HL Deb 30 January 1963 vol 246 cc317-29

2.54 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Motor Vehicles (Variation of Speed Limit) Regulations, 1962, dated November 5, 1962, a copy of which was laid before your Lordships' House on November 13, 1962, be approved. The First Schedule to the Road Traffic Act, 1960, set out the present maximum speed limits for different classes of vehicle. Your Lordships will remember that we amended that Schedule in 1961 by increasing the speed limit for buses and motor coaches from 30 m.p.h. to 40 m.p.h. We now want to make a number of detailed amendments to the Schedule, and, to avoid asking your Lordships to approve a number of individual amendments, we have redrafted the entire Schedule to incorporate both the 1961 amendment already made and those I am now proposing to your Lordships. A considerable part of the Schedule, of course, remains unchanged, and includes the whole of paragraphs 5 to 14 inclusive.

I think it will help your Lordships if I start by outlining the principal changes which are involved; that is to say, the real substance of the; matter. First, the maximum speed limit for goods vehicles without trailers will go up from 30 to 40 m.p.h.; and in this category are included articulated vehicles. Second, the general speed limit for goods vehicles with trailers will go up from 20 to 30 m.p.h., but in the case of light goods vehicles towing light trailers or caravans the limit will go up from 20 to 40 m.p.h. Third, the limit for cars towing heavy trailers will go up from 20 to 30 m.p.h., while that for cars towing light trailers or caravans will be raised from 30 to 40 m.p.h.

Fourth, the maximum speed for tractors and locomotives (as the law still refers to heavy tractors over 7¼ tons), provided that they conform to certain standards of design in regard to brakes, tyres, springs and wings, will be raised from 20 to 30 m.p.h., and, if they are towing trailers of similar standards, from 12 to 20 m.p.h. Fifth, the limit for motor tractors with two or more trailers and locomotives with more than two trailers will be raised from 5 to 12 m.p.h.

I want your Lordships to cast your minds back to our debates on the passage of what is now the Road Traffic Act, 1962—in fact both passages of that measure through the House. It was more than once made perfectly clear at that time that there was strong feeling in the House that if there was to be full and proper enforcement, and severer penalties in regard to restrictions imposed on road users in the cause of road safety, those restrictions should be reasonable, realistic and up to date—in other words, respectable in the true sense of the word. This resulted in undertakings to review the question of speed limits, both those imposed on roads and those on vehicles. In fact, it has been thought right not to introduce Sections 5 to 9 of the Road Traffic Act until such a review has been carried out, so that people do not incur the heavier penalties involved for offences held to be of a trivial nature. That is a point which the House stressed very strongly.

My Lords, the basic reason why we want to raise the vehicle speed limits to those I have mentioned is because the present ones are out of date. We all know how widely and flagrantly the present limits are disregarded and the extent to which this makes enforcement by the police virtually impossible. It has been said again and again, both here and elsewhere, that people will not respect a law which appears quite unreasonable. Secondly, the present limits do not take account of modern standards of construction of both vehicles and roads. To give your Lordships an illustration, the limit of 30 m.p.h. for vehicles under 3 tons unladen weight was fixed 32 years ago, and has remained the same ever since. We believe that the new speed limits are realistic and that people will respect them more, and that means that they can be effectively enforced.

Of course, I know that many lorries now travel at speeds much higher than would be permitted, even under this new Schedule. But it does not mean automatically that the majority will necessarily travel any faster on the roads than they are doing now. I think it may well mean that many will travel slower than at present, not perhaps as a direct result of these changes, but by the circumstances which these changes will help to bring about. By that, my Lords, I mean the greater respect that a more realistic limit will entail, the greater facility for enforcement and, of course, not least, the new penalties attached to speeding which are waiting to come in when the new review of speed limits generally is completed. To-day's proceedings naturally form a part of that review.

