HL Deb 07 July 1903 vol 124 cc1499-508

My Lords, I rise to introduce a Bill to amend the Locomotives on Highways Act, 1896, pursuant to the Notice which appears in my name on the Paper. I gave the Notice in this form rather than proceed in what, perhaps, is the more usual way, because I thought it would probably be convenient to your Lordships, more especially to those Members of the House who take an interest in the subject, that you should know as soon as possible, at any rate, the general outlines of the legislation which is proposed by this Bill. Your Lordships are aware that the principal Act which regulates the use of light locomotives upon the highways of this country is an Act which was passed in 1896, and the form which that Act took was to exempt light locomotives from the restrictions which applied to other locomotives used upon highways. In that Act a limit of speed was fixed, not exceeding fourteen miles an hour or any less speed which might be prescribed by regulations of the Local Government Board. In other respects the Local Government Board was the authority to issue general regulations as to the use of light locomotives upon the highways, as to their construction, and as to the conditions under which they should be used. Shortly after the Act was passed the Local Government Board did issue general regulations, which, in the main, have remained in force up to the present time. Those regulations fixed the maximum speed at twelve miles, and at less than twelve miles if certain weights prescribed in the regulations were exceeded. Those regulations also dealt with other matters, such as the particular weight of the locomotives to be used, the form of their tyres, the width of the cars, the method of carrying lights, the kind of brakes which were to be applied, and other details which I need not specify. But those regulations did not provide either for the licensing of drivers or for the identification of cars. The reason why that has never been done is this, that both the Local Government Board in England and myself, as Secretary for Scotland, were advised by our law officers that the Act did not give power to the authorities respectively in the two countries to make regulations upon those two points.

Many representations have been received both by the Local Government Board in England and by my Office, as well as, I suppose, by the Irish Office, as to the existing law being very defective; and I am certain that I need not go at length into these points, because I think it is unanimously agreed by all who have studied the subject that the existing position of matters is unsatisfactory in the extreme. Whether everybody will agree as to the particular methods by which the existing state of matters is to be remedied, or not, I do not know, but of this I am perfectly certain, not only from the discussions which have taken place in both Houses of Parliament, but from, as I have said, very many representations which have been presented to both Departments, that the present state of matters does urgently call for a remedy. The Act of 1896 as it stands has been admitted to be far from satisfactory, and not adequate to the improvements which have been made in the machines which it was supposed to regulate, or to the existing needs or practice. I also think that no one, whatever his opinion on the details of the measure may be, is likely to deny the importance of the question to a large proportion of the public, whether they be those who own or use motorcars or whether they do not. I think that one of the most unsatisfactory features of the present law is that it prescribes one rigid limit of speed, utterly irrespective of the circumstances which may obtain in any particular place. The offenders against the existing law are punishable at present only by fines, which, I think, are too often—at any rate it is so represented to us in both Departments—inadequate in amount; they are too often paid with very little difficulty by those who are in affluent circumstances, and they really have no deterrent effect because the same individuals are fined over and over again. Another very common cause of complaint is that at the present time there is no proper or satisfactory means of identifying those who are the real offenders in many cases.

That being the position in which we find ourselves I will proceed at once to explain the method by which the Government propose to effect a remedy. In the first place the Bill which I lay on the Table to-day proposes to require the registration of motor cars by the councils of counties and of county boroughs. Perhaps I should pause here to say that while, in the few remarks I shall address to your Lordships, I shall use the English phraseology, it will be understood that the Bill I am laying on the Table applies to Scotland and Ireland, as well as to England, in identical terms. It is proposed that there shall be a separate number assigned to each motor-car, and that a mark indicating the number as well as the local authority in whose district the particular car is registered, shall be fixed to the car, and the responsibility for that identifying mark being at all times visible is laid upon the driver of the car. The particular method of fixing the numbers and the details of supplying those general provisions will, it is proposed, be effected by general regulations of the Local Government Board as under the existing Act. It is also proposed that anyone who drives a motor-car for hire or for reward shall be licensed by the council of the county or the county borough; and if anyone so licensed is convicted of an offence under the Act it is proposed that his licence may be suspended, endorsed, or forfeited, as the case may be, at the discretion of the Court before whom he is convicted. It is laid as a duty upon the Court that the Court shall communicate the fact of the conviction to the County Council which has issued the licence. In this case the details of forming regulations for carrying this provision into effect will also come under the power of the Local Government Board.

