HL Deb 22 July 1912 vol 12 cc603-10

*THE DUKE OF RUTLAND rose to call attention to the returns recently given in the Press of the motor traffic in London, and the casualties resulting therefrom; and to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is their intention to soon introduce legislation dealing with the whole subject of mechanically-propelled vehicles throughout the country.

The noble Duke said: My Lords, it is some years since I ventured to address your Lordships on this subject, and I have laid to my soul the flattering unction that at any rate one of the suggestions which I ventured to make on that occasion was acted upon not very long afterwards by the London police—I refer to the putting on of a certain number of skilled inspectors and constables to take action with respect to the more noisy and unwieldy motor-buses then punning. Last year 410 people were killed by vehicles in the streets of London. That is a very heavy death roll to contemplate. Of this number 122 were killed by horse-drawn vehicles and the remainder by mechanically-propelled traffic. During the same period motor omnibuses were responsible for 1,900 accidents which did not end fatally, and motor-cars for over 5,000 accidents. That is a very serious matter, but I am far from blaming the motor industry generally. You have to consider the number of motor vehicles which are on the streets now compared with a few years ago. Nine years ago there were only thirteen motor omnibuses on the streets of London; now there are more than 2,000, and additional motor-omnibuses are being put on at the rate of thirty a week. Nine years ago there was only one motor-cab on the London streets; to-day there are over 7,000. Those figures prove that this question of mechanically-propelled vehicles requires very grave consideration on the part of His Majesty's Government.

We were told in the early days of motor traffic that we would soon get accustomed to it, and that one great advantage of it would be that there would be far more room in the streets. A taxi-cab being much shorter than a horse-drawn cab, it was contended that proportionately there would be more room and traffic would become less congested. I do not think any one acquainted with London traffic will say that this has been realised. On the contrary, the congestion is very great indeed in the main streets of London, in which the traffic is mostly mechanically propelled. I at once say that I do not hold the drivers of these vehicles so much to blame as some of the newspapers make out. The strain of driving a heavy motor-omnibus weighing two tons through crowded traffic when the roads are slippery is very great both physically and mentally, and a driver is pretty well worn out at the end of his day's work. In my opinion many of the men who drive motor-omnibuses and taxi-cabs in London deserve very great credit for the manner in which they work their way through crowded traffic, and I always wonder that more accidents do not occur. While on this point I must say that the manner in which the traffic is handled by the London police seems to me perfectly marvellous. I have a high respect for the pluck and presence of mind of the street duty policeman. With regard to the accidents that take place, I think that pedestrians contribute largely to their own misfortunes in many cases. It is a common occurrence in crowded streets to see people ignoring the many refuges which would enable them to cross with safety and strolling casually across unconcerned as to their own safety. I think that in some thoroughfares there are too many of these refuges. That may sound an absurd statement, but there is no denying the fact that the placing of refuges in crowded thoroughfares at distances of only 100 or 150 yards apart does cause congestion of traffic and lead to accidents.

There is another matter. Nowadays when rebuilding work is going on, hoardings are carried out so far and up so high that it is impossible, when this rebuilding is taking place at street corners, for drivers to see other vehicles coming round the corner, and if a large piece of glass were inserted in the triangle in such cases it would be of great advantage in preventing accidents. Then, again, there is no question that the twenty-mile speed limit is too high for London. I think fifteen miles or even twelve should be the limit inside London. I have often seen at midnight or at one o'clock in the morning vehicles racing down Piccadilly at well over thirty miles an hour to the imminent danger of the public. I hope that before long legislation on the whole subject of mechanically-propelled vehicles will be taken into consideration by His Majesty's Government, and that as a result we shall have a consolidated law placed on the Statute-book which will do away with many of the gross anomalies and absurdities which now occur. Take the Great North Road. That is a clear road, and in parts it is quite safe to go at any reasonable speed you like. What can be more ridiculous, on a straight, open, clear road where there is not the slightest danger to any one, than being arrested for exceeding the twenty-mile limit? You may have been travelling some distance at a speed exceeding twenty miles an hour with no danger to the public and not the slightest vestige of inconvenience to anybody; but the moment you go over a certain line on the road you are arrested, although, as I say, you are travelling then at exactly the same speed as you were on the other side of the line. Could a greater absurdity exist in the law than that? That is a matter which I hope before long will be adjusted. In open country where you have a clear run and no cross roads I cannot for the life of me see why you should not be allowed to drive at a higher rate than twenty miles an hour, so long as there is no danger to the public. At the same time it ought to be severely punishable for a motorist to drive through any village at a higher speed than ten miles an hour, and it ought not to be left, entirely in the hands of the local authorities to say to which places the ten-mile speed limit should apply.

