HL Deb 28 January 1954 vol 185 cc549-88

4.22 p.m.

LORD ELTON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will now take steps to see that the speed limit in built-up areas is more effectively enforced, and if not, why not; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the subject which we are now to discuss is, I am afraid, not so entertaining as that which we have just been debating, though perhaps in its own way hardly less important. I do not expect to have to impose for very long upon your Lordships' patience, since the questions which I shall put to the noble Lord are both few and simple—designedly so, because in the past I think too often our discussions on this and kindred subjects have raised so many subsidiary issues, and diverged down so many side turnings, that the Minister, not altogether unwillingly perhaps, has found himself lost in a maze of by-roads, and the stark central issue, or one of the stark central issues, of the Government's responsibility for the enforcement of the law has almost altogether disappeared from view. That is the issue on which I wish to concentrate for a few moments this afternoon. I propose to put three simple questions and to make one simple suggestion about the speed limit, and I hope that we shall not diverge into discussions on all those wider measures which, of course, would be necessary for a serious attack upon road casualties as a whole.

My first question is very simple. A good many years ago now the Government enacted the statutory speed limit of 30 miles per hour in built-up areas. The Minister at the time said that it would save life, and later he said, on more than one occasion, that it was saving life. I would ask the noble Lord who is to reply, first, whether the Minister still agrees that, if by some miracle the speed limit were to be generally and universally observed, fewer men, women and children would suffer death or mutilation on the roads. Of course, the sober background to that question is the announcement yesterday that last month's road casualties were the highest ever recorded, and that last year's total of 226,520 is larger by nearly 9 per cent. than the total for 1952. We shall not, I hope, digress into a general discussion of the measures necessary for a wider attack upon that formidable total. The first question is merely; Does the Minister agree that a wider observance of the speed limit would save life?

My second question is equally simple. Not lone after the introduction of the speed limit it became obvious that a steadily increasing proportion of motorists were ignoring it; and to-day, as any motorist knows, it is only necessary on a clear stretch of road ill a restricted area in sonic suburb or country town to travel at 30 miles per hour, or less, to find oneself overtaken by a steady stream of motor vehicles, including lorries and Government service vans, all travelling at anything from 31 to 60 miles per hour—that is, unless the imaginary observer to whom I have just referred chances to he a police officer in a clearly marked police car, in which case he will be agreeably surprised at the apparently law-abiding character of every motorist within sight. But, my Lords, I am not a policeman, and for many years now I have been noting the universal disregard of the speed limit and, I must confess, constantly breaking it myself, as I am sure all your Lordships who are motorists would be ready to confess—not excluding the right reverend occupants of the Benches in front of me. I will assert without fear of serious contradiction, therefore, that where there is a clear stretch of road in a restricted area all motorists, including ourselves, repeatedly ignore the speed limit. Therefore, my second question to the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, is equally simple—namely, does he agree that there is a widespread disregard of the speed limit?

Now for the third question. It is, of course, true that there is no reform more deperately needed, and none which would more certainly earn lasting public gratitude and wide public renown for the Minister who adopted it, than a measure which succeeded in reducing the prodigious annual tragedy of the roads, which has already overshadowed countless families in this land and will be remembered centuries hence, I suppose, as the most flagrant social scandal of our day. Nevertheless, there is another and, in its own way, very compelling reason for putting an end to the anomaly of a speed limit which is universally disregarded. On the widest social grounds, which will be now apparent to all of your Lordships, it is surely highly undesirable to maintain in nominal existence a law which, to the common knowledge, is disregarded everywhere and every day. When I was a child I was brought up to assume, justifiably then, that society was permanently divided into two clear-cut divisions—a vast majority of law-abiding citizens and a small criminal minority which lived outside the law. To-day, alas! thanks to the growth of a jungle of restrictions, the speed limit is only the most important of a multiplicity of laws and bylaws, rules and regulations, which the most respectable citizen is constantly tempted to contravene; and of course, the constant breaking of this particular law in populous thoroughfares, and by respectable citizens, is specially conspicuous.

So, my Lords, I suggest that, on these grounds, there is something to be said for abolishing the speed limit altogether—if the Minister really has made up his mind that it is not possible to enforce it. Indeed, some while ago, I introduced a Motion in your Lordships' House, in which I asked the Government whether they would either enforce or abolish the law. I need hardly say that that was only a rather desperate attempt on my part to deliver a fresh attack from a new angle on the impregnable fortress which I have been attacking for the best part of twenty years. I did not really want abolition; what I wanted was enforcement. Unfortunately, the wording of my Motion enabled the official reply which was read out by one of the noble Lord's predecessors to write off the issue of enforcement altogether and merely refuse, at considerable length, to repeal the law. My third question, therefore, is quite simple. It is merely this: Does the noble Lord who is to reply agree that it is undesirable that there should be a law which is contravened by all classes of citizens in all parts of the country?

There are three simple questions, to each of which I cannot imagine that the answer will be other than a monosyllabic "yes." The noble Lord can hardly deny that the speed limit would save life if it were generally regarded; that it is, in general, disregarded; and that that disregards helps to undermine popular respect for the law. But the noble Lord will hardly wish to leave the matter there. He will doubtless remind us that there are every year (I think this figure is correct) upwards of 50,000 prosecutions for speeding, to which, I am afraid, the reply must be that 50,000 prosecutions probably represents less than one in 100,000 of the offences.

The noble Lord will doubtless also point out, quite justifiably, that the responsibility for enforcing the speed limit rests with local authorities. As to the responsibility resting with local authorities, I have always found it very hard to believe that a modern Government, with all its formidable direct powers, and all its scarcely less formidable indirect influence, if it really possessed the will, could not induce local authorities to enforce one of its own laws. As to what a local authority could do, I will venture to make one simple suggestion for the noble Lord's consideration, a simple measure which would certainly very quickly bring about a more widespread observance of the law and therefore, presumably, result in a considerable saving of human life.

I must admit at once, that the measure which I wish to suggest will be far from popular. I think, indeed, that at this stage no measure effective enough to reduce the appalling totals of road deaths and casualties is likely to be other than drastic. There will almost certainly be an outcry from the official spokesmen of the motoring organisations, just as there was from the official spokesmen, though not from the majority of members, of the motoring organisations, when the speed limit, itself, was introduced. But enforcement of the law is seldom popular, and, surely, a little initial unpopularity should not count against the saving of human life. The Minister may very well know much more effective methods of enforcing the speed limit than that which I am going to suggest. I hope he does. In fact, he certainly ought to, for if British citizens were being killed and wounded by a foreign enemy half as fast as they are being killed and wounded on their own roads, the Government of the day would certainly introduce effective countermeasures overnight. If the Minister of Transport has some effective new measure, no one, I am sure, will be more delighted than your Lordships.

In the meanwhile, however, may I draw the attention of the noble Lord to this contrast. If I am driving clown a clear stretch of road in a restricted area, and desire to drive at more than thirty miles per hour, I have only to verify, by a glance in my driving mirror, that there is no uniformed "speed cop" on my tail, to reassure myself that it will be safe to drive at any speed I please. Suppose, however, I knew that there were plain-clothes policemen in nondescript cars—in other words, that any car I saw reflected in my driving mirror might contain an official authorised to time my speed. And suppose I knew that there were police on foot, concealed and authorised to time my speed—in other words, suppose there were police traps in the area. Then I should certainly hesitate long before I broke the law t and so, I am sure, would tens of thousands of my fellow citizens.