Perhaps I should explain why it is proposed that the licence should be only for those who drive for hire or for reward. It is not proposed that this licence should be a test or guarantee of skill. There is no security that it is not sometimes the most skilful man who in these matters is the worst offender, because, relying upon his skill, he takes risks to a greater extent than a much less skilful man would venture to do. I think there is general concurrence in the view that it would not be possible that everyone who drives a car should pass a test in skill, any more than it would be right to fix the same sort of condition for driving horses upon the roads. Consequently it is not proposed that anybody other than those who drive for hire or for reward shall be obliged to take out a licence. The limit of weight of a motor-car, which is now 3 tons unladen, or if there are two vehicles, 4 tons, will in each case be raised by 1 ton. The maximum in future, if this Bill passes, will be 4 tons in the first case, and 5 tons when the motor is drawing another vehicle.

Now I turn to the question of speed, and I suppose we shall all be ready enough to admit that that is, perhaps, one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, and the most controversial point which has to be faced in regard to this legislation. I hope that I shall carry the House with me when I say that the real test of whether the speed is too great or not is, after all, very much this—whether it causes any danger to the public or extreme inconvenience to others who have a right to use the highway. The proposal in the Bill is to put, in the first place, a prohibition on all reckless or dangerous driving, and it seems to me that, as this is so important a part of the Bill, it would be better that I should read the exact words of the clause in which the new provisions are contained. The first sub-section runs in these words— If any person drives a motor-car on a public highway recklessly or at a speed which is dangerous to the public having regard to all the circumstances of the case, including the nature, condition, and use of the highway, and to the amount of traffic which actually is at the time or which might be expected to be on the highway, that person shall be guilty of an offence under the Act. By a subsequent section of the Bill, Section 4 of the principal Act, which relates to the rate of speed of motorcars, is— Hereby repealed except as respects any special limits or places to which that section is applied by a regulation made by the Local Government Board with a view to the safety of the public on the application of any council of any county or county borough in which the special limits or places are situated. The effect of this will be that the maximum speed at present existing will remain in urban districts for places where it has been specially applied, but it does not follow that even in these places a less speed may not be prescribed on application from the County Council by the Local Government Board; and whenever any regulation of this kind is made the Bill provides that public notice is to be given of it by the council in a conspicuous place near the special limits within which this maximum speed is prescribed. But over and above that provision there will remain even in those places the fact that actual danger to a known person is not necessary to be proved against the owner of the motor-car. The general provisions of the first clause which I read to the House will remain as the first and pre-eminent consideration as to whether an owner or driver of a motor-car has been properly cautious or not. I venture to think that this is a satisfactory method of dealing with the matter, because it will enable any local authority, for any reasons which seem good to it, to apply to the Local Government Board to have a special maximum speed fixed wherever there are corners or dangerous places, or where for any reason special conditions should be imposed.

I venture to say that the Bill will have this effect, that it will concentrate the attention of the police upon those places where they are really wanted, instead of their being scattered over places where they are not wanted in the hope of getting a conviction where, though the speed may be high, there is really no danger to the public. I have almost concluded my review of the Bill, but I may add that there is a clause which raises the present maximum of the penalties. The penalties for offences against the Act may be for a first conviction a fine of £20, or three months' imprisonment; for a second or subsequent offence a fine not exceeding £50, or six months imprisonment; but in the case of imprisonment without the option of a fine being awarded by the Court of summary jurisdiction there is a right of appeal to a higher Court. Provision is also made in the Bill to ensure the identification as far as possible of those who commit offences against the Bill, because a person who is guilty of reckless driving, and refuses to give his name and address, or gives a false name and address, is, by that act alone, guilty of an offence against the Act; and the owner of the car, whether actually driving or not, is required to give any information in his power which may lead to the identification or apprehension of the driver who has committed the offence. I have explained, clearly I hope, all the provisions of the Bill, but I refrain at this stage from argument until I hear what is said against it. I think that would probably be more appropriate to the Second Reading stage of the Bill. In the meantime I beg to present this Bill, and to move that it be read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 1a.—(Lord Balfour of Burleigh.)


It would be very difficult, my Lords, at this moment, not having the Bill in one's hands, to make any practical observations on the subject, but having taken deep interest in this matter I venture to say that it appears to me that His Majesty's Government have very fairly met, as far as one can judge from the slight sketch given by the noble Lord, the requirements of the case. There are one or two points which one will be better able to understand when the Bill is in print, but I think, on the whole, the measure will meet the main points. I therefore personally hope that we shall get on as soon as possible to the next stage.


