HL Deb 06 December 1922 vol 52 cc295-304

LORD NEWTON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, with reference to the statement made on July 6, that the chief constables of the country would be consulted upon the question of the rule of the footpath, it is the case that the Chief Constables' Association have passed a resolution to the following effect:— That in the interest of public safety it was desirable to alter the present rule of walking on the footpath, and to use every endeavour to cause the public to. 'Keep to the left' instead of to the right"; and further to enquire whether, a similar resolution having now been passed by—

the Home Office is now prepared to deal with the matter.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a Question which has been brought up on several occasions in this House, but I make no apology whatever for returning to it to-day for two reasons:—(1) That the answers which I have received have always been of a very unsatisfactory character; and (2), that the increase in the number of accidents in the road is so great that it constitutes a problem that will have to be dealt with sooner or later. I may observe, parenthetically, that we are not yet in such a bad case as America. I observe that according to statistics taken, not over the whole of America but in certain States in America, they killed by motors last year not fewer than 20,000 persons, most of whom were children. In America they have even arrived at the stage of holding commemorative services for what are called "motor martyrs." But although we do not do things on that scale in this country, the figures with regard to this question are worth some consideration.

I observe that last year fatalities from road accidents numbered 2,815, and in London alone 581 people were killed and 49,476 non-fatally injured. If you take the average in London for the last eight years you will find that just under 700 people were actually killed and something like 15,000 people injured. These figures compare very unfavourably with Ore figures relating to railway accidents, because in this country last year the railways killed only 784 people and injured 19,000 odd. It is obvious that this ratio is likely to increase correspondingly with the increase of motor vehicles. We have something like a quarter of the number of mechanically propelled vehicles in this country, as compared with America, and therefore when we reach the same development we may anticipate four times as many accidents as now happen.

It cannot be denied, I think, that a large proportion of these accidents are due to the fact that we have two rules, one for the road and another for the footpath. When you come to think of it, can anything be more absurd? You cross the road, and you are confronted with a notice in the middle of the road directing you to keep to the left. You advance a few yards, or possibly only a few feet, and you are expected to keep to the right. You proceed along the street, and, if you take a tube railway, as likely as not you will find another notice inviting you to keep to the left. And we are not even consistent in our folly. I suppose the perambulator would be classed as a vehicle, but I have never observed that the perambulator paid any attention to any rule whatever on the subject.

The advantage of having a uniform rule for both kinds of traffic was recently brought home to me very convincingly. A few weeks ago I was in Constantinople. Anybody acquainted with that city knows that formerly the streets always presented a most chaotic and confused spectacle, and that it was almost impossible to make one's way without trouble, because you might encounter difficulties from anything ranging from a tramway car to a dromedary. Now, all that has been changed, because since we have been there, English police have assumed control of the traffic and enforced their rules. You now find Turkish policemen directing the traffic in the same way as it is directed by constables in London. The result is that although some of the streets are far more congested than are the streets of London, you can advance in perfect safety, because you are facing the traffic instead of having it behind you. Oddly enough, on my way home, passing through Vienna, I happened to see a police notice in the papers stating that, owing to the increased frequency of accidents in the streets, in future persons who did not walk so as to face the traffic would be proceeded against.

Whenever I have brought this Question up in this House I have always received procrastinating answers from the noble Earl who represents the Home Office; he has assured me that there is some authority whom he must consult before any change can be recommended. When finally driven into his last ditch, which was on the last occasion, he said that one exceptionally important body must be consulted, namely, the Association of Chief Constables.


The district conferences.


This important assembly, the conference of chief constables, must be consulted before a decision is arrived at. This conference has taken place. I do not know how many chief constables attended, the result of their decision is on the Paper, and it is in accordance with the decision of all the other bodies named on the Paper. I have a correction to make with regard to the list on the Paper. I believe it is a fact that the Association of Rural District Councils have not signified their approval of the proposed change, but if I have to leave them out I can add a not less important body, namely, the Metropolitan Police, who, although they have not officially declared their views, are, I am perfectly well aware, thoroughly in favour of the change.

The list on the Paper is fairly comprehensive, and it seems to me to include practically everybody concerned. If the House of Commons is not to count, and if the Ministry of Transport is not to count, and these various Associations are not to count, who is to count? What further authority is there to consult? I can only suggest to my noble friend, and I dare say he will use the suggestion as a further reason for procrastination, that he should consult the Stewards of the Jockey Club on the subject. The fact is, and it cannot be denied, that every responsible authority, with the one exception I have mentioned, and one other exception which I will proceed to mention, has expressed approval of the change. The only responsible opposition conies from the City Commissioner of Police. I think it would be worth while paying his expenses and sending him to Constantinople, in order that he may learn a little elementary common sense.

