HL Deb 24 November 1965 vol 270 cc928-36

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should now like to repeat a Statement which is being made by my right honourable friend in another place in reply to questions about trial speed limits. We are pressing on with a comprehensive study of signalling systems, in order to decide what permanent arrangements we should adopt.

For the immediate future, my right honourable friend has decided on two main measures. The first is an ad hoc advisory speed limit of 30 m.p.h. for temporary application on lengths of motorway where there are serious hazards such as fog or other specially bad weather conditions. The restricted lengths will be indicated to drivers by vertical pairs of alternately flashing amber lights, placed at one-mile intervals along the motorway and at entry points. They will be switched on and off by the police as conditions warrant. The system will give advance warning to drivers to reduce speed down to no more than 30 m.p.h. as they approach the hazard. When the hazard area is actually reached drivers should reduce their speeds still further according to the conditions prevailing. We are planning to have this advisory system on the motorways ready for operation by Christmas.

The arrangements made for the Meteorological Office to pass fog warnings to the police and broadcasting authorities are being extended. The plan is for weather bulletins to give warnings when fog is forecast for motorway areas. As an entirely new feature, special announcements will be broadcast on radio and television when the warning system is operating on a particular stretch of motorway. We are grateful to the television and radio authorities for their co-operation in this valuable safety measure.

Second, there will be a general speed limit of 70 m.p.h. on motorways and all other unrestricted roads for an experimental period of four months from Christmas until after Easter. This measure should diminsh speed differentials, and thus lead to a reduction in accidents. The results achieved will be carefully analysed as the experiment proceeds. These measures are designed to improve driver discipline on motorways and on roads throughout the country as a whole. I hope that they will be accepted in this spirit, because safety—first and last—is the inescapable responsibility of every individual driver.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, as I am sure the whole House is, for this Statement. There are just one or two points that I should like to put to him for clarification. The first is that, when talking about a speed limit of 30 m.p.h. on motorways in conditions of fog or because of some other special hazard, the noble Lord referred to an "ad hoc advisory speed limit". Could I have illumination as to what the word "advisory" means? Does it merely mean that motorists will be advised that they should not exceed 30 miles an hour, and that no compulsion will be applied? By "compulsion", I mean, if they exceed 30 miles an hour when the amber lights are flashing will they be subject to prosecution? Is the limit compulsory in that sense? Then I was not altogether happy when the noble Lord said that when drivers actually reach the hazard they should reduce their speed still further. Again it seems to me that too much is being left to the driver.

The second part of the Statement, as I understand it, means that from Christmas until Easter no motorist will be able, legally, to exceed 70 miles an hour. The last thing I should wish to be is destructive, but it seems to me that the difficulty with that is: is it enforceable? There is no worse law than one that cannot be enforced, and that seems to me to be a great drawback here. It also seems to me that there may have to be a curtailment of even more advertising, because there will have to be much less talk of tigers in people's tanks. However, I am sure the whole House will welcome what the noble Lord has told us; and I should like to endorse the end of the Statement, which says that ultimately this is the responsibility of individual drivers. If this is the case, should there not be a more effective deterrent by way of heavier penalties for those who break the law?


My Lords, would the noble Lord—


Could I deal with noble Lords' supplementary questions one at a time, because, with age, my memory is failing? First of all, on the question of the advisory 30 m.p.h. speed limit, I would say that it is advisory because these warnings will be given in extraordinary conditions and not in ordinary circumstances. The warnings will be given perhaps five to ten miles ahead of the actual hazard. Therefore, the speed limit is advisory. There could not be any prosecution arising through not observing the advisory speed limit, but the police could, and probably would, where persons blatantly ignore that warning, prosecute for driving without due care and attention, or even perhaps for dangerous driving. To come now to the question of reducing speed when the actual hazard is reached, here the difficulty is that fog varies in density. Where the limit of vision is quite reasonable, it may be safe to go at 20 miles an hour. Where fog is dense, it would perhaps be dangerous to go at more than 5 miles an hour. Therefore, under those conditions that speed limit is applicable.

