HL Deb 28 January 1953 vol 180 cc27-40

2.44 p.m.

LORD TEVIOT rose to call attention to the high percentage of head injuries causing death of motor-cyclists, and to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they would consider making it compulsory that all motor-cyclists and pillion riders should wear crash helmets, as recommended in the Report to the Minister of Transport on motor-cycle accidents by the Committee on Road Safety. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I must apologise for having had, through illness, to postpone this Motion, which has been on the Order Paper for some considerable time. I have spoken before in your Lordships' House on the subject of road safety and I see that as long ago as July, 1950, the House had before it a Motion introduced by my noble friend Lord Llewellin. At that time there were (and I believe there are now, to the regret of us all) about 200,000 casualties on the roads each year—roughly speaking, 5,000 deaths and 30,000 or more seriously injured. This is an appalling tragedy that has been going on far too long, and although in your Lordships' House we have had very good debates on this subject, so far as I know little has been done to combat this position.

We now have zebra crossings. I do not know whether they have done any good. It is presumed that they have, but there still needs to be much education of the pedestrian and the motorist as to how to proceed over and towards the zebra crossing. Some time ago, we had an admirable debate, introduced, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton. On that occasion, expression was given to the fact that there had been a reduction in the number of road casualties. It was not very much when you consider the figure of 200,000; the reduction was a mere fleabite, having regard to the general position. I think we have come now to a time when we have to get down to the problem and do something to stop the accidents that are continually taking place. Therefore, I am going to make certain suggestions, which I hope will meet with the approval of your Lordships.

Your Lordships will be aware that in the accidents involving motor cars, only 25 per cent. of the accidents cause injury, whereas with accidents involving motor-bicycles in well over 50 per cent. of cases there is bound to be injury. I understand from the honourable Member in another place who made such an admirable broadcast the other night, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Braithwaite, that there are fifty-six times more chances of being killed on a motor-bicycle than in a car. Of course, a very high percentage of these accidents occur at night. No doubt, like myself, all your Lordships who drive at night pull up almost dead sometimes, owing to the frightful dazzle there is. It is quite impossible to see whether a motor-cycle or a pedestrian is in front of one. We know that in France they have a law about using a yellow light. Friends of mine and no doubt friends of your Lordships, who have been over there say that the diminution in visability ahead as a result of using the yellow light is very little compared with using the white light. Undoubtedly, it seems to be satisfactory. If your Lordships are contemplating taking your car abroad, the Automobile Association will say to you, "Although it is not compulsory in France for the tourist, it is compulsory for the resident to have these yellow headlights and we think it advisable that the tourist should do the same." It requires only a very simple operation to the headlights to make them conform to the law of France on this matter. The other day I asked somebody, "Have you ever seen anybody driving on the roads of France with a white light?" He replied, "I am bound to say that I never have. Everybody seems to have painted his headlights yellow." You get that yellow light—I think they call it the "amber light"—which is very much better, and reduces the dazzle a good deal.

Then again I think a good deal can be done with regard to dipping. I see a good deal of what I may call bad dipping, or not dipping at all, and now there is something which is simply terrifying to me—a sort of double dip with both lamps, which seems to me to reduce the dazzle very little indeed and which causes me to pull up very quickly. Moreover, I do not see any advantage in that system, I understand from the Automobile Association that there are now being manufactured here on a big scale yellow bulbs which fit into our lamps and which will shortly be available to everybody. We must remember that a motor-cyclist has not the vision of anyone driving a car. He is much lower and nearer to the ground. Therefore, his vision in seeing what is coming towards him is very much less than that of the driver of a car.

Now I should like to turn for a moment to this question of purchase tax. I know that the other day in another place the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he could not deal with that question at all, and that purchase tax must remain. I feel very strongly that in trying to save life we should do all we can to reduce taxation in the form of purchase tax on these particular items. There is no question but that the use of crash helmets is growing and in the future will grow even more. Only yesterday I asked Scotland Yard whether they had to pay purchase tax on policemen's crash helmets. They told me they had, but that now they have given a very big order for the manufacture of crash helmets to supply all policemen riding motor-cycles. The official to whom I spoke understood that that policy would be put into operation all over the country.

