HC Deb 08 March 2002 vol 381 cc610-8

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It has been widely trailed that the hon. Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), an assistant Whip, will have the honour of replying to this Adjournment debate on behalf of the Government. Indeed, he is in his place, so I assume that that information is true. Will you confirm that it has surely always been the point of debates in the House that they are an opportunity for Members to get across their points to Ministers and for Ministers to reply to Members about their concerns relating to the Ministers' departmental responsibilities?

I always thought that that was the whole point of debates in the House of Commons. Although, in certain exceptional circumstances, a Government Whip may stand in for a Minister, I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—or perhaps someone from the Government, or even the hon. Gentleman—will be able to confirm that this is an exceptional circumstance, and that debates or, indeed, the House itself will not be further downgraded by Ministers not being in their places or prepared to reply to debates on their departmental responsibilities.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

The House will have noted what the right hon. Gentleman has said, but he will know that the occupant of the Chair is not responsible for determining who answers; the Government are responsible for determining who should answer any debate in the House.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you confirm that Government Whips—assistant or otherwise—are Ministers in the Treasury, so they are entitled to speak on behalf of the Government?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The House will equally note what the hon. Lady has said.

2.32 pm
Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

I thank the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for arranging that exciting start to this Adjournment debate.

In many ways it is appropriate that today's interesting debate on the police should be followed by this Adjournment debate on road traffic, speeding and accidents. After all, the police have a very important role to play in enforcing speed limits on the roads and, if their resources are stretched, it will clearly affect their ability to carry out that enforcement role.

As today's debate on the police reminds us, there are individual human tragedies and suffering beneath the bald statistics of crime and violence, so the effects on individual people ought to be the starting point of a debate on road traffic, speeding and accidents. The fact is that deaths and injuries on the road still exceed those caused by any other crime of violence. Despite that fact, the most horrific accident on the road, perhaps with several people killed, may rate only one day's press headlines at the most. In most cases, a single death in a road accident may be mentioned only in a small paragraph in the papers and will probably not be mentioned on the television at all.

Of course, accidents on other forms of transport, such as air or rail, will normally attract much more attention and may lead to dramatic action being taken in an attempt to improve safety and prevent a recurrence. After the tragic Hatfield rail crash, rigorous speed limits were introduced on much of the network, hundreds of millions were spent in urgent repairs and billions are likely to be spent on some form of train protection system in future.

I do not for a minute suggest that it is not right for such action to be taken; I merely observe that perhaps the same action and logic needs to be applied to road safety. Bearing in mind the strong views expressed in the debate on the police, I would not for a minute want to argue against strong measures to tackle violent crime, and I fully appreciate that we need to tackle not only crime but the fear of crime, which is all too prevalent in many of our communities.

All that I ask is that the Government and policy makers give the same attention, focus and priority to the tragedies caused to many families by deaths and serious injuries on the roads. To put it bluntly, street crime should not be tackled at the expense of road safety and tackling speeding.

The number of deaths and injuries on the roads is staggering. In 2000, in the United Kingdom as a whole, 3,409 people were killed, 38,000 people seriously injured and 278,000 people were slightly injured. That represents a cost of £17 billion in police work, insurance and damage to property and, in many cases, serious and tragic personal consequences to victims and their families.

Yet the attitude remains in some quarters—among all too many of the public—that death and injury on the roads is a natural phenomenon about which little can be done and that it is just one of those things that impinge on the public consciousness for a while but are put to the back of our minds.

We hope that it will never happen to us. That attitude must be challenged, because the fact is that even the very term "road accident" is a misnomer. The huge number of deaths and injuries on the road arises from events that could easily be prevented in the vast majority of cases and from circumstances that—again, in the vast majority of cases—are easily foreseeable.

If deaths and injuries can be prevented, and if the tragedies that befall so many individuals and families can be avoided, why do we—and I mean the entire community, not just the Government and the House—allow them to happen?

That question is especially relevant to deaths and injuries caused by speeding, which is the subject of this debate. Speeding is one of the principal causes of death on the roads. By definition, every death and injury caused by speeding is preventable—easily preventable. Preventing deaths and injuries does not require billions of pounds to be spent on road engineering or road construction.

If there is an aspect of driver misbehaviour that is socially acceptable, it is speeding. Research by the Automobile Association shows that, all too often, the general public's attitude is that speeding is a bit of a game in which the motorist tries to outwit the police or the speed camera. Speed limits are all too often seen as minimums, not maximums—as those of us who drive within the speed limit quickly realise from the actions of many other drivers. The attitude that speeding is okay—a victimless crime almost—needs to be challenged and changed. We need to make speeding at least as socially unacceptable as drink-driving now is for most drivers.