To come now to the question of the 70 miles an hour limit, I would say that the power to impose this arises in two ways: for motorways, first of all, under the 1960 Road Traffic Act, Section 37, and for other roads under the 1962 Road Traffic Act, Section 13. For both those measures, particularly in regard to the 70 miles an hour limit, we have the full endorsement of the police forces that operate throughout motorway counties. We have reason to believe that it is supported, too, by other police forces; and, in so far as their manpower conditions allow, we are advised by them that they will in fact do their utmost to enforce it, because they consider this to be one of the most important road safety measures for motorway and other trunk roads.


My Lords, may I also thank the noble Lord for giving us this Statement and say how gratifying it is to find that the Government are really taking a positive move forward in this very important matter, which of course, because of the tragic results, has come so much to our notice in the last few weeks? I would follow what the noble Duke has said almost entirely, but there is just one point about the advisory signal, which I take it will be by radio.


No; the warning will be indicated by flashing amber lights. This is, in the first instance, a temporary measure. There will be vertical amber lights—battery driven—which will be turned on and off by the police.


I beg the noble Lord's pardon. I understood him to say that there would be an advisory notice that one is going to come up against a hazard.




There is one other point. However safe and fast a car is, there are conditions—I have experienced them myself—in which even 30 miles an hour is far too fast, and I see that this matter has been left entirely to the discretion of the driver. I wonder whether some further device could not be developed whereby a much lower speed limit could be im- posed. It is seldom needed, but it should be possible to impose it when there is the need. Even at 20 miles an hour I have found myself in trouble on a dark night when unexpected things can happen and one wishes one were going at 8 m.p.h.

The other point is in respect of the top 70 miles an hour limit. I should like to know whether the Minister has taken the advice of the motoring associations. I may be unpopular for saying this, but I think that there are occasions when speeds of 70, 80 or 90 miles an hour can be, relatively, perfectly safe. For instance, on a bright morning at 6 a.m. in April at about Easter time, just before this restriction comes off, on the Ml, with nothing in sight for five miles, a car which as we all know is now designed sometimes to go at speeds of 120 or even 150 miles an hour in the hands of a competent driver can be perfectly safe. But I agree that a car travelling at 50 miles an hour, or even less, in the wrong hands is still a lethal weapon.


My Lords, if I may, I will take the questions in order. It is impossible to legislate through speed restrictions for occasional hazards. For instance, last night in the area in which I live in Hertfordshire the rain was very heavy. But you cannot impose a speed limit occasionally for that sort of hazard. One must leave it to the good sense of the driver. The tragedy about all this is that the vast majority of drivers are reasonable and sensible; it is a comparative few who cause the trouble.

When one comes to the 70 miles an hour limit, the police and the county authorities not only supported it but were to an extent enthusiastic in regard to its adoption. At the same time we consulted associations like the Road Haulage Association, the Traders' Road Transport Association and many others, the A.A. the R.A.C., the Public Transport Association and the Magistrates' Association. The A.A. and the R.A.C. were quite enthusiastic and supported fully the ad hoc restriction in regard to fog and other weather conditions. They were not so enthusiastic—they placed reservations—about the 70 miles an hour speed limit. So far as people like the Road Haulage Association, the Traders' Road Transport Association and the others were concerned, they were called to a meeting at short notice. They have a responsibility to their members and did not have the opportunity to consult them. Therefore, they were not prepared to commit themselves definitely in regard to the 70 m.p.h. limit.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say what would be the distance between the amber lights which are to be installed in fog? Will they be every mile, or every half mile?


My Lords, it is mentioned in the Statement—perhaps I did not make it clear enough—that they will be one mile apart. When one thinks of the speed at which people travel on a motorway one realises that it does not take long to travel a mile. The lights will be placed one mile apart; they will operate when the hazard arises and after it has arisen; and when one passes the last light one will know one is out of the restricted area.