If the Minister were to encourage local authorities to use plain-clothes police and police traps, he would be told, certainly and at once, that this method is "un-English." It was used in the past with success in Cardiff, I believe. I suppose that there Welsh Nationalists said that it was "un-Welsh." I fancy that Lord Nuffield was the first to affix this curious epithet to this particular method of saving life, but for some irrational reason it has stuck. It is completely respectable to use plain-clothes police to discourage British citizens from breaking into the homes of their fellow-citizens but to use plainclothes police to discourage other British citizens from endangering the lives of their fellow-citizens is un-English and odious. Perhaps, in the last resort, it is merely a question of how seriously we are prepared to take an annual casualty roll of 226,520, and whether we can shake off the fatalistic apathy bred of over-long familiarity with an annual casualty roll which would shock us into horrified and instant action if it were suddenly caused by cholera, floods or railway accidents.

Naturally, all motorists, including myself, would be irritated and inconvenienced by the knowledge that we were being observed by plain-clothes police, but I am sure that most of us would submit with good grace. I am sure that we should welcome the measure—or other equally drastic measure which the Minister might prefer—so soon as it became evident, as would become evident, that it was increasing observance of the law and, therefore, was beginning to save human life. Naturally, too, a serious effort: to reduce road casualties would need an attack on a very wide front, which would involve many measures far more elaborate and extensive than that of which I have been speaking. I have confined myself to a discussion of the speed limit and of the dangerous anomalies of the present situation. I have suggested one possible method of increasing observance of the law within the restricted areas. If the noble Lord who is to reply can tell us that he intends to use a more effective one, no one will be more delighted than myself, What would induce a mood of despair and would be disastrous would be if the noble Lord were to tell the House that we should still have to rely on the old, familiar, half-hearted, ineffective measures—education, courtesy propaganda and the like—and if he were to tell us that the Minister knows of nothing more that he can do. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think that any noble Lord would dissent from the real purpose which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has in mind in moving this Motion—that is, the reduction of the number of road accidents. But, with great respect, I doubt whether the noble Lord would have many knowledgeable folk agreeing with the premise of his entire argument. What the noble Lord has conveyed to me by his remarks is that all we have to do, to do away with the appalling number of road accidents, is to enforce the speed limit.


My Lords, I am sorry if I gave the noble Lord that impression. My argument was intended to convey that the observance of the speed limit within restricted areas would be one small contribution towards the reduction of the appalling total, not a solution of the whole problem.


I am sorry if I misunderstood the noble Lord. He has now said that an enforcement of the speed limit regulations would be a small contribution; I will examine in a minute how large or how small it would be. I want to treat this matter as seriously as did the noble Lord. I spent some time in the Ministry of Transport and road safety was my special care and responsibility. I tell your Lordships, frankly, that from my own researches, and from the unanswerable statistics provided for my Department by the police, I was driven to the conclusion that the major cause of road accidents in built-up areas is congestion and all the ills that stem from congestion—intolerance, selfishness, bad behaviour and frustration, not on the part of the vehicle driver alone, but on the part of everybody who uses the highways.

Every accident that happens is subject to meticulous investigation by the police and the Ministry of Transport, and they have produced statistics which I have given to your Lordships before. Noble Lords may query them, but in the absence of any other figures we must accept them. Approximately 80 per cent. of road accidents take place in built-up areas subject to a 30 miles per hour speed limit. When the speed limit imposed under the 1934 Road Traffic Act came into operation in 1935, the number of vehicles on the roads, and the number of pedestrians on the pavements, was nothing like the number there is to-day, twenty years afterwards. Last year alone, the number of vehicles using the roads increased by 400.000. The short fact is that in built-up areas our roads are too narrow to carry the vehicular traffic, and the pavements are too narrow to carry the pedestrian traffic. Police statistics show that the number of accidents in built-up areas in which speed is the main contributory factor represent under 1 per cent. of the total. The factors which contribute most to road accidents are carelessness, frustration, bad temper, lack of tolerance and bad manners. In the Library of your Lordships' House this morning I happened to pick up a daily paper and read these words about a lady (I hope she will forgive me for mentioning her—she is a former Mayor of Bermondsey): She stood on the street corner waiting for the traffic to pass. Tired of waiting, after five minutes she stepped out into the road. In those simple words is to be found the cause of the majority of accidents in built-up areas. This lady did not even trouble to walk down the pavement to the next pedestrian crossing. I have seen more bad driving in built-up areas by drivers of vehicles travelling at under 20 miles per hour than I have seen by drivers of vehicles travelling at over that speed. I would not condone for one moment the bad driver, but I would rather see an enforcement of the law dealing with careless and dangerous driving, because, as some folk drive, it can be dangerous to drive at ten miles an hour.

Another factor which the noble Lord should take into consideration is the abnormal loads which we see being carried by vehicles on the roads, and I would beg the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government to take this matter to heart. When we see ships, almost, being carried through the narrow streets of some of our provincial cities, surely there is something wrong somewhere. We see advertisements by hauliers boasting about loads of 100-feet long being carried on the roads, about ships' boilers being carried from the Tyne to Southampton. Surely a boat can go by sea and does not have to be carried by road. I would beg the noble Lord who is going to reply to take this question seriously. I can give him plenty of cases where all the traffic has been held up, mile after mile, by one of these cumbersome heavy-load trailers going through the centre of a city, although at times there has been a by-pass road which could have been used. Just imagine the sense of frustration. Stand on any street in London and watch people who have been standing waiting to cross the road. In desperation they take a chance, and before they know where they are, they are knocked over—and not by anybody who is exceeding the speed limit.

Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, will give us the latest figures, but police statistics, again, show that outside the built-up areas the number of road accidents in which speed is a major factor is relatively small, and the overall percentage is small. Some noble Lords may say: "I can knock the bottom out of your argument, because if all these vehicles were travelling so much slower the risk of accident would be less." That reminds me of the old saying that the safest way not to be injured is to stay in bed. That was all right until somebody said that 99.9 per cent. of the people of this country die in bed, so that if you do not want to die, do not go to bed. That is no argument.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, asked the question: What would happen if the speed limit outside the built-up areas were enforced?—and I take it that he was referring to the speed limit over the entire country. In that ease, the whole industrial, commercial and social life of this country would come to a standstill. It is not generally known that no vehicle other than a private car is allowed to travel on any road in this country above 30 miles per hour. I am quite satisfied that the whole question of the speed limit in relation to road accidents requires careful consideration. I am disappointed that the right honourable friend of the noble Lord, the Minister of Transport, has had to announce a delay in the new Road Traffic Bill. I know what a difficult task he has. But I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that the responsibility for road accidents is solely that of the vehicle user, or that that is so in the majority of instances.


If the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting, I do not think I ever said that it was.


That is the only one the noble Lord mentioned. One of the troubles is that too many roads are restricted, and you thereby breed contempt. I believe that in the Metropolitan Police Area there are 7,000 miles of restricted roads. What one has to consider is that, as the vehicles increase in number, the average speed in most of our cities and towns is getting lower, and yet the accidents go up.

Again, from my personal experience—I say this with reserve, but quite emphatically—the 30 miles an hour speed limit is the refuge of the indolent and lazy local authority. When I was at the Ministry all the applications for the 30 miles an hour limit came to me. I used to go and inspect every road concerned, and I took along with me the officials of the Ministry of Transport and the police. Time without number we have examined the stretch of road; we have had before us a report of the accident record of that stretch of road, and of all the accidents that have happened for a period of two years prior to the application, and not one of those accidents was due in a major degree to speed. Then there is the question of the parking of vehicles, behind which people blindly cross the road. There again, what are the local authorities doing to provide parking places and so take these vehicles off the road?

I do not think the accident ratio would worsen at all if the noble Lord and his advisers would make an investigation of all roads that are restricted with the view of removing the restriction on same, in the same way that the Ministry of Transport investigated all the signs some two or three years ago. We were getting "signed off" the road entirely. I am not at all certain that the police are not wise in their attitude to speed limits. I do not mind speaking in even a semi-official way for the Ministry of Transport, but I should hesitate to speak for the Home Office. Perhaps the police showed considerable wisdom, knowing that speed is not a fader, and that continual prosecution of people has not diminished road accidents, in not taking the same line of action which they did earlier—that of Setting police trap. I have never liked it. I think the police trap in motoring is akin to the other aversion of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, the gin trap as regards rabbits. The police trap did not give the victim a sporting chance; he had no defence. I think the police are wise in that respect.

