HL Deb 15 October 1952 vol 178 cc691-716

4.33 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, may I be permitted to continue the discussion on Lord Hampton's very interesting Motion? If so, I should like to begin my few remarks by offering sincere congratulations to the noble Viscount, Lord Cross, on the extremely interesting and, I believe, helpful and constructive maiden speech which he made. He obviously knows his subject well, and several of his suggestions will, I am sure, be very useful. In that, I am confident your Lordships will agree. You will also agree that his contribution has shown that the noble Viscount is a great asset in your Lordships' House, and we shall all hope that he will take part frequently in debates in the future and with as good effect.

I should also like to take the opportunity of expressing my great appreciation of what we were told by the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin—I am sorry he is not here at the moment—about the Committee over which he presided this morning. From the account which he gave, I thought it sounded a most useful and helpful body, and I would ask Lord Leathers, the overlord who, I understand, will reply to this debate, if this Committee is to be a regular one, a more or less permanent Committee. We heard from Lord Llewellin that certain questions had been circulated to the various bodies and societies and that when answers are received they will meet again. I should like to know whether it intended to keep the Committee in being permanently, as a co-ordinating body for all these various associations and societies. I do not know whose idea the setting up of the Committee was. If it was the idea of Lord Leathers, then it is one more example of the fertility of his imagination, and I congratulate him.


If I may be allowed to do so I will answer that point at once. The formation of this Committee was not due to me in the first instance. It was prompted from outside, and it had my approval. It has certainly proved in its initial employment a very useful body, and I gather that it is to remain "on tap" for whatever may be required of it later.


I take it that that means the Committee will be available in future as required. At any rate, Lord Leathers approved of it and I congratulate him on his judgment, if I may be allowed to do so. With regard to the Motion, I agree with what Lord Lucas of Chilworth said about the useful part Lord Hampton has played in bringing it forward, and how helpful the discussion may be. But my noble friend Lord Lucas seems to have two enemies in life—pedestrians and motor-cycles. I sympathise with him particularly in the matter of motor-cycles but not so much with regard to pedestrians. After all, they have the right to be on the King's Highway as much as anyone else, including horsemen and drivers of horse-drawn vehicles and mechanically-propelled vehicles. The thing to do is to provide them with suitable footpaths and, where we can, with other safety devices such as special railings. We must also continue, by all means open to us, the process of education of old and young. That is a matter upon which practically every speaker has already touched.

My points—and I shall be very brief—are as follows. First of all, with regard to the terrible state of affairs in London, especially in relation to parking and congestion of streets, I do not think that it is good policy to put off the building of underground garages. We shall have to provide these on a large scale sooner or later, and in my view the sooner the better. If we are making preparations for Civil Defence, they are an important factor to be considered, for they will certainly be of use in time of war, as well as in peace. I see no means of getting these vehicles out of the way in congested areas except by putting them underground. It is quite impracticable to park them above; and the demands on space being what they are, the only thing to do is to put the parking places underground. I have seen figures which have been worked out showing that the cost of large schemes could be recovered over a period from parking fees and from fees for services provided for the motorists who would use these places.

My next point—and this also is a matter to which Lord Lucas has referred, though I take a somewhat different line from that which he has taken—is the danger arising from loose dogs on the roads, particularly in built-up areas. I think it should be made an offence in law, punishable by the magistrates, for people to allow dogs to stray on the roads. I do not mean by that only allowing them to stray on roads in the built-up areas. I believe that to allow a dog loose on a busy arterial road, an arterial road such as the Brighton road, for instance, at a week-end, is just as cruel and just as dangerous as to allow a dog to roam at large in the streets of Bayswater or Paddington. I see that in the most interesting Report of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police it is shown that in 1951 accidents caused by dogs alone—that is, accidents caused by dogs straying on the roads—in the Metropolitan Police District led to 486 casualties. This figure does not apply to damage to properties but to casualties to individuals, and it includes three deaths. There is no statement as to the number of dogs killed or hurt, but I imagine that their numbers were considerably more. I wish that Lord Dowding, who interested the House so much by the speech which he made yesterday, would address his energies to this question, as well as to that of vivisection. I should like also to see the countless animal lovers in this country—and the British people are almost all animal lovers: it is one of our most notable national traits—address themselves to this matter, for, in the absence of special legislation. I suggest that a good deal could be done by utilising the force of public opinion and by exhortation.

With regard to legislation, I imagine that there is long overdue a revising Bill dealing with the whole of our motor law and road traffic law. I suggest that there might well he put into such a Bill some provision making it an offence to allow animals, including dogs to roam loose on the roads anywhere in this country. They should be kept under proper control.