I might remind your Lordships briefly of what the new penalties are. First, it will be within the discretion of the courts to disqualify a driver for any speeding offence. At present this cannot be done for a first or second conviction. Secondly, speeding becomes one of the offences, conviction for any three of which in a 3-year period leads to automatic disqualification for at least 6 months. Third, the maximum fine for any speeding offence will be raised to £50, whereas at present the maxima are £20 for a first offence and £50 subsequently. I know that some people have reservations about the effect that these provisions may have on enforcement, because they have feelings of unease about their application by the courts. But we believe that they will be effective; otherwise, of course, we should not have wanted to bring them in and the proper course, surely, must be to give them a fair and proper chance to work and judge the effect when they do so. In the meantime, to-day's Regulations must be considered on the assumption that they will be properly enforced, and I am certainly going to agree in advance with any noble Lord who draws attention to the importance of that.

I think that some of your Lordships may be worried about the effect of these Regulations on certain types of goods vehicles. I think those types would probably be those which are badly maintained and perhaps defective, large vehicles and those which may be overloaded. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that he has kindly given me notice that he will concern himself with the first, that is badly-maintained vehicles, and I will say no more about them at this stage until I hear what he, and possibly other noble Lords, may have to say about them. Later on I shall also say something about the larger vehicles about which I told your Lordships recently that we were considering proposals.

But, my Lords, on the third type—that is, vehicles which may be overloaded—I should like to say something now. If I may use words something like the old song, A deep-laden cruiseship is nearing Bombay, going in the opposite direction from old Blighty's shore", I believe it contains the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, who is specially interested in overloading of vehicles and raised the matter not long ago in this House. I said at the time that we were considering measures that might be brought in to secure the prevention of overloading and the noble Lord himself, and the House as well, will, I feel, be glad to hear that we have now taken the matter a stage further. My right honourable friend has set up a departmental committee and given them the specific task of working out a scheme for fixing the maximum load that each and every goods vehicle may be allowed to carry.

Those of your Lordships who have taken an interest in road haulage matters over the years will probably remember the Plating Scheme, which was got ready in 1939 but was never introduced because the war broke out. The scheme was called that, because under it metal plates would have had to be fixed to all goods vehicles stating their maximum permissible laden weights. It is something of that kind which is now in contemplation; but, of course, the problem which this committee have to face is a good deal bigger than it was in 1939. Their task is to work out a practicable and economical means of fixing maximum weights, not only for new vehicles but also for the 1½ million goods vehicles, which are already on the roads, many of which have been modified since they left their manufacturers. They will take into account engine power as well as brakes, springs, and other features of construction. My right honourable friend has invited various interests concerned to give their advice to the committee as well. It is no good my saying that consideration of this scheme will not take some time, because it will, and legislation may be necessary to implement it later on, but I hope at least that what I have said to-day will help your Lordships to recognise our determination to arrive at some course of action to tackle this problem of overloading.

The final point that I want to make to your Lordships is that these new speed limits are only the maximum speeds at which the various classes of vehicle can legally travel. They are not in any sense bound to travel at them at any time, and there would be even less sense in assuming that they would travel at them all of the time; and it would, of course, be quite wrong if they did, except when road and traffic conditions are suitable. As always, and as is true with every vehicle on the road, it is up to the driver to decide his speed in relation to the circumstances. The effect of the amendments is that, when it is safe to do so, the driver can drive rather faster than before while keeping within the law and within the bounds of reason having regard to modern circumstances. I need hardly say that what is now proposed has no effect whatever on road speed limits. Where a 30 m.p.h. limit applies, drivers will have to keep to it, irrespective of their maximum vehicle limit. Similarly, on a motorway, where unless they are drawing a trailer no limit applies, there is no change.

My Lords, I dare say there are a good many points that I could have covered and I could have made a lengthy introduction. But I think I will not do so now, and I will endeavour later on to answer any questions or to satisfy any further points that your Lordships may have. Meanwhile, I commend the new Schedule to your Lordships for the contribution it makes to the efficiency of our traffic, and for the facility it will give for better discipline and better enforcement for its safety. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Motor Vehicles (Variation of Speed Limit) Regulations, 1962, be approved.—(Lord Chesham.)

3.9 p.m.