There is a certain class of people in this country who invariably resist any kind of change, whether beneficial or otherwise. I am not quite old enough to remember the controversy as between sailing vessels and steamboats, or the fight put up in this country by certain soldiers in favour of muzzle-loaders as against breech-loaders, but I have a recollection of the controversy as to the colour that should be worn by soldiers, when it was laid clown that bright scarlet was least distinguishable and therefore the most practicable for military purposes. I am bound to admit that this reactionary City Commissioner of Police finds supporters amongst the general public. Gentlemen write to the Press and denounce this proposal as vigorously as if it were something in the nature of a capital levy. Others write to me occasionally and suggest that it is an insidious attempt on my part, and on the part of my friends, to introduce Bolshevism into this country. Still others write as if a very grave constitutional issue of policy was involved, and as if what we are proposing was little short of a constitutional outrage !

Personally, I am not clever enough to appreciate these arguments, and I am utterly unable to see what objections there are to the proposal. In the first place it is not going to cost anything, and that ought to be a recommendation to some people. It does not involve the sacrifice of any principle, so far as I am aware. It does not involve any loss of dignity, or self-respect, and it is actuated solely by a desire to promote the safety of the public. I do not wish to repeat the arguments used on several occasions before, but the fact remains that every single responsible authority, with the exception of the Association which I have named and the City Commissioner of Police, has reported in favour of the proposal. Nearly every local authority has said that it is perfectly ready to put it into operation as soon as unanimity is obtained, and all they require is a lead.

The lead obviously must come from the Home Office, and however reluctant they may be to act—for I have very little doubt that my noble friend (Lord Onslow) will say that the Home Office is not vet prepared to consider favourably the subject without further consultation. I do not hesitate to say that this extremely modest and sensible change will take effect some day. Whether I shall be alive to witness it I do not feel quite sure. But I hope that, by dint of continually bringing the subject before the Home Office and before the House, some impression may eventually be made, and I hope almost against hope that on this occasion the noble Earl's reply may not be quite so unsympathetic as on the previous occasion.


My Lords, I supported the noble Lord before, and I wish to support him again. I think he has made out his case. What is that case? He says the Chief Constables' Association have passed a resolution to the effect that in the interests of public safety it is desirable to alter the present rule of walking on the footpath and to keep to the left, instead of the right. That is a very important body. I have no doubt we shall be told that some members did not agree to this. Perhaps they did not, but the fact remains that they passed this resolution, and they are, I imagine, men to be treated with respect in such a matter. Then the noble Lord mentioned his visit to Constantinople, and told us that you can now pass with safety along the streets in that city because the public have been made to keep to the right. I know what Eastern cities are like, and I can realise the importance of that change. As he said, in Vienna the police are going to do the same thing.

The six important bodies mentioned by my noble friend which have passed similar Resolutions—the House of Commons Select Committee, the Ministry of Transport Advisory Committee, the County Councils Association, the Association of Municipal Corporations, the Association of Urban District Councils, and the Municipal Tramways Association—went into the question thoroughly. You cannot wave their opinion aside, for they have gone into the matter with care and deliberation. In this great city the pace of the traffic is increasing every day and in a most dangerous manner. The truth is that when you step off the pavement on the right, with your back to the traffic, and a heavy motor omnibus behind you, if a person gives you a jolt you are very likely to be thrown under the wheels of the omnibus. The Home Secre- tary must walk about the streets like any other person, and must therefore know as well as I do that the dangers are real and terrible.

The statistics that my noble friend has given show how many lives are lost through this cause, and that the traffic is getting faster and faster. With such facts before us I think it is evident that the public should be protected against itself. Is the Home Office going to do nothing at all, or is it going to take the lead? After the case has been made out by Lord Newton as clearly and convincingly as it could possibly be, you cannot take up anon possumus attitude.


My Lords, I strongly support what my noble friend has said with his customary force and conviction. My reason for speaking on this point is that I was the first President of the London Safety First Council, a body which has done a great deal of very useful work, and which has been criticised for bringing this question to the front. The council in my time took no public steps in this direction, but very carefully analysed all the accidents in the streets of London, and it found that a very considerable proportion of them occurred from stepping off the pavement to the right with the traffic coming up behind.