Even upon this question of enforcement there seems to be a considerable amount of muddled thinking in the city adjacent to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, lives, and from which I live not very far. I should like to cite a case. The noble Lord wants enforcement by the local authority. I happened to pick up a copy of the Oxford Mail the other day, and there was a case reported of a motorist who was summoned before the Oxford City Magistrates on two grounds: one was of driving dangerously, and the other of exceeding the speed limit in a stretch of road in Oxford which the noble Lord knows well, running from Folley Bridge to Hinksey— I expect many other noble Lords also know that road. There is no road running into this road on the left-hand side, but there are some roads running into it on the right-hand side. This motorist was summoned for dangerous driving and exceeding the speed limit. The offence took place at 12.20 a.m., in the middle of the night. According to the newspaper report, the police, in evidence, said that there was no other traffic on the road at the time. The magistrates dismissed the charge of dangerous driving, but as the man had pleaded guilty to exceeding the speed limit, he was fined in respect of that offence.

I mention that case because the noble Lord wants enforcement. I am in no way criticising the Chief Constable of Oxford for bringing the case. I have no criticism of the magistrates. They found that the man was not driving dangerously. In 1934 Parliament, in its wisdom, imposed a 30 m.p.h. limit, and I can only assume that Parliament imposed it because it was considered dangerous to drive a motor vehicle over 30 m.p.h. in a built-up area. The magistrates said that this man was not driving dangerously, but was driving over the limit, which the man admitted. Now I say quite frankly that that action and that prosecution did only one thing, and that was to antagonise a citizen. It did not contribute in the least to road safety. I am glad to know that that kind of case does not often happen.

I do not want to go into the whole question of road accidents because, as the noble Lord said, he has narrowed this Motion down. But I am certain that this factor of the speed limit must receive some serious consideration. Consideration has to be given to-day to the construction of vehicles, and many other things. I will not reiterate what is in the Press to-day and anticipate what is in the mind of the Minister of Transport, but I say, quite sincerely, that it is no good creating class prejudice in this matter. Everybody who uses the roads of this country has an equal responsibility; the pedestrian has an equal responsibility with the motorist or the vehicle driver. We cannot say to-day that the pedestrian has every right over every other road user. We shall never cure this problem in that way. And I doubt whether we shall cure it, or make any substantial contribution to curing it, by the noble Lord's suggestion.

I have no objection to the noble Lord's other suggestion, of plain clothes police— what was known as the Oxford County experiment so long as the plain clothes police in a motor car do not have the same rights of arrest and prosecution as the uniformed police: with that I would not agree. But I do not object to any measure for guidance, for corrective advice, or for checking abuse, bad behaviour, dangerous driving or bad manners. I am afraid, therefore, I cannot wholeheartedly support the general argument of the noble Lord, but I hope that the noble Lord. Lord Lloyd, will seek his right honourable friend's undertaking that, as there is to be this delay in the new Road Traffic Bill, he will do something in the meantime. He cannot expect to widen all the streets and all the pavements of this country in a short space of time but what he can do — and he could talk to his right honourable friends, the Ministers of the Service Departments, who are the worst offenders in this— is to keep these abnormal loads off the roads when other means of transport are available. He can make certain that by-passes are used instead of the busy thoroughfares, and that everything is done to see that the streets are not used in the middle of the day at the peak traffic hours for the loading and off-loading of goods which could be done at some other time. If he will do that he will make a valuable contribution. I wait, with the greatest pleasure and with some anxiety, for the day when the Bill, which has long been promised, will recognise the responsibility of every road user in this country. Then we shall start doing something to cure this problem.

5.5 p.m.


My Lords, it is with some diffidence that I rise to address your Lordships' House so soon after becoming a Member of it, and I am encouraged to do so only by a strong feeling in me about the grievous extent of death and destruction that prevails upon the roads of this country. There is only one major consideration that I wish to place before your Lordships, but before I do so I should like to say a word concerning the specific point of the enforcement of the law in a built-up area. I am not in favour of abolishing the speed limit, nor do I believe that it can be enforced strictly as things are, for the good reason that, if my observations are right, there are many parts of the roads which are limited to 30 m.p.h. traffic but which ought not to be so limited. Their mere existence detracts from the observance by motorists of the 30 m.p.h. limit in a general way. Therefore, the first plea I would make is for a revision of the areas that are regarded as built-up, so that there is a less widespread use of the 30 m.p.h. limit; then every motorist with a sense of responsibility would regard it as his duty to observe that limit. We shall not be able to enforce its observance until that is done.

The second essential point to which consideration should be given is the penalties for motoring offences. I doubt very much whether, for exceeding the speed limit or for any motoring offence, a fine of one, two or three guineas is much of a penalty at all. In many cases it is not a penalty. Nor, indeed, is an endorsement of the licence. In view of the extensive mutilation and the many deaths of men and women on the roads there should be suspension of licence. That, alone, will bring home to some people the enormity of their offence. I contend that the destruction on the roads not only demands but justifies the use of the suspension of licence as a much more frequent penalty, even though, in some cases, it might create a real hardship.

I should like to look at the matter in a bigger setting. Just as I believe that you cannot deal with the 30 m.p.h. limit alone and hope to solve this problem to any extent, so do I believe that so long as road safety is regarded as an isolated problem we shall not make headway. It is part of the far bigger question of general social behaviour; and it is because of that that I feel impelled to voice my opinion here in this debate. Bad driving or dangerous driving is bad manners, and we should develop a public opinion which expresses that simple truth, making the offender aware that he is behaving in an unmannerly fashion. Bad driving or dangerous driving is social immorality, and it a civilised society must see that such actions receive the censure they deserve. I believe that, in the eyes of Christian men, had driving is a sin against God and a sin against God's, creatures—a sin which daily adds to the suffering, the sorrow and the bereavement of the world. Bad driving is a more subtle form of selfishness.

It is most extraordinary that many men who would despise themselves for ignoring the normal courtesies of life seem to be possessed of quite a different spirit when they get behind a driving wheel and have power at their disposal and a horn to blow. While I would not disparage the steps taken to enforce the law, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has said, and while I would not disparage all those isolated efforts which aim at promoting road safety or at any rate preventing accidents, I believe that the problem has to be approached in a far more positive way and in a far bigger setting, and that we should try to form in men and women a far greater sensitiveness to their social responsibility. Then, whether they are motorists or pedestrians, they will act in such a manner that each has the care and welfare of the whole of the community at heart—the community of which he or she is an individual member and in which he moves and has his being.

5.12 p.m.


My Lords, this debate, it seems to me, would have been well worth while if only for the speech to which we have just listened from the right reverend Prelate. It was a speech of such obvious sincerity that I cannot help feeling it must have touched the hearts of many. If only there could be a wholehearted response to the appeal in the closing words of that speech, I am perfectly certain that the conditions which we all know exist on the roads to-day would improve vastly and that an appreciable reduction of accidents would surely take place.

I must, however, deal with the Motion submitted to your Lordships by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. It was in 1951 that the noble Lord produced a similar Motion in this House. On that occasion, as he has to-day, he urged enforcement of the law. He also urged the use of plain-clothes police, concealed traps and heavier penalties. In the same debate the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, took part, and he submitted the point of view that the speed limit was completely unenforceable; and he criticised the criterion for a restricted road. Well, my Lords, everyone who has experience of the roads as a user must know—as indeed Lord Elton must know himself —that the criterion for a restricted road is not a matter of the state of the road, or road safety; it is simply a question of whether you can find in it street lamps.