LORD SHEPHERD had given Notice of his intention to draw attention to the Annual Reports, 1960–61, of the Licensing Authorities appointed under the Road Traffic Act, 1960, and, in particular, the need to increase the number of commercial vehicles tested; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister and to the Government on two counts this afternoon: first, for the Minister's concise explanation of these Regulations, and, secondly, for the Government's agreement to postpone this debate until to-day instead of having it before Christmas, as was originally proposed. Obviously, with the Business then before the House we should not have been able to give these Regulations the serious thought they deserve. My Lords, I think it could be said that through this postponement we are not to have the pleasure of the very pungent comments of our noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth, who is to-day, I hope, enjoying the sun on the high seas; but I am sure the House will remember the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, on November 21, when he drew the attention of the House to the many aspects of road accidents and to the appalling cost that our people have to pay each year.

The Minister is right when he says that these Regulations revoke the entire Schedule of the 1960 Act, and I feel that I should say to him that, while this may be a very tidy method to be adopted by the Government, it places the Opposition in particular, and certain other Members of the House, in some difficulty, because over the years we have adopted a rule, which I think is a very good rule and is one that should be kept, that in this House we should not oppose Second Readings, Third Readings or Regulations when principles are involved, but that when the Schedule to the Act is being discussed then the House should have an opportunity of considering all the classifications of the vehicles involved. But, by the use of these Regulations, we are put into the position that we must accept or reject the complete proposition.

We on this side have carefully considered the position, and we have decided that, whilst we are very disturbed about some aspects of the Government's proposals, we should be wrong to attempt to divide the House. But this was in fact considered in 1958. I was looking at the Report of that debate, in which the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, undertook that when Regulations were being brought forward—I freely agree that the discussion then related to Clauses 1 and 2 of the Act dealing with testing, but he undertook this, taking into account the feelings of the House—a White Paper would be issued, and that the House would then have the opportunity of discussing the White Paper and even, if necessary, of carrying it to a vote, so that we could register our opinions without having to break what is, I think, and I am sure is agreed to be, a very good tradition.

Obviously the largest number of vehicles involved in these Regulations is that for commercial vehicles, approximately 1,500,000, who are having their speed limits raised from 30 to 40 m.p.h. We on this side of the House do not wish to retain restriction if it is unnecessary, but we have considerable doubts whether, even if we agree that a small commercial vehicle may travel in safety on the road at 40 m.p.h., we could agree that a 10-ton vehicle or one of those very heavy tankers which are now coming on to the road carrying a wide range of merchandise is equipped mechanically to travel at that speed. The Minister said (and this, I gathered, was his main case) that because the present speed limits are now being disregarded, treated with contempt, and are certainly not being enforced by the police, that is necessarily a ground for raising the limit. We know that in a 30 m.p.h. speed limit area many vehicles travel in excess of that limit, yet quite recently we made that limit a permanent law. The fact that new vehicles are coming on to the road is certainly a valid point, but when can one say that a new vehicle comes into the class of vehicle whose equipment enables it to travel at 40 m.p.h.? I should estimate that, since we considered the speed limits in this House, approximately 60,000 new commercial vehicles have come on to the road. That would mean approximately 900,000 vehicles that were then adjudged fit to travel at 30 m.p.h. My Lords, I wonder whether all the vehicles in that group of 900,000 come within the classification which the Minister has put, as being reasonably safe to travel at these higher speeds.

The noble Lord said that at the moment these speed limits are being broken blatantly. I think it is a fact (and if we, as motorists, were honest we should accept it; and one can speak with some degree of privilege here this afternoon) that there is a marked tendency for all of us, even in a 30 m.p.h. limit area, to drive at 32 or 33 m.p.h. We know that we can do it reasonably because it would be very difficult in fact for the police to be able to prosecute—and certainly we should have the opportunity, in our mirrors, of seeing if a policeman was behind us. I believe that, unless there is very much greater enforcement by the police and the magistrates, these new speed limits will be broken just as much as the present speed limits. Therefore, we have to accept that if a 3-tonner or a 10-tonner is to-day breaking the 30 m.p.h. limit out in the country on a reasonable road, then once that limit has been raised to 40 m.p.h. it will, in fact, be travelling at 45 to 48 miles an hour.

