THE EARL OF MAYO
My Lords, I wish to ask His Majesty's Government if they are in a position to make any further statement with regard to the proposal that pedestrians should walk on the left. On June 22 Lord Newton put down a series of Questions with regard to the number of municipal authorities which have agreed that there ought to be a change in the rule for pedestrians in the streets, because it was found, now that the traffic in large towns had become so swift and so dangerous, that it would be much better to walk so that you should meet the traffic, instead of walking so that the traffic comes behind you; in other words, that people should keep to the left, instead of to the right.
My noble friend who asked those Questions knows a great deal more about what the provincial towns have attempted to do than I do, and I shall confine myself to this great city. Greater London now contains 7,000,000 inhabitants, and on the top of the enormous increase of its population the traffic is very swift and vastly increasing; it is getting faster and faster, and in the last two years has become exceedingly fast. I know perfectly well that it is no use attempting to force people to walk one way or the other. People in London and in England generally will do exactly what they like in regard to that, but I think if the danger is pointed out to them in an honest and straightforward manner they will see that it is really much safer not to walk along the edge of the kerb with a taxi coming behind you at the rate of at least thirty miles an hour in many cases, especially in the evening. It is much 952 better to keep on the left because then you always meet the traffic and, to put it quite crudely, you will escape being killed. There are certain streets in London in which I know it would be impossible for the rule to be carried out, because ladies in general like looking at the pretty things in the shop windows, and you cannot possibly prevent them from doing so. But in the other streets of the Metropolis there is no reason why the public should not keep on the left-hand side.
The reason why I put down this Question is that I feel that if the Home Office will only give a lead it will do a great deal to help matters forward. If the thing is made public, if it is advertised, people begin at last to see that there is a certain amount of common sense in walking on the left-hand side in a town with this vast population. My noble friend has told me that he was nearly killed the other day. He was thinking of something else than these dreadful taxis which come behind one, and was very nearly swept off his legs by a taxi at the edge of the kerb. You must remember that when the taxis are crowded in the streets the mud-guards very often stretch right over the kerb, and if you do not keep out of the way you will be swept down and most likely find youself in a hospital with one of your limbs cut off. This is a matter which must not be made a joke of, because it has become rather serious. I hope that the large number of people who are impressed with the dangerous nature of the present rule of the footpath will not be looked upon merely as cranks, though perhaps we are a little before our time.
THE EARL OF MEATH
My Lords, this seems a small question, but I think it is one which is quite worthy of discussion in your Lordships' House. Being a law-abiding citizen of London, and having once been a member of the London County Council, I have been trying to walk on the left and do my duty. I find, however, that most people seem to forget altogether the expressed opinion of a very large majority of the borough councils of London in regard to this matter, and I was very much astonished the other day to notice in an underground passage to Liverpool Street that "Walk on the right" appeared in large letters in every direction.
THE EARL OF MEATH
Quite so. One sees both and, therefore, one really does not know what to do. I had spoken a little severely to one or two people who stood perfectly stolidly on the right-hand side, saving: "Left, if you please," but I felt I could not continue to do that when I was told particularly to walk to the right. As the noble Earl has said, I do not suppose that it would be wise to do anything which would go against the sense of freedom which every Briton has, but I think that if your Lordships could persuade the Government to act through the Home Office and if something was done by the London County Council to make it well known that it was their desire that people should walk on the left, we might conic to some useful, practical result.
My Lords, I gather from the two noble Earls who have just spoken that they now walk on the left when they walk about London.
The noble Earl says he does it when he can, and the noble Earl, Lord Meath, said that he did it.
I cannot help thinking that if the two noble Earls had this afternoon walked down Oxford Street to Oxford Circus and then down Regent Street past Piccadilly, they would have arrived at the House in such a battered and exhausted condition that they would hardly have been in a fit condition to address your Lordships. So far as my information goes, the majority of people still continue to walk on the right, but there are a certain number who, believing, no doubt, that the instructions on the pavement are official, walk on the left. The result is chaotic. Therefore, the public have, I think, a grievance against His Majesty's Government. What amounts to a conspiracy on the part of certain persons to alter the rule of the road has been going on whilst the Government and the police have kept silence.
954 I understand that His Majesty's Government, in reply to a Question in another place, said that they had no power to deal with these people who have taken it on themselves to dictate to the people of London on which side of the road they shall walk. I should have thought it was a clear case of causing obstruction. We may turn out one morning and see printed on the pavement instructions to walk in the middle. From the point of view of the Safety First Council, whoever they may be, that is undoubtedly the safest place in which to walk. Some lead is required from His Majesty's Government; but in spite of the fact that this new idea of keeping to the left has the support of certain local authorities, I trust that the Government will not adopt it as their own.