My Lords, I would join with other noble Lords in welcoming this Statement and, if I may be allowed to do so, I would offer a word of congratulation to the Minister for at least showing some initiative to grapple with what is proving to be an almost intractable problem. I should like to ask the noble Lord one or two question. I think that the 30 miles an hour advisory speed limit is, in the light of recent experience, too high. A 30 m.p.h. speed limit when visibility is five yards can be far too high. The advisory speed limit—I sympathise with what the noble Lord said—can have no statutory compulsion as other speed limits have; but, as the noble Lord rightly said, the police could, and ought, to prosecute for dangerous driving if in their opinion speeds over 30 m.p.h. are dangerous. Has the Minister obtained the assurance from the police that they are going to enforce this strictly? Because the essence of the success of this experiment is its enforcement. We do not want this bold experiment to be brought into disrepute as is the ordinary, statutory speed limit. Would the noble Lord answer that question?

I join with other noble Lords in deprecating the 70 m.p.h. limit. It appears to me to be retrograde that we have spent millions of pounds and used the best brains of this country in road engineering, in building our highways, for the express purpose of speedy and safe traffic between our towns when, because of a few hooligans, we nullify it now by clapping on a speed limit.




My Lords, I am confined to asking a question? I did not know that; I am sorry. I thought that in the case of a Statement I could ask the noble Lord to reconsider this matter, because in my view it will not be operative. There is one further question that I should like to ask the noble Lord. In another place the other day the right honourable gentleman the Minister, in answering a question whether the Minister of Transport would close the motorways when fog reaches a certain density, said that he would not. May I ask the noble Lord whether the Minister intends to take away the authority of the police which is contained in Section 54 of the 1960 Road Traffic Act and which gives the police the sole right of closing any road for any purpose—fog, rain or any other thing—which they think forms a danger? That is one of their most valuable powers. As the noble Lord knows, there is a lot of ignorance about this matter; but that power, I understand, still remains in force.


My Lords, may I deal with the questions one at a time? First, the 30 m.p.h. advisory limit. It will be operative outside the actual area of fog or hazard and therefore it is advisory. The police view was that it will be most difficult to enforce outside the area of hazard. They would much prefer to rely on their powers to prosecute for dangerous or careless driving than for ignoring a warning on the road. So far as the 70 m.p.h. limit is concerned, the police supported it and said that, within the limits of their manpower, they would do their best to enforce it. They felt it was an urgent safety measure. This is a four-months' experiment and, of course, the problem arises more especially in winter when the weather is likely to be worse.

The noble Lord rightly referred to the power under Section 54 of the 1960 Act to close a road. The wording of the Act (which I see the noble Lord has by his side) is: "in extraordinary conditions." I am just a Parliamentary Secretary. The police have had difficulty with the lawyers because the lawyers say that fog is not extraordinary in England in winter. Perhaps there may be some argument there. The police are certain that where there is an accident in a fog they can close the road; but under the hazard of a normal English winter with a fog, they are unsure that their power under Section 54 is sufficient to enable them to close the road on their own initiative. In view of that, they are not actually enthusiastic about how this power can be used under those conditions. It is being looked at.


My Lords, may I intervene here? This is turning into a debate, rather than a few questions following a Statement. I think we ought to go on to the next Statement.


My Lords, would it be in order to ask one short question? I do not wish to make a speech but to ask one question. Does the Minister not think that the only really effective way to cut down the number of accidents in fog is to impose on civilians that excellent rule which was applied to Service drivers in the blackout in wartime? It is the simplest rule that you could have: that you drive at all times within the range of your vision. During wartime if a driver ran into something because he was driving too fast to be able to stop in time, he was put on a charge. There was practically no defence. If the accident was serious, he was court-martialled.


My Lords, that point is dealt with in the Highway Code. There are two good rules: always drive so that you can stop within the length of your vision, and never allow your petrol tank to be less than half-full.


My Lords, would the Deputy Leader of the House allow one very short question? I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he would consider what has been done abroad where there is a speed limit of 70 miles an hour, whether he would consider first applying the limit on the motorways during the weekend periods? I am quite sure that the noble Lord and his Department, and the Minister of Transport, would not wish to penalise the normal business traffic on the motorways during the week. I wonder whether, during the trial period of four months, the restriction could be applicable during the weekend periods?


My Lords, we are not considering that question at the moment. This is a full restriction because a piecemeal imposition would create enforcement difficulties.