I am wondering whether the Government would consider this point. Nobody likes compulsion. Some motor-cyclists say, "If I have to buy a crash helmet I shall have to pay purchase tax." From what I know of the motor-cycle clubs in my locality, I ant certain that there would be co-operation if there were compulsion. The curious thing is that there are a good many motor-cyclists now who, fearing ridicule, do not get a crash helmet, but if it were made compulsory I believe that a high percentage of them would be delighted and they would all wear them. It is quite understandable that a young, enthusiastic boy or girl hates being jeered at—"Look at you! You are putting on something which is perfectly ridiculous to look at." And so they say, "We are not going to do it." One can understand their taking that attitude. But make the use of these articles compulsory, and I am certain that it would relieve the minds of a great many, particularly those who have had accidents.

Now about the appearance of the crash helmet. I have here a picture that appeared in the Daily Sketch, of a rather nice looking girl wearing a crash helmet. It looks quite attractive. I see no reason why she should not have it in any colour she wishes, perhaps with the club badge painted on it. I see no reason why crash helmets should not be made attractive, no matter what the shape. The other day a member of your Lordships' House told me that in his official capacity in the Canal Zone he found that he could get about better on a motor-bicycle, and so he learned to ride one. He was given a splendid crash helmet of a beautiful colour, with the badge of his unit on it. He said that he saw no reason why that sort of thing should not be done here. I believe that in some places on the Continent crash helmets are compulsory. I am told that insurance companies will not pay if the victim of an accident was not wearing a crash helmet.

Look at the figures of accidents: is it not a dire necessity that we should do something about them? Only in the last few days I have had letters from coroners, one in Devon and another in Wiltshire. Both of them said that a high percentage of accidents involve head injuries. In one letter I have here the coroner says that since June of last year he has held inquests on six motor-cyclists who have been killed on the roads, that in every case death was the result of head injuries, and in no case was the cyclist wearing any protection for the head. The men who have to deal with this situation always give the same opinion—namely, that in a great many of these accidents involving injuries to the head, death would not ensue if a crash helmet were worn. Why is it that despatch riders in the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, now the whole of the police motor-cyclists, and motor-cyclists in the Post Office, all wear crash helmets? There must be some very good reason for it. I believe the reason is that those in authority want to save the lives of the people who have to do that sort of work. There is complete evidence that the most vulnerable part of one's body is the head. Suppose you are riding a motor-cycle and you have a lady sitting on the pillion and there is an accident, what chance have you got to get clear? If you are shot forward the handlebars hit you and tip you on your head in the road, and the wretched girl probably gets tangled up in the wheels or something of that sort, and the first part of her to hit the tarmac is her head. This is a matter that the Government should take into serious consideration and do something about. Do not let us waste any more time. We have been tinkering with this question for too long. Let us get down to it and do something. His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh made some very wise remarks at the Motor-Cycle Show the other day, and I feel that his support is something of great value to this movement.

Now let us turn away from the official side of life to the sports side of life. National Hunt jockeys, when they ride in steeplechases, are compelled to wear a protection in the shape of a helmet. Many of your Lordships who have been foxhunting know that you can be saved by a good hard hat upon which you can jump—I know I have on many occasions. In polo you wear a crash helmet or something of that nature, and of course all the dirt track riders see to it that they wear one. The sad thing to me is that the fireman's helmet and the policeman's ordinary helmet is subject to purchase tax. I am going to ask my noble friend whether, in view of the fact that£300 million-odd is collected from the users of the road, and only£80 million-odd is spent on the roads, he can tell me how much it would mean to the Exchequer if the purchase tax were removed from, first of all, crash helmets for motor-cyclists. I shall be most grateful if my noble friend can give me some information in regard to that matter, because I feel that the sum would not be one of paramount importance.

Then I come to what I think is perhaps the worst aspect of this question. Whom are we losing? We are losing the young men and the young women of our country who have courage and who have dash. These are the young people who have everything we want for the future, and we should do everything we can to help them and to encourage them to protect themselves. If war came again, they are the type we should want. It is people of their type who made the Battle of Britain such a wonderful victory. It is these young people, these boys and girls, who rush about our roads—to the annoyance, it may be of a great many people— who have the dash and the spirit, and who uphold the great traditions of bravery in our race. There is another point. Head injuries resulting from these accidents, if they are of any degree of seriousness, seldom leave the victims without some results which may affect them for the whole of their lives.

