HL Deb 28 March 1974 vol 350 cc755-66

4.35 p.m.

LORD GARNSWORTHY rose to move That the Motor Vehicles (Speed Limits on Motorways) (Amendment) Regulations 1974, be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of these Regulations is simply to permit goods vehicles of over 3 tons unladen weight to travel at up to 60 m.p.h. on motorways, the position prevailing before the blanket 50 m.p.h. limit was brought in to save fuel last December. As such, I hope that they will not prove controversial and that your Lordships will agree that in present circumstances it is right to return to the status quo ante for all vehicles using the motorways. Your Lordships may, however, be wondering why we should be debating the speed limits for heavy lorries, rather than the restoration of the general road speed limit of 70 m.p.h. on motorways, and how it is that measures which were introduced "at a stroke" take a little longer to get rid of. I shall do my best to explain in brief compass.

Section 78 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967 permits the Secretary of State, by regulations subject to Affirmative Resolutions of both Houses of Parliament, to vary the speed limit of specified classes of vehicle when driven on a motorway. Vehicles not contained within one of the specified classes are simply subject to any prevailing road speed limit on motorways. Under the Regulations which were in force before the general 50 m.p.h. limit was introduced, the only class of vehicles which was limited to a motorway speed of less than 70 m.p.h. but over 50 m.p.h. was the class of goods vehicles of over 3 tons unladen weight which was limited to a 60 m.p.h. maximum. Accordingly, when the general limit on motorways was reduced from 70 m.p.h. to 50 m.p.h. it was necessary "for the avoidance of doubt", as the lawyers have it, to reduce to that lower figure the limit for heavy goods vehicles; in other words, a belt and braces job was done.

Regulations now having been made (subject to the Negative Resolution procedure) under Section 13 of the 1967 Act to restore the general 70 m.p.h. limit on motorways, the Regulations now before your Lordships restore the 60 m.p.h. limit for heavy goods vehicles by getting rid of the amending Regulations brought in for the emergency and restoring those in operation beforehand; that is, the Motor Vehicles (Speed Limits on Motorways) Regulations 1973. Incidentally, the latter are consolidated and contain all the relevant provisions about special vehicle speed limits on motorways. It may be asked: how does it come about that these Regulations, but not those made in December, require the approval of your Lordships? The answer is that last December an Order in Council made under the Fuel and Electricity (Control) Act 1973 dispensed with the procedural requirements of the 1967 Act in the interests of fuel economy, and the Regulations were not subject to Affirmative Resolution. Such a procedure is not available for the restoration of the pre-December limits and that prescribed by the 1967 Act had to be followed. I hope that this will be sufficient explanation of the Regulations themselves. However, before moving that they be approved, I should perhaps say a word or two about the decision not to restore for the time being the 70 m.p.h. limit on roads other than motorways.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has traditionally been an importer of petrol and naphtha, which is closely related to it and is used as a feedstock for the petrochemical industry. Current output from home refineries will not be enough to meet the demand for these products and there is a risk that the imports on which the United Kingdom normally relies may not be available. There is, therefore, a continuing need for economy in the use of petrol not only because of the present tight supply situation for this product, but also to protect the availability of naphtha for the petrochemical industry. It is, of course, possible to increase the production of petrol at the expense of naphtha, but this would result in a further cutback in supplies to the petrochemical industry at a time when the Government are doing everything possible to get manufacturing industry back to full production.

It is not possible to modify the savings arising directly from the introduction of the 50 m.p.h. limit because of the effect of the economies exercised voluntarily by motorists in reducing weekend motoring and cutting out non-essential Sunday driving. The speed limit of 50 m.p.h. was selected as one which offered a reasonable saving in fuel consumption consistent with the performance of the modern motor vehicle. As an indication of the kind of fuel savings that can be achieved, a typical medium-sized private car travelling at a steady speed of 50 m.p.h. will consume around 20 per cent. less petrol than one travelling at 70 m.p.h. It is appreciated that some vehicles may be designed to provide the maximum efficiency at a speed in excess of 50 m.p.h. but these form only a small proportion of the 15 million or so passenger vehicles currently on the road.

My Lords, the petrol supply position is such that the Government thought very hard indeed about making any relaxation at present. Nevertheless, although some of the fuel savings currently being achieved will be lost by lifting the limit on motorways where it is most irksome, there is still a good deal of motor traffic on other roads where the 50 m.p.h. limit still applies and there is accordingly scope here for much-needed savings. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Motor Vehicles (Speed Limits on Motorways) (Amendment) Regulations 1974, be approved.—(Lord Garnsworthy.)

