HL Deb 22 June 1967 vol 283 cc1546-56

3.28 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I have heard it said on very many occasions that if a Minister makes a mistake and is free and frank about it the House has a tendency to forgive him. I rise with a degree of diffidence, in that this Bill had its origins in a Private Member's Bill to promote the use of reflective number plates. When it came to this House I assumed that it was a Private Member's Bill. I freely admit that a few minutes before 3 o'clock I was horrified to find it was not a Private Member's Bill, but a Government Bill. Therefore it falls to me, with the permission of the House, to move its Second Reading. I would extend my very sincere apologies to my noble friend Lord Lindgren, who was given the task of moving this Bill and who, I am quite sure, has done a great deal of work on it.

There was considerable support among members of both Government and Opposition in another place for this measure, and the National Road Safety Advisory Committee expressed its opinion some 18 months ago that permission should be given for the use of such reflective number plates. There are, however, many possibilities for the use of reflective material other than merely for number plates, so it was deemed more fitting that the terms of the original Bill should be widened. Your Lordships may be wondering why it is necessary to amend the existing law of this country before full use can be made of reflective material. I will give the reasons. Although there is some doubt on the subject, my right honourable friend has been advised that reflective materials could be held in law to show a light when, in fact, they are reflecting light; that is, under the terms of Section 2 of the Road Transport Lighting Act 1957. If this is so, it would be illegal to use any reflective material of a colour other than red to show a light to the rear of any vehicle. Although red is generally the accepted colour denoting the back of a vehicle and there is no intention of making a change, experiments have shown that red is not always the most effective colour when it comes to the use of reflective materials; and so if we are to get the maximum benefit from the use of these materials it is necessary to amend the existing law in the way set out in the Bill.

As I said a moment ago, there is some doubt whether reflective materials could be held in law to show a light when they are reflecting light. I think your Lordships will agree that if we are to require or to permit the use of these materials, there must be no room for doubt as to their legal standing. This is the purpose of the first clause. It is a declaratory clause. It does no more than to say that, for the purposes of the 1957 Act, materials designed so as to act as a form of reflector, in the sense in which the word is used in connection with vehicles, shall, when reflecting light, be treated as showing a light. At the same time, it is necessary to make clear that other materials which, because of their polished surfaces also reflect light, and which are part of the normal design and construction of most of the vehicles on the roads to-day, should not be treated as showing a light. The difference really lies in the fact that in the latter case what is reflected is an image of the light which is shown on the materials concerned, and they are not primarily designed as reflectors. Therefore this clause goes on to say that material capable of reflecting an image is not, when reflecting the image of a light, to be treated as showing a light for the purpose of the 1957 Act.

It is of very great importance to get this distinction clear, otherwise it would become illegal to use virtually all the vehicles that are now on the road. Having made quite clear that reflective material of the former type should be held in law to come within the provisions of Section 2 of the 1957 Act, it would then be illegal to use any such material to show to the rear of a vehicle unless it was red in colour. My right honourable friend is advised that in the interests of road safety it may be desirable to permit or to require the use of materials of other colours. To do this it would be necessary for her to have special powers, because of the prohibition placed on the using or showing of a light other than red on the rear of a vehicle which is contained in the Act I have mentioned.

This, therefore, is the purpose of Clause 2(a) of the Bill which says that, notwithstanding anything in Section 2 of the principal Act, which is the restriction on the nature of lights to be carried, the Minister of Transport may by means of regulations, make provision to require or authorise a light of a prescribed colour to be shown by the prescribed means to the rear of a vehicle of any description. Where it is intended to use reflective material, it is essential that the regulations give permission or, in requiring such use, should state the optical qualities of the material, where it is to be fitted on the vehicle, and how it is to be used. If this is not done, the purpose for which the material is to be used may not be achieved. These are the powers which are conferred on my right honourable friend in paragraph (b) of this clause.