Another thing that might be dealt with—I feel very strongly about this matter, as, I believe, do other noble Lords; Lord Hampton has referred to it—is the number of accidents which result from people drinking alcohol to excess. The drinking habits of many motorists are a fruitful cause of accidents. In spite of exhortation and propaganda this drinking still goes on. As we see from the latest statistics of road accidents, the Saturday night period is the most dangerous of all. Saturday night is, of course, a night when many people go out drinking. In the Reports of both the Alness Committee and the Departmental Committee on Road Safety this matter is dealt with very clearly indeed. It is proved not only that many cases of death and mutilation, and damage to property, are caused by drivers under the influence of drink, but that there are many others where, although no actual proof is brought forward of drink being the cause, in the words of the Departmental Committee, referring to the primary causes of deaths and injuries: There is little doubt that alcohol was a contributory cause in very many other cases. There is no doubt about this. Everyone who knows the condition of affairs is aware that drinking just before driving, perhaps at night, in bad weather and on crowded roads, is a wicked and criminal thing to do. I notice from the Report that in the United States a special study was made of motor vehicle accidents in 1942. There it was found that in one out of every five deaths the driver or the pedestrian had been drinking and that one out of every nine drivers and one out of every six pedestrians involved in fatal accidents had been drinking. It is to be noted that the percentage of pedestrians is higher, because the pedestrian usually gets killed and the driver does not. The driver probably damages his vehicle and kills the unfortunate person on the road, but does not suffer himself.

What is to be done about this? I have quoted before in your Lordships' House the example set by Sweden, and the noble Viscount, Lord Cross, in his maiden speech, referred to another example set by Sweden in illuminating the pedals of pedal cycles. I hope that that will be looked into here. The Swedes have made it a criminal offence for the driver of a motor vehicle to take any alcohol at all. If a driver is involved in an accident, great care is taken to show whether he has had any drink on the day of the accident. He must produce evidence of where he had his last meal, and if it is found that he has broken the law by ignoring the prohibition of drinking alcohol while driving or being about to drive, then the punishment is very severe. If and when new legislation to control road traffic and motoring generally is introduced, I hope that something can be done along those lines in this country. It should be an offence to drink at all before or during a motor-car journey. When I had the honour of commanding one of His Majesty's ships at sea, my rule, which was accepted and respected by all on board, was that once the anchor was up nobody drank any alcoholic liquors of any kind. Conditions at sea are very different from conditions on the roads, as your Lordships know, but that is a very salutary rule and a good one. If the motoring public did this voluntarily, so much the better; but I hope that the question will be looked into from the legal aspect. We should study whether we cannot follow the Swedish example, which has been most successful. The number of fatal accidents in Sweden have shown a steep decline since this law was introduced.

Your Lordships probably know the story of the two motorists whose cars collided. Both vehicles were badly damaged. The driver of one car was knocked senseless but the other, who happened to be a Scot, was not. The Scot dashed out of his car, produced a large flask of whisky and forced some of it down the throat of the other man. The onlookers thought he was a good Samaritan, but when the police came up and wanted to know what had happened, the Scot still kept his head and said, "I am saying nothing at all. Just examine that man's breath." In that story we have an extreme case of what I have in mind. While there is this carelessness about drinking by motorists, especially those who have to take a journey at night in built-up areas, I believe we shall have many accidents which otherwise could be avoided. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, and the Government will see what can be done by additional means of propaganda and education to discourage this undoubtedly dangerous habit.

4.46 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene solely to follow up the point that the last speaker, Lord Strabolgi, has just made. When we realise that in 1951 in Great Britain no fewer than 5,250 persons were killed on our roads—in other words, over 100 persons a week, as the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, told us earlier in the debate, were slaughtered last year, and that the number has been reduced this year by one a day—can we wonder that my noble friend said the drop might seem small. Think of it! In the first eight months of this year no fewer than 3,248 persons have been killed on the roads and 137,599 have been injured. The incredible thing is the complacency with which this carnage is allowed to continue. Until the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, spoke, in my opinion no one had put his finger on the right spot. Let n tragedy happen like the disaster at Lynton or the terrible disaster at Harrow last week and the nation is stirred to its depths, and rightly stirred yet with a similar number killed every week on our roads, complacency reigns.

The efforts of safety committees, teachers and the police are making scarcely any impression on this tragic loss on life. Why? Let me give what I believe, with the fullest conviction, to be the main cause of this continued slaughter. In my judgment it can be summed up in one word—alcohol. The distressful tolerance extended to the moderate drinker on our roads is almost unbelievable. We allow drinking drivers unhindered access to our highways. Yet it is an established scientific fact that even small amounts of alcohol give a deterioration of between 25 per cent. and 30 per cent. in the driving performances of expert drivers, and after the consumption of small amounts of alcohol the driver's vision deteriorates by as much as 30 per cent. The researches of Dr. H. M. Vernon, an adviser to the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, proved that some motorists, after drinking, only one half glass of mild beer, could become dangerous drivers. Small doses of alcohol, he found, not only impaired judgment and concentration, but produced slower physical responses to eyes, hands and feet.

