HL Deb 16 February 1966 vol 272 cc1115-42

6.6 p.m.

VISCOUNT HANWORTH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that increasingly restrictive legislation is adversely affecting drivers of cars and placing an impossible burden on the police.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. Before dealing with more specific topics, I should like to take a general look at the whole problem of road casualties. Governments, in the hope of bringing home to motorists the importance of driving with responsibility and decreasing accidents, which must be the aim of all of us, have continued to stress the death rate on the roads, and terms such as "holocaust" and "carnage" have been used. There is no doubt that, up to a point, this has been successful, and has had an effect. But I believe that it has gone too far; it has produced an atmosphere where rational approach to the problem has become almost impossible politically, and the pressure to do something, however ill-conceived or ineffective, has now become extreme.

I do not for a moment wish to minimise the seriousness of our road accident problem, but I believe that continuing to appeal to people's fears is both wrong in principle and, in the long run, is likely to be ineffective. Greatly daring, I go so far as to say that I think it would be unfortunate if it did. Life is uncertain, and I and some others believe that this is probably the way it was meant to be. But if the only thing that can influence us is fear for our own lives, how can we hold up our heads in a world where thousands are dying of starvation and preventable diseases, and how can we be worthy of our heritage? I think the approach should be to people's social conscience, not to their skins; the misery of the permanently maimed, the bereavement of families—all these things are of the essence of the problem and the measure of its importance.

Believing, as I do, that this fear publicity has gone too far, I think the time has come when we must see the problem of deaths on the road, as opposed to injuries, much more in perspective. Therefore, for those who are unduly frightened of it—and frightened people do not drive well—I should like to mention that the risk of death is little or no greater than many of the other hazards in this uncertain life: deaths from accidents in the home, suicides and the 1957 'flu epidemic are three examples. Suprisingly, fatal accidents on the roads in 1934, over thirty years ago, were running at roughly the same level as they are to-day. There were then 3½ million vehicles on the road, compared with over 12 million to-day.

We know, of course, that the injuries have vastly increased, and that again is one reason why I think our emphasis should be far more on the injuries than on the deaths. We might also take heart from the fact that the death rate on the roads of this country is proportionately less on a per vehicle basis than in any other European country, except Norway and Sweden; and in Germany it is, in fact, nearly twice as great. When we consider the number of casualties on the road, the problem becomes of much greater magnitude. The number of seriously injured is about twelve times greater than the death rate, and the total number of injured nearly fifty times as big. These figures are so large that the odds on their not affecting any individual driver become very much shorter, and I think we should base our publicity on these facts.

As individuals, if we are to remain human, we must always allow our emotions and sympathy to affect our minds, but as legislators we must look facts squarely in the face. It is simply no good taking the attitude that any measure which will reduce road casualties, by however small a margin, is justified. If it were, we could solve the casualty problem completely by imposing a 5 m.p.h. speed limit, or better still, insist that every vehicle was preceded by a man carrying a red flag. Of course this suggestion would be regarded as quite absurd by everybody, but after all it is only a question of degree. We could fix the speed limit at 20 m.p.h., and, of course, inevitably, if we were to enforce it, road accidents would decrease; but we have to weigh the cost of doing anything as drastic as that.

Looking at the matter from the national point of view, what has to be done is to weigh the cost and inconvenience of any measure against its effectiveness in reducing road casualties. If we are prepared to spend more money, accidents can be reduced in many ways: for instance, road improvements, building pedestrian subways, or improving accident black spots. It is worth remembering that pedestrians represent more than a third of the total number of persons killed or seriously injured on the roads. Moreover, well over 60 per cent, of all deaths and serious injuries occur in speed-limited built-up areas, and a large proportion, of course, occur in the 30 m.p.h. speed-limited areas. Therefore when we consider other measures, such as a 70 m.p.h. speed limit, we must remember that to some extent it is a question of diminishing returns because the number of accidents which we can affect is very much less of the total.

I know that the national income is not unlimited and if we are making funds available for one purpose then other desirable projects, such as schools or hospitals—which, incidentally, may save lives—may have to go, but the question is whether the Government are really giving sufficient priority to expenditure on improvements which will reduce road casualties. I am afraid the answer must be emphatically, "No". The course to which all Governments succumb (and this, I am afraid, is quite regardless of Party) is to place the blame on drivers indiscriminately and to resort to increasingly restrictive legislation which acts as a palliative for our completely inadequate road system and pedestrian facilities. I will return to the subject of those facilities again, because this is where a vast number of the deaths are occurring.

If we are to have restrictive legislation on the driver, and if we are really concerned with this problem of casualties, surely the time has now come when we should also consider applying restrictions to pedestrians. This is done in other countries and it would be effective. Is it that we dare not do it politically? I enjoy a bit of jay-walking myself, but I feel we must seriously consider the possibility of restricting pedestrian movements in certain cases. It can no longer be said that every road has been constructed for the pedestrian's benefit; a large number of roads are primarily for the motorist.

I should now like to deal with accident black spots. It costs on the average only about £3,500 to eliminate one black spot—I will admit that these are statistics taken from a few years ago, and I have increased the figures somewhat, but I could not say for certain that they represent the situation at the present time. No doubt the Minister will tell me if he disagrees. On purely economic grounds, this capital expenditure is more than justified, as each accident is costing something like £500 and we therefore have an amortisation period of only seven years. Several black spots have been tackled, but many remain and there are still several being created. In other words, it is not a static position. Remembering that a single accident usually results in more than one casualty, and that of fifty casualties one is fatal, it would appear that the expenditure of £130,000 is more than we are prepared to afford to save one life and fifty injuries in the year.

