HL Deb 21 November 1962 vol 244 cc885-95

2.53 p.m.

LORD LUCAS OF CHILWORTH rose to call attention to road accidents and some contributory factors; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Motion appears on the Order Paper in my name because for quite a considerable time I have been, in concert with many other noble Lords and many people outside your Lordships' House, seriously disturbed about the trend and size of the road accidents problem. My Lords, we are still killing 7,000 people on the roads of this country every year; we are seriously injuring 85,000—a large proportion of that number are maimed for life—and the slightly injured total 250,000. That is the bare arithmetic of the problem—and that in spite of the efforts which have been made by various public-spirited organisations and the Ministry of Transport to alleviate this great social scourge.

During the Summer Recess I took a holiday by going to Scotland, and I deviated my route there and back so that I could travel over a number of the new roads that have been built. I should like to pay my tribute to the Minister of Transport and to all those concerned in the design and construction of those roads. They are magnificent. I doubt whether better roads could have been built in the time. And yet they have not made one contribution concerning the general arithmetic of the problem that confronts us. The figures which were released to the Press this morning by the Ministry of Transport, as well as the figures that are contained in their accident statistics for the last two years, can give but cold comfort.

The headline in a paper stated that the number of killed, and the number of accidents have diminished. Let us look at this for a moment. It is true that in 1960–61 the number of casualties caused to pedestrians in this country remained about static. The number of accidents which killed or injured pedal cyclists diminished; the number of accidents to motor-cyclists and their associated vehicles—mopeds and those other contraptions—diminished. But the number of deaths, of seriously injured and of slightly injured among drivers of motor vehicles and their passengers went up, Over 1960 the number of killed went up 160; the number of seriously injured went up 2,229; and the number of slightly injured went up 7,798. And the diminution of deaths and accidents to pedal cyclists and to motor-cyclists I would say, without fear of contradiction, was in no way concerned with any great measure of safety but resulted from an abrupt and sharp fall since 1960 in the cyclists and motor-cyclist population.

For the first nine months of this year, according to the statistics put in the Press to-day, the same trend is there. The pedestrian casualties, killed and injured, are approximately running—if I can use such an unhappy expression—true to form. The figures concerning pedal cyclists are down; those for motor-cyclists are down; but those for cars and commercial vehicles and the public service vehicles are up. Seventy-six more people were killed during the first nine months of this year: 1,144 more were seriously injured, and 471 more were slightly injured. In the month of October, in four accidents on the roads of this country 27 drivers and passengers in vehicles were killed. One accident occurred in Gloucestershire—I agree rather an exceptional case—when 11 people were killed in one vehicle, a Minibus. In another, in Breconshire, 4 people were killed by a lorry which went out of control when going down a hill; in Norfolk 7 were killed in two motor cars; and at Bexley, in Kent, 4 were killed in a collision between an articulated vehicle and a motor car.

This is the trend that disturbs me: that far more people are being killed or seriously injured in these vehicles than in any other of the classifications which the Ministry of Transport put out every year. So I thought I would put this Motion down and try to discuss with your Lordships some of the contributory factors; for all your Lordships are experienced road users, and I have been connected with this problem all my working life.

In my view, one of the most serious factors is speed. I do not say that it is the most serious, but I put it in first for one reason: because it is the intention of the Government to increase the speed limit of commercial vehicles to 40 m.p.h. I do not disagree with that increase. I agree with the principle that one of the safety factors in good road management is to get traffic all running at the same speed. But there is a corollary to this. It is no good increasing the speed of commercial vehicles unless we can be quite certain that their mechanical fitness can stand that extra speed.

One of the greatest contributory factors to road accidents at the present time is the overloading of commercial vehicles. I am not going into a lot of statistics. I tried to discuss this matter with the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, on the Report stage of the Road Traffic Bill. It is a highly technical problem but, to put your Lordships into the picture—if I may use that expression—when you hear of a one-ton goods-carrying vehicle or a two-tonner, or a three- four- five-six- or seven-tanner, that is the nomenclature of the industry to denote the payload which the manufacturer thinks the vehicle is fit to carry. There are an unladen weight, a payload and a gross weight. I am going to make this statement without any fear of contradiction: there is hardly a commercial vehicle running on the roads of this country that is not at least 50 percent. overloaded—and the majority of them are 100 percent. overloaded. So although one might say, and I would agree, that the mechanical efficiency of any vehicle might not be what it should be, it would not be seriously sub-standard if it carried only its proper load. But it is very much sub-standard if it carries the kind of load put on it.