In this connection, I would draw the attention of noble Lords to the Road Research Report for 1961. At page 26 it shows that where some roads were controlled for the holiday periods with a limit of 50 m.p.h. there was a very small reduction in the number of vehicles which voluntarily reduced their speeds. In fact, they reduced their speeds only if there was known to be a patrol in the area. So if the Government are right, if they really believe that the new speed limits they propose will be maintained, there must obviously be far greater enforcement—and. I believe that that can be done only if there is a considerable increase in road patrols. Unless that is done, we shall not get enforcement.

I speak as one who drove lorries in my early days in the Army, and I can say that there is a considerable difference between one vehicle and another according to its size and speed. If you drive a van, you have one road-holding capability; if you drive a 3-tonner or a 10-tonner, the position is quite different: and with a load and an increased speed, there is a considerable difference in road handling, particularly in pulling up. I wonder whether the noble Lord could tell us, when he comes to wind up, what would be the difference in the pulling-up distance of one of these heavy tankers which now go through our country roads at between 30 and 40 m.p.h. I think there would be at least a 70 to 80 per cent. increase in distance required, and this would certainly be higher if the roads were wet.

When one considers these speed limits one must also take into account the roads on which they operate. Most of our roads, apart from the A.1 and some of the other main roads, are very winding roads; visibility is often very poor, and the camber leaves a lot to be desired. These heavy vehicles travelling at these speeds will be increasingly hard to control. Therefore I approach this problem with some anxiety. I fully accept that greater speed of delivery of merchandise is comparable to increased output in a factory, but nobody would say that increased output should be obtained if there are to be increased dangers to the operatives. Therefore, while I agree it is right that we should try to increase our delivery services, we must take into account not only the general public but the drivers.

I felt that, as we could not oppose the Regulations this afternoon, I should try to put forward, as I originally wanted, a proviso that if the Government were in favour of these increased speeds then we should increase the standard of maintenance of vehicles. Of course, I should not have been in order to move a proviso to a Regulation. Therefore, in consultation with my friends, I put down the Motion that stands in my name and to which I will now speak. And I hope that if and when the Regulations are approved the Government will see their way to accepting it. I make it quite clear to the noble Lord that I do not move the Motion in the terms of a proviso. This is a straightforward declaration by the House that, having examined the figures, which I will give them, a higher standard in the inspection of commercial vehicles is very necessary.

First, I fully accept that among the big operators—British Road Services and some of the comparable private operators—there are proper facilities for inspection and maintenance of vehicles. But I must draw the attention of the House to certain figures. At the end of 1961 there were 1,438,969 road vehicles on the roads. "C" licence holders operated 1,253,000 and there were 573,000 operators. In other words, among the "C" licence operators there were, on average, two vehicles per operator. I would not believe there is anyone who would say that such operators would have the facilities to provide their own examination and to increase their standard of maintenance. I would draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, to these figures. I have given the number of commercial vehicles on the roads in 1961. In 1961 his Department examined 110,000 vehicles: less than 8 per cent. of all the commercial vehicles on the road. This was fewer than the number examined by his Department in 1960. In fact, the percentage of commercial vehicles being examined is declining.

Why is this? I understand that the Minister has 320 examiners for the United Kingdom—320 men to examine all commercial vehicles. Their duties do not relate just to commercial vehicles. I understand that they have to examine all the public service vehicles of this country. I believe in 1961 they examined 87,000 public service vehicles. I wonder to what extent, with that number of examiners, the examination was undertaken satisfactorily, and whether they can examine all the various parts in vehicles that can go wrong.

I draw the attention of the House to the Report. I would like first to draw the attention of the House to the position in Yorkshire. In that area the licensing authorities had to deal with 127,000 vehicles. The number examined was a mere 14,000. Of that 14,000 vehicles examined, the use of over 3,000 was prohibited because they were in some way or another defective. But of that prohibited number which had to be repaired within ten days, 907 were so bad that they were prohibited from carrying on with their journeys. I would draw the attention of the House to the Report of the North-Western Traffic Area. They have 204,000 vehicles. Less than 4 per per cent. of those vehicles were examined during 1961: 8,294. Of those vehicles, 3,000 were prohibited and had to be repaired within ten days, and over one-third of those vehicles were for immediate prohibition. They were so bad they had to be taken out of service immediately.