I should like the Minister to tell me what general planning figure he uses in deciding whether the expenditure is justified. I suspect the answer will be that the Ministry does not look at it in this way. But if it does not, I think the Minister must at least be brave enough to acknowledge the consequences of inaction and not spending this sum where it can reasonably be expected to produce results of that magnitude. In any case there are many black spots where the expenditure required has been quite negligible. For example, at the road junction of the A.20 with the A.252 at Charing fork accidents were reduced by one fatal and two serious in the year following the improvement. Another example is Watersend Bridge on the A.2, near Dover, where 200 yards of the approaches to the bridge were given a non-skid surface. The accidents between 1963 and 1964 were one fatal, six serious casualties and three slight. In the year following the improvement there were no accidents of any kind.

I should now like to turn for a moment to the question of road research. Undoubtedly some restrictive measures cannot be avoided, but the unfortunate thing is that research into the causes of accidents has not been pressed forward with the energy which it deserves, presumably again on grounds of economy. There is, therefore, surprisingly little concrete evidence on which to decide whether or not a restrictive measure is likely to be justified by results; and, my Lords, as I said earlier in my speech, that is what we, as Legislators, have to do. One must applaud the work of the Road Research Laboratory, but once again it seems to be a question of too little, far too late. I have read some of their excellent surveys, but they never seem to me to have been on a sufficiently wide basis, or perhaps one might say sufficiently expensive basis, to be conclusive, and one doubts whether many of the statistics which they require to give a really reasoned answer are, in fact, being made available. I am sure they are not.

There is always this question of who causes accidents. And, having tried to allay what I would call some of the hysteria which surrounds this subject, I would go on to the question: what ought we to do? There is little doubt that the majority of accidents are not caused by the too fast driving of the wilfully reckless driver (although we all tend to notice him): it is the simple driving error of the average man, usually caused by inattention or lack of skill, that is the hard core of our accident problem. This is well illustrated by the number of accidents caused to pedestrians on 30 m.p.h. limited roads. It is perfectly true, of course, that when a driver has an accident he is nearly always going too fast. But what is too fast? Ten m.p.h. is far too fast if the driver fails to see the pedestrian stepping off the sidewalk. In fact, any speed at all can be too fast in those circumstances.

What is needed is concentration, and I think there is a great deal in the old-fashioned maxim of, "Don't talk to the man at the wheel". Even the best of drivers occasionally make an error—perhaps through failing to look carefully enough in the mirror. Usually an accident is avoided, but none of us can claim complete immunity from such failings if all the circumstances are against us. That is one reason why I think we should think very carefully indeed before we resort to automatic penalties. They will very often—in fact, in my opinion, in most cases—hit the man who does not deserve to be hit.

The more restrictions we place on the driver using his skill and initiative, the more likely he is to be inattentive; and multiple crashes are only one important consequent example of the truth of this. The increasing number of road signs, necessary though they may be, is making it easier to be bewildered, and the extension of double white lines is leading to the assumption that it is always safe to overtake where they do not exist. In fact I know one place on Salisbury Plain, which is well plastered with double white lines, where there is a hidden dip, and it is only too easy to assume that there is nothing in that hidden dip because it has not a double white line. Not only this, but many of the newer markings, such as hatching, to indicate dead areas at turnings off mains roads, are simply not understood and are ignored by almost all drivers. There is a very definite limit to how much further we can go in this direction; again there may be the law of diminishing returns.

I believe that what we must do is to concentrate our publicity on encouraging greater driving skill by graded tests— perhaps a system of compelling accident-prone drivers to take a compulsory course of driving instruction and then be re-tested. We must remember that the learner-driver test is completely basic and is no criterion for a more experienced driver who drives faster without the beginner's caution. In other words, passing that test does not indicate that after one or two months that driver is going to be a good driver, or even a competent driver, on the roads; and if we think that accidents are caused by incompetent drivers I am all for trying to get a higher grade of test. The trouble is that as a learner-driver becomes more confident he starts to drive beyond his capacity.

As regards increased expenditure, I am afraid that, as has already been said, we must be prepared to spend more money on road improvements and on pedestrian facilities. We must have more police patrols: they have a magical effect on driving standards, and the 78 million miles of patrolling in 1964 was not enough. This means, of course, increasing the size of the police force. If we are to get the co-operation of drivers and to promote good relations with the police force, we must see that speed limits and prohibitions are reasonable and that the number of prosecutions for unintentional technical infringements of the law is reduced. Unless the authorities can get the driver's co-operation, unless he has the feeling that the limits are sensible and reasonable, he will not keep to them. And it is a very vital thing indeed—just as vital as putting on new limits—to see that those that are unreasonable are removed.

I would also suggest that the proper functioning of brakes and steering on cars is essential for safe driving. It strikes me as strange that, although we are prepared to consider stopping motorists for breath-analyser tests, in 1964 only just over 20,000 vehicles were examined on roadside checks. Of these vehicles, one quarter had defective brakes, and one in six defective steering. This seems to me an absolutely frightening figure, and it is no good hiding behind yearly tests and thinking that they will achieve results. Even a car in first-class condition can have dangerous brakes and steering only a week or two after that test. In the case of the old car, the vehicle which is on its last legs, I should think that it might be completely dangerous very soon after leaving the garage and its test. I find it very hard to see why, if we are prepared to take this very unpleasant step of having breath-analyser tests and stopping people on the roads, we are still not prepared to tackle something—brakes and steering— which may have at least an equal effect on our road casualties. Moreover, checks on brakes and steering are much more reasonable and less liable to the abuses which I believe are possible when people are stopped indiscriminately for breath-analyser tests.