Clause 3 is not connected with the reflective materials in any way. This deals with the use of signalling devices designed to convey some intention on the part of the driver of the vehicle to the drivers of other vehicles who may be travelling behind him. When the Lighting Act 1927 was drafted, and when its provisions were later incorporated into the 1957 Act, it was foreseen that it would be necessary to make certain exemptions to the overall rule that no light other than red should be shown on the rear of a vehicle. Among these exemptions provision was made in Section 2(2)(b) of the 1957 Act for such signalling devices as illuminated direction indicators, because it was evident that in order to avoid confusion with the normal rear lights and stop lights, it would be better to use a light of another colour. However, experience has shown that the words in this provision might be interpreted as giving permission for a light of any colour to be used to illuminate a device showing to the rear of a vehicle, as long as it was the stated intention of such a device to give a signal to the drivers of following cars.

The use of light signals is increasing. They are replacing hand signals—and in many cases, particularly when signalling intended changes of direction, this is an improvement—but it is an essential requisite that any signal which is given shall he clearly understood by other road users. Otherwise, confusion occurs, and in modern traffic conditions confusion leads to accidents. Therefore it is necessary for my right honourable friend to be able to exercise control over the types of the illuminated signalling devices which may be fitted to show a light to the rear of a vehicle. This is what is done in Clause 3 of this Bill.

I should like to make it clear that there is nothing in the way in which this clause is worded which will inhibit design, or act as a bar to progress in this field. If some new signalling device is developed which, after a proper test, is found to provide an additional road safety factor, the Minister may make regulations permitting or requiring its use on some or all types of vehicles. When such regulations were made, my right honourable friend's Department would naturally be responsible for ensuring that their purpose and the meaning which the signalling device was intended to convey was generally known. In this way, confusion would be avoided and the full benefit could be obtained from the use of the device.

Clause 4 deals with the Short Title, the citation, interpretation and extent of the Bill. The House will see that it does not apply to Northern Ireland, and noble Lords will no doubt remember that the Road Transport Lighting Act 1957 also does not apply to that country. That is the explanation for its exclusion.

To return for a moment to the question of reflective number plates, I understand that it is the intention of my right honourable friend, when she has the power which this Bill will confer on her, and in conjunction with the power she already has, to make regulations to permit the use of reflective number plates by those motorists who wish to use them on their vehicles. It is not her intention at this stage to make their use compulsory, but their effect on road safety, particularly in so far as they may have a bearing on the avoidance of rear-end collisions will be watched with very great interest.

It is also my right honourable friend's intention to make regulations requiring a special marking on the backs of certain types of commercial vehicles. From what I remember of debates on this subject I believe this step would be very much welcomed. These markings will be obligatory on those vehicles, among others, which may he involved in those rather horrifying accidents in which a small private car runs under the rear end of a large commercial vehicle. These accidents usually result in disastrous consequences to the occupants of the small car involved. By making the commercial vehicle more easily distinguishable both by day and by night, it is hoped that the number of such accidents will he reduced.

In conclusion, may I stress that this Bill is concerned only with road safety. There is nothing in any of its provisions which will inhibit development and progress. It provides only for greater safety of all road users. Therefore, I venture to hope this House will support this Bill and see it placed on the Statute Book as quickly as possible. Again may I apologise for the trouble I have put my noble friend to, and to the House for having kept more closely to my notes than I usually do. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Shepherd.)

3.41 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for his interesting and detailed explanation of this important little Bill and say that for my part I certainly accept his apology for the procedural mistake on the Order Paper? I had spotted it when I read Hansard of another place, and was going to raise an inquiry about why it had ceased to be a Government Bill and had gone into the hands of a Private Member.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord when he spotted this mistake?


I spotted it last week when I read Hansard, which proves that I do read Hansard of another place. I gladly accept the noble Lord's apology. I am only sorry that he put himself right and I was not able to catch him.

Reflective material, with which this Bill primarily deals, is a new development for vehicles in this country, other than the old rear reflectors on bicycles, and I welcome this development. I am sure it is wise and good. I was interested to hear that Her Majesty's Government intend to proceed immediately to make permissive use of this material for number plates, and I hope that other uses may follow.