4.42 p.m.


My Lords, I too, like my noble friend Lady Young, would like to take this opportunity, the first I have had—other than at Question Time yesterday when I would not have been in order—to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Garns-worthy, on his position, in my case more particularly so, because not only is he in my old room in the Department of the Environment but at my desk and using my former private office staff. So I wish him particularly well, and I know what splendid service he will get from that staff. I can only wish him every good luck.

I must thank him for explaining this Order which he is introducing, and of course we welcome it so far as it goes. The noble Lord explained that the need for fuel economy is still with us. I had hoped that the 10 per cent. overall cut to petrol stations might have been considered sufficient, coupled with the noble public spiritedness of the ordinary motorist in not using his car more than necessary. A cut of 10 per cent. to the petrol stations is considerable. We have to consider such roads as the A1, particularly what I call the pseudo-type motorway parts of it like the Stamford By-pass, and, to take the example of the new Andover dual carriageways, there is little difference between these types of road and the M roads. I know that there are differences, especially legal differences, but to get public co-operation here is going to be difficult and I think we ought to sympathise with the police in exercising their discretion on the matter. I would urge the noble Lord—I am sure he will—to bring the matter to the attention of his right honourable friend. I think it will pose difficulties of enforcement for the police because on these sort of roads which are so like the M-ways the public will find themselves in difficulty.

The only other point I want to mention is that it was always said by us when in Government that as soon as the crisis was over we would end the whole thing. I do not know whether this idea of gradually stopping had been envisaged, but it will tend to make enforcement difficult. On that point my message to the noble Lord and to the Government is that they should consider the position. However, we thank the noble Lord for bringing in this Order.


My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, on one point which has been raised with me. There is an area of confusion at the moment about where one can travel at 70 m.p.h. and where one can travel at 60 m.p.h. I suggest to the Government that it is a good idea to deal quickly with the situation concerning the particular type of road which has been mentioned. I have also in mind the A40, which is very similar to a motorway, and to many people who use motorways it would appear that there is some danger if the speed is changed on motorways but not on other roads. It is felt that such an anomaly will attract more traffic on to motorways, and that surely cannot be desirable. I expect that the noble Lord can tell us when we may expect the change-over to take place in regard to the other motorways.


My Lords, I do not wish to intervene for more than a moment. Although I would not oppose it, I should be sorry if this Order were to go through, on two grounds: first, on the general ground that I do not think we are in a position to relax economies on imports. It seems to me that the import situation is so serious that if we were able to make a cut on the requirements of oil or to divert oil to naphtha or other feed stocks for the chemical industry, for man-made fibres to plastics, and so on, which are then exported, we ought to do it. That is one point on which I do not know the figures well enough to substantiate my contention.

Secondly, it has been much more pleasant on our motorways since the restrictions have operated. I do not quite know for whose pleasure the limit was put back to 70 m.p.h. I frequently use the motorway going home, and I am hound to tell the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, that it is the fast moving lorries that cause one trouble when they move out from the nearside lane to pass, especially when the surface is dirty after rain. I think that noble Lords will agree with me that whatever the speed limit one travels 5 m.p.h. faster and thinks that the police v ill not intervene because one is travelling at 75 m.p.h. or whatever. In my experience this has been evident with unladen lorries. Driving has been so much less nerve-racking with the lower speed limit that I regret the proposed increased sped on two grounds. I regret it, first, because I think that from the point of view of the national economy we ought now to try to save imports of oil. Secondly, I regret it because I think that the comfort and pleasure of those who use motorways is more important than those who wish to be quick and hasty in getting to where they want to go.


My Lords, I am bound to disagree with a good deal of what the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, said. I quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, that the need for economy is still with us. On the other hand, one must remember that many cars use less petrol at 70 m.p.h. than do others at 50 m.p.h. The position is entirely dependent on the size of the car and the speed at which it is driven. But the mentality of the motorist is peculiar. Having been a motorist myself I can vouch for that. If there is a limit of 50 m.p.h., he will tend to drive at 50 m.p.h. and never drop below that speed. The result is constant bunching of traffic on the motorways, whereas if there were no limit, which I think would be the ideal on motorways, there is far less of that sort of thing. Nowadays certain people drive slower, particularly those with larger cars, while others drive faster. Therefore I think that to relax the speed limit as far as possible will make for much less crowding of traffic.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, I must confess that I am one who does not believe in any speed limit whatever on a motorway, but taking the facts as they have been put to-day, we should first of all remember that the potential saving of petrol by private motorists does not represent a very large proportion—in fact, it is a very small proportion of the total requirements of the nation. I submit that once the limit is taken off motorways—and bearing in mind the traffic congestion that exists on a great many roads to-day—most people will not exceed 50 m.p.h. except for very short periods. Therefore I am not convinced by the argument that we are making any worthwhile saving at all by keeping the 50 m.p.h. speed limit on other roads.