Such accidents naturally happen as the result of the present custom of the footpath in London. But if you step off from the left you not only see the vehicle which is immediately coming, but you get a chance of seing the vehicle which is coming up behind that, and it is that which is very often the cause of fatal accidents. There is no question in this case as to what is right and what is wrong; theory and practice are in complete harmony. Walking to the right is obviously wrong, and there is no reason why you should walk to the right; walking to the left is obviously right, and it may save you from an accident. Now that we have at last got a progressive Government I hope that this question will be filially settled.


My Lords, my noble friend in his interesting speech said that on the last occasion when he raised the matter he drove me into the last ditch, which was that defended by the Association of Chief Constables. I must beg leave to correct him. It was not the Association of Chief Constables to which I referred on I hat occasion. What I said was that the Home Office would take the opinion of the district conferences of chief constables. That is a different thing. The Chief Constables' Association is an unofficial body, and it represents only city and borough chief constables. The district conferences of chief constables are eight in number, and this question has only been considered by three of them. At those three meetings there was considerable diversity of opinion as to the advisability of adopting the recommendation of my noble friend. One of the difficulties which would be experienced in endeavouring to effect this change is that it is not a matter in which uniformity can be enforced by legislation. All you can do is to endeavour to change the rule of the road for foot passengers by exhortation's addressed to them.


That is all we want.


Quite so. And any attempt to do this could only be partially effective because you cannot enforce your exhortation. Therefore, if you attempt to make a change you will, at most, only succeed in obtaining a partial change, which will make a state of confusion worse than the present system. Then there is another difficulty. Noble Lords who have addressed the House on this subject have, I think, confined themselves to the dangers which are found in stepping off the pavement in cities. Supposing, therefore, you were able to introduce this change it would only apply to places in which a pavement existed. In the country the old custom would remain. There are no pavements and no footpaths in country lanes and the old custom would prevail. Therefore, you would still have a diversity of practice.

Since I last replied to my noble friend on this Question, as your Lordships are aware, a change has taken place at the Home Office and a new Home Secretary presides there. Since this Question was placed upon the Paper by my noble friend it has, I may say, received the attention of my right hon. friend the Home Secretary, and he is of opinion that the advantages of the proposed change which have been so ably put forward by my noble friend and other noble Lords are not so clear as to justify him in taking any action in the matter.


My Lords, I listened with some regret to the conclusion of the speech of the noble Earl who has just addressed the House. The matter seems to me to be one in which the public is very deeply interested, and perhaps the House will not think it amiss if I plead not only as one of the public but as a member of a particular class— a class composed of those persons who can walk about but are obliged to use a stick and depend a good deal upon the treatment that they receive from their fellow subjects who happen to be on the pavement at the same time. A short time ago the pavement was covered with inscriptions to the effect that we were expected to keep to the left. I, being an obedient and law-abiding sort of a person, immediately set myself to obey what I conceived to be the inspired instruction thus written on the pavement. The result was disastrous. I found I was driven not into my last ditch but into the gutter by other persons who were not so disposed to comply with orders as I was.

The noble Earl said that the result of any intervening in this matter would be to create confusion; but can any confusion be greater than that which prevails at this moment? There is an immense amount of traffic, and I would ask any of your Lordships to take a walk in any quarter largely frequented by people who are going out Christmas shopping. You will then see that nothing could be worse than the confusion which already at this moment prevails upon the pavement. I hope, therefore, that, after further consideration, His Majesty's Government may see their way to do something.

I would like, if I may, although it is not quite relevant, to correct or qualify a statement winch was made by my noble friend Lord Newton. He spoke of the perversity of high officials and he cited in particular a case in which what he called the War Office pundits years ago had expressed a preference for the red uniform on the ground that it would be the least conspicuous colour which you could exhibit in the landscape. I have at various times been one of what my noble friend calls the War Office pundits, and my recollection is that the red was preferred not because it was inconspicuous but, on the contrary, because it was a very conspicuous and distinctive colour and found particular favour with the nursery maids and other young ladies whose company the members of the military forces were disposed to frequent. For that reason, and because it was thought that the abolition of the red colour would be detrimental to recruiting, a good many gallant soldiers were in favour of retaining it.


My Lords, the noble Marquess remarked that he had listened to the noble Earl's reply with some regret. I have no hesitation in saying that I listened to it with extreme regret. My noble friend has displayed a certain amount of ingenuity because he has drawn an elaborate distinction between a conference of chief constables and district conferences of chief constables. Will he give me an undertaking, as he is evidently bent upon retiring into further ditches, that when the district chief constables have been consulted the Home Office will consider the propriety of making this change?


I will not fail to bring the suggestion of my noble friend before the Home Office.