Although, on the whole, motorists are much more considerate than they were a few years ago, I admit that the road hog still exists. I should like to abolish him altogether, and I think this could be accomplished by compelling him to go through villages much more carefully and by imposing heavier penalties for dangerous driving. You all know the story of the foreign chauffeur who indignantly declared at the police court when charged with furious driving, "I always make it my hobby not to kill anybody." I think motorists generally make it their hobby now not to kill any one, but still there is a great deal that can be done by legislation in the way I have indicated to stop the practices of the road hog. It is curious that while fowls, ducks, geese, and even dogs now-a-days do not take the liberties with motorcars that they used to, yet children seem to be as reckless as ever they were, and it is a great problem what to do with children who will insist upon playing in the middle of the road although they have excellent playgrounds elsewhere. In conclusion, I venture to hope that His Majesty's Government will in a future session introduce useful legislation on these matters and at the same time consolidate the law so that we may have a satisfactory, intelligible, and workable Motor Act.


My Lords, the noble Duke has given us formidable figures as to the number of accidents in the metropolis last year. I saw in one issue of The Times last week a report of five fatal accidents in London. I am afraid that in this matter people are losing all sense of proportion. If five people are killed in a railway accident we have columns written about it as well as leading articles in the newspapers, but here were five people killed in one day in the streets of London and the matter was dismissed with half-a-dozen lines. I endorse all that the noble Duke has said as to the need for further legislation. At Constitution Hill there is a notice to pedestrians to beware of riders. I do not think that that strip for riders is very much frequented; but when you emerge on to Hyde Park Corner you are at one of the most congested and dangerous points in London. The noble Duke seemed to imply that it was in the more congested thoroughfares that the larger number of accidents occurred. I believe it is in the open thoroughfares where danger most lies. The noble Duke, who is in the full vigour of manhood, may be able to get across safely. But take Grosvenorsquare. Before leaving the pavement you may look carefully to see that there is no motor-car coming along, but if a car is travelling at thirty miles an hour it is on top of you long be-fore you can get across to the other side. I certainly support the representation that a speed limit of fifteen miles an hour should be fixed inside London. No doubt children are guilty of carelessness, but they have not many recreation grounds in London and it is only natural that they should play in the streets. It is hard upon those who pay the rates and presumably have a perfect right to cross public streets that they can only do so at great risk to their lives. I hope something will be done by His Majesty's Government to mitigate this great source of danger to the inhabitants of London.


My Lords, with a great deal of what the noble Duke has said I am, and I am sure the majority of your Lordships are, in hearty agreement. The figures as to accidents are no doubt very large, but it must be remembered that the total number includes every kind of accident., even the slightest personal injury, and that the figures given are in respect of an area of 700 square miles and a population exceeding 7,000,000. We must all regret that 410 lives were lost through traffic accidents in London last year, but the number does not appear to be so very large when the vast population and the considerable area are taken into consideration.