That change in public attitude must be achieved in a number of ways. Advertising campaigns and education are undoubtedly important and have a role to play, but central to any change in attitude must be tougher enforcement of existing speed limits. The knowledge that one will be caught is the most effective persuader.

Stronger enforcement could be achieved in many ways. In the time available to me, I want to argue for five specific measures. First, we need more speed cameras—both fixed and mobile—which are a very effective way of reducing speed. The camera partnership areas that have been introduced around the UK in the last two years allow for hypothecated spending of funds collected from the penalties raised by new cameras. The schemes have been a great success. In Northamptonshire, one of the first areas to take up the scheme, there has been a reduction of almost 30 per cent. in the numbers killed and severely injured on the roads. At sites with fixed cameras, the reduction was even higher—67 per cent.

By April 2002, schemes will operate in 28 constabularies in England, Wales, and Scotland. That is a good start and the schemes will cover much of the country, but I call on the Government to make it a national scheme. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), who will answer for the Government, to make a commitment today to consider such a national roll-out of the scheme. Such measures are particularly important if more police resources are to be focused on other forms of violent crime.

I also want to take this opportunity to express a word of mild criticism of the Government, whom I otherwise respect for the way in which they have stood up to the hysteria of those who protest against the use of speed cameras. The announcement that traffic cameras would be painted yellow and placed only in highly visible locations pandered to some extent to the anti-speed camera lobby, which, I am afraid, will never be satisfied. I know that the matter was raised with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), during a recent sitting of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

The danger of sending out a message that traffic cameras will operate only at well-known locations is that it will invite motorists to believe that speeding elsewhere can go unchecked. It will also tend to encourage rapid braking followed by acceleration in the vicinity of speed cameras, which is hardly conducive to road safety and runs the risk of creating new accident blackspots in areas where drivers know that there is little likelihood of detection.

Secondly, we need higher fines, heavier licence endorsements and bans for persistent speeders. How often do we read about the rich and famous escaping with a fine of a few hundred pounds for a speeding offence? Speeding fines should once again relate to the wealth and income of the person who has committed the offence. The Government undertook a review of penalties, which, as it ended last March, is taking some time to emerge from the system. We have been promised that the results of the review, and any measures that are to follow from it, will be announced shortly. The fact that it has taken a year suggests that the problem is not being taken as seriously as it could be. Will the Government reach an early conclusion to their deliberations on the outcome of that review?

Thirdly, we need a reduction of the current leeway that is allowed in many parts of the country, whereby speeding motorists frequently face no penalty for driving up to 10 mph or more above the speed limit. In many areas, no action is likely to be taken against driving at 38 mph or 40 mph in a 30 mph area. The attitude that is taken to enforcement depends very much on the attitude that is taken by individual police forces and prosecution authorities.

That is wholly unacceptable. Speed limits must he limits, not minimum limits. That is especially important bearing in mind the dramatic difference between the death or injury that is caused to a pedestrian who is hit by a car travelling at 40 mph compared with that caused at 30 mph. Every 1 mph increase in speed increases by 10 per cent. the risk of death or serious injury in an accident. I am not saying that every motorist who inadvertently strays I mph or 2 mph above the speed limit should face draconian penalties, but we must take a more consistent approach to prosecutions for speeding offences and ensure that the leeway practised in many areas is substantially reduced.

Fourthly, I urge the Government to roll out nationally the development of 20 mph zones and home zones, which are successfully reducing accidents and are popular with the public, as I know from my experience as a member of Edinburgh city council before being elected to Parliament. Those zones are currently experimental and the exception; they should become the norm, as they are in many areas on the European continent.

Finally, I urge the Government to make a commitment to more funding, research and pilot schemes to develop intelligent speed adaption, which allows the speed of a vehicle to be regulated using a global positioning satellite system that can prevent drivers from exceeding speed limits and even allow them to respond to local factors such as bad weather conditions or proximity to high accident-risk areas such as schools. We should remember that 41 per cent. of all pedestrian casualties in urban areas are children. Although in many respects our record on death and injury on the road is better than that of many of our European neighbours, we have a bad record on child pedestrian fatalities compared with many European countries.

The first field trials in the UK involving vehicles fitted with GPS technology will take place this autumn. Whether the system is taken further will largely depend on the willingness of the Government, the car industry and other European Union member states to support it. The Government are already funding the project; I urge them to set a good example by supporting an extension of the trials. In Sweden, for example, almost 6,000 vehicles are fitted with the system. I urge the Government to consider promoting such measures on a Europe-wide basis, given the competence of the European Union in this field.