My Lords, there is one point which was touched upon by the noble Lord who introduced this Bill which seems to me to require rather further consideration than he gave to it—the point dealing with the persons who are to require a licence for driving a motorcar. As I understand the Bill, amateurs are to be excused from taking out licences partly because of the difficulty of extending the licence system to all, and partly because it would be an infringement of the liberty of the subject, because people who drive horses along a public road are not expected to give any proof of their fitness. I do not think the cases are parallel. The horse is a controllable animal, but the motor-car has enormous possibilities of danger to the public if ill-regulated; and I cannot see any reason for the distinction which is drawn between the professional and the amateur driver with regard to the requirement of a licence. In France, if I am not misinformed, everyone who undertakes to drive a motor-car has to give proof of his efficiency and has to take out a licence; and I do not see that the value of the lives of His Majesty's lieges in this country is less than that of the lives of French citizens. I think that no one who has had any experience—and every one must compulsorily have experience of motor-cars as affecting the roads of the country—can doubt that it is necessary to keep under the severest supervision the capacity of those who undertake to drive these cars.

I confess I should have been glad to hear from the noble Lord that he was prepared to demand from everyone who undertook to drive a motor-car—a vehicle of such pregnant possibilities—some proof of his fitness to undertake the management of that machine. We do not want a number of Phaethon careering in chariots of the Sun all over the country; if so, we shall have many more accidents than have yet occurred. What I want to point out to the noble Lord, which, of course, he has already sufficiently weighed, is that this industry is only in its infancy. What we are seeing now with regard to motor cars is not half what we shall see in a year; it is not one-tenth part of what we shall see in five years. If the figures that are supplied to me are in any way exact, and I suspect they convey a generally sound impression of the facts, they come to this—that there are at this moment about 8,000 motor-cars running over the roads of this country, but that there are under order for delivery no fewer than 10,000 at this moment, which will more than double the number of motorcars that are on the roads. That is a formidable outlook, but it is a mere bagatelle compared with what we have to look forward to in a not remote future. I think it is one of the gravest questions with which the Government can deal. I do not say that they have not weighed very carefully all the pros and cons of the various courses open to them, and I am by no means such an expert as to be able to indicate to them what course they should adopt. But I must say honestly, however, with reference to the particular question of the licence, that as at present advised I am very strongly of opinion that they should include in their Bill a provision to the effect that everyone, whether a proprietor, chauffeur, or merely a casual amateur, before he conducts one of these machines on the highway should be compelled to give to an expert authority some satisfactory proof of his fitness, as is the case in France.


My Lords, we must, of course, wait for the print of the Bill before we can form any opinion worth having upon it, but there is one point which, perhaps, the noble Lord can explain to us a little more fully than he did. He said that anyone who drove recklessly would commit an offence under this Bill, but he did not explain to us who was to be the judge of reckless driving. Of course, that is a very important matter. So far as I could gather from his general statement, the restriction as to speed is very much to be left, except in certain cases, to the driver himself. He must not drive recklessly. Nothing, however, was said, at all events by the noble Lord, with regard to speed. I think he stated that different local authorities might apply to the Local Government Board to have regulations made on this subject, certainly with regard to any dangerous corners or parts of the roads within their jurisdiction. I should like to ask—Will it be possible for different regulations as to speed to be made with regard to different counties, or is it intended that the Local Government Board should issue general regulations applicable to the whole kingdom? I should be much obliged if the noble Lord could give us some indication as to how the Bill stands with regard to those points.


I congratulate His Majesty's Government upon the fact that they have at last recognised the existence of motor-cars, and that some measure is being brought in to deal with this important question. I have just returned from Ireland, where I witnessed the motor race a few days ago. I know there are many who are strongly opposed to motor-cars altogether, and think that they are going to run about and kill everybody, but I should like to say that hundreds of motor-cars passed through Dublin last week and through villages, at a high rate of speed, without doing any damage whatever, and many of the streets of Dublin are extremely narrow. One point dealt with by the noble Lord who intro- duced this Bill, and which I think is rather unsatisfactory, is that local authorities are to have power to apply to the Local Government Board to fix a maximum speed over the roads in their jurisdiction. Local authorities are not very much inclined to favour motors, and I think that if some limit of speed were put in the Bill it would be much better than leaving it entirely to the local authorities. The result of the race in Ireland is to show that a foreign nation has produced a car which is far ahead of any this country is likely to produce at the present time, and therefore I think that anything we can do to foster this important and growing industry, in the face of the competition that is now existing in foreign countries we should do. If anything were done by narrow-minded people to hamper this great industry, I think it would be lamentable, because there is no doubt that motorcars are destined to play a most important part in the future, not only in conveying people from one place to another, but in moving the agricultural produce, which now costs such a large sum to transport by train.

On Question, Bill read 1a.


I propose to put down the order for Second Reading for Tuesday next, subject to the convenience of your Lordships.


It is an urgent matter. The sooner the Second Reading is taken the better.

The order for Second Reading was then fixed for Tuesday next.