There are one or two roads that I am tempted to bring to your Lordships' notice. One of those roads runs from Mitcham to Croydon. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Elton, ever has occasion to go along there. If so, he will find that in that road of about two and a half miles there is one house, standing back about fifty yards. There is one road intersection. But because there are street lamps on that road it is a restricted road. When the police want to take action to secure convictions for exceeding the speed limit, a police car is usually to be found concealed behind the house; and presumably the occupants wait there until they see a car doing more than 30 m.p.h. Then there is a summons and prosecution, and no doubt a fine. That, my Lords, contributes nothing to road safety; it only irritates people and does nothing practical. No one could go within a hundred yards of that road without being seen. The official answer is that children occasionally play on the common nearby. It is not only children who go there; there is also a public golf course. Yet no one could say that a motor-car proceeding at thirty or forty miles an hour could possibly cause any danger. Another road which is a restricted road is the one that goes from Edinburgh to South Queensferry. On the one side there is a completely unclimbable wall, and on the other a line of ribbon development of bungalows. The restricted area is a long one, yet the road is one of the broadest in Scotland or England. When the police want to get a conviction they use this road for the purpose. That contributes absolutely nothing to road safety. It seems to me that this question of the enforcement of the speed limit needs looking into. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, that this question of the speed limit should receive some experienced and careful consideration in these days.

There is a further aspect of the matter. There is a Report issued every year—I have a copy in my hand at this moment—by Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary. The latest edition which I could get was for the year ended September 30, 1952. Paragraph 56 of this Report says this: Road traffic and the wide range of legislation related to it make an ever-increasing demand upon police resources. The aggregate amount of time spent in dealing with accidents, reporting offences, attendance at court, etc., is a very high proportion of the total, and although such duties make a valuable contribution to road safety it is in our view important that no tendency should be allowed to develop towards giving undue emphasis to traffic duties and responsibilities which might result in individual members of the uniformed branch allowing their traffic consciousness to divert them unduly from their basic police work of preventing and detecting crime. In other words, my Lords, if you really want to increase the opportunities for the criminal population in this country to indulge in their "smash-and-grab" raids and other such pursuits, you cannot do it better than by employing more policemen on detecting offences concerned with motor traffic.

I hope that no one will think that the police allow the motoring population to exceed the speed limit without doing something about it. They obviously cannot do that, and they have not attempted to do so. On page 80 of the Report for 1952 of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, your Lordships will see a paragraph to the effect that prosecutions for dangerous or careless driving remained at the same level as in 1951, but that prosecutions for excessive speed in a built-up area showed a marked increase to nearly 23,400, which is 44 per cent. more than for the year before. Obviously, the police do what they can, but they cannot be everywhere and do everything. As we all know, in certain big cities—the Metropolitan police are a good example—the police forces are seriously under strength, and are employed not only in detecting offences against the speed limit but in other duties as well. They are too busily engaged, surely, to have to pro3ecute people who have committed the technical offence of driving at more than 30 m.p.h.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, who addressed us this afternoon, dealt with motor traffic as a whole. But there are various classes of motor traffic. He did not tell us his ideas about heavy commercial traffic. There are some of us in this House who have pleaded, in season and out, that the speed limit for heavy goods vehicles outside the 30 m.p.h. areas should be reconsidered and, if possible, done away with altogether, because it again represents nothing. We have a Report from the Road Research Board to the effect that 94 per cent. of the drivers completely ignore it, and yet we cannot get the Government to do anything about it. The Government answer is usually: "Oh, well, when there is agreement between the employers and the trade unions we will alter the law." In the meantime, the law is broken consistently by 94 per cent. of the heavy vehicle drivers on the roads up and down the country. It is a scandal to have that state of affairs. The law ought to be brought into line with the common practice.

With regard to the observance of the speed limit, many of your Lordships will know that it is at times difficult for a motorist to know when he is within a restricted area. It is true that signs are put up at the side of the road, but just at the moment when he is passing such a sign there may be some form of traffic emergency on the road, involving a vehicle or a pedestrian or some other road user who may get in the way; there may be something that demands the attention of the driver on the road itself and not at the side of the road. And at that precise moment he may be passing one of these 30 m.p.h. signs. There is nothing to tell him that he is in a restricted area until he comes to the end of it, when he is warned that he is going out of it. In the case of derestricted areas, there are little plaques which are put on lampposts, telegraph posts and the like, showing us that we are in, a derestricted area. It would be much more to the point if we could have those little plaques to show us when we ate in a restricted area. It is difficult, from the point of view of the driver, to know for certain whether or not he is in a restricted area. I do not know whether the noble Lord who is to reply can give us any hope on that point, but if he could it would do something to help.

The question of the restricted areas in the Metropolitan Police area has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth. The figure is actually slightly higher than the one he gave. There are in the Metropolitan Police area 7,500 miles of restricted road, and it is quite impossible, I submit, to expect that the police, without making an altogether extravagant demand on the force, would be able to detail officers to detect motor cars travelling at over 30 m.p.h. over 7,500 miles of road. It cannot be done. If it would make a significant contribution to road safety, we should all be in favour of it; but the fact is that it would not. I hope that the Government will give consideration to this question of the 30 m.p.h. speed limit. Whether it is possible to do anything with regard to revising the areas which are already restricted I do not know, but if it were, is might do some good. If we could ensure that roads were not restricted and subject to the 30 m.p.h. limit unless it was essential from the point of view of the public safety, then I think we should see a closer observance of the law. But, for myself, I feel that what we should concentrate on is not so much the observance of the 30 m.p.h. limit as the question of whether a man is driving dangerously, whether he is behaving in a proper way or not, as outlined in the speech made by the right reverend Prelate who preceded me. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, will be able to deal with one or two of these points.

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, it is not easy for me to address your Lordships for the first time on a subject which has been so ably dealt with by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, but I shall hope to add something to this debate. I must confess that, for a very long time, I have felt much opposed to arbitrary speed limits. For one thing, it is impossible to choose any speed limit which will be entirely suitable for all cars, all drivers, all times of day or night and all weather conditions. All those things vary. It is as easy to drive to the danger of the public at 25 miles an hour as it is at 50 or even 70 miles an hour. I well remember a journey from London to Dorking which I took some years ago in a friend's car. The car was an ancient one and I doubt whether we ever greatly exceeded 25 miles an hour, but I certainly arrived at our destination with my heart in my mouth. The whole cause of the danger was lack of control of the car and lack of decision on the driver's part. It seems to me that those are two of the chief danger factors on the road to-day, along with the ones which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, mentioned— congestion and the irritation which arises therefrom.

It may be argued "How are we going to restrain the reckless driver, the true 'road-hog,' who insists on reaching his destination in a record time at the expense of everybody except himself?" That is certainly a problem which has to be faced, but I doubt whether it will ever be solved by imposing or enforcing a speed limit. For one thing, the dangerous form of speeding is uncontrolled speeding—that is to say, uncontrolled because the driver is going too fast for him to control his car within visible distance. That, as we have already heard, is merely one feature of bad manners and lack of consideration for others. Even if we were to enforce the speed limit, there are hundreds of other ways in which he could show those features of his character, and show them to the danger of the public. One has only to go into a congested area just outside London—I think those are the places where one meets the worst examples of it—to see that sort of con- duct going on continuously, but not necessarily by people travelling over 30 miles an hour.

I am no less anxious than is the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to increase the safety of the roads. I think it is a vital matter, something that must be dealt with; but I doubt very much whether the mere imposition of arbitrary speed limits, which may or may not be enforced, is the way to do it. The roads must be made safer for all classes—for motorists, for cyclists, for pedestrians and, I may add a fourth class, for dogs. Incidentally, I think that it should be a penal offence for the owner of a doe to allow his dog to wander on the public highway without his being present to control it. How often, I wonder, do we suddenly pull up and swerve to avoid a dog, with possible danger to other people?