What are the factors in this overloading? In a large number of cases "A" licence operators, operating for hire and reward, pay the drivers of their commercial vehicles a tonnage bonus. This naturally tends to make them overload their vehicles. Those who have to canvass for return loads go out and load their vehicles to the greatest possible extent. Then there is the articulated vehicle—that is, the vehicle which has a tractor unit in front and a trailer attached behind. It is common practice, when these go on to the weighbridge to be weighed for tax, to have one size of trailer on the weighbridge and a larger size used when it comes off. Then there are those huge tippers that carry sand and ballast and other filling material, which your Lordships have seen all over the country. They are grossly overloaded because the majority of the drivers work on piece rates, of journeys plus tonnage. Your Lordships have only to imagine the difference between 5 cubic yards of dry sand or dry clay and 5 cubic yards of wet sand or clay.

To-day this is one of the most serious problems we have to contend with. I mentioned just now the articulated vehicle which ran down a hill in Breconshire, carrying six tons of sheet metal. While I could hazard a guess, I do not know—perhaps the noble Lord will know—what was the real payload of that vehicle. Going down that hill, its brakes failed and it sandwiched a small car between itself and another, killing four people. If I may say this—though perhaps it is a rather improper thing to say—according to the jury's rider, the only person to blame was the local authority, for not making the road more safe. When we have to face an increase to 40 m.p.h.—and the regulations will come before your Lordships' House soon—I hope that your Lordships will bear all this in mind.

What can be done? In my view, the only possible solution is that the system of taxation should be altered. It is useless to go on taxing, for revenue purposes, commercial vehicles on their unladen weight. They should be taxed upon their gross load—unladen weight plus payload; and a conspicuous plate should be fixed to every vehicle, saying, "The maximum gross weight of this vehicle is legally x tons". Then the police might stand a chance of checking this. But the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, when we discussed this matter, as your Lordships will remember, read out a conglomeration of words in the Construction and Use Regulations about the weight regulations for commercial vehicles that no really intelligent person could understand, let alone an ordinary policeman. And the Road Traffic Act says that any vehicle with four wheels—it does not matter whether it is only a one-tonner—is legally entitled to carry 14 tons. That would be the defence.

The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, promised that this matter would be looked into. I know the difficulties. But what I want to impress upon your Lordships is that there is no one magic wand that is going to solve this problem. We are killing 7,000 people a year. And the Ministry of Transport have to find a solution to the gross overloading of these vehicles. Some of the worst offenders—I hesitate to say it, but it is true—are the tippers used for the millions of tons of filling on our road works. In some cases the owners of these vehicles have been so lax that the tippers have never been licensed. The noble Lord has only to read the reports of the traffic commissioners throughout the country, who are seriously disturbed about this, to find confirmation, chapter and verse, of what I am saying.

The next contributory factor is the overloading of private cars. As the cars on the roads of this country get smaller and smaller, they carry more and more people. The other day there was an accident, not far from where I live, in which a 10 h.p. car was involved. It had eight human beings in it. Seven were killed, and the only survivor was a girl of six. It was run into by a four-ton vehicle that was carrying eight tons of coal. I would say that both the motor car and the commercial vehicle were 100 percent. overloaded. What is being done? Nothing.

Your Lordships' own observation will allow you to see the number of vehicles that carry three people sitting on the front seat. And I make this statement from my own experience. With a few exceptions—and I mean few exceptions —there is no motor car on the roads that can take three passengers on the front seat without seriously impeding safety and the control of the driver. You can see it all the time—children, dogs and everything else, all carried on the front seat. Yet what is done about it? Another sight which your Lordships will have seen many times is the small car with a luggage rack on the roof piled up with luggage, including, in many cases, the perambulator. There never was a more unsafe thing to do. In certain conditions of wind and road contour that car is out of control; the centre of gravity is altered. These cars are not made to carry as much weight on the roof as inside. Yet there is no power in any policeman or any inspector of the Ministry of Transport to order one of those vehicles, which is grossly unroad-worthy, off the roads. They can do it with a commercial vehicle, but not with a private motor car.