It has already been drawn to the House's attention that a small page of history is being written today, in that the Government will be represented on the Treasury Bench by one of the Whips. When I was first elected, I was amazed to discover the bizarre custom that dictates that Whips do not speak in the House of Commons. I appreciate that, as well as being frustrating, it is often hard for Whips to justify their apparent silence in the House to their constituents. If that archaic custom is now withering under the glare of modernisation, I am happy to participate a little in its demise today.

I want to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth, who will speak for the Government, and for whom I have great respect, to assure me that he will ensure that a Minister with specific responsibility for this matter will he made aware of my concerns, and will respond to the calls that I have made. I also ask my hon. Friend to tell the Minister to stand firm in his determination to tackle speeding, and not to be distracted by the vociferous lobby that cries foul whenever the law is enforced. My experience is that the vast majority of people—and many of the motoring organisations—want speeding tackled. The Minister should listen to organisations such as the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which does an excellent job advising Members of the House, and bodies such as RoadPeace, which supports the campaign for justice for road traffic victims. These organisations are made up of individuals who speak from experience of what death and injury on the roads can mean.

2.46 pm
Mr. Phil Woolas (Oldham, East and Saddleworth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) on securing this important debate on road safety. He has a long track record of campaigning for better road safety, as the transport convenor in Edinburgh and, for many years, as leader of Edinburgh city council, on which he served with distinction.

I am sorry that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), cannot be here to respond to the debate. Unfortunately, he is on important constituency business. He asked me to emphasise that his absence should not be taken as indicating any lack of priority being given to road safety. Indeed, I know from personal experience just how seriously the Government and the Department take this issue, and, in my experience, that was the case under the previous Conservative Government as well. It is a privilege for me to speak in this debate, and I shall, of course, pass on my hon. Friend's points to the Under-Secretary and Ministers from other Departments. That is a job that I take very seriously.

There is a close relationship between speed, accident frequency and casualty severity. The relationship is not straightforward, however, and it has never been possible to produce a precise figure for the contribution that speed makes to the cause of accidents. For some time, Governments have taken the view that speed is a causation factor in about a third of accidents, but so much depends on witness statements and on the road and traffic conditions that no one can be certain about it.

That uncertainty has allowed some commentators to promote the view that the speed at which we drive is not an issue in seeking to reduce road accidents. Indeed, sceptics and, unfortunately, some elements of the press persist in misinterpreting a Transport Research Laboratory report on recording contributory factors to road accidents by asserting that speed is a factor in only about 7 per cent. of cases. The figure is certainly more than twice that, and if we add all the contributory factors relating to speed, we reach the figure of one third.

In the real world, however, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it is telling that when we actively improve speed management or speed enforcement on roads with a high level of casualties—perhaps through traffic calming or the use of enforcement cameras—the number of casualties is reduced, often by 50 per cent. The evidence that speed contributes significantly to the cause and severity of road accidents is overwhelming.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth)

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman may not be able to answer this now, but do the Government have plans to amend the current speed limits?

Mr. Woolas

If I may, I shall mention that later.

Unfortunately, a jump is then made to the assertion that accident frequency is almost entirely dependent on the speed limit that is applied for any given stretch of road. Although it is important to try to apply speed limits sensibly, coherently and at levels that meet the demands of road safety, the environment and traffic flow, it is the actual speed of traffic, among other things, that determines the level of accident risk rather than the speed limit per se. That is clearly illustrated by the fact that collisions still occur at speeds within the speed limit, suggesting that speeds are too high for the prevailing conditions, or that driving speed is inappropriate. It is as important to combat driving at inappropriate speed as it is to treat the problem of drivers exceeding speed limits. That does not detract from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith.

The UK's road safety record is, along with that of Sweden, the best in Europe. Even so, the Government are not complacent and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when launching the road safety strategy in March 2000, announced challenging new targets for reducing road accident casualties by 2010. The targets are a 40 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed and seriously injured, but a tougher 50 per cent. target for children. That is because we are particularly determined to combat the needless and tragic loss of young life on our roads.

Combating the worst effects of excessive and inappropriate speed is complex. That is why the Department undertook and published a fundamental review of speed policy two years ago. Its recommendations were accepted by the Government and incorporated into the road safety strategy. The speed review concluded that speed limits should be set at levels that are safe, suitable for the road function, and at levels most likely to be respected by drivers. Motorists would be less willing to comply with limits set at inappropriate levels. Officials are working on improving information and guidance to local authorities on setting local speed limits.