When it comes to commercial vehicles, and even those people who are driving on business, one must also remember that one costs out the time—and I know that the extent to which one should do so is arguable—there is a tremendous loss by reducing the speed between two points. However one makes that calculation, this would far outweigh any minute saving there might be on our overseas payments in keeping on the limit.


My Lords, I must first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, for not having been here when he was speaking. I came here as fast as I could. Something which my noble friend Lord Eccles said has tempted me to speak. As noble Lords know, over the years I have initiated a number of debates in this House in connection with road safety, and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, referred in his speech to the question of safety. The fact remains that this limit has reduced the incidence of fatal and serious accidents throughout the country. I shall not touch upon the economy aspect as I did not hear what the noble Lord said, but I believe that some limitation in speed is prudent.

What my noble friend Lord Eccles said makes me mention a letter which appeared in a newspaper either to-day or yesterday of the driver who said, "I go fast along the roads because I am trying to get away from the 40-tonner that is on my bumpers behind." When one remembers the accidents we have had in fog this is a very real point. Over the years—and I have been a motorist for very many years—it has been a grief to me to see that whereas twenty years ago the heavy transport driver was the knight of the road, I regret to say that that to-day is no longer the case.

I feel that one factor which can be tackled in regard to economy in speeds and the saving in accidents would be to test out the schedules to which these commercial drivers have to drive. I think the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, touched on that point. It is all very well saying that transport drivers should not be travelling in that way, but they have been used to a strict so-many-hours running and they have to cover so many miles in that run. Depending on conditions, they have to push along if they are to keep to their schedule in accordance with their employer's instructions. If commercial drivers are giving trouble by their excessive speeds, cannot something be done to tackle their employers to see whether the schedules they are given are too tight?


My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, that the commercial vehicle driver used to be the knight of the road but that he is now the nightmare of the road. They occasionally make very grave mistakes, but none the less no one will convince me that a car or vehicle driven at 70 m.p.h. is more economical than one driven at 50 m.p.h. Equally, users of motorways and vehicles on motorways are much less sensitive to the speeds than those who travel on other kinds of roads where you get variations in hills and hollows, where you also get corners and there is the necessity for braking and accelerating which of course uses a lot of petrol. If you get a straight run, the difference in petrol or fuel consumption between 50 m.p.h. and 70 m.p.h. is not very great. Personally, I believe that the Motion that has been proposed contains a great deal of sense and I should like to support it, because particularly on motorways unless heavy transport vehicles call (when weather conditions permit) legitimately drive at 60 m.p.h. it is just a waste of motorway.

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, whether he would very carefully consider this 50 m.p.h. limit on roads other than motorways. When the 50 m.p.h. was imposed from the point of view of economy the situation was so critical, and it was so constantly being brought to the attention of everybody how critical it was, that the 50 m.p.h. limit did not need to be enforced because people were automatically enforcing it themselves out of good sense and a knowledge of the difficult situation of the country. This knowledge is now receding into the background. Petrol is adequate. Very few people are refused it. The tendency is for the speeds to go up all the time, particularly on dual carriageways. We are asking a great deal of the police to enforce a regulation, particularly on dual carriageways, which is beginning slowly to be ignored by people using them. I do not like laws which cannot be enforced and I feel that this 50 m.p.h. speed limit is rapidly reaching that situation.


My Lords, first may I associate myself with the congratulatory remarks which my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton made when responding to the Minister. Secondly, having listened most carefully to what he has had to say, I must confess that I can see no good reason for continuing the restriction on roads other than motorways because the amount of saving is infinitesimal. Certainly there is—and I speak, my Lords, as a director of a company retailing petrol—an adequacy of fuel available up and down the country, and I also travel many miles.

The savings that have come about have been largely due to the price and I have little doubt that next week one or two other people will be making economies in their journeys. Those people who find it essential to travel, notwithstanding the price, are not concerned with saving something like three to seven miles per gallon, or 20 per cent.; because, after all, when you go to a filling station to buy £2-worth of petrol the difference between £l.97-worth and £2 is hardly noticeable. Therefore one does not think about a saving of fuel. If one really wants to bring home the urgent need to save fuel because of the overseas payments problem, there are many different ways of doing it. One way I suggest is that we postpone the opening of new filling stations, which will merely aggravate the situation and entice more people to buy more petrol for various and different reasons.