As regards the burden on the police forces, I am afraid that in many ways I think the whole attitude towards the motorist is still tinged with the red-flag complex. Instead of encouraging good driving, we continue to increase the severity of penalties for what often amounts to nothing more than a technical infringement of the law. These penalties undermine the confidence of the ordinary man, but they do nothing to stop those more foolhardy individuals, and particularly those with criminal records, who are so frequently involved in the more serious accidents. The saddest result of this policy is the effect on our police forces. Not only is it impossible for them to enforce fairly the multiplicity of technical laws being created, but the trust and respect of the public, which is so important for their primary responsibilities of preventing crime, is being steadily undermined. And this particular point has been made more than once in this House.

Now I would turn to the 70 m.p.h. speed limit. To my mind, this piece of restrictive legislation is the most ill-conceived, ill-advised and retrograde step yet taken, with virtually no evidence to suggest that it will do anything to help the situation. The Government can surely have decided to introduce it only as a panic measure, on the ground that any action was better than none. Caught by the propaganda—and I use that term deliberately—put out by the present and previous Governments, the Government felt that a measure was required which would affect only a minority of road users and would appeal to those who do not possess a car that could safely exceed this speed or who resented being passed by those who drove faster.

However this may be, the facts of the matter are that on ordinary roads the 70 m.p.h. limit is virtually unenforceable; on motorways, enforcement will be most difficult in high-density traffic, and even if successful it will undoubtedly increase the accidents, due to the bunching of traffic driving too close at a uniform speed. In such circumstances—that is, where vehicles are driving nose to tail —attention is bound to wander, and the eye must frequently be taken off the road to look at the speedometer. I think we should remember that one of the main reasons for the construction of motorways was to increase traffic flow, by allowing the fast and slow vehicles to sort themselves out; yet this is just what we are preventing them from doing with the new 70 m.p.h. limit.

All positive evidence is against this measure. A 62 m.p.h. speed limit was tried in Germany on the autobahns, and abandoned; it was tried in France on all roads during holiday periods, and again it was abandoned. It was also tried in England on holidays and weekends, but without really conclusive results. How can the Minister believe that a higher, unenforceable, speed limit can be effective when lower ones have proved almost valueless? Am I not right in thinking that the Government themselves made just this point a few months ago? What has changed their minds?

It is also clear that the so-called experiment cannot be conclusive. I would go so far as to say that no self-respecting statistician would for a moment suppose that it could, under the conditions proposed. I believe that if the Government were truly seeking after the truth, carefully controlled experiments on some of the roads would be far more effective.


My Lords, has the noble Lord given any con sideration——


Order, order!


I beg your Lordships' pardon.


I do not think the results of the opinion poll on this question are really relevant. Few drivers have much experience of driving at over 70 m.p.h., and it is, after all human nature to resent being passed by faster drivers in more expensive cars. Turning to the long term effects, I am afraid that we are being led up the garden path. The real reason for the experiment is to try out the reaction of the public. But even if the public are willing to accept it, the ultimate consequences of the measure are far more serious. Our car exports have in recent years become an important factor in our national economy, built up, to an important extent, on the performance of our cars—many of them being sports models.

The damage done to the industry could be irreparable. We have only to look at Japan to see the artificial conditions there which have limited performance and hindered their car exports for more than a decade. Not only this, but if you believe, as I do, that the best hope of lessening accidents is to improve driving standards, the interest in acquiring such skills will be severely curtailed by the new regimented discipline of the motorways. If the argument for the limit rests upon speed differentials, and the Government sincerely believe that this measure will reduce accidents, why do they stop short of imposing a maximum speed limit on motorways? Why do they not make a minimum speed limit? Why, incidentally, do they not confine lorries to the two inside lanes?

To conclude, I should like to mention the proposed alcohol limit. I am not coming down on one side or on the other on this matter, but I should like to make one or two points. If the limit can be imposed and enforced, there is a good chance that it will save something around 6 per cent, of road casualties. Many of us would consider any inconvenience which this might cause well worth while. But let us make no mistake: those people who commonly drive under the influence of alcohol are just those who are prepared to take some risk of being caught. The measure will, therefore, be largely ineffective in reducing casualties unless we accept the proposal for road-side breath analyser checks. But should we? I believe it could become a real imposition upon our liberties. Just think of the police car waiting outside the "pub", or the private cocktail party. I must say that I do not like the idea at all. Incidentally, if anyone thinks that this is an exaggerated picture, they might remember the prosecutions which have occurred of drivers who, knowing that they have drunk too much, dispose of the ignition keys of their cars and yet have had to pay the penalty for their wise decision to sleep it off. It has taken us several years to put a stop to this nonsense. Should we then be justified in leaving the sensible interpretation of the law to the police?

6.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Lord for introducing this most interesting subject. I personally wish it could have been taken with the previous debate, because in my opinion the two are closely interwoven. I agree with some of the points made by the noble Lord, but with others I disagree—for instance, when he pointed out, right at the end of his speech, that he is opposed to the suggested introduction of breath analysers, although this might save 6 per cent, of the accidents. I just cannot understand his thinking.

I agree with what the noble Lord said about taking more notice of the inadequacy of the present roads. We in the rural areas are only too well aware of the danger that this can cause, with roads through villages leading to the village school, where there is not a footpath on either side for the youngsters to walk on. This is quite dangerous, and likely to cause accidents. The noble Lord also referred to "black spots", and to double white lines. Only a few days ago, when travelling on a main trunk road, I had an experience when, driving in quite a long line of traffic, well tucked in behind, some "gentleman" just "whizzed" past, cutting in and out, right over the double white lines. He completely ignored them. This is something of which I think we ought to take more notice than we do.

