the professional organisations and interest groups to discuss how best to make them a reality.

As my hon. Friend will know, evidence of such initiatives is already common in Hertfordshire, where his constituency is located. The local council is particularly active in speed management, having recently formed a new strategic road casualty reduction partnership, which includes the constabulary, the magistrates court, the Crown Prosecution Service, the health authorities and the Government office of the east. Their role is to review and update the council's speed management strategy to protect local villages and safeguard the most vulnerable through the safer routes to school project and the home zones.

Local transport plans provide the basis for allocating to local authorities the transport capital resources that they need to deliver their plans. Hertfordshire's allocation is £22.5 million, and I am sure that that will ensure that the work can go ahead in the way that my hon. Friend would like.

My hon. Friend touched on the issue of motorways. They are our safest roads, because they are of a consistent and high standard. The vehicles travelling on them in different directions are segregated and the most vulnerable road users are prohibited. There are strong views on the motorway speed limit of 70 mph. It is not practical to enforce it everywhere, so there is pressure to raise it to 80 mph, or even as my hon. Friend said, to 100 mph or 120 mph, although I am not sure that that can be achieved in his 1.2 litre Vauxhall Corsa. However, many professional organisations, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, do not support that argument.

When considering what limit is appropriate, we obviously need to look at safety. However, there are other issues. My hon. Friend is a mathematician, and I am sure that he will have an O-level in physics or chemistry tucked away in his academic armoury. He will know that, as vehicles increase in speed, the amount of emissions that they put out per mile also increases substantially. So typically, emissions are at their lowest when a vehicle is travelling at around 50 mph, but increase sharply at higher speeds. Emissions rise on average by 30 to 35 per cent. between 70 mph and 80 mph. We also have to consider emissions of nitrous oxide. Tyre noise is yet another issue. It is a major concern for many people who live near roads and have to suffer the noise of transmission and that of tyres. Clearly, these issues are a factor in any decisions on speed limits.

This month, my Department published statistics showing the number of people killed and injured on our roads in the year 2000. I am glad to say that the downward trend is continuing. Nevertheless, the reality is that 3,409 people were killed and more than 300,000 people were injured—38,000 of them seriously—on our roads. As someone who is new to this policy area, I find it remarkable that some people consider that to be unavoidable. Behind those cold statistics are individuals, their families and friends, all of whom are directly affected. The public rightly demand high levels of safety in other modes of transport and I, for one, believe that we should strive for the same standards on our roads.

As I have explained, speed management is a key area if we are to make our roads safe. I am confident that the policies that we have adopted will deliver real benefits for all road users and I again thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.