Perhaps your Lordships will forgive a personal allusion as an illustration. Earlier this year my wife and I were involved in a motor crash. It had been raining and we were coming down a slight decline on a somewhat narrow country road when we saw parked outside a public house and café ahead of us on our near side a large timber lorry, and behind that two or three private cars. The lorry was facing the same way as we were, but the private car immediately behind it was facing the wrong way—almost bonnet to bonnet, as it transpired. Suddenly, just as we drew level with the tailboard of the lorry in passing, without any warning the private car facing towards us drew out from behind the lorry broadside on to the narrow roadway, thus almost completely blocking it so that it was quite impossible to get by. Fortunately the driver of our car was a life abstainer—I had seen to that. In a split second he jammed on all the braking power he had, both hand and foot brakes, with the result that on the slippery surface we swung right round and crashed against the offside of the lorry and came to rest facing in the opposite direction, with no one hurt, but the lorry damaged and the offside of our car smashed and shattered. The police agreed that it was only the instantaneous reaction of the driver of our car that prevented a major disaster, with possibly fatal consequences to the stupid man who had pulled out his car astride the road. All we suffered was delayed shock. That no one was actually hurt was the result of having an abstainer at the wheel of our car.

The potential merchants of death on our roads are tolerated because of a widespread false conception of human freedom. But freedom is not liberty to kill others, or licence to do wrong. It is now thirteen years since your Lordships' Select Committee on Road Accidents pointed the way to effective action by means of the scientific blood test for alcoholic drivers which is in force in Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and other countries. Let me read one or two vital passages from paragraphs 39 to 42 of that Committee's Report. They say: The effect of even moderate quantities of alcohol on drivers is not generally realised … It should be emphasised that, even where there is no question of drunkenness, a small quantity of alcohol is for many drivers most dangerous. … The percentage of alcohol circulating in the blood at any given moment can be calculated with scientific accuracy. The Committee recommend that blood tests should be recognised and that arrangements should be made to carry them out on a voluntary basis. … They hope that at a later date the public will be so educated as to agree that these tests should be made obligatory in appropriate cases. In other lands where chemical tests for alcohol in the blood are made it has been revealed that from 30 to 50 per cent. of road deaths are attributable to the prior consumption of alcohol by either one or other of the parties involved. So long as we in this country continue to tolerate incentives to drink, so long will this carnage go on, for such incentives affect both drivers and pedestrians alike. I have been a magistrate for forty-five years, and I say that few things sicken one more than to sit on the Bench adjudicating in these cases of motorists driving under the influence of drink, and then to come out and see flaming advertisements disfiguring our hoardings with such palpable and scientific untruths as "Beer is Best," and that somebody's stout is good for you. If there was a particle of truth in these statements, why were there in this country no fewer than 3,644 convictions in eighteen months for driving offences while under the influence of drink? Why, too, are the railway companies so strict in requiring engine drivers to abstain while on duty? And why is it that the B.O.A.C. insist that those who have anything to do with the flying of their aeroplanes not only take no drink while they are engaged in their work, but have nothing to drink for at least eight hours before taking on duty on an aeroplane? Even a leading firm of brewers, when advertising for a lorry driver, stipulated that none but teetotallers need apply. A representative, too, of the brewers who gave evidence before the Royal Commission on Licensing admitted that his own chauffeur is not allowed to have any beer when driving him in the car. Yet blatant, palpable lies by the drink trade continue to disfigure our hoardings, and the slaughter on our roads goes on unabated. I cannot understand the psychology of people who, with the aid of lying advertisements, are willing to make money out of the blood of their fellows. In Norway it is a punishable offence for a licence-holder to supply drink to anyone in charge of a car.

I make the Government this constructive proposal: that they should try the experiment of seeing how far such a restriction in this country would lead to a reduction in the appalling and agonising death roll on our roads. The time is long overdue when a clear choice for motorists should be enforced: they should be compelled to choose between driving or drinking. The slogan should be: "If you drink, you must not drive. If you drive, you must not drink." During the recent Recess my wife and I stayed for two or three weeks at a hotel on the South Coast where we found after arrival there were two drinking bars, and twice a week a public dance was held for which they were granted an extension of permitted hours up to 11.30 p.m. It so happened that our rooms overlooked the carriageway leading to the garage of the hotel, and every Wednesday and Saturday night it was chock-a-block with cars, and many more were parked in the road outside. Then, near midnight, the people from these dances and crowded bars streamed out and started up their cars, and so on to the roads. I am not going to suggest that they were drunk—far from it—but from the nature of their departure they were, many of them, less capable of the most immediate reaction to any crisis that might present itself; and such occurrences can be multiplied a thousand-fold the country over. We all know that it is scarcely possible to pass licensed premises on the outskirts of our cities and towns without seeing cars parked every evening, and especially just before closing time.

It is not necessary to overstate the case, for the danger is quite apparent for all to see. That many of those who take alcohol render themselves accident-prone by so doing is a scientific fact and cannot be gainsaid. The Chief Constable of Nottingham said recently: A driver who is obviously drunk can be restrained from driving off in his car by his friends. But the man or woman who is only a bit 'lit up' and is apparently quite sober, because of the toxic effect of the alcohol on his or her reactions can be just plain hell on the roads. Why hide from ourselves that every drinking driver is a potential killer? It can hardly be only a coincidence that an increased consumption of alcohol amounting to 16⅔ per cent. one year was accompanied by a 17 per cent. increase in road accidents. Every non-abstainer from intoxicating liquor has a meed of responsibility for what happens on our roads. We do well to remember St. Paul's words: Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak. Until the Government take action to require motorists to abstain from intoxicating drink when driving, the lives that continue to be sacrificed on our roads remain the measure of the Government's guilt in failing to save the lives and limbs of the victims. Far better a man should be condemned to go without his drink if he wants to drive, than that he should become a potential killer.