It is a great fallacy, I think, to assume that when an accident occurs it is necessarily the fault of the motorist. There is to-day a great campaign against dangerous driving—your Lordships will observe on every lamp post at the moment one comes into a built-up area, posters to the effect that "Such-and-such a borough welcomes careful drivers" but not a word is said about careless walking. Whenever there is an accident, one party being a motorist and the other a pedestrian, it is more or less assumed at once that the motorist is the villain and the pedestrian is the innocent victim. Well, my Lords, I have been both a motorist and a pedestrian, and I have also been a cyclist, so I think I can speak from a detached point of view. I am convinced that more—or, shall I say, a greater percentage, because one cannot judge in actual numbers—pedestrians than motorists are a danger on the roads, because they are not trained to the use of the roads. They do not have to pass a walking test; they do not have to learn any Highway Code—they lust do as they please.

It often happens in the country that one has to pull up suddenly. Your Lordships may have noticed a pedestrian walking in dark clothes at night, with his back to oncoming traffic. Possibly one has had to dip one's headlights at that moment because of an oncoming car, and so one does not see him until one is practically on him. Then, of course, one's whole instinct is to swerve out to avoid him, with the possible result, if the road is a narrow one, of a collision. But there is no doubt that it was the pedestrian's fault. I think it a little unjust that pedestrians do not receive more strictures for their misuse of the roads. Another great danger comes from those who persist in dashing out from behind a bus the moment that they have alighted from it, without bothering to look to see whether anything is coming in the opposite direction. One meets that kind of thing every day. I could go on mentioning many other possible causes of danger, but I will not take up your Lordships' time with them.

I should like to give some statistics which I have received from the Automobile Association and which I think prove that, in itself, speed is not a danger factor. It may be, I grant, a contributing factor, if it is not wisely used. If there is an accident, there is no doubt that the speed at which the motorist was driving should be taken into account; but, in itself, I do not think speed can be counted as a danger factor at all. To revert to the statistics: in the Metropolitan Police District, the percentage of accidents in 1952 due to excessive speed was only 0.5. Incidentally, it is a noticeable fact that this figure has declined from 1.1 per cent. in 1950 and 0.8 per cent. in 1951, in spite of the fact, as the noble Lord. Lord Lucas of Chilworth, told us, that a great many more fast cars have been put on the roads. The Ministry of Transport estimate for 1951 for the country as a whole is that out of a total of 178,409 accidents, only 6,369 (that is, something like 3.5 per cent.) were due to excessive speeds and, incidentally, out of those, only 1,887 were due to private cars.

My Lords, any responsible driver knows very well the speed at which he is safe and the point up to which he may go with safety. To my mind, the chief danger is either lack of experience or lack of responsibility. With regard to lack of responsibility, as I have already said, one can do nothing except by gradual education. With regard to inexperienced drivers, I think it might be possible to consider the idea of imposing upon a driver who has just passed his driving test, a limit of 40 miles an hour for a given period, at the end of which period he would be released from the restriction, provided that his licence was clean. Whether or not that would be effective I really cannot say, but it might be worth considering. However, I am sure that consideration for others and due attention to the control of one's car are the things which are going to bring safety on to the roads, and that speed in itself is no danger factor at all.

5.37 p.m.


My Lords, it is my privilege to-day to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Somers, on the speech that he has just made. I do so with complete sincerity, because, as I am sure all your Lordships will agree, it has greatly enhanced our debate to-day. I have seen the noble Lord sitting in your Lordships' House for some time, and I am sorry that we have had to wait so long before hearing him. Now that he has taken the plunge, I hope that we shall hear him again soon.

To turn to this Motion, I welcome the opportunity of speaking on this subject, but I am afraid that I disagree with the terms of the Motion and with much of Lord Elton's speech, though we all have the same common interest in speaking on this subject, which is to try and cut down the toll of dead and injured on the roads. I do not believe that the right way to tackle this problem is to try to enforce the 30 m.p.h. speed limit. In 1952, there were 61,000 prosecutions, which I think shows that the vigilance of the police is very high. But the fact that there were so many prosecutions also shows something else—namely, that there is something wrong with the present system on the roads. I believe that that may well be the great liberality with which 30 m.p.h. speed limits are scattered throughout our land. Many of them are unnecessary; and, because of that fact, they have brought the system as a whole into disrepute with the public. A more serious side to this matter is that it has brought the police into conflict with the public. That is borne out by no less an authority than the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, who says that the London policeman is losing his traditional popularity with the public by having to enforce laws which have no popular support—and the Commissioner lists parking offences and speeding in the 30 m.p.h. speed limit area, I believe that it is of no use at all trying to bolster up, by greater police enforcement, by heavier penalties, and perhaps by the use of plain-clothes police, and "specials," a system which has lost its public support. That public support must be regained., and I believe that the only way to do that is to have a general overhaul of the whole of the speed limit system throughout the country.

I can think of two types of instances where a 30 m.p.h. speed limit is unnecessary. The first is that of places where service roads run beside main roads—as for example on the Dover road, at Rochester, in Kent. The main road goes through, and on either side of it there are houses, but between those houses and the main road there are service roads. Surely it is necessary only to put a 30 m.p.h. limit on the service roads, so that fast traffic may use the main road. There must be many instances of that kind in various parts of the country. The other instance which I have in mind has already been mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Howe—that is, where speed limits are in force in places at which there are no houses. The example of this which I know best—it has irritated me intensely in the past—is the road running out of Epping Forest towards Epping. There is a long stretch of road—about a mile, I should say—with no houses at all upon it. On one side of it is forest, and on the other side is a high wall. That stretch is covered by a 30 m.p.h. limit simply because there are street lamps at intervals of 200 yards or less along the side of the road. The provision for that was brought in, as your Lordships know, in the 1934 Road Traffic Act. I see that it is also provided in that measure that the Minister can waive the terms of the Act for the imposition of a limit where he thinks fit. I am sorry that more advantage has not been taken of that provision in the past.

One further point concerning this aspect of the subject relates to the procedure for derestricting roads. The Ministry of Transport can by order derestrict roads which already have a 30 m.p.h. limit, but I am told that the process is a very long one, and that it sometimes takes as much as two years. That is a long time. During, the course of it a great deal of irritation is likely to be caused, and the police will doubtless be made to waste a great deal of their time by patrolling the road in question. I suggest to Her Majesty's Government that this procedure for derestricting roads should be speeded up. I feel sure that they could find some quicker and better method of doing it. In passing, I may say that I should not like to see "washed out" altogether any machinery for consulting the local people. I think they should be consulted. None the less, as I have said, I am confident that the whole process could be greatly speeded up.

In my view, there should be a general overhaul and revision of the present 30 m.p.h. limits throughout the country and also of the circumstances in which the 30 m.p.h. limits have been imposed. The noble Lord, Lord Somers, has already shown your Lordships that speed by itself is not a great cause of accidents. I believe that he is right about that, and it is borne out by the police analysis of road accidents for 1952. I think we need have no fear that there will be increases in the numbers of accidents if the number of 30 m.p.h. speed limits in this country is reduced to the essential minimum. In fact, the reverse may well occur, because people will realise that those limits which remain have been retained for some good purpose, and will probably observe them without any supervision. That will be a good thing for this country. I believe that the adoption of the course I have suggested would release a great many police for more important work than some of them are now doing and would save the public a great deal of irritation.

5.46 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to contribute a few words to this debate, but before doing so I wish to take the opportunity of warmly congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Somers, on an excellent maiden speech. I, too, hope that we shall hear him often in this House in the future. With regard to the matter under debate, the basic problem which we have to face in this country (I have mentioned it before, but I see no reason why I should not mention it again) is, as Lord Lucas has said, congestion. There are too many cars on too many bad roads in this very congested country. I wonder whether it would be possible to calculate the number of millions of miles that were covered yesterday throughout the United Kingdom by motor vehicles, and to put against that number—if it could be found—the number of accidents that occurred. I am sure that the proportion would work out at some very small decimal point; and it would, if anything, I think, lead one to the view that, on the whole, the standard of driving was not too bad, and that the standard of common sense of the people of this country was not too bad either.