That is nearly all that I have to say, but I should like, before I close, to recall what the Minister of Transport himself said in this connection. He said: If you are a motor-cyclist you are flirting with death if you do not wear protective headgear. Remember that you are fifty-six times more likely to be killed than the car driver. Those are the words of my right honourable friend Mr. Alan Lennox-Boyd. I hope that if, unfortunately, he has made up his mind that we cannot have compulsion, and cannot have the abolition of purchase tax on these helmets, with these considerations before him he will make a further effort to do some of the things which I have suggested. In conclusion, I should like to thank most sincerely all those who have helped in the ventilation of ideas on this subject, particularly the Press, and also the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, of which my noble friend Lord Llewellin is President. I wish also to express my gratitude to my friend in another place for that admirable broadcast which he made the other night. As your Lordships know, I am not moving for Papers, and that is about all that I have to say at the moment. I hope that my noble friend, in his reply on behalf of the Government, will see his way to give us some ground for optimism; and for feeling that something will be done, and done soon.

3.5 p.m.


My Lords, before I address myself to the subject of the noble Lord's remarks I should like to offer to the noble Lord the Secretary of State, Lord Leathers, and the Ministry of Transport, my congratulations upon this admirable document which has now been prepared, the Report on Road Accidents in 1951. It is the most exhaustive, factual statistical review that we have had of this great problem of road accidents. It tells us a lot. It removes from us the last vestige of an excuse that we do not know what are the causes of these accidents, and it automatically removes from the Ministry of Transport the last conceivable alibi for any inaction. It also underlines the truth of what a good many of us have been saying for years; and it removes, I hope, once and for all, a great many preconceived prejudices.

I remember that I myself, in your Lordships' House not long ago, made a speech on a Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, on road accidents; and in the course of that speech I said that the greatest menace on the roads to-day was the pedestrian. I could almost feel the raising of the eyebrows that followed the making of that statement. But it is a fact—an ugly fact, but a fact none the less—which finds statistical proof in this Report. As The Times said when this Report came out, Pedestrians were the most vulnerable of all road users, amounting to 27.6 per cent. of the total casualties. The paper went on to say some very pertinent things, in its Leader, and I quote the following: In spite of all the splendid efforts of road safety committees the stark fact remains that heedlessness of traffic by pedestrians accounted for 44,983 of the 183,151 contributory human factors in accidents mentioned in the report. The same paper also says something which bears out the whole contention of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, that compulsion is a cure. I take great heart from the preliminary figures showing the results for 1952. I think the Ministry of Transport, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and everyone connected with road safety during 1952 should be most sincerely congratulated.

With regard to what the noble Lord has said as to control of the pedestrian, a significant point which I would emphasise is the good results which have followed the introduction of zebra crossings and safety rails. This has undoubtedly been an important factor in the diminution of the number of accidents to pedestrians. It is not, of course, direct compulsion; it is indirect compulsion. On one question I cannot quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Teviot: I do not look upon this diminution in the figures as a "fleabite." Perhaps the fleas down here bite harder than do the fleas in Scotland, but I think that it is a sizable reduction and I hope that it will continue.

As the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has shown, the most vulnerable vehicle on our roads to-day—and this again is a fact which is proved by the Report—is the motor-cycle. The Report says that: If we include all accidents resulting in material damage as well as those in which people are hurt or killed, the accident rate of motor-cycles in terms of the number of accidents per mile travelled may be about the same as that of other vehicles, but riders and passengers of motor-cycles are very vulnerable and work done by the Road Research Laboratory suggests that the riders of combination motor-cycles are twice, and solo motor-cyclists four times, as likely to be injured as the occupants of private cars. That is something we have got to face. Before I left the Ministry of Transport, when I was Chairman of the Road Safety Committee, so appalled was I at the increase in the rate of motor-cycle accidents that I set up a special subcommittee to inquire into the whole subject. I insisted then that the motor-cycle manufacturers should be brought into that committee, because I hold that the manufacturers of a vehicle, whether it be a motor-cycle or any other road vehicle, are responsible to the public for the safety factors in that vehicle, and have a responsibility equal to that of anybody else. I was not satisfied that the motor-cycle manufacturers were playing their part and I thought that this would be the means of encouraging them.

We have received a Report from that Committee which, frankly, in my view is the flabbiest document I have ever read—I hope the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, will not mind my saying so. It is a charter making the commercial interests of the motor-cycle manufacturers sacrosanct. The section of recommendations is full of phrases like these: "Driving mirrors on motor-cycles should not be made compulsory;" "direction indicators on motor-cycles should not be made compulsory;" "the value of leg guards should be investigated;" "the use of goggles and side-shields should be encouraged;" "special restrictions on the speed of motor-cycles should not be imposed." The Report says what should not be done, but it does not say very much about what should be done.