I have a particular interest in this subject of road safety because I have driven for a good deal more than thirty years, averaging 25,000 to 30,000 miles a year; and for two and a half years, during my Army life, I was a driver-instructor, teaching recruits coming into the Army how to drive, and trying to teach road safety. Like so many people, I have never lost my interest in this important subject. I am sure that everyone here is really concerned, as are most people, about the number of road accidents in recent years, and with the toll of death, injury, damage and loss which follows. I repeat, I believe in road safety, and would personally support any action to reduce the large number of road accidents. The noble Lord, Lord Boothby, in an interjection in the previous debate, forecast that we should all "be dead by 1970. I would not altogether agree with that, but I believe that a good many of us can be involved in road accidents which may be fatal unless more is done in the interests of road safety and in trying to reduce this large number of accidents.

The noble Viscount's Question refers to "restrictive legislation" on car drivers and on the police. We all know, and agree, that our police have a most difficult job, which they do very well indeed, and I believe that they should be both encouraged and supported. Most people, of whom I am one, object to compulsion. But we have to concede that, in recent years, we have tried to encourage people not to drink and drive, but we have not been really successful. At Christmas time, especially, we have had posters on the hoardings and in the Press, and all sorts of advertisements, pleading with drivers not to drink—" If you drink, don't drive; if you drive, don't drink." We must admit that the pleadings so far have not been successful. Therefore, when pleading is unsuccessful, I think that we must resort to compulsion. I consider that the proposals of the Government to introduce breathalysers and the 70 miles per hour speed limit on motorways are the best alternative at present. I believe that the fear of being caught in a state of having had too much to drink will deter many drivers who drink and drive. I support the proposal which would empower the police to make snap checks on drivers and I believe all reasonable people will also. The only people who will object will be those who are likely to drink too much and then drive.

I must declare an interest because I am a non-drinker so it does not affect me. Some people may say that it is easy for me to say this because I do not drink and would not be likely to get caught. So I want to make it perfectly clear that, in my opinion, with the present volume of traffic on the roads there is no room for drink and driving together. The noble Viscount criticised the proposed 70 m.p.h. speed limit on the motorways. Although I do a good deal of driving, I have not a fast car, just an ordinary family car, but I must confess that on the motorways I have driven more than 70 m.p.h. I consider 70 m.p.h. to be a reasonable speed. It is true that when someone whizzes past you when you are doing 70, there is the temptation to put your foot down and take an "I'll larn him!" attitude; but, on reflection, I think that 70 m.p.h. on the motorway is a reasonable speed. Personally, I am prepared to accept this, but I have been wondering how much actual saving in time would occur as between a driver on the M.1 keeping down to the 70 m.p.h. limit and another driver going up to 100 m.p.h., as some people do. At the end of their journey I should think that the saving in time would be only negligible.

I personally am prepared to accept the 70 m.p.h. limit, and I hope that the Government will enforce it. Normally, I am not a "Yes-man", but when it comes to road safety and prevention of accidents, I am prepared to conform and be a "Yes-man". I hope my noble friend will dig his toes in on this, and see that his right honourable friend the Minister of Transport introduces these measures. I wish them every success.

6.45 p.m.


My Lords, speaking at this time of the evening, after a long debate which has virtually been dealing with the same subject as this Unstarred Question, it is difficult not to be repetitive. I trust your Lordships will forgive me if I bring up several points which have already been mentioned. In some quarters the idea has grown up that the only way to stop motorists from injuring themselves and others is to introduce legislation providing for harsher and harsher penalties and, in almost every case, longer prison sentences. Unfortunately, experience has shown that these measures have not been very productive of improvement. For my part I have never believed that prison is the proper place for motorists. I believe that the logical answer to these extreme cases is to remove the danger from the road by the withdrawal of the licence when the driver has proved himself to be unfit on the road.

Irritating and unnecessary legislation can only harm the relations between the public and the police, and by no stretch of the imagination can that be desirable. The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, mentioned the undermining of confidence, and I am in full agreement with him on that point, for it is one of the effects of unnecessary legislation. The public should regard the police as their friends, not as their enemies. Our small and undermanned police force is stretched to the limit by a crime wave unprecedented in our history. Their task is made no easier by being made to enforce, or to attempt to enforce, regulations which have no great practical value.

This leads me to wonder whether there would be any advantage in having a separate force of traffic police. I should be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, in his reply will say whether the Government have any views on this matter. If the police were relieved of some of the more irksome and less essential traffic duties which it is their duty to perform it might be helpful to have such a force. I also feel that if the police could warn motorists more frequently and prosecute a little less they would not only receive more co-operation from the public than they do now, but also would do much to improve the general standard of driving. So many drivers err through sheer ignorance and for no other reason.

I feel that I should apologise to Lord Lindgren as I was going to say a few words about the 70 m.p.h. limit, but he has already indicated in an earlier speech that he does not want to talk about it.


Yes, I do.


Very well. The experimental 70 m.p.h. speed limit is, in my view, an example of an unnecessary regulation. There is no reason why on motorways and dual carriageways, such as the A.1, speeds in excess of 70 m.p.h. should be dangerous, although this may not be the case on the numerous and lethal three-way roads from which we suffer so much. On these roads 70 m.p.h. may be too much, and indeed I think it is. I am strongly in favour of the double white lines which alternate from one side to the other, and enable overtaking to be done in comparative safety. I feel sure that there should be a great many more of them, because in my experience they have proved to be very effective.

I read in The Times on Saturday of last week that, with one-quarter of the population of America, Britain has one-sixth of America's road casualties— though in America speed limits exist and, what is more, are enforced very rigidly. These figures do not make out a very good case for speed limits. Admittedly, the American roads and road problems are not easily comparable to our own, and too much should not be read into what happens there. But, be that as it may, the figure for deaths per 100,000 of the population in the United States is 25, whereas in this country it is 13.3. That is a fairly sharp improvement.