If one goes right through this Report one finds the story is very much the same. May I take the case of South Wales, in which area there are 52,000 vehicles? The number examined was 5,300; prohibited, 2,562. Fifty per cent. of the vehicles examined in that area were prohibited for defects. Immediate prohibition was imposed upon 754. Let us take the Western Area. I am sorry to go into these details but the House should understand the situation. In the Western district there were 90,000 vehicles. Of these 7,881 were examined; 2,818 prohibited; 685 immediately prohibited. This is what the Report says, and its comments are very similar to those of all the different authorities throughout the country: Most owners of large fleets keep their vehicles in satisfactory condition without pressure from the Licensing Authority's technical staff, but there has been no noticeable improvement in the maintenance of the vehicles owned by many of the smaller operators whose motto seems to be: 'If it goes, it's all right.' This seems likely to continue so long as the official examination of goods vehicles can, as now. cover not more than about 9 per cent. of the total vehicles. If this could be stepped up to a detailed examination of about 25 per cent. of the vehicles then it might be possible to approach the standard of maintenance achieved with public service vehicles. Public service vehicles require an annual inspection. Scotland is no better. There they have 105,000 vehicles; examined: 13,000; prohibited: 3,141. One thousand of those vehicles were prohibited immediately; they were so bad that they had to be taken out of service straight away. As I say, you can go through the whole book and find that the conditions are everywhere the same.

May I just bring in the total figures? Of 110,000 inspected last year 31,506 received "prohibited" notices. Of those vehicles 9,000 were so bad they were taken out of service immediately upon the instructions of the examiners. I think that that is a terrible picture. I understand that the defects of these vehicles are similar to those on motor cars and relate to steering and brakes.

Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, will agree with me that, as in the case of motor cars, there is a marked improvement from defects according to the age of the vehicle, with the possible exception of first- and second-year-old vehicles. Vehicles which are six, five or four years old show the same percentage of defects. If we agree to these regulations this afternoon, we should regard an increase in the number of vehicles examined as a matter of urgent priority. This can be done only by an increase in the number of inspectors. I hope that in the not too distant future, certainly by 1965, the Government will be in a position to start carrying out tests on these vehicles. I think that there should be a concerted effort by the Ministry of Transport to improve the standard of maintenance of heavy commercial vehicles carrying heavy loads through our country roads and towns.

I have one or two other points to make, but I believe that it is the wish of the House to hear the important statement on the Common Market and I have agreed, through the usual channels, to break my speech.


My Lords, I do not think that there is any particular need for the noble Lord's courtesy, because I have not yet had word that it is entirely clear. Therefore, if he continues to make his speech that may be even more convenient than if he sits down.


My Lords, if the noble Viscount the Leader of the House will give me "the nod", I will meet the wishes of the House.


My Lords, before the noble Lord continues, may I ask him one question? If he carries his proposal to its logical conclusion of having more and more inspectors, there will be more inspectors than lorry drivers before long.


My Lords, if we did that, we should have no unemployment in this country to-day. It is remarkable what 320 examiners perform to-day on nearly 200,000 vehicles.


They have done very well.


If there were an increase of another 300 examiners, it would be possible to raise the percentage of examinations to about 25, and that would have a marked effect on the standard of maintenance of these vehicles.

I was pleased to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, that at last something is going to be done about the question of loads on vehicles. The present legislation is obviously very unsatisfactory, but as this matter is being considered by a Departmental Committee, I hope that the House will be content with that. The abuses are obvious to all who use the roads, and legislation makes it possible for these to happen. It is possible to carry 14 tons on a four-wheeled vehicle. What I would regard as an ordinary 3-ton four wheeler cannot carry in safety at 40 m.p.h. a load in excess of 5 or 6 tons, but at present it can carry 14 tons and still be within the law.

My Lords, I have been given a note to say that the Government are now ready, and if it be for the convenience of the House, I will break off so that the House may hear the statement of the noble Viscount.