I was very disappointed to hear the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, in their condemnation of the lorry driver. You would expect me to be disappointed in listening to them. One must realise that when one takes a 28-ton or a 30-ton gross vehicle on a long run of 30 miles down a motorway one wants to get up to an economical and easily controlled speed. It certainly is welcome to the responsible long distance lorry driver to be able to go faster on a motorway. He thereby saves a great deal of his personal energy as well on the journey.

The other point, which I have made on many occasions in debates on Road Traffic Bills, was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips. We now have four different speed limits up and down the country on a variety of roads which, on occasions, are exceptionally difficult to identify. If one happens to miss the entry sign, on some occasions it is difficult to decide whether you are on a by-pass, a motorway, an A road, a B road or what have you; and I can see a great deal of confusion arising. We shall have policemen stopping motorists and lorry drivers and saying, "Do you know you are exceeding the speed limit?", and the drivers replying, "Which one?" It really seems to me to be quite unreasonable that one should have this artificial limitation for the only good reason that I was able to hear the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, suggest of a 20 per cent. saving on fuel by a limited number of vehicles using a limited number of roads.


My Lords, may I just point out that we have been listening to a great many contradictory statements, many of them quite unsupported, I imagine, by evidence. I should at least like to point out that a saving of 20 per cent. is not 3p on a bill of £2.

5.2 p.m.


My Lords, when I knew I was taking this Order I had the feeling that I risked running into this situation, but I feel that the debate has been thoroughly worthwhile in that so many Members of your Lordships' House have spoken. As the noble Lord, Lord Platt, has pointed out, many of the points made have been replied to by other noble Lords who have spoken. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, for the very kind things he said. Perhaps I may say that I have found his office very pleasantly situated. I have been very busy since I have been there and I have had very little time to take in all the details, but I have noticed that he has robbed me of what I understand was a very beautiful picture that was on the wall opposite to where I sit which he was thoroughly entitled to do because it was his own personal property. If he would like to let me have it back on permanent loan I should be delighted to have it, and should feel that I had something of very considerable artistic merit as well as value. I can assure him that I should appreciate seeing that picture there as much as I am told he did when he was there. But he really was extremely kind.

My Lords, I think the House would not want me to reply over-fully to all the points that have been made, but if I may come to the one raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton (and one or two other noble Lords raised it as well), he drew attention to the situation as regards the A.1 and the A.30. It is felt that to raise the limit to 70 m.p.h. on all dual carriageways would be too big a relaxation in the present fuel situation. If I may reply to a query raised by my noble friend Lady Phillips, as to some clear indication of the roads on which one can travel at 70 m.p.h., I take the motorways as an example. Motorways are clearly distinguishable by the blue signs at the entrance and by the prefix or suffix "M" to the road number. It is on these roads that the 50 m.p.h. limit has been found most irksome.

That brings me to one of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford—and, if I may say so, I think this is, at least, a part of the answer to one of the points raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. If speed limits are going to be effective, there must be respect for them, and information given to me indicates that the limit of 50 m.p.h. is being increasingly flouted on the motorways. I do not know what time of day the noble Viscount travels, but the information available to the Department is much more in line with the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford. If I may say so, I am informed that the police are very anxious indeed that the position should be treated in the manner in which this Order will deal with it.

As I have said, a number of your Lordships answered points made by other noble Lords, but may I say to the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, that if in point of fact lorry drivers exceed the limits, as he suggested they do, they must be aware that they are putting their own position at risk. If schedules are so drawn that lorry drivers are compelled to consistently and persistently exceed speed limits, and if they get caught for it, as I understand it, in extreme cases the employers themselves might very well put their operator's licence at risk. So I would think that there is no need for more to be done about that problem, but the situation is being constantly watched. I must say that when the noble Lord said that he had missed the opening of this debate, but he had hurried here as fast as he could, it seemed to me that he was accepting the need for the abolition of all speed limits so far as his own travel was concerned; but, even so, I think it is a pity that he did not arrive here in time.

My Lords, I hope the House will approve this Order. I believe that it will serve a very useful purpose in two ways. It will make the position much easier on the motorways, and it will continue to assist—this is expert opinion—in fuel saving.

On Question, Motion agreed to.