5.2 p.m.


My Lords, in these days I think every self-respecting motorist is frightened before he takes the road. I cannot imagine any more appalling thing than to be responsible for the death of a child or the injury of any person. Therefore, after our debate to-day, and especially after what we have heard from the last two speakers, I hope that the Secretary of State will give our police and our police patrols more power. From what do we suffer, as motorists? Cyclists coming up on the near side; coaches being driven long distances, and well known now as the fastest traffic on our roads; lorries, nominally not allowed more than twenty miles an hour, going at at least double that speed, with no rear vision when they are fully loaded and no mirror so that they can wave on other traffic: the flash of the motorcycle at night—by far the most dangerous thing on the roads of this country.

In our built-up areas, and particularly in London, we see taxicabs turning against the traffic without any traffic indicators. Turning against the traffic, and most of the other things I have mentioned. including what the last two noble Lords said about drink, are punishable by law in other countries. Then the "Flying 52's," the buses, not stopping at the recognised stopping places, scheduled to run faster than they can possibly run, are a source of great danger, especially to elderly people. There is also the complete ignoring of traffic lights, put up at great expense by the ratepayers. It was only last Saturday, at 10.20, at the top of North Audley Street, crossing Oxford Street, that two policemen on their beat, not pursuing smash-and-grab raiders, crossed against the lights, a third policeman on the island seeing them, and a crowd of 200 following them. If it had not been for a very fine piece of driving by an American visitor to this country, two or three people would have been injured. I believe that all these regulations must now be enforced by law.

Of course, there is a shortage of police. Could not policewomen be used on traffic and lights control? Could not filtering, as in other countries, be made the complete responsibility of the motorist? And could not the "zebra" crossings be placed in the correct positions and not, as for instance at Tooting and Brighton, on corners so that drivers do not know they are there? Finally, could not these "zebra" crossings be indicated, as they are in Canada and elsewhere, by a large white notice board, visible over or beyond parking lorries, with the three words in black painted on them "Stop when occupied"?

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, this is a vast subject, and. I propose to confine myself to just three aspects of it. In the first place, I believe that we shall all agree that the great majority of drivers of motor vehicles or motor-cycles are reasonable people. The great majority have no wish to get hurt themselves, far less to die. They certainly do not wish to hurt or kill other people. It is my impression that it is ignorance and forgetfulness, with a certain amount of carelessness, which is responsible for a great proportion of the accidents which occur to-day. The great majority of drivers are prepared to learn and to be taught, but the opportunities for doing that at the present time are few and far between. You cannot expect to find out from one short driving test whether a man or a woman is a capable and accomplished driver. The gentlemen who have been referred to in your Lordships' House this afternoon as "courtesy cops" do wonderful work, but they cannot be everywhere.

That leaves only one method of getting across to every class of people what they ought and ought not to do—I refer to the Highway Code. We know that a great deal of instruction is given in schools, but we are not all still at school. The Highway Code is the only means of getting across to all and sundry what they should and should not do. I suggest that we make more use of the Highway Code, and I think there are two things which should be improved. The first is the circulation and distribution of the Highway Code, and the second is the Highway Code itself. With regard to circulation, some of your Lordships may have heard one of those entertainments which the B.B.C. are good enough to give us, called "Twenty Questions." The other night I was listening to that programme, and one of the objects which the team had to guess was the Highway Code. In answer to one of the questions which the team put to him, the question master, to give them a clue, said, "I have seen it, I have heard of it, and I think about it all the time." If only everybody who used the roads to-day would be like that question master (who is a very remarkable man, and he must be a more remarkable man than we thought him) then we should see far fewer disasters.

With regard to the distribution of the Highway Code, I should like to make two suggestions to the noble Lord who is to wind up this debate. First of all, there should once again (I think one took place in 1946) be a distribution of the Highway Code to all householders. This of course, would involve expense. Anybody who wants can pay a penny and buy the Highway Code at the present time, and although I am sure the noble Lord would welcome all the 40,000.000 people who are standing on their hind legs (not allowing for babies) going into the Stationery Office and buying the Highway Code, since that would bring in only 40,000,000 pennies he would not lose much if it were distributed free. I suggest that a copy should be sent to every driver or motorcycle rider on each occasion that he applies for the renewal of his licence. If every county authority is as kind to people as my own county, who send me a re- minder every year when my licence is due, it might be better if a copy of the Highway Code went with the reminder, because then at least, as your Lordships will appreciate, we could sign with a clear conscience that little paragraph which asks us whether we have studied the Highway Code before we are able to get our licence.