But we have this basic problem. Many thousands of miles are being coveted daily by dangerous machines like motorcars of all kinds, and owing to human frailty mistakes are sometimes made. All of us make mistakes now and then. Sometimes we are guilty of little acts of thoughtlessness, like that of stepping off the pavement into the road from behind a bus without taking good care to see that it is safe to do so. That lady who has been referred to this evening who did that may never have done it before; and, in all probability, she will never do it again. She did it once, owing to momentary thoughtlessness, and risked an accident. But that sort of thing is going on all over the country. We shall never be able entirely to cure it, but doubtless there are ways in which it can be greatly mitigated. We can, perhaps, help by education, particularly in our schools, and try to rear up a new race of marvellous people, with far more road sense than is possessed by the present generation. If that can be accomplished, it may do a great deal towards helping in the solution of this problem.

I should like to support the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in one matter. I agree with him and with other noble Lords who have emphasised that speed in itself is not a dangerous factor. The great danger factor is, undoubtedly, dangerous driving, and dangerous driving not necessarily connected with speed. Either in built-up or derestricted areas dangerous driving, as we all know, may occur at quite slow speeds, by the hesitant driver, the driver who does not know what he or she intends to do next. I do not quite agree with Lord Somers that all drivers know what safety factors they have. I wish that all drivers knew the capacity of their brakes. I wish that all drivers knew the capacity of a smooth tyre, when a car is pulled up, as compared with the capacity of a good tyre—and so on. I wish that all drivers would have their brakes tested more often than many of them do, especially in the case of those whose cars are pre-war models. But that, in itself, is an extremely difficult problem. The regular testing of brakes is something that can be done only as the outcome of a personal desire on the part of motorists to see that their safety factors are as. good as they can possibly be made.

With regard to the use of non-uniformed police, I believe that they could do a great deal to check dangerous driving including the bad driving of hesitant drivers who, as I say, can be dangerous as: well as reckless ones. But, of course, in view of the present state a the police force—it is still something like 5,000 under-strength: In the Metropolitan area alone, I believe—we cannot expect them to be able to watch our roads as carefully as we should wish, to check either speeding or dangerous driving. To introduce a number of non-uniformed police in cars which are not necessarily recognisable as police cars would be an experiment well worth trying, I believe. We can all recognise quite easily those beautifully washed and polished Wolseley cars with their two great loudspeakers on top. They can be spotted half a mile away, and when they appear all motorists, of course, become as gentle as lambs. The police, I suggest, could have vehicles a little less conspicuous than those now used, from which to watch the roads and give advice, as they do in the County of Oxford. If this were done, we should greatly economise in the use of police for traffic duties. One car doing that on the Great West Road would have the value of half a dozen uniformed police whom everybody can recognise a long way off.


My Lords, would the noble Lord tell us how we should be able to differentiate between tie un-uniformed police in a car and a party of motor bandits?


Presumably they would have their police uniform under an un-uniform coat, or a badge to show that they had full authority. Surely something like that is perfectly easy to arrange.


There are many lady drivers to-day. I can imagine they would be rather afraid if another car ranged up alongside and a party of men not in uniform told them to stop. I think they ought to have some distinguishing badge.


That may be so at first, but in course of time people would get used to it, as they get used to most things. I do not advocate it entirely but I think it is worthy of experiment. It has been successful in Oxford-shire in curbing reckless and really dangerous driving, and I think it is worth trying. If it is proved to do no good whatever, nobody is hurt and no expense has been entailed. I agree with what has been said about the overhaul of restricted areas, and with that I should like to couple my agreement with what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said about making the signs of restricted areas more continuous. I think that would be a very useful help. That is all of your Lordships' time I want to take. I should like to see some experiment made on the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Many of these rules and regulations which we make with regard to safety on the roads are undoubtedly uncomfortable things to live with, but we have to be drastic somewhere. If the number of suggestions—many of them excellent suggestions—made in our debates on the subject of danger on the roads were counted up and put against the number of suggestions which have been acted upon, it makes one feel that we are talking against a brick wall.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, the brick wall rises. I hope that when I have finished the noble Lord will feel slightly less frustrated than he does at the moment. The Motion on the Order Paper refers to one specific and limited point—namely, the enforcement of the speed limit in built-up areas. I cannot imagine that anybody will quarrel with the principle that the Motion seeks to enunciate, which is, that if there is a law, it should be enforced effectively, or as effectively as possible. We all must agree that failure to enforce any law will eventually bring the law into contempt. I do not wish to go now into the question whether the enforcement of this particular law is or is not adequate: I should like to deal with that later. If I may answer the third point of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, first, I would say that on the principle involved there is nothing between him and Her Majesty's Government. Although the Motion is directed to a limited point, obviously much greater considerations are at stake than the mere enforcement of a law. After all, the purpose of this particular law, which was introduced in 1935, is to protect the citizens of this country from injury and death on the roads. Whilst we should certainly respect the law merely because it is the law, no law can ultimately be justified unless, broadly speaking, it fulfils the purpose for which it was enacted. And it is against the background of road casualties that this matter must be considered.

As your Lordships are aware, it was only the day before yesterday that the December figures of road casualties were published. I am sorry to say that the total is the highest December total of which the Ministry of Transport has a record. I admit straight away that these figures are a matter of the greatest concern. At the same time, I suggest that if we are to form a proper judgment on the present position it is essential that we should view these figures in their proper perspective. Therefore, I hope that the House will forgive me if, for a moment, I hark back to the past. During the war petrol rationing caused an enormous reduction in the number of vehicles on the roads, and there was an equally great reduction in the number of road casualties. As petrol rationing was relaxed and finally abolished, more and more vehicles came back on the road, and inevitably the casualty rate increased. Since 1945 there has been, with minor fluctuations, a steady rise both in the number of vehicles on the roads and the number of casualties. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, has already touched on how the number of vehicles has increased. In 1945 there were 2,552,000 vehicles in circulation; to-day there are 5,286,000—more than double that number. In 1945 there were 138.000 casualties, and last year, as your Lordships are aware, there were 226,000. No doubt this is a serious increase, but I think it only fair to point out that though the number of vehicles has more than doubled since 1935—the year in which the 30 m.p.h. limit was first introduced—the total of casualties last year was still 2,000 less than it was in 1935 and 13,000 less than in 1934: and it may be some consolation to reflect that there has been a steady decline in the number of casualties per 1,000 vehicles, which has declined from 99 in 1934 to 43 in 1953.

I give these figures to try to set the present position in perspective with what happened before the war, and not because I wish this afternoon to sound any note of complacency. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, seemed to suggest that the Government were complacent about this matter. I can assure him we are nothing of the kind. Nobody could be satisfied to find that, so far as casualties are concerned, we are little better off to-day than we were twenty years ago. When we consider that road casualties over the last five years have been nearly double the United Kingdom Service casualties—killed, maimed and wounded, but excluding air raid casualities—during the six years of the last war, I think there can be no possible justification for complacency in any quarter whatever. On the contrary, I should like to emphasise with all the force in my power that this is a serious matter, and it is essential that all concerned—not merely the Government, the police and the magistrates, but also private citizens—should do everything in their power to arrest this unhappy trend.