Guidance to local highway authorities currently exists in the form of the circular Roads 1/93. It remains good and helpful advice, but we need to build into it the additional experience and better practice that has emerged over the past 10 years or so. The speed review also highlighted the difference between what has been achieved in reducing casualties on urban roads and on rural roads. The improvement in reducing casualties on urban roads is twice as good as that on rural roads. One factor is that rural roads are different in design and nature from urban roads, which makes it difficult to be consistent in setting speed limits. We have recognised that for some time, and work already put in hand is beginning to pay off as we seek to restore the balance.

The make-up of rural roads is such that accidents tend not to be concentrated at specific locations, but scattered along sections of road. Given that randomness, it has been more difficult to target problem locations on rural road networks. However, research by the Transport Research Laboratory suggests a form of analysis that could tell us where and when to intervene. Applied to a rural network or route, an analytical tool using accident rates quantified per junction, per bend or per vehicle-kilometre might indicate priority areas for remedial treatment. Accident rates based on national figures for different types of rural road would be established, which would provide a benchmark for local authorities to use as suggested intervention levels for their own roads. To support that, a technical manual is being produced that provides practical advice.

The road safety strategy suggested that a hierarchy of roads defined by function might help in setting speed limits and might improve consistency nationally from area to area, as my hon. Friend suggested. The Department commissioned a study to consider the development of a rural road hierarchy for speed management, and the report was presented to Parliament in a written answer from the Under-Secretary on 28 November 2001.

As well as conventional engineering measures, such as road narrowing and village entry features, we expect to make increasing use of more innovative approaches, such as vehicle activated signs, to ensure significant reductions in casualties on rural roads. I assure the House that in addressing the problems on rural roads we are not diverting attention from the urban environment.

We continue to invest considerable resources through local transport plans and additional grants to fund local authorities. Arrangements on resourcing in Scotland are devolved, but there is a consistent strategy. Extra measures include funds specifically to introduce more 20 mph zones and similar schemes to improve safety, particularly for children, pedestrians and cyclists in built-up areas.

Similarly, we are funding five demonstration projects that aim to improve safety on mixed priority urban roads, such as busy high streets. These are very high-risk areas because of the mix of uses, which leads to frequent conflicts between motor traffic, pedestrians and cyclists all going about their various activities. For the House's information, the five projects are in Norwich, Manchester, Crewe, Leamington Spa and Lambeth. Powers have been devolved, and Scotland may wish to run its own project.

The road traffic penalties consultation document was published in December 2000 by the then Home Secretary. More than 1,000 responses have been received, which was much higher than expected and has led to a delay in producing considerations and recommendations. I expect that the review will be completed shortly, and will be reported to the House.

As my hon. Friend said, drivers' attitudes as well as physical measures are important in reducing speed levels. Drivers need to be made more aware of the dangers of driving too fast. That is why effort and resources are being put into national and local publicity. Hon. Members may well have seen the recent highly effective television advertisements that highlighted the problems. It is fair to say that most people now regard drinking and driving as highly antisocial and unacceptable behaviour. By the same token, the general view on speeding is that it is a minor offence, and that if people are caught they have been unlucky, rather than acting dangerously. We must try to change that attitude and belief, and we can do that only by informing people of the true dangers of speeding.

There is some evidence that the general public are becoming aware of speed as an issue. That is good: it is a start, but we must be realistic. The Government are well aware of the vulnerability of motor cyclists, who face particular dangers. That is why the Under-Secretary has established an advisory group on motor cycling, which has been meeting for some months.

One of the most effective ways of enforcing a speed limit is to use enforcement cameras. Hon. Members may know that the Government are now allowing some fixed penalty speeding fine revenue to be reinvested in safety cameras to encourage more effective use of this technology in enforcing speed limits. The scheme that began as a two-year trial in April 2000 operates under strict rules, and is already promising to be the most important and successful road safety policy development for some time. Without those cameras, several hundred people who are alive and well would now be dead or seriously injured. One reason for their success is the public's consent for their placement, which is in part due to the requirement on local authorities to publicise their purpose. An indiscriminate use of cameras would, in our view, be counterproductive. Cameras can deal with excessive speeding only at particular sites or on particular routes, rather than reducing traffic speeds everywhere.

I have mentioned other measures, such as vehicle-activated signs, which are being developed. We hope that they will win the consent of the driving public, and act as information rather than threat in helping to reduce speeds.

I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend that the points that he has raised will be taken seriously by me in my meetings with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and by Ministers in other Departments. We have a successful policy, but every death is one too many.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.

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