I now come to another contributory factor, and this is contentious. I have discussed this point with many police officers over the country and have come to the same conclusion as they have: that the standard of manners and the standard of driving skill on the roads of this country are getting deplorable. I do not know how you teach good manners by legislation. Even the Minister of Transport himself said that quite half of those who go for a driving test are incompetent and are failed. This is surely understandable when any Tom, Dick or Harry can open a driving school. At the risk of domestic happiness, I suppose any woman could get her husband to teach her to drive. The solution to this problem is to use the powers existing as soon as possible—and there are powers in the present Road Traffic Act. Every driver and instructor employed by any school or by anybody else should (be certified by the police as being a competent instructor; and no person should be allowed to offer himself or herself to the Ministry of Transport for a test unless he or she has received a certificate that they are at least competent to have a test. Then there would not be a waste of so much time.

But there is an aspect of this subject which baffles me. I do not care how skilful at driving some people are, psychologically they should never be allowed on the roads. What is to be done about that? It is a problem, and it is a factor in these road accidents. There is one other point that I should like to make on this matter, and I put it forward tentatively to the noble Lord, Lord Chesham. Does he not think that there should be either an age limit beyond which people should not be allowed to drive a motor car, or an age limit when everybody should undergo a test as to his competence? When you get old gentlemen, full of the joys of spring and with youth in their hearts, who drive at 90 years of age into the Thames and have to be fished out, then I think something should be done about it.

My next contributory factor is again a highly controversial one. When I was in the Ministry of Transport, now a long time ago, and had to deal with this problem I came to the conclusion that three-traffic-lane roads were a death trap; and nothing has happened since to alter that opinion. I know that the Road Research Laboratory can bring forward statistics showing that the number of accidents that happen on three-carriageway roads is no greater than the number of those that happen on two-carriageway roads. But they have not brought forward the statistic that really matters: that when an accident happens on a three-lane road it is ghastly in its seriousness, because in nearly all cases it is a head-on collision. A three-carriageway lane road is an incitement to passing. In my researches into this problem I made an examination of 104 accidents that happened on the A.40, on a perfectly straight three-carriageway road known as the Northern By-pass, which, as some of your Lordships will know, goes to the north of Oxford. It has no turns, but one slight bend at the top. Twenty per cent. of the accidents were directly due to head-on collisions in the middle lane, and they accounted for 60 per cent. of the fatalities. That is the statistic that matters.

My solution to this problem is a simple one. If you must have that width of road, it should be turned into two lanes, or three lanes with a double white line so that you have two streams of traffic one way and one the other as the circumstances dictate. That is the only solution if you are going to have 30-feet carriageways. But I understand—the noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong about this, as I may be—that the Ministry will not allow double-white lines to do what I have suggested on any road where vision is not obscured. The road I have mentioned gives perfectly clear vision for three miles, but 60 per cent. of the accidents have happened in the middle lane.

I come now to my next point. It is one that I am sure your Lordships will agree must be brought in when making a speech on road accidents; that is, the enforcement of the law. We are now to increase the speed limit on the bulk of goods-carrying vehicles to 40 m.p.h. Is that limit going to be enforced? It is no use the noble Lord answering me by saying that it is no responsibility of the Ministry of Transport to enforce the law. He cannot get away with that in this year 1962.


He will not try.


I thought the noble Lord would have a common-sense answer: he usually has. It is the responsibility of Parliament. It is within the knowledge of every one of your Lordships that the 30 m.p.h. limit on goods-carrying vehicles and coaches, before the coaches' limit was extended to 40 m.p.h., was treated with utter and complete contempt. Every day of the week when one was driving on the road one had to do 60 to 70 m.p.h. to pass a vehicle which had on it a restriction of 30 m.p.h. The police tell me that it is impossible for them to proceed under the overloading legislation because they can never get a case that will satisfy the justices. Regulation 73 of the Construction and Use Regulations and the Act are at variance. The regulation says that you must not load a motor vehicle dangerously, that you must not load a motor car dangerously; yet the Act itself says that you can carry 14 tons on a four-wheeled vehicle, and you can have eight people in a car, no matter what its size.