For this reason, the Government welcome this debate this afternoon. In the first place, it has been valuable because it has given us the advantage of a number of constructive proposals from noble Lords who have not only knowledge but a keen interest in the problem. I repeal: what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, that we will try not to be too obstructive to the suggestions that have been put forward; and I can assure your Lordships that all the suggestions will be carefully considered. But, what is possibly even more important, the debate this afternoon may do something to awaken the public to the gravity of the situation. I always think it remarkable that the public, who are undoubtedly shocked by railway accidents or aircraft crashes, where the casualties are numbered in tens, are so completely apathetic about road accidents, where the casual- ties are numbered in hundreds of thousands. I am convinced that, whatever may be done by the Government or by the police, the problem will not be solved until the public cease merely to accept these figures and come to regard driving a car so as to endanger the lives of one's fellow citizens with a disapproval equal to that with which they regard the crimes to which a moral stigma is now attached. I feel more and more that the public must be brought to realise that a motor car is a lethal weapon and must be handled accordingly. In saying that, I only echo what has already been said by a number of noble Lords this afternoon.

The Motion, being limited, deals purely with the enforcement of the speed limit, and, therefore, only with built-up areas. But since 72 per cent. of the casualties in 1953 were sustained in the built-up areas, in this respect, at any rate, the Motion is very much to the point. Obviously, if the casualties for those areas could be eliminated, or at any rate largely reduced, then the back of the problem would be broken. The question that we have to answer is this: How can this be achieved most rapidly, most efficiently, and last, but by no means least, most economically? All noble Lords have spoken about this question of speed, and I should not wish to be left out. Therefore, I will briefly add my own comment. First of all, I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that by concentrating his Motion on this one point of speed, I cannot help concluding that he, at any rate, believes that excessive speed is the main cause of the majority of accidents. It seems to me that had he felt otherwise he would have drawn the Motion in broader terms.


If I may interrupt the noble Lord for a moment, I certainly did not intend to say that excessive speed was the main cause of accidents everywhere. Here you have something forbidden by law which makes a contribution which is not exactly assessable in statistics.


I apologise if I have misrepresented the noble Lord. I should like to reiterate what has been said by other noble Lords. It is admitted that where an accident does take place and the vehicles concerned are travelling at high speed at the time, the danger of serious results will be greater—if your Lordships are interested, I believe the chances of an accident to a pedestrian on an unrestricted road are four times as likely to be fatal as they are on a restricted road. But the opinion of the experts—and I must assume that the police in this matter are probably the greatest experts, because they are daily in touch with road accidents—has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Somers: he said, quite accurately, that in the Metropolitan Police District in 1952 the number of accidents where speed was considered to be the main contributory cause was one half of one per cent. One cannot disregard that fact if one is to face up to this problem in a constructive manner. In passing, I should like to take this opportunity of echoing what other noble Lords have said already about the admirable maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sot-Tiers, and I hope hat we shall hear him often again.

Not only the noble Lord, Lord Somers, but also the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, my noble friend Lord Howe, and others who have spoken, have taken the same point. Here, again, my case is not that the speed limit is unnecessary and that we should abolish it. I do not think that any noble Lord, especially in the present situation, would suggest that it should be abolished. All I say is that we must try to look at the matter in its proper perspective. Although I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that if all motorists were invariably to observe the speed limit, no doubt we should get a certain reduction in the number of accidents, I am by no means convinced that by this method alone shall we be able to cure this great scourge which is afflicting us at the present time. I will not weary your Lordships by going into all the points that have been raised, but I should like to emphasise one or two of them.


Would the noble Lord confirm that the figure of accidents outside the built-up areas where speed is a contributory factor represents only 7 per cent.?


It was 7 per cent. for the year 1951, over the whole of England, for all areas. I should like to reiterate what I believe was said by the noble Lord, Lord Somers, that, so far as the motorist is concerned, speed is only one factor and there are many others. There is sheer bad driving; there are breaches of the Highway Code, of which we all know; and there is the mechanical factor—cars that are unroadworthy, bad brakes, bad lights, and so on. Then, again, it is not merely the motorist who is involved. There are cyclists who may ride four abreast and who may also have bad brakes and bad lights; there are the jay walkers, children who run out, and so on. I feel that it is not only unjust, but unwise, if we are to solve this problem, to regard the motorist as the only criminal in the business. I do not suggest that the speed limit is without value. On the contrary, if you look at the figures after its introduction in 1935 you find that casualties per 1,000 road vehicles fell in the first year from 99 to 89: and the monthly average of deaths in the Metropolitan Police district fell from 119 in 1934 to 92 in 1935, and 80 in 1938. Therefore, the speed limit has a value; and certainly, so far as the Government are concerned, we entirely support it, and feel that, so far as is possible, it should be enforced effectively.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that the speed limit was generally disregarded. In the light of the facts, that can be nothing more than an expression of opinion—and I think the noble Lord admitted that. With more serious crimes, such as burglary, as noble Lords are aware, there are statistics giving the number of crimes known to the police, and the number of convictions secured, by which we can assess the total amount of breaches of the law in the country at any time. But clearly, no one can produce statistics of the number of people in this country who are breaking the speed limit at any time. Therefore, it can only be a matter of opinion. Personally, I feel that the noble Lord put his case rather high. He suggested that the vast majority of people were continually breaking the speed limit. That is not my personal view. I will certainly agree with him, however, that there are still far too many who do habitually break the speed limit, and that everything possible should be done to reduce their number. The noble Lord said, or suggested, that the measures of the police for enforcement are totally inadequate. On this I should just like to make the following points.

The first is this (it has been mentioned elsewhere; my noble friend Lord Howe has mentioned it to-day): one cannot forget the shortage of manpower in the police at the present time. The second is that traffic control is just one of the many responsibilities which fall upon the police. The situation is a difficult one for chief constables. On one side they are being urged by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to put more men on to traffic control; and on the other side they are being urged to switch men from traffic control to the prevention of crime. Quite clearly, they can only do their best to strike a reasonable balance between these various considerations. And on the whole, if we consider the figures of convictions, I think that, despite these handicaps, the police in the two years after the end of petrol rationing made a most remarkable attempt to enforce the speed limit. In 1951, there were 40,000 prosecutions—I am leaving out the odd figures —and 5,000 written warnings. In 1952, there were 54,000 prosecutions and 7,000 written warnings. These, of course, do not include the large number of cases in which a caution was given by the policeman on the spot, nor the useful preventive work which is done by police traffic patrols.

I should like to make this point to noble Lords who feel that, merely because they see a motorist exceeding the speed limit on any stretch of road, there is no enforcement in that area. Obviously, with a limited number of men chief constables have to use them to the best advantage, and they may well think it best to concentrate their enforcement measures on those stretches of roads which have a bad accident record. That, in fact, is exactly what they do. Therefore, you will find those roads very well controlled and other places perhaps not quite so well controlled.

Having said that, I will again admit to the noble Lord, Lord Elton that I do not suppose that even the police themselves would say that enforcement could not be considerably improved in certain circumstances; and in view of the mounting road casualties it is clearly the duty of everybody concerned to try to effect any improvements that are within reasonable possibility. I should not like to disappoint the noble Lord. He suggested that I might say that the whole initiative does not he in the hands of the Government and that the local authorities have to be consulted. I do not think I can say less, because that is, indeed, the truth. His Motion rather suggests the question: What are the Government going to do about it? The Government are going to do their best, but I would remind noble Lords of the actual position. So far as the police are concerned, it is an accepted principle that the police are a local service administered by local police authorities and commanded by chief officers who are not subject to directions from the Government on how they should operate their forces. The Government cannot instruct: police authorities and chief constables to take this measure or that. They can, and indeed do suggest and advise, and they do invite the police authorities to consult with them on matters of national significance, such as road safety. Equally, of course, the Government cannot issue instructions to magistrates on the penalties which they should impose. I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord in this way, but there is a limit to what: the Government can do. Nevertheless, the Government are determined—and I give him this assurance—in view of the present situation, to do everything in their power in this matter.