I think it is well known that we do not have enough police cars on the roads. In my view, they are of the greatest value, but they would be better employed in chasing dangerous and indifferent drivers than in being used to enforce unnecessary and irritating regulations. Unfortunately, though it may be comparatively easy to catch someone driving at 80 miles an hour on a motorway, it is extremely difficult to catch someone driving at 50 miles an hour when he ought to be driving at 15—and, as we all know, this happens only too frequently. It now seems that police time is still further to be encroached upon by having to make random tests with breathalysers. I have never believed that there are nearly as many drunken drivers as we are led to suppose, and I am sure that there are as many drunken pedestrians and, possibly drunken cyclists. Would not the police be better employed in trying to save motorists from themselves, by taking action for dangerous parking, for running a car with smooth tyres and ineffective brakes, for overtaking when unable to see ahead, and even for driving too close to the car in front?


At 70 miles an hour?


I think it would be foolish to drive too close at 70 miles an hour, although that is the effect of what is happening on the motorways. It is what I believe is known as "high-speed bunching". But I believe that even this short list of bad driving practices is far more productive of accidents than is drink. Naturally, I hold no brief for the drunken driver; no sane man would. But I do not believe there are nearly as many drunken drivers as the Ministry of Transport advertisements would seem to indicate. Certainly there are not enough to justify the random use of breathalysers.

If there are any solutions to the problems on the road, I believe that they lie in the direction of better driving instruction; stricter and two-stage driving tests; tests at more frequent intervals; having more police cars on the road, and the provision of better roads for us to drive on. It may be that, owing to the various acute shortages from which we suffer, these solutions are unattainable counsels of perfection. But at least it is not beyond our capabilities to devise more simple and more understanding regulations. If regulations are more simple and understanding, they are less likely to be broken, and thus the burden upon the police will be considerably eased.

6.55 p.m.


My Lords, I do not disagree with a great deal that has been said by previous speakers on this Question. At the same time, I feel that the Question has been framed in a way which might give the impression that there was general dissatisfaction with the police and the way in which they enforce restrictions, and I do not think that is the view of the public as a whole. There surely can be no doubt about the need for restrictions on motor cars. They are a lethal weapon and a public nuisance.

I passed a test as a driver before I was seventeen, under the regulations applying in the First World War. Therefore, I am not unsympathetic to drivers of motor cars, and I recognise that cars are an extremely valuable amenity of modern life. But having regard, first of all, to the number of deaths in road accidents, to the number of injuries, to the congestion which traffic causes, to the noise, and to the noxious smoke which is emitted, it surely is clear that there have to be restrictions upon motor cars and their drivers.

Indeed, public opinion has moved very rapidly in this direction during the last few years. Some twelve years ago, when I was concerned with the preparation of I Road Traffic Bill, we were warned by the Whips in another place that it was very doubtful whether there would be public support for parking meters, because of the objection to making any charge to the motorist for parking on the Queen's Highway. We have moved a long way since then, and parking meters are now recognised as being of great help to the motorist as well as an economical way of using the road. And it was only in 1960 that traffic wardens were introduced to help the police. Public opinion is demanding that there shall be adequate restrictions upon that minority of motor drivers who, in one way or another, are the cause of danger or inconvenience to the public.

In my view—and I think this view is generally shared—the police are both courteous and considerate. On occasions I have wondered whether they do not carry those virtues a little too far. But it is, of course, here that they must retain the good will of the public, and I think they have succeeded in doing so. But at a time when there is this unprecedented wave of crime, it surely is desirable to try to devise methods by which the police will have to spend less time in the enforcement of these necessary restrictions. The traffic wardens have done a great deal to take a burden off the police. Again, it is only twelve years ago that the then Commissioner of Police in London was unwilling that there should be a body of traffic wardens, but I know that the present one welcomes it. I wonder whether it might not be possible, in some respects, to widen their responsibilities and their powers in order to help the police. This is rather on the lines of the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Allerton, of a special body recruited for the purpose of traffic control. I think that perhaps a more helpful line would be to increase the responsibilities of the traffic wardens in suitable cases.

Up to 1960 the difficulties of prosecuting for a traffic offence were very great. It was necessary for the policeman to wait until the person in charge of the car came back to the car, and to take his name. It was as a result of the recommendations of the Sharpe Committee that the Road Traffic and Roads Improvement Act 1960 was passed: …to facilitate the enforcement and administration of the law relating to road traffic and to vehicles on roads by providing for the punishment without a prosecution of offences in connection with lights or reflectors on vehicles, or with obstruction, waiting, parking and kindred matters, and for the employment of traffic wardens in aid of the police;… Under that Act the offences for which a fixed penalty can be prescribed are very much limited. Indeed, in practice they are even more limited. At present, this applies generally, first of all, only to London, and, secondly, only to offences in connection with parking meters; and in both these cases, if I understand the law aright, an extension could be made by order of the Home Secretary under this Statute. It could be extended to other parking offences outside the meter zones, and to offences in connection with lights and reflectors; and I would ask the Government to consider carefully whether that might not be done and whether that would not be of substantial help to the police.

In other cases, if it were thought desirable to make an extension, it would be necessary for it to be done by legislation. Of course, clearly fixed penalties can apply only where the offence is one which is due to a clear, ascertainable fact: not, of course, to anything like dangerous driving or driving without due care and attention, which require the exercise of discretion. But it might be extended legislation to include such offences as driving over traffic lights when at red and exceeding the speed limit— and that, again, I put forward as a constructive suggestion for possible action by the Government.