Now I come to the question of the revision of the Highway Code. I feel that it is necessary in any publication which is of importance—and the Highway Code, used properly, is a publication of the highest importance—to cut out or amend anything which is either obscure or ridiculous. I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to one or two extracts from the Highway Code. In paragraph 36, for instance, we are exhorted as follows: Do not rely on signals to proceed given by unauthorised persons. The first question which any reasonable person asks himself is: Who are unauthorised persons and who are authorised persons? Surely this should be amended to say that only police signals should be regarded as authority to proceed. We all know that we get signals, particularly from lorry drivers and sometimes from pedestrians and others. They are trying to be helpful, but often if we followed those signals without making sure for ourselves, there would be disaster for us and for other people. Then, paragraph 42 of the Highway code says: Do not leave your vehicle near the brow of a hill … at or close to a bend … or at various other spots. Why not "stop" as well as "leave"? I nearly missed my train this morning because of a gentleman in a car on the brow of a hill. At a dangerous spot it is even worse if there is someone inside the vehicle. The person himself might be injured, quite apart from the possibility of an accident being caused to other people. I suggest that this should be made clear.

Later, in paragraph 43, we are told: If your vehicle will be stationary for more than a few minutes, put it in a parking space. Having listened to the debate this afternoon, I have been struck by the fact that parking spaces in London and other big cities are not too plentiful. But in the country there are none at all: there are virtually no parking spaces, except in big cities and perhaps a few in some villages. Why tell people to do something which they cannot always do? They cannot put their cars in a parking space if there is not one. The whole matter should be perfectly clear and understandable. In the Highway Code, on page 23, there begins a long list of things which are called "The Law's Demands." I find myself in some difficulty here, because if the law has been quoted rightly in the Highway Code then I can only suggest that the law should be changed—and I should be even more frightened of trying to do that than I am of addressing your Lordships this afternoon. I can only hope that the law has been wrongly expounded in the Highway Code, but I am prepared to risk a few suggestions.

The first matter upon which I would venture to say a few words concerns motor-cyclists. Following the extracts from "The Law's Demands which relate to motor vehicles there comes on page 26 of the Code, the following passage relating to motor-cyclists: Most of the foregoing requirements apply to you.… If you want to impress a point on someone and you say in effect "Here is a list of requirements, most of which apply to you" you leave it to him to find out which apply to him and which do not; you will not easily in that way get what you want, which in this case is a safe driver. Here I think there is a curious anomaly. According to the Highway Code the law states that drivers of motor vehicles must not drive if "under the influence of" drink. But if you are a cyclist or if you drive a horse-drawn vehicle you are all right, unless you are completely drunk. That is an anomaly which should be corrected. I fail to see why a man "under the influence" when driving a horse and cart should be free from arrest, whereas if he is in the same condition when driving a motor-car he is liable to a term of imprisonment or to a large fine. I suggest that this is a paragraph which should be amended to make sense. Here is another extract, of which I must say the same: You must … not be so far away from your horse that you have not control over it. The noble Lord, Lord Rochester, said just now that he had been a magistrate for forty-odd years. I have been one for only a very short time, but heaven preserve me from having to adjudicate in a case where the driver of a horse-drawn vehicle has been suspected of having been too far away from his horse to have control over it! How far away can you be and retain control if a car back-fires and frightens the horse—or if the horse is stung by a horse-fly? That paragraph needs amending.

The first paragraph in this section is, if I may use a colloquialism, a real gem, It again is addressed, of course, to the driver of a horse-drawn vehicle, and says: You must hold the reins, unless your horse is conducted by someone else. I do not wish to cause any unpleasantness for anyone, but I feel that the gentleman who was responsible for writing that paragraph had probably had no closer acquaintance with a horse than seeing the image and superscription on a bottle of White Horse whisky. There is also one exhortation to cyclists which borders on the ridiculous. It occurs in paragraph 63 and says: Do not wobble about the road. Who wants to wobble about the road? Sometimes, of course, we see a cyclist who does—possibly because he is getting near being "under the influence." But wobbling occurs particularly when a small child is riding its father's or its mother's bicycle. It is surely no use exhorting cyclists in general not to wobble about the road. Such an exhortation would merely make them furious, and perhaps cause them to ignore the Highway Code. But parents should see that children do not ride a bicycle which is too big for them.

I should like to make one reference to an artistic illustration which appears in the Highway Code which, again, refers to drivers of horse-drawn vehicles. I do so because I feel that, if we are to get people to take this matter seriously, we must get away from anything which can be laughed at or which causes contempt. I should like to see everything which borders on the ridiculous removed from the Highway Code. If your Lordships have studied your Highway Code you will have seen on page 18 the illustration to which I refer. If we were to take a Division on this matter I am sure that we should be pretty equally divided about what was meant by this illustration. It suggests a gentleman expressing enthusiasm for the Cup Tie, and one half of your Lordships' House might take that view. The other half might take the view that it depicts a fisherman in trouble with his line in a high wind. Actually it is the driver of a horse-drawn vehicle announcing to all arid sundry that he going to turn. I feel that it would take a very intelligent person to understand this.