I will come now to what is probably the first and most important thing, and I think almost without exception every speaker this afternoon has touched at greater or shorter length on this point—I refer to the question of the speed limit areas themselves. I think it will be agreed that if there is to be a law it must be a law which appears reasonable to the average citizen. It is undoubtedly true that there are many stretches of road in this country where, to the ordinary citizen, it probably seems ridiculous that there should be restrictions. That, I will admit quite freely, and I agree that it merely acts as an irritation to the motorist. Of course, the reason, as noble Lords know, is that there is great pressure by local authorities, who naturally wish to have their own particular citizens protected, and this position has grown up over a period. I do not believe that we shall solve this problem until we have restricted areas which not only are reasonable but which appear to any sensible motorist to be reasonable. I think that is what noble Lords had in mind, and I am glad to be able to tell them that my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport is at the moment considering the possibility of initiating a review of the areas subject to the 30 m.p.h. limit, with the intention of making improvements in this respect. I am sure that if that could be achieved we could start on the right basis—that is to say, there would be a reasonable law which people would feel was reasonable and which they would therefore respect.

Now I turn to the question of the enforcement of the speed limit in those areas which are restricted. Clearly, the most effective method of enforcing a speed limit is the use of police patrols. This was amply demonstrated in 1938 and 1939 when, as an experiment, the number of patrols in seven areas, including the Metropolitan police district, was substantially increased. The changes in the casualty rate in the districts where this experiment was tried were rather remarkable. They ranged from a decrease of 37 per cent. to an increase of 1 per cent. in one area, and the average decrease over the whole lot was 8 per cent. in one year. That is all the more significant because at the same time the rest of the country showed an increase of 3 per cent. There is therefore a strong case for increasing the number of these patrols.

There are two difficulties which confront police authorities in this particular task. The first is manpower and the second is finance. As your Lordships are well aware, the Government are making the most strenuous efforts to step up police recruitment, and we all hope that the improved pay for the police will assist the recruiting drive and that we shall gradually build up the force to the total which we think adequate. But there is no doubt that, at the present moment, it would be impossible to step up the patrols greatly because of the shortage of actual policemen on the job. Nor do I think that the suggestion of a special corps of traffic police, which has sometimes been put forward, is really a possible one, for a number of technical reasons. However, we can try to save the police manpower in the smaller ways wherever that is possible.

I am glad to be able to inform your Lordships that the Home Secretary is at the present moment studying measures to save the time of police witnesses attending magistrates' courts. There is a Working Party on this problem which has recently reported. Some of its proposals will involve legislation, and they are receiving further consideration. Briefly, the object of the proposals is to find out in advance the case where the defendant does not want to attend, and therefore will not dispute the case, or where he will indicate that he will plead guilty so that the attendance of at least one or two witnesses can be dispensed with. I agree that it is a flea-bite—a small thing —but if in these ways we can save the manpower of the police, then policemen, instead of wasting their time in the magistrates' court, can be out on the road. I do not pretend for one moment that, by small measures like that, we are going to solve the manpower problem or enable a greater number of police patrols to go on the road. Obviously we are not. But we are doing what we can to help.

Not only is there a problem of manpower; there is also a question of vehicles; even if the manpower is available, there is always the problem of vehicles. At present there are 1,600 vehicles on the road on this particular job, but obviously, if we are going to enforce the speed limit more strictly, we shall need more vehicles. The Government are at the present time considering whether it might be possible, by the increased use of motor-bicycles, which are more economical in both manpower and in money, to step up the numbers of police patrols. But here again, the Home Secretary cannot impose any such scheme on the police authorities, and therefore we have got to wait until an agreed scheme is in operation.

The question of plain-clothes police patrols and police traps, to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, referred, is, of course, an important one. So far as police patrols are concerned—indeed so far as both these methods are concerned —I must remind the noble Lord once more that the actual methods of law enforcement are a matter for chief constables, who know what sort of method is likely to be most effective in their own areas. Therefore it is not for my right honourable friend to suggest a particular method to them. They are free to choose the method which they think best.

In the Metropolitan Police district we know that fixed speed controls are used where there is habitual disregard of the limit and where the accident record is bad. I have no doubt that they are used elsewhere. Opinions differ—they have differed this afternoon—as to the merits of plain-clothes police patrols. I can only say that in some areas, particularly in Oxfordshire, they have been found invaluable. In the Government's view, and in the light of the appalling toll of casualties, there is no doubt that the proper use of plain-clothes police patrols is of great value in protecting innocent people against offending motorists, and is fully justified. There are two further points to which I should like to refer. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, mentioned abnormal loads. Unfortunately he is not here at the moment, but I can certainly give him an assurance that I will take up that matter with my right honourable friend. Lord Howe raised the question of the better indication of restricted areas, and that point also I will certainly bring to my right honourable friend's notice.

I end where I began. The final solution to this problem is in the hands of the public as a whole. Until there is a genuine public horror about the situation, and a determination on the part of every individual motorist, cyclist or pedestrian that he or she personally will avoid any action that might possibly lead to an accident on the road, the problem will never be finally solved. A certain amount can be done, and is being done, by education, and I wish to pay a tribute to the work which has been done by teachers at schools and by the police. Then there is the work of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the road safety organisations of the local authorities, the training schemes at local motoring schools, and the work of the Road Research Laboratory, All this work deserves our thanks. But apart from these, others have their parts to play. Magistrates, for example, might consider whether, particularly in cases of dangerous driving, the present penalties which they impose are sufficient. No one can tell magistrates what to do, but I think it is a matter which they should consider at the present time. I entirely agree with the opinions put forward in this House, that probably the greatest deterrent to motorists is disqualification for a period. Certainly the penalties which magistrates can impose, if they wish, are perfectly adequate today. I am convinced that the police are doing their job adequately. Considering their resources, they have done some fine work. I hope that I have convinced the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that the Government are giving continual and energetic attention to the problem and are striving by every means in their power to promote measures for its solution. I hope that I have said something useful, and that the noble Lord may think tit to ask leave to withdraw his Motion.

6.26 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord very much for his characteristically charming speech. Even from my extremist point of view he has been more accommodating than I had expected t and if he has been, as he said, "a brick wall," he has left one or two cracks and crannies in the wall. I thank also every other noble Lord who has taken part in the debate. I have found much interest in what they have said, even though very few agreed with me. I fully agree with what other speakers have said—and obviously I ought to have said it myself—that if the speed limit is ever going to be enforced the restricted areas should certainly be revised. It is no good passing laws unless the public feel there is not some injustice lurking beneath them. Lord Merthyr made that point in our last debate and I wholeheartedly agree with it. I note also what the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, said—he has sent me a note saying that he had to leave the Chamber. It is a point of view which I believe is shared by other noble Lords: that it is not really a matter of stricter enforcement of the speed limit. The noble Lord really does not like the speed limit at all. Well, my Lords, if Lord Lucas of Chilworth is ever Minister of Transport—as I suppose he might well be in a future Labour Government—I hope he will abolish the speed limit, because if it is not going to be effectively enforced and if the Minister does not approve of it, it had better be abolished.

The only other point on which I would comment is what almost every other speaker has mentioned, some with great force, concerning the low percentage of accidents in which, according to police statistics, speed is the major factor. I feel the gravest doubts about all statistics and particularly about those. Before the war I was chairman of a body known as the Road Accident Emergency Council. It was formed largely of trade unionists in an attempt to represent the ordinary citizen in this matter, as distinct from the motoring organisations, which represented the car owners, and the pedestrians organisations, which represented pedestrians. We studied the matter to the best of our ability and formed grave doubts on this particular subject. We were constantly told that speed was not a major factor in the causing of accidents. But whilst a car may have been doing 50 miles an hour just before the accident, and at the moment which caused the misjudgment out of which the accident would spring, at the moment of impact it might not be travelling at more than 10 m.p.h. And so it seemed to us that very often speed was a much greater contributory factor than was allowed. However, the noble Lord has dealt with the various suggestions and I thank him for having done so. I beg, leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers by leave withdrawn.

House adjourned at half past six o'clock.