The mileage of cabs and other public vehicles has increased greatly since the introduction of motor traffic. In 1902, for instance, there were 11,382 cab licences; they were practically all horse cabs. I do not know what the average run per day for a horse cab is, but if you take the average at forty miles that would represent a daily cab mileage then of 455,280 miles. In 1911 there were 10,973 licences—3,347 horse cabs and 7,626 motor vehicles. If we again take forty miles as the average of a horse cab and eighty as that of a motor, the total average mileage per day is now 743,960 miles; and I think it may be assumed that the mileage of privately-owned vehicles has increased in the same ratio. Coupled with this there has been an enormous increase in the mileage covered by pedestrians. I agree that pedestrians are sometimes to blame for contributing to accidents, but it is not much use telling a pedestrian when he has been run over and hurt that he was to blame.

The noble Duke said that when motor traction was first introduced we were told that there would be more room in the streets but that that had not turned out to be the case. In that. I quite agree with the noble Duke. The congestion of traffic in London has increased enormously, and far greater difficulty is experienced by the police in dealing with traffic. But though there has been this increase the streets generally and the pavements have not been widened but remain the same width for an increasing population. It is the old question of trying to put a quart into a pint pot. With much that the noble Duke said as to speed on country roads I dare say a good many of us agree, but I doubt whether you would have public opinion behind you in any proposed legislation to increase the speed limit to twenty-five or thirty miles. Rightly or wrongly, the general public think that there is some sort of security in having a speed limit. His Majesty's Government and the Departments concerned are watching the evolution of motor traffic, but I cannot say what may be proposed eventually as regards this question of speed, though I doubt very much whether public opinion would sanction the increasing of the speed limit. I fully endorse what the noble Duke said in praise of the London police and the manner in which they handle the traffic. The noble Duke also expressed the opinion that in many places there were too many refuges. That, however, is not the view of the Chief Commissioner of Police; and the police are pressing the local authorities wherever they can to increase the number of refuges in certain places.

The speed of vehicles in London is controlled under Section 1 of the Motor Act, 1903, which makes it an offence to drive negligently or in a manner dangerous to the public, or under Section 9 of the Act on the ground that the speed limit is being exceeded. In towns what is commonly known as the "police trap," but more euphemistically called the "control," hardly applies. It is most difficult to employ the control in town traffic. Then it has been suggested in this discussion that a specially-low speed limit should be imposed at danger points in towns. I agree with the noble Duke that the speed at such points and through villages and urban districts should not exceed ten miles an hour; in fact, in many cases ten miles an hour is too fast. In town traffic, however, it is by no means certain—in fact the contrary is, I think, held to be the case—that a very low speed limit would conduce to increased safety. A comparison of the figures of the City of London with those of the rest of the metropolitan police district supplies a striking corroboration of this. In the City of London the traffic is more congested, and moves at a much slower rate than in any other part of the metropolis; moreover, the traffic in the City is more controlled —I mean by there being more police in proportion to the population—than elsewhere. But, notwithstanding this, in the one square mile which forms the City of London and which constitutes one seven-hundredth part of the metropolitan police area the number of accidents is one-tenth of the total. These figures go to show that accidents are due to the density of the traffic rather than to excessive speed. Low limits are also to be deprecated from the point of view of facilities for traffic.

The Government Departments concerned and the police have the whole subject under careful consideration, and if it is found possible to take any steps for the greater control of traffic and the greater protection of pedestrians at certain points this will be done. The Departments always welcome suggestions as to measures which might be taken for dealing with this problem, and I will certainly lay before the Departments concerned the suggestions which the noble Duke has made to-day. There is no doubt that the advent of mechanically-propelled traffic has changed very much the conditions of our life, and although in many ways there may be advantages there are also considerable disadvantages. I can only say that at present the Government do not contemplate legislation on the subject. The evolution of motor traffic is, as I have said, being watched by the Chief Commissioner of Police in London, by the Departments concerned, and also by the local authorities in the country, and no doubt some further legislation will have to be brought in before long to consolidate the legislation on the subject and minimise as far as.possible the danger which has grown up with this traffic.

House adjourned at twenty minutes before Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter past Four o'clock.