My second point refers to the question of road signs. Here again, one thing we must try to avoid is contempt for road signs. These signs are supposed to tell us what dangers there are, what we can do, and what we must not do. I think there are certain anomalies in our road signs to-day. I can give your Lordships three instances. First, there is the sign which indicates a double bend. In the Highway Code a picture of it is given and underneath it merely says "Bend." I think that that is incorrect. As we know, there is a sign which illustrates that a double bend is in front of us. You see that sign, whether the double bend that you are approaching is a very gentle bend, almost leaning in one direction and then leaning back in another, or whether it is a hairpin bend in both directions. My point is that if a driver passes two or three of these signs and then finds that there was nothing very much to worry about, he will not take care when he comes to the next sign, and it may be impossible for him to get round that corner unless he slows down to about ten miles per hour. I think there ought to be more discrimination in the way those signs are placed. The next matter I would turn to is that of road repair signs. Flow often have we come across signs warning us that here are road repairs—"Drive slowly," "Caution," "Keep left," and so on—only to find that the repairs are finished, the men have gone home and the sign has been left behind. I suggest to the noble Lord that a rather strong manœuvre should be made towards the local councils to make certain that no signs are left standing which do not mean what they are meant to mean.

Thirdly, when we come to a major road ahead, there are two alternatives which we may be told to do. One sign says "Halt at major road ahead," and there is another sign which says "Slow—major road ahead." I am all against doing anything to slow up the even flow of traffic, but I do feel that in many of those cases where the sign says "Slow—major road ahead" it should really be "Halt at major road ahead." There are few instances where a minor road crosses or comes up to a major road when you can see far enough to either side to allow you to proceed into or across that major road without stopping. I suggest that, when surveys are made, as I know they are from time to time, these points should be watched and. where necessary, the "Slow—major road ahead" sign should be altered to "Halt at major road ahead." I believe that there is some indication that the Highway Code may be revised. I would stress strongly that one most important point which is made a certain amount of, but not sufficient of, both in the Highway Code and in instructions elsewhere, is that one of the main things in driving is to keep to your nearside at every possible moment unless it is essential to go to the offside. That applies in all sorts of cases. I would mention particularly overtaking. I suggest that the rule for overtaking should be that, when it is found safe to overtake, you should get past as quickly as possible and back to your nearside as quickly as possible, without, of course, scraping the other fellow's bumper.

As I said at the start, this is a vast subject. It is also one of the few which directly affect the future of every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom. It affects their future, not only as between happiness or misery, but as between life or death, with, as perhaps worst of all, life in a maimed and crippled body. This is a human cost which it is not possible to estimate in terms of mere pounds, shillings and pence, and never will be. But there is a material cost as well, the amount of which can be and has been computed in national currency. It is a stupendous and frightening figure. Therefore, both on humanitarian and on economic grounds, I feel we can venture to hope—and, more, we are entitled to expect—that the noble Lord who is to reply to this debate will satisfy us that extensive, bold and progressive measures are contemplated in order to make our streets, roads and lanes safer for all who use them.

5.25 p.m.


My Lords the noble Viscount who has just sat down has made a most valuable contribution to this debate, and his speech has displayed a considerable knowledge and study of this important subject. I have not his knowledge and I have not studied this subject as he has, but, before the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, replies, I. should like to emphasise just one point that appears to be most important. It has been mentioned during this debate, but I do not think sufficient emphasis has been placed upon it. I hope that, when the noble Lord studies this debate, he will bear it in mind. My point is the complete lack of indication on the part of most drivers of heavy vehicles, and a great many drivers of light vehicles, of what they intend to do. That, I consider, is the greatest source of danger on the roads to-day. The complicated system of arm-wagging and hand-wagging laid down in the Highway Code is all very well, but it is thoroughly unreliable. Take for instance, the lady driver who, when rain comes on. winds up the window of her car; then again, the driver of a lorry who on a cold day puts up the window of his cab, and nothing will induce him to open it until he comes to the end of his journey. I consider that indication by the hand is thoroughly unreliable, and that indication by mechanical means is far more reliable: it should be much more encouraged and should be enforced by law.

It is ridiculous that heavy vehicles are not forced to carry proper mechanical indicators, as they are in France. In most foreign countries, and particularly in France, heavy vehicles must have mechanical indicators which show clearly which way the heavy vehicle is going to turn, and when it is going to stop. How different from the situation on our own roads, where, in a built-up or a suburban area a bus on its route will turn to the right or to the left and the driver will never dream of putting out his arm. He thinks lie does not need to put out his arm because he believes that everybody using the road should know that that is part of his route. How can a stranger to that district possibly know that it is part of his route? And if you argue with the bus driver and suggest that he might put his arm out, he looks at you and says: "Why should I put my arm out? This is my route." Exactly the same thing applies to many drivers of lorries and other vehicles. I think that more discouragement should be given to the system of arm-wagging and more encouragement, both legally and in other ways, should be given to modern systems of mechanical indicators showing both when the vehicle is going to turn and when it will stop. I hope that the noble Lord will bear that point in mind.