Motor-cycling accidents take the cream of our youth, as the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has pointed out. Of the deaths due to motor-cycling accidents, 25 per cent. are of youths between the ages of twenty-one arid twenty-five. But it is the very virtues of youth—the ignoring of danger, and the dash, which are such great assets to this country—that will make young motor-cyclists scorn the use of crash helmets unless their use is made compulsory. We shall not get a boy riding a high-powered motor-cycle to pay any regard to the danger; and if he did, he would not be a Britisher—not at that age, at any rate. So I have great sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, in his plea for compulsion. I have had reports that in one county 100 per cent. of the deaths of motor-cyclists in road accidents involved head injuries. I was appalled when I read the other day about the tragic accident in the fog on the Croydon by-pass, when six motor-cyclists ran into the back of vehicles and each other, and three died. The pathologist said—I quote now from the report in The Times—"All the deaths were due to fractured skulls."

As the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has pointed out, the police now have approved a design, and the Army, the Post Office and other organisations make the use of crash helmets compulsory. But I believe the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, will be confronted with considerable difficulty in making this compulsory for every motor-cyclist. I can anticipate what the noble Earl, Lord Birkenhead, will say in reply. He is in a difficult position, as he has a past in this matter—he was a member of the Alness Committee some years ago. I am going to make a suggestion to the noble Earl which may go some way to meet the difficulty. I think that if he makes a search amongst the multitude of regulations which have been made by the Ministry of Transport over the past years, he will find some regulation which will enable the Minister to include in the "Construction and Use" regulations the supplying of a crash helmet with every new motor-cycle. I do not include assisted pedal-cycles but only what we recognise as the ordinary motor-cycle. It would be only poetic justice to make the manufacturers provide a crash helmet with every new vehicle and, as the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, suggests, if those helmets are also made picturesque and appealing to the feminine eye, they may become popular. I should like to see the use of helmets made compulsory, because I do not think we are going to make much progress until they are. And we cannot go on with this appalling waste of the youth of this country.

I was struck by the figure given in the Report on road accidents in 1951 about the number of motor-cycle accidents due to dogs running lose in built-up areas. The Report says that dogs in the road contributed to 2,696 accidents, of which 1,500 involved motor-cyclists.


How many was that out of the total?


Of the accidents caused by dogs, 57 per cent. involved motor-cyclists. The figure for 1949 was 46 per cent. That is perfectly understandable. If a dog runs into a four-wheeled vehicle, it is the dog which comes off worse; but if a dog runs into a motor-cycle it is always the cyclist who comes off worse—and very often suffers a cracked skull. Surely it should not be beyond us to enforce a regulation which would make it an offence to allow a dog to stray in a built-up area, and making it compulsory that, when let out, all dogs should be kept on a lead. I am as great a dog lover as anybody else, but I think it is criminal to keep dogs at all in built-up areas. The place for a dog is in the wilds and the open countryside, and there is no consideration shown for dogs in letting them run about the streets, befouling them, which is another thing I think is a disgrace in this country. This figure of 57 per cent. of motor-cycle accidents in which dogs running loose are a contributory factor gives a graphic illustration of this danger. Surely we are not interfering with the liberty of the subject too much of we say that dogs should be kept on a lead. I support the noble Lord, Lord Teviot: I hope that the Minister will take this matter seriously, and that, if he cannot do anything else at the present time, he will at least do this.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he proposes not only that dogs should be banished to the wilds but that pedestrians should be banished to the wilds, too?


I do not suggest that for a moment. I suggest all reasonable precautions to prevent pedestrians from acting in as silly a fashion as, and sometimes in even a sillier fashion than, many dogs.

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, for putting this Question upon the Order Paper to-day, and especially those who, like myself, take some interest in trying to secure greater safety upon our roads. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has long been in favour of the encouragement of what, for the moment, for the want of a better term, are called crash helmets, being worn by motor-cyclists: that, indeed, has been part of the propaganda of the Society, and particularly at our Rospa House training centre. Although we are indebted to the noble Lord, it would perhaps be wise to point out that the terms of his Question are not quite accurate. He asks Her Majesty's Government whether they would consider making it compulsory that all motor-cyclists and pillion riders should wear crash helmets, as recommended in the Report to the Minister of Transport on motor-cycle accidents by the Committee on Road Safety. That is not what the Committee on Road Safety reported. What they say in paragraph 19 of their Report is: We are convinced that the wearing of crash helmets by motor-cyclists would save many riders from serious head injuries. Until a suitable crash helmet has been designed and can be produced at a reasonable cost no useful purpose would he served by examining the question of whether the wearing of a crash helmet by civilian motor-cyclists should be made compulsory. we, ourselves, doubt whether compulsion would be desirable. I feel sure the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, will agree that the Report does not go so far as recommending their compulsory use—indeed, it rather tends the other way.