I think it would be altogether premature. If any alteration in the rule of the road is required it ought, surely, to be in the direction of ordering vehicles to keep to the right, which would be in conformity with the usage of Europe and, so far as I know, of every other civilised country. It is bad enough for English people on the Continent now to find vehicles keeping to the right while in this country they keep to the left; but how will it be when there is a Channel tunnel? Then there will be inevitably a vast increase in the motor traffic between this country and the Continent. I do not know whether the promoters of that undertaking intend to provide a roadway as well as a railway. If they do, it will mean that vehicles will have to enter the tunnel on the left on this side and emerge on the other side on the right—surely an impossible thing. In view, therefore, of the possibility of the Government in the interests of public safety having to alter the rule of the road in the future so far as vehicles are concerned, I hope they will not now be in a hurry to alter the rule so far as pedestrians are concerned.
It was stated in the newspapers on Saturday that the London County Council had asked His Majesty's Government to go into this question of walking on the left and to take steps to end the confusion. I have no doubt your 955 Lordships would like to know whether that is the case and, if so, what reply has been made.
THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF HEALTH (THE EARL OF ONSLOW)
My Lords, I am afraid I cannot add very much to what I said the other day. I am glad that the noble Earl opposite and the noble Lord who has just sat down recognise that any undue haste in this matter would be undesirable. I may say that I have had letters from a gentleman who writes to me, not without heat, indeed somewhat intemperately, saying that he would prefer to die in prison rather than walk on the left instead of the right. I think the best way for noble Lords to advocate this change is by a process of peaceful penetration and education.
As to what has happened, I told your Lordships, when Lord Newton asked me a Question on the last occasion, that the Home Office and the Government were consulting with the district conferences of chief constables. These conferences have not yet been held and, therefore, we are not in a position to add to the statements which I made on June 22 and July 6. As to the question of the noble Lord with reference to the London County Council, I am afraid I have not any information on that point. If he will put that question to me at a later date I will make enquiries and let him know about it.
§ LORD NEWTON
My Lords, I am very glad that my noble friend opposite has raised this Question again, but I confess to a slight feeling of dissatisfaction at the extremely leisurely procedure of the Home Office, which appears to be approved by the noble Lord behind me. My noble friend's conferences remind me of the utterly impotent Conferences which have been trying to make Germany pay and with about the same amount of success. I do not think that any question has ever produced such a mass of unmitigated rubbish as I have read in the Press in regard to this. Really, one might suppose that some grave constitutional issue was before the country or some grave infringement of personal liberty was intended. I observe that not only in connection with the absurdities which appear in the papers but with reference to communications addressed to me personally. Gentlemen write to me to say that they are octogenarians and that 956 out of feelings of filial piety they are not going to disregard the instructions which were laid down for them by their parents in regard to the rule of the road seventy or eighty years ago. The acme of idiocy is really reached by the persons who write to the papers and solemnly point out that if you walk on the left-hand side of the pavement you are more likely to be spattered with mud than if you keep to the right.
The fact is that this proposed change has been approved by nearly everybody who has considered the question. It has been approved by a Committee of the House of Commons, by the Ministry of Transport through their Advisory Committee, by the London County Council, by the Metropolitan Police, and by the representatives of all local authorities in the country. Out of the twenty-nine borough councils in the Metropolis no fewer than twenty-six have signified their approval of the proposed change. The three local authorities who are still withstanding this proposal are, apparently, Chelsea., which happens to be one of the smallest boroughs in London, Stepney, and the City of London.
It is obvious to me that the real obstructionist in this matter is the Chief Commissioner of City Police. The Chief Commissioner, with whom I have dealt already, has found a worthy ally in the City Coroner. The other day there was a case upon which he adjudicated. It was a case in which a man was run over in consequence of having been driven into the roadway, overtaken by a motor lorry and killed. A witness, who was present, made the obvious remark that if this unfortunate man had followed the injunction to keep on the left he would have been alive at that moment, whereupon the Coroner said: "I have sat here for twenty-one years, and never known a similar case occur before." I prefer my own intelligence to the twenty-one years' experience of the City Commissioner of Police or the City Coroner.
Like everyone present, I have had any number of hairbreadth escapes from being run over while proceeding in the same direction as the traffic. Only two or three days ago I was coming to this House, and, contrary to my usual practice, was walking on the right—that is to say, the wrong side—and inadvertently stepped into the roadway. A taxicab going at the rate of about thirty miles an hour whisked by me, and I 957 only escaped by an inch from destruction. If that had happened to me in the City, and I had been killed, and this intelligent Coroner had sat upon my mangled remains, I suppose he would have said: "This is an act of God"; or if it was not an act of God, he probably would have directed the jury that it was a case of justifiable homicide on the part of the driver of the taxicab. That utterance of the City Coroner, that in twenty-one years he had never known a similar instance, can only be paralleled by the historical declaration of George Washington.
What I do protest against is that nothing can be done until certain obstinate people have been converted. Imagine applying that principle to legislation, and saving that no Bill is to go through both Houses until it has secured the assent of my right honourable friend Sir Frederick Banbury and the noble Lord who sits behind me. How would you ever get anything done at all? I submit that the case is perfectly clear that all that is required is a friendly lead from the Home Office. All these authorities who are only waiting for a lead will then act with unanimity, and will adopt the rule to the general increase of the safety of the public of this country.