5.29 p.m.


My Lords, first I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for having introduced this debate. I think it has been most helpful. I have indeed a great number of notes. There have been so many suggestions made that I should not like to miss any of them from examination, and I shall, in addition, read Hansard to make quite sure that I have not missed anything.

This is a problem which transcends all Party divisions. It is a complex and an urgent problem the solution of which requires the fullest assistance and effort from us all. We must have that combined arrangement in thought and action to take us to some success. The present price of road accidents, both in personal suffering and in economic loss, is a terrible one. I recently saw a statement in a leading article which said— There is too much lethargy about tackling the causes of road accidents. I do not think that that is in the least fair. Many organisations are concerned in this matter, and in my view they are one and all seized with the proper sense of urgency about it. We have heard to-day of their meetings. They are constantly being held. When I was previously in the Ministry of War Transport I knew from experience that they were constantly at their work with a sense of urgency and purpose, and they were producing all they could in those days. We hope for better as the time goes on. Indeed, there is constant activity on the road safety front. For example, last week there was the National Road Safety Congress, held under the auspices of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. This was most valuable. To-day, as we have heard, the Royal Society, through its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, began a special conference of road users to promote closer co-operation between all the different interests.

Now I turn to what the Government are doing. Here, again, I hope I can convince your Lordships that we are dealing with the matter with a great sense of urgency. In fact, in the past year, we have either initiated or pressed forward six major lines of action which, as I hope to show you, have done a very great deal to reduce the horrible toll of accidents. First, we have made the special allocation of funds and resources for dealing with black spots on the roads. Second, we have pressed ahead with the "zebra" crossings and we are now getting them lit up. Third, we are increasing the number of mobile police patrols. Fourth, we are extending the use of school crossing patrols. Fifth, intensive experiments in the matter of road research are being carried out. Sixth, we are continuing to employ all reasonable means of education and propaganda to imbue the public with that social conscience in this matter which should rightly arouse them.

I should like to say a few words on each of these points. About black spots I shall not say a great deal as I tried to cover this matter when I spoke in the Roads Construction and Maintenance debate which was held in your Lordships' House in July. Suffice it to say that there have already been approved 130 schemes on trunk roads at a cost of over £500,000, and on classified roads nearly 700 schemes at a cost totalling over £2,000,000. Altogether £3,000,000 will be spent on black spots this year and next, £2,000,000 of which will come from Government, funds. Now I take for my second point the "zebra" crossings. These have caught the public imagination and can fairly be said to be a real success. The number of deaths and the numbers both of seriously and of slightly injured are significantly down as corn-pared with those for last year; and the trend of accidents, which had been steadily rising since the end of the war, has actually been reversed. I should not, of course, say that we can attribute to "zebra" crossings the whole of this fall, but I have no doubt—and I know that this view is shared by many others—that they have been largely responsible. Arrangements are now well in hand for the lighting of the beacons, and before long the flashing beacon will become a familiar sight.

I come next to the mobile police patrols, or "courtesy cops." I am sure that a sizable increase in the number of these patrols, and particularly motorcycle patrols, would be one of the greatest factors in increasing road safety. All your Lordships will know what attention is paid to driving when it is known or suspected that these policemen are somewhere behind, and what an improvement these men can get from road users by good example, by checking bad driving and, where this is unfortunately necessary, by securing prosecutions for serious offences. Initial discussions between the Government and the local authorities have begun, and will be pressed on in the future, to bring about an increase in the mobile police patrols. The Minister of Transport is ready to increase substantially the amounts paid out of the Road Fund towards the cost of these patrols it now only remains for the local authorities to do their part.

Let me refer now to the extended use of school crossing patrols, by which I mean adults specially charged with the duty of seeing children across the roads on their way to and from their schools. These helpers are also provided with large notices calling upon road users to stop. These patrols have proved very valuable. In places where a road is crossed, in the main, at certain times of the day only, such as outside a school, it is our view that an adult patrol is far safer than a crossing which, after all, is only a legal safeguard. Children, and especially young children, ought not to have to rely when crossing a busy road on a "zebra" crossing, but ought to have the positive help of an adult to see them across the road. Her Majesty's Government have therefore decided that the system of adult patrols should be quite considerably extended, and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, issued a circular on the subject to all local authorities only the day before yesterday.

As for research, the Road Research Laboratory of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which reports, of course, to my noble friend the Lord President, continues to probe these questions with great thoroughness. Their investigations played quite a part in formulating the "zebra" crossing experiment, and more recently they have been doing valuable studies into such problems as rear lighting and brakes. There is, it is found, no doubt that the lights and brakes of pre-war cars leave much to be desired, and I do wish that owners would pay more attention to these matters. For example, it has been established that prewar cars with single rear lights are six times as likely to be involved in collisions as post-war cars fitted with two bright rear lights. And in the matter of brakes a recent random sample of cars and commercial vehicles showed that most of them could not brake to a stop within the distances recommended by the High-way Code. Further researches are going into such problems as dazzle, crash helmets and road surfacing.