I should like to ask the Minister one or two questions. The Act which is now the Act of 1960—it was the Act of 1956—authorised the towing away of cars that were causing obstruction. We believed that that was the only way to deal with what at that time was an ever-increasing abuse. I should be very glad to know from the noble Lord the Minister in how many cases towing away is now being practised, and to what extent it is the view of the Government that it is being successful.

There is a great case for much more being done to deal with unjustifiable and obstructive parking in London. In my time at the Ministry of Transport it was true to say that when people were guilty of these constant parking offences the garages of London were never at any time full; and I believe that, even after the building of the underground garage at Hyde Park, it is probably true at the present time. When motorists complain about prosecutions and of to-wings away because of the obstructive parking of motor cars, the answer is (if it is still the case, as I believe it is; and I should be glad to have the Government's confirmation) that at no time are all the garages of London fully occupied by cars.

My Lords, I have said that the police have a great deal "on their plate" at the present time, and I quite understand the reluctance of the Commissioner of Police to increase it, but I do think that something ought to be done about noise. There are a great many young men in sports cars who drive about at great speed with the cut-out open or with the silencer taken off. When I lived in Sloane Street I was often awakened at about 2 o'clock in the morning by some sports car going at 70 or 75 miles an hour down Sloane Street and making an appalling noise. Of course, it is an offence against the law at the present time, but it is difficult to enforce that law. First, it is difficult to overtake the offender; and, secondly, it is difficult to measure the noise. It is possible to measure the noise in a garage, but there is at present no instrument for measuring the noise in traffic when other noise is occurring in the vicinity. I would ask the Government to consider whether something more cannot be done about this.

The thing to do is to take the number of the car and then to call and inspect the car when it is in a garage; and on many occasions there are opportunities for stopping a car of that kind and examining it then and there. This is really going no further than the spot check about which the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, spoke—of stopping a vehicle on the road and examining it for defects in its brakes, lights and so on. Wanton and deliberate noise, made in many cases by tampering with cars so that they are not in the condition in which they issue from the factory, is a thing which is a great nuisance to the public, and it really ought to be tackled.

The Buchanan Report was the first official Report dealing with the problem of enabling the motor car to be so dealt with as to be reconciled with a civilised life. This involves disciplinary restraint upon drivers—I think it does on pedestrians, as well—but these restraints, in most cases on the drivers, are not only in the interests of pedestrians and residents in towns but also in the interests of the drivers themselves. I believe that public opinion is coming more and more to recognise that these restraints are necessary, and I should like to see them applied more rigidly. I believe there is a Committee at present sitting considering the restraint of traffic, and I should be glad to learn from the Government their terms of reference and whether we may expect a report from them in the near future.

7.9 p.m.


My Lords, I listened to the speeches of the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, and other noble Lords with very great interest. I am sorry that the noble Viscount's Question should say that restrictive measures are adversely affecting motorists, because they are designed to make roads safe, which is in the interest of all road users. The noble Viscount took exception to the emphasis on road deaths in safety propaganda, and suggested that we should appeal more to social conscience than to fear of death. The message we try to put across has to be simple and vivid to get home to people, and should work with the strongest elements in human nature—and the fear of death is one of the strongest. None the less, we believe that positive practical advice on safety, rather than horror, may be the best form of propoganda. Nobody wants an accident, but people do need to know how to avoid them.

Government spending on road research is rising. In 1964–65 it was 12½ per cent, up on the previous year, and the provision made for 1965–66 is 30 per cent, up on 1964–65. We do not normally ascribe accidents to causes. Most result from multiple causes; an immediate cause can seldom be determined. We concentrate on identifying factors occurring in accidents, and accident statistics pick out those which recur most often, say, in all accidents, or in accidents of a particular type or in a particular place. The aim is to identify the factors whose removal or modification would do most to reduce accidents, and then to put things right.

On the elimination of black spots, to which the noble Viscount referred, I can inform the House that they are not all alike, and it is not helpful to talk of an average cost of elimination. The nature and cost of remedies vary widely. In one case better signs might reduce accidents appreciably; in another, a substantial road improvement might be necessary. Hence the importance of identifying recurrent factors in accident black spots before planning the remedy. The Government are spending about £4½ million a year on schemes costing less than £25,000, a high proportion of which are directed to improvements which can produce big safety returns.

Who causes accidents? Information on how far different groups have accidents is hard to come by, but it has been established that among motor-cyclists inexperience is a factor. Young drivers have accidents more frequently than older ones; the accident involvement rate per mile for drivers under 20 is more than four times the lowest rate, that is, for those aged 60–69. The question of whether there should be an advanced test was raised. The basic requirement of the driving test is that to pass it a candidate must show, in normal traffic conditions that he can properly control a motor vehicle on the road and can drive it safely and with due consideration for other road users. The standard required to pass the test has been continually rising, because the increasing amount and complexity of normal traffic over the years have imposed their own rising standards. Advanced tests or re-tests are impracticable at present. Two million driving tests are conducted annually, and there are nearly half a million applicants waiting to take the test—representing about thirteen weeks work. Recruitment of additional examiners continues, but, as in many other spheres of activity, the right types of persons for the job are in short supply.

Incompetent or inconsiderate behaviour can cause accidents on the safest roads. Good training and sound testing make their own contribution to safe driving, but neither will ensure that drivers will at all times apply what they have learnt. It is entirely a matter for the driver himself. A big step in the direction of sound training was the setting up, in October, 1964, of the Ministry of Transport's Register of Approved Driving Instructors. In recent years research into the behaviour of road users, and into the physical and psychological factors that may affect their conduct on the roads, has been intensified. The Road Research Laboratory has been studying driving behaviour— including drivers' attitudes, judgment and emotional responses while driving—and the effects of training on drivers' subsequent performance. If the results of these studies show that changes in the form of the driving test, or on the fines suggested by the noble Lord, are desirable and practicable, they will be made.