It would be true to say that in this country we are behind events in not having done this already. In most States of the United States reflectorisation of licence plates is not only permitted, but compulsory. I apologise for the "reflectorisation"—I am only glad that my noble friend Lord Conesford is not here. I hope he will soon be back with us to put these things right. In France it is also compulsory, and in many other countries it is either permitted or compulsory.

The point I am making is an important one. The international picture is that the use of reflective material for licence number plates is fast becoming universal, and it is very much in the interests of this country, for our export market for our motor cars as well as for our citizens taking their cars abroad on holiday, that there should be uniformity in these matters as soon as possible. There are two questions which I should like to put to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd. Perhaps he will be able to answer. The first is: will the Minister of Transport ensure that uniformity with foreign practice is achieved from the start with the type and colour of reflective material used and with the design and layout of licence numbers? Secondly, will his right honourable friend ensure that the reflective material used does not cause glare? This, I am sure, is most important.

With regard to my first question, may I refer to something which the noble Lord said on Clause 3 of the Bill with regard to trafficators? Experience there shows that it has taken years and years to get any kind of uniformity, and if only we could all have started the same, what a lot of trouble it would have saved everybody! Here we are starting something new. Would the noble Lord ask the Minister of Transport to make sure that we do start, so far as humanly possible, with the same standards and types as our overseas neighbours?

The good visibility of licence numbers at night is of first-class importance for two reasons: first of all, for road safety, to which the noble Lord alluded in his speech, and, secondly, for the prevention of crime. With reflective material the visibility of licence numbers is very much improved, and when the lighting system on a motor car fails the reflective material is still effective in the light of an oncoming car. The conventional number plate at night time gives nil visibility from the front and only about 20 to 30 metres from the rear, and this is far too short a distance to afford legibility with a car travelling at, say, 60 m.p.h. There simply is not time within that limited distance to read the numbers. But a reflectorised number plate at night time in the beam of an oncoming or following headlight gives a visibility of 200 to 400 metres. This is an enormous, dramatic improvement and it undoubtedly will have a valuable advantage both for road safety and for police identification.

There are other aspects of the use of reflective material which we can perhaps refer to when we come to Committee stage—for instance, on the sides of long vehicles, which may help when they are turning and presenting a large black surface to oncoming cars, and also (a point raised in another place) on builders' rubbish bins, which are being increasingly dumped in the streets with no lights on them. In the main, I am sure that this is a measure that we should welcome. It will be helpful in every way. I have much pleasure in welcoming the Second Reading of the Bill.

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, I do not feel that this Bill does any harm at all, but for the life of me, I cannot see that it does a great deal of good. I entirely agree with my noble friend that reflective number plates are desirable, but when one looks at the Bill and sees that red or other colours may be used, one can imagine colours of any description coming from the rear of cars. It should he more strictly defined. This problem has also occurred to me. The Bill says that reflective material shall be treated as showing a light. But in order to show a light, there has to be a light there. If a car carrying a reflector only is to be treated as if it were carrying a light, I cannot say, not being very learned in the law, whether a lawyer could prove that that was carrying a light under the meaning of the Act.

So far as trafficators are concerned, I agree with my noble friend in what he said. Standardisation is long overdue. We should have made the regulation, when trafficators were authorised first of all, that they should be amber both front and rear. It is much too late, but certainly not too soon, to make that regulation now. Apropos of trafficators, though strictly speaking this does not come under the Bill, would it not be possible to make some regulation about their operation? I have seen cars going happily along the road in the same direction for miles with one trafficator flashing away, the driver being completely unaware of the fact. It would be much better to make it compulsory for all cars to have trafficators of the type that cancel themselves after 24 flashes or so, as I believe the London buses have. That could be combined with the steering wheel self-cancellation type, so that whichever was the sooner would cancel the flashes. This, in my view, is highly desirable.