The noble Lord has corrected me, quite properly, but I imagine that if they did not feel the question was one of great importance, and that they would like to see this done, they would not have mentioned it at all. But perhaps I am wrong in taking that view of what they said.


I think the words speak for themselves, and I have read them out. There may be a difference of opinion as to whether the best results are secured by compulsion, or by such measures of encouragement and example as can be given on all sides. I understand the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, is advocating that not only motor-cyclists, hut pillion riders, also, should always go out wearing crash helmets. When the noble Lord embarked on that rather hazardous adventure I looked round to see whether he had equipped himself with a crash helmet to come down to your Lordships' House this afternoon. We are all anxious to prevent as many of these head injuries as possible. I quite appreciate that a large number of these young men have great dash and daring. I do not go so far as the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, when he says that they have all the qualities that we want, because I regret to say that many of them have not that sense of judgment in driving their motor-cycles that one would like to see, and that a large number of the crashes are caused by too much dash and daring, not modified with the necessary judgment and restraint. But none of us wants la see these people suffer from head injuries. I should like to pay my compliment to the Parliamentary Secretary on his broadcast, to which I listened with interest and to which I hope a number of your Lordships also listened. I hope, too, that a large number of motor-cyclists listened to that broadcast, because it was a direct encouragement to them to cast off all prejudices and to wear this additional safety device.

A great deal can be done by example. We have despatch riders in the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force, and the Police, all setting an example by wearing these helmets, and we may well get the ordinary civilians to follow their example. I have in mind another line of country in which the Royal Society have also taken an active part—namely, to try and get people who work in factories, where heavy weights are apt to be dropped about and heavy tools fall on people's toes, to wear steel-toed boots orshoes for their work. In cases where they are worn they have saved a great many serious accidents to feet. That has never been done by compulsion, but by persuasion and a little propaganda showing what has happened to a man's foot or his boots where that precaution has not been taken. Something on those lines would be more in accord with the way we try to do things in this country, rather than by creating another criminal offence, as we should be doing if we accepted compulsion.

A great deal can be done by encouragement. The day after the Parliamentary Secretary made his broadcast, the Daily Express offered a motor-cycle worth£150 for the best name for the crash helmet. Two days later, on January 23, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents offered a prize of£100 to the motor-cycle club which sent in the best proposals for popularising the use of these helmets. I hope that, as a result, many motor-cycle clubs will be competing one with the other and making suggestions as to how best to persuade their members, and others, to adopt this additional safety device. I must say that I agree with Lord Teviot in saying that the Government could well follow that lead. They could—and it would not cost very much—take off purchase tax, which would show that they had sympathy with this sort of idea. That would be more effective than the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that the motor-cycle manufacturer should have to send a crash helmet with every new motorcycle he delivered. That would not mean that the person who received it would wear it, nor would it mean that in the end he did not pay for it, because I have not the slightest doubt that it would have to be included in the final cost of the motorcycle, and although somebody might think that he was getting something for nothing, in fact the cost of the motor cycle would have gone up by£1 or 30s., or whatever it may be.


We are all in favour of removing purchase tax from anything, but even removing purchase tax does not guarantee that it will be bought or worn.


No. All I was saying was that that was a way in which the Government could follow the encouragement which has been given by the Daily Express and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. The Royal Society is in close touch with what goes on in other countries on road and other safety matters, and I do not know of any country where it is compulsory to wear this kind of helmet. I personally would not go so far as to make it a criminal offence if anybody did not wear such a helmet. I think that the more we can ventilate a matter like this in your Lordships' House, or in the House of Commons or anywhere, the better the propaganda will be, and the more people will take this extremely sensible safety precaution when in future they ride high-powered motor-cycles. It is because I hope that this debate to-day will have that effect, that I congratulate Lord Teviot on having put the subject down. I only hope that that will be the result.