The noble Lord, Lord Allerton, said that there must be a certain amount of repetition. Here, I will repeat, because it is applicable, what I said in the previous debate. Up to 1970 the size of the road programme is fixed within the National Plan, and further expansion before that date could only be at the expense of some other programme. In any case, planned expenditure on the roads between 1965 and 1970 already represents an average annual increase of about 15 per cent., as compared with the average 4¼ per cent, annual rise for all public expenditure. The Ministry is assessing what needs to be done to the urban and inter-urban road system by 1980. The picture will then have to be related to the availability of resources through the 1970s and the competing needs of other programmes.

My right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Minister of Transport are agreed that more well-equipped police are required. It is becoming clear that policing the roads is an important part of the war against crime in general. However, it is by no means easy to find recruits for the police. This is a much wider national problem. I well understand why the noble Viscount asks for more spot checks on vehicles, but the difficulty in increasing their number substantially is that it would require a great many skilled inspectors and police—and here it is well to interject that only a policeman can stop a car—and this would be exceedingly expensive. The spot-check, all the same, has an important part to play in road safety.

The noble Viscount mentioned the possibility of earlier lighting-up times. This has often been considered in the past, but there is great difficulty in finding one time suitable for all parts of the country. Of course, even the clouds in the sky affect the time of dusk. Many of the regulations, especially the more technical ones, which the noble Viscount complains about, apply to manufacturers, and are enforced by Ministry of Transport inspectors. For the rest, we should be only too pleased to simplify the law, and attempt to make things easier where possible; for example, by introducing the new traffic signs. It is up to the police, of course, to prosecute with discretion.

I now come to the experimental 70 m.p.h. speed limit. In the early days of motorways in this country it was thought that the vast majority of drivers might settle down to a sensible speed level. The motorways therefore had no speed limits. However, from time to time doubts were raised as to whether unrestricted speeds would be acceptable indefinitely as traffic increased. In 1964 a racing car was tested on the M.1 at 180 m.p.h. Matters came to a head with the series of appalling multiple crashes in November last year. In one, near Hanchurch, in Staffordshire, 33 vehicles were involved, four people were killed and about 20 injured. Two others occurred in Lancashire: in one, 21 vehicles were involved, and in the other, 11 vehicles. One person was killed and 10 seriously injured in these accidents. Police reports showed that excessive speed was "virtually the sole" cause. It was clear that the time had come for positive action, so the Minister imposed the 70 m.p.h. speed limit as an experiment. Had he not taken such decisive action at that time, no doubt there would have been complaints of inertia.

One of the main aims of the experimental 70 m.p.h. speed limit is to see if we can create an atmosphere conducive to road safety, applying in all conditions an atmosphere that would bring home to everyone that a "free for all", with periodic mass casualties, cannot be tolerated any longer. A further aim is to reduce speed differentials between the fastest and the slowest vehicles, and so ensure that the impact of collision, if one most occur, is reduced, and casualties are consequently fewer. We shall see what the accident figures actually tell us.

It seems to me to be completely illogical for gloomy prophets to argue that the speed limit experiment should never have been undertaken because of the undesirable effects which, so they assert, it is bound to have. They say, for example, that it will not reduce accidents; that it will cause bunching; that it will send drivers to sleep; that it will divert traffic from the motorways to other roads. My answer is that the experiment is intended to find out about such matters—why condemn it before the results are known? We do know that on American expressways there are maximum speed limits, which are hardly ever higher than 70 m.p.h., and sometimes lower. We know that on motorways in Europe there are, in general, no overall speed limits. We know that the injury accident rates on American expressways compare very favourably with those in Europe. We know, too, that the road death rate in the U.S.A., in proportion to the number of vehicles licensed, is lower than in all countries in Western Europe except Sweden. We know that the road casualty rate in this country is still far from satisfactory. We know that speed limits, properly imposed and observed, reduce road accidents and casualties. I do not say that these facts are absolutely conclusive —what I contend is that, in the light of these facts, it is reasonable and, indeed, important, in the interests of safety, to test the effects in this country of an overall speed limit. If we do not investigate we cannot find out. If even a small number of lives is saved as a result, it will surely have been worth while.

Another criticism has been that the level of the limit is wrong—that if there must be a limit, it should be higher than 70 m.p.h. Now I do not assert that the figure 70 is fixed and immutable. What I do say is that it is a suitable one for the experiment. An American investigation has shown the average casualty rate above 70 m.p.h. to be about three times that at 65–70 m.p.h. The figure 70 is therefore, I submit, a fair and reasonable one for the experiment. The critics also say that a 70 m.p.h. speed limit will have an adverse effect on the design, manufacture and export of cars. To this I reply that an experiment for a short period could hardly have such effects. Should it appear likely at any time that the limit would become permanent, however, this important aspect would, of course, receive the further consideration that it merits. But in this connection, it is noteworthy that one of the best customers for our sports cars is the U.S.A., which has top speed limits on almost all her roads, and these limits are rarely over 70 m.p.h. I would suggest that many motorists to-day are more concerned with acceleration than with high maximum speeds.

Another criticism has been—on what grounds I do not know—that the result of the experiment is a foregone conclusion; that the Minister will make the speed limit permanent, no matter what the outcome. I can assure noble Lords that this is not the case. The experiment is being conducted with an entirely open mind. The Minister will consider the assessment by the Road Research Laboratory, and all the evidence from other sources, properly, carefully and impartially. She will be prepared to extend the limit, change it, or drop it altogether on the basis of what is found. I put it to your Lordships, therefore, that in the interests of road safety and the saving of lives, we should all await the outcome of the experiment—and I must emphasise that it is an experiment—with co-operation and understanding, and I think we have a right to expect this.