Apart from that, the Bill seems to me to be very practical. I would say, however, that so far as reflective material is concerned I think the drafters of the Bill are making heavy weather of what is, or what is not, reflective material. One must realise that anything one can see in the dark is reflective material. Even a block of black wood which one can see in one's headlights is reflecting light, because otherwise one would not be able to see it. Therefore I think that "reflective material" should have a more definite definition than it has. Otherwise, I am glad to welcome the Bill.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, in introducing the Bill, mentioned that it was a road safety Bill, with which I entirely agree. I rise to intervene in the debate solely because I see the noble Lord, Lord Elton, present in your Lordships' House, and he has such a strong and rooted opinion, which he has previously expressed, that motoring organisations never support any road safety whatever. I thought I should like the noble Lord to know that, in so far as the Automobile Association is concerned, we support this measure, and we consider it a very practical attempt on an experimental basis to achieve a further measure of road safety.

I would only urge the noble Lord to accept the recommendation of my noble friend on our Front Bench, that when authorising this reflective material he should endeavour to standardise it with the reflective material used in other countries. I think the reasons for this are clear. First of all, it makes it easier for motorists travelling from one country to another. Secondly, it might quite easily prove to be the case that a motorist conforming to the law in this country with regard to the reflective material he was using 'on his car might find himself breaching the law of another country because it was of the wrong colour. That, I think, would be a great pity.


My Lords, may I correct the noble Viscount's reference to myself? He said, I think, that I had said recently that the motoring organisations never support any measure for road safety. What I actually said on the occasions to which I am sure he is referring was that they had opposed most of the important measures for road safety; and when that was controverted by one or two noble Lords, I instanced their opposition to the proposal for the 30 m.p.h. limit and the proposal for the 70 m.p.h. limit. But I am glad to see them supporting this measure for road safety. I want to make it clear that I never said, as I have been accused of saying, that they object to all measures for road safety. Here I am sure that they are playing a good part, and I am glad that the noble Viscount referred to me, so allowing me to explain how I feel.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, I was rather hoping that my noble friend Lord Lindgren was going to intervene, because I am sure he is in a better position to answer the various points raised than I am. With regard to the noble Lord, Lord Somers, and the possibility of a multitude of colours, I can assure him that this will not arise. The requirement as to colour will be made by regulations which will be made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, and the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, that we should seek to standardise this material and bring it into line with Continental standards. I can only say that, as in the case of colours, so the size and design of these plates will be according to a British Standard and will have to be approved by my right honourable friend. I cannot say at this moment that the number plate will be exactly in line with the Continental specification, although I should hazard a guess that it will, because at present, as I understand it, the material can be supplied only by one company, which is an international company, and my experience of them is that they tend to manufacture very much the same qualities. I also know that there are a number of regulations that will be made shortly—in fact, in the field of headlights, in particular, they will be made a good deal earlier than others—but we have been waiting to obtain an international agreement. I am sure that my right honourable friend is well aware of the need for some standardisation between ourselves and the Continent.

I think the noble Lord, Lord Somers, questioned whether it would be possible for a vehicle to have these reflector materials and not have an ordinary light. This Bill in no way affects the existing requirements of a vehicle to have the proper required lights. This is an addition to the existing lighting equipment required on a vehicle. I think that those are the points that have been made in this short debate.


Perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. I asked him particularly to deal with the problem of glare from this reflectorised material. Would the noble Lord say a word about that?


I must admit that I have not seen this material. The problem of glare may be a factor, but I think this material that will be available in this country is widely used on the Continent. I am sure it is a factor that my right honourable friend will bear in mind prior to making regulations. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, is particularly interested in these matters, and I will see whether I can obtain some material and, if he would like to do so, he and I can carry out an experiment one evening to see how it stands up and how it functions. I am always available should the noble Lord wish to undertake an experiment. If there are any other points that I have missed, I shall be happy to deal with them in Committee or by correspondence. I should like to thank the House for allowing me to move this Bill on behalf of my noble friend, and also for their warm welcome of this small but, nevertheless, important Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.