Turning now to education and propaganda, I shall refer first to the Highway Code. This, of course, is a most valuable booklet of guidance and common sense—I say that in spite of the matters which have been called to my notice, and which do not quite seem to correspond with my description. But on total this is a booklet of guidance and common sense. Although the lessons which it tells are still sound, there is a need to reproduce the Code in a form more likely to command weight and popular appeal, and I assure noble Lords that when this is being done all the points which have been raised will receive due consideration. For this reason we have decided, on the advice of the Road Safety Committee, to re-write the Code in a more crisp and effective manner and to issue an entirely new edition.

We could not agree with a complete change in the status of the Code, such as giving it the force of law, as has been suggested in some quarters. This would be unreasonable to road users and in any case very difficult to enforce, and would tend to bring the Code into disrepute. The Committee on Road Safety have, however, made a further suggestion that the Code could become a more effective weapon than it is if greater use were made of it in court proceedings. They have suggested that it should be possible to use a breach or observance of the Code as prima facie evidence in the courts. At present, breach or observance of the Code can be relied upon in the courts only as "tending to" establish or negative responsibility. Experience has shown that this rather tentative wording of the Road Traffic Act of 1930 has proved inadequate. This suggestion of the Committee is most interesting and we are studying it with great care: but it would involve amending legislation, and your Lordships will not, therefore, expect me to be more definite on this occasion. A wide range of other propaganda and publicity steps are also being continued, in order to bring home to all concerned their individual responsibility in this matter.

I have dealt with the positive steps which we have taken over the last year, and considering the limited amount of money available—I am sorry that I have to introduce that note, but it must appear occasionally—I do not think it is a bad record. Indeed, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the important fact that whereas in 1938 the total number of deaths on the road was 6,648 the number last year was down to 5,250, a reduction of over 20 per cent. And this over a period when the population has risen by over 3,000,000 and when the number of road vehicles has gone up by 50 per cent. But despite this improvement I should not like anyone to think that I or the Minister, or any one of my colleagues, are complacent about the present state of affairs. Who could be with an annual death toll of over 5,000 and an annual total of injured of over 200,000? The Government are doing their part, as I have tried to show. Finally, perhaps I may be permitted to say that this is not solely a matter of Government responsibility, as is so often presumed. Even if we had unlimited money for road works and other items, even if we legislated on the hundred-and-one aspects on the problem, we should still he dependent on the human factor. It is, of course, at bottom, a matter of individual responsibility. Every single person, be he motorist, cyclist, or pedestrian, must cultivate that sense of awareness of what road accidents mean. To a man who has not suffered it is not easy to make the necessary effort of imagination. But it must he done. Everybody on the roads must realise that he has a duty to himself, to his family, and to his fellows which he can discharge only by constant vigilance. One absent mind may mean an absent member of a family circle. The terrible implications of sudden death or serious accident should be more deeply impressed in everyone's mind. I make no excuse for making once more this all-important plea.

I am going to study all the points that have been raised to-day. Some of them may not at first blush seem to be of great importance, others, clearly, are. In fact, they are all worthy of full consideration. I want to leave upon your Lordships' minds a very deep sense of our awareness, and of our anxiety to move forward all the time. This move must never be stopped. We must go forward all the while. That leads me to say that. although I have to come here and deal with your Lordships on these matters, probably when I am very busy in other regards, yet I will come every time. So I say that I welcome the opportunity of coming to-day, and I assure your Lordships of my best efforts to secure results from this discussion.


Before the noble Lord sits down, would lie not say one word in support of what has been said by several noble Lords with regard to the drink menace as it affects safety on the roads? That, I think, is an important matter upon which some observation from the Minister would be welcome.


I. was including that in the list of points Which, as I have said, I shall study. I will study all these matters, and this one for a very important reason. Some people will show the effects of a small amount of drink very quickly and very acutely. In other cases it is not like that. All these matters require a great deal of study, and they are in process of being studied now. It would be wrong of me to embark upon this matter now except to strike that note, and to say that there is no easy foot-rule by which to measure the effect of alcohol in this connection.

5.44 p.m.


My Lords, I need take only a very short time in replying. First of all, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Secretary of State very much for his informative reply. I am glad, if I may say so, that he mentioned the importance of personal responsibility, because, whatever is done, however much money may in future be spent on the roads and on what I may call mechanical improvements here and there—such as bringing into use more patrols and so forth—the personal responsibility of every road user will still remain. Before sitting down I feel that I owe your Lordships an apology for leaving out of the only statistics which I gave to your Lordships a most important point. The matter has been called to my attention by Hansard, and, if I may have your Lordships' leave to do so. I will now repair the omission. After giving you the figures for the great increases in fuel consumption and in the numbers of vehicles on the roads between the years 1938 and 1951 I left out the result, which was that total road casualties in 1951 were down by 7 per cent. as compared with 1938. while deaths were down by 21 per cent. Some mention of this has been made by the noble Lord the Secretary of State. I should like to add my congratulations to those which have already been tendered to the noble Viscount, Lord Cross, and also to express my hope that we shall hear him on many future occasions. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.