As to the general criticism that restrictions on motorists are proliferating unnecessarily, I really cannot accept this imputation. Throughout history laws have tended to increase with population density. Their object is to preserve the most important human liberties by the deliberate sacrifice of the less important. And so it is with the motor car. As vehicle density increases in relation to the road space available, so must rules be increasingly imposed. The object of these is to preserve, so far as possible, for the motorist the basic liberty of keeping alive by the sacrifice of the minor liberties or, let us say, overtaking on corners or unlimited speeds in towns. New laws have often been represented to be unwarrantable interference with the liberty of the subject. But, when the general interest is taken fairly and fully into account, I think that those in the field of road safety have come to be recognised to be in the defence of liberty, and essential to its preservation.

The noble Lord made a number of interesting observations about the part to be played by the police under the proposals relating to drink and driving, contained in Part I of the Road Safety Bill which is at present being considered in another place. I should not like to embark upon a discussion of the Bill's provisions before it has appeared before your Lordships. The noble Lord has in fact highlighted one of the most important provisions of a major Bill upon which I should guess we shall in due course have an interesting and possibly lengthy discussion, and I think it might well prejudice that discussion to anticipate some part of it now.

Perhaps the only general remark I should make at this stage is that the noble Lord referred to a potential saving of 6 per cent, in casualties. As the White Paper pointed out, the corresponding reduction in accidents would be between 5 and 9 per cent., about half of which involve drivers with high alcohol levels; that is, 150 milligrammes/100 millilitres and above. Furthermore, accidents caused by drink tend to be serious, and the number of fatal accidents so caused could be as high as 20 per cent. Therefore, the potential saving in accidents and the deaths and injuries that result is far from insignificant, but even if it were not, I am sure your Lordships would agree that any saving would be worth while.

Reference was made to infringement of personal liberty. Here again the noble Viscount suggested that the police should have power to stop a car and test its brakes, lights and the rest. The purpose of stopping a car is to make a test. Does the noble Viscount say that in stopping a car to test its brakes you are imputing that the car is not properly maintained and the brakes are ineffective? Equally, in so far as stopping a car in regard to drinking and driving. As a Member of another place, many times when going home at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, I was stopped on the road by the police who politely asked where I had come from and where I was going and whether they could see my driving licence and my certificate of insurance. I did not think it was an interference with my liberty. I was only pleased that the police were on the job protecting property against those who might interfere with it. If a person is in the right, then he need not fear being questioned.

The noble Lord, Lord Molson, asked me a number of questions and he made some interesting remarks about the fixed penalty system. As he says, it is only imposed in Inner London and the City and 47 other areas. The possibility of ex-lending its application will be considered, but I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate that when one takes a case out of the courts there is a reduction in the liberty of the citizen to defend himself and it is a matter which will have to be seriously considered.


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord, if the person does not plead guilty he is always able to have the case tried in the court. It does not diminish the liberty.


But it involves an agreement on the types of cases. After all, there is the Magistrates Act, as the noble Lord knows, and a person can plead without attending court and his case is heard without his being there. But this procedure takes up time even under the Magistrates Act. The noble Lord asked me a question in regard to cars towed away. I agree with him as to obstruction. One of the problems is that there is no one more unkind to the motorist than another motorist—or more inconsiderate if not unkind; and their behaviour in parking is appalling. So far as the metropolitan area is concerned, in 1965 49,573 parked cars were removed by the police. That is a number which is important in itself, but I should like to emphasise that because of the physical nature of removing cars, and because in fact the police have plenty of other things to do, they do not remove cars unless they are causing an obstruction or are likely to cause danger or injury to persons. A car that is left in the wrong place may be dealt with by other means.

The noble Lord, Lord Molson, also referred to the question of noisy vehicles. It is not only the teenager on a motorcycle who is the offender here, although sometimes he gets a lot of blame. So far as the police are concerned, there are difficulties. The noble Lord referred to one, and that is the question of the measurement of noise. But, in any case, the police have to be on the spot and able to take a number and give evidence of having seen and heard the incident, or they must have evidence of some other person who is prepared to come forward. Therefore, there are limitations. But the prosecutions in 1962 numbered 6,370; in 1963, 8,603; and in 1964, the last year for which I have any figures, 9,732. So they are rising; but, of course, the num ber of vehicles on the road also is increasing.

The noble Lord also asked me about prosecutions arising from diesel fumes and the issue of smoke from vehicles. Again, there are two types of investigation into this. Prosecutions by the police in 1962 totalled 2,777; in 1963, 2,867; and in 1964, 2,713. But where there is a prosecution, let us be clear that it is only where it is a flagrant case in which there is possible danger to life and limb of other road users, or danger to property. Perhaps a more significant test is that of the Ministry of Transport examiners who examine vehicles by their special smoke tests. In 1965 they examined 75,000 vehicles for smoke. Of those 75,000, 8 per cent., were bad enough to warrant an immediate prohibition notice and had to be withdrawn from service.

The noble Lord, Lord Molson, and the noble Lord, Lord Allerton, referred to the possibility of a special traffic police corps. I can assure both noble Lords that this matter has been under consideration on a number of occasions, and is always before the Home Office and those associated with police forces throughout the country. There are difficulties; there are attractions, too. But I can assure noble Lords that this will be considered in the same way as the question of traffic wardens was considered. First of all, the traffic warden's duty was to deal with stationary vehicles. Now he has been given additional powers in regard to the control of moving traffic. We have not a closed mind on the proposal for a special traffic police corps. It is a question of how it can best operate, and it will be considered.

House adjourned at twenty-two minutes before eight o'clock.