Now, my Lords, I come to the magistrates' part in this problem. There have been four years of exhortation, and no one has ever worked harder to put the facts of life, or road traffic life, before the magistrates of this country than did the noble and learned Earl, Lord Kilmuir, when he was Lord Chancellor. What has happened? In the last four years up to 1961—and in all these cases Parliament, in its wisdom, or unwisdom, has doubled the maximum fines; and in this last Act they have been further increased—the average monetary fine for speeding went up by 16s.; for careless driving, 30s.; for reckless and dangerous driving, 49s. The drunks had to pay only an extra 50s. The serious part about it is seen when it comes to disqualification. The percentage of disqualifications in convictions from 1958 to 1961 went up as follows: for speeding it went up from 1 percent. of convictions to 5 per cent.; for careless driving it has reached 5 per cent.; for dangerous driving it has gone from 37 per cent. to 50 per cent. So half the drivers who are convicted of dangerous and reckless driving do not have any disqualification at all.

My Lords, this is, I think, a damning indictment. The Home Office returns show that 41,700 commercial vehicle drivers ware convicted of speed offences in 1961, and out of that number only 131 had any suspension of licence. If that is not a farce, I do not know what is. No wonder the noble Baroness Lady Wootton of Abinger, was moved to say the other day—and I quote from The Times—when adressing a gathering at Oxford on crime statistics, that crime statistics showed the failure of judges and magistrates to pass the most effective sentences! She went on: At the moment everybody who passes sentence is a failure. The crime statistics show it. She has never said a truer word, and I have been trying to say the same thing for a number of years.

When the Road Traffic Act was before your Lordships' House, it established a firm and sound principle of compulsory disqualification. That was taken out in the Commons, and the discretion of the magistrates was put back. I look upon that as a very retrograde step, because there is only one thing which will cure these bad manners and the reckless and dangerous driving, and that is to take off the road the people who cannot behave themselves. That is the only way you can possibly do it. While you are footling about with all these other methods you will still have these accidents. Education is a very fine thing, but some people who drive motor cars are past educating.

I come to my fast point, and that is the police. We must have more police patrols, but not only for prosecutions. And the prosecution should be before accidents, and not after. The trouble to-day is that hardly anybody is prosecuted for dangerous or careless driving unless it is the result of an accident. That is entirely wrong. The law should be a deterrent. I do not agree with the idea of having plain-clothes policemen. Uniformed policemen, with their banners flying, are the finest deterrent on the roads of this country. In the tour I was mentioning to your Lordships I came on to the A.50, which is, I suppose, the most heavily trafficked road in this country. Your Lordships know that it is the main road from the Potteries and the Midlands to Liverpool. I travelled about 35 miles along it. In that 35 miles I saw double white lines being crossed by many car drivers and small van drivers. Double white lines meant nothing to them; and for the whole of the 35 miles I did not see a police patrol.

Oxfordshire is a good example of the problem because it contains three of the most heavily trafficked roads in this country. There are the A.40, the main road from London to the West; the A.34, which takes all the traffic from the West Midlands through to the ports in the South, and the A.423. which takes the East Midlands traffic. In the Oxfordshire county the police have now six patrol motor cars with which to control and patrol 261 miles of trunk and Class A roads. They cannot do it. I am going to make this suggestion to the Government. It is no use giving us miles and miles of wonderful roads unless we are given also police to police them. I should like to see some of the millions of pounds that are being spent on these roads given to an extension of the traffic police. In paragraph 57 of the Report of the Royal Commission on the Police, 1960, we find these words: The police witnesses were confident that with more police traffic patrols the number of road accidents could be substantially reduced. We readily accept this, with all its implications; relief to the whole community both in terms of material cost and in the incalculable cost in human lives and suffering. My Lords, I hope I have provided some of the answers to the problem. I beg to move for Papers.