HL Deb 13 November 1985 vol 468 cc263-6

2.41 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether in the light of the number of serious accidents on the motorways consideration is being given to the reduction of speed limits.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness)

MyLords, the Government can see no case for changing the overall speed limit on motorways. We reviewed the arguments fully in 1984 and again in 1985. Following the recent tragic accidents, the Government are looking at all aspects of the speed and safety of vehicles on motorways, especially coaches. We shall announce our conclusions on this as soon as possible.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that not particularly helpful reply. However, I should like to ask him whether the Government will give an early indication of their determination to do something about the tragic increase in serious accidents on the motorways. Is he aware, and does he give due weight to the fact, that on the magnificent highways in the United States the maximum speed limit is 55 miles per hour?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can confirm to my noble friend that we shall, without delay, consider all the matters which are relevant to the speed of vehicles on motorways. However, let me take the opportunity to remind the House that it is seven times safer to drive on a motorway than it is on the average of all the other roads of this country. Motorways are used for about 10 per cent. of all mileage travelled, but only l½ per cent. of all accidents occur on motorways.

With regard to the United States, that raises the problem of enforcement. In fact, the car-user death rate per 100 million car kilometres is higher in the United States, despite a lower speed limit, than it is in our country.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, could my noble friend impress on the public that the outside lane is not in fact the fast lane, as is so often said, but is the overtaking lane?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right, and we have produced a pamphlet which has gone out to a number of people indicating exactly that. It has reminded them also that it is not only the fast lane but the middle lane as well that they should not be driving in if the inside lane is free.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, as it is the desire of every motorist not to be run into from the rear on motorways, can the Government do anything to enforce the law regarding the intensity of rear lights, which can sometimes, in dangerous visual conditions, be very dangerous and very disturbing indeed?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, we can do quite a lot, but a lot is up to the motorist to keep his rear lights clean.

Lord Ferrier

My Lords, while I agree with my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, would my noble friend the Minister agree that an immediate remedy lies to hand; namely, the rigorous enforcement of the existing regulations?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, my noble friend is right about enforcement, but this is a matter for individual chief constables. However, I can assure the House that my honourable friend the Minister of State is discussing with the Minister of State at the Home Office whether more can be done in this respect.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, can the Minister say how many summonses have been issued for exceeding the speed limit on motorways?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, not without notice.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that the question of publicity is important, but that although the Bus and Coach Council have issued considerable publicity to their operators we still have this problem of excessive speed by quite a number of coach operators? What plans have the Government to carry out publicity on the whole question of speed? Secondly, can the noble Earl tell us a little about enforcement? It is not much good having limits when there is no enforcement for individual motorists, for a few lorry drivers and also for coach drivers.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is right to raise specifically the question of coaches and lorries. We are looking carefully at every aspect of the speed and safety of coaches on motorways, and we shall announce our conclusions as soon as possible and make them widely known. With regard to enforcement, I can only say again that this is a matter for individual chief constables and is being followed up by both our department and the Home Office.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, would the noble Earl not agree that, apart from the effect of speed on the causes of accidents, the greater the speed the worse the accident, the bigger the number of fatalities and the higher the number of injuries?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, indeed the faster one goes the more horrific the accident will be. I think that there is a duty on everybody, regardless of whether they are driving on a motorway or on a road in the suburbs or in any town one cares to choose, to take extra care, and particularly in winter weather.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, would the noble Earl not give consideration to his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharpies, that the so-called fast outside lane is only a passing lane? What does the inside lane do about passing?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I hope you do not pass on the inside lane.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that greater discipline on motorways will only be achieved if there is a strong force of traffic police? All experience in America, where the regulations both for speed and for non-weaving are effective, shows that it is achieved only by a strong force of traffic police. This is the only way in which we can get better discipline on the motorways.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that enforcement plays one part in it, but surely he must agree with me that for the rest it is up to the individual motorist to play his part in it as well.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, in view of what the noble Earl has wisely said about the overtaking lane, is it the intention to consider making staying in the outer lane for an unnecessary and unconscionable length of time an offence in this country, as it is in Spain?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the problem with that is the question of enforcement. We shall be looking at matters including that one; but I think all Members of the House would agree with me that it is rather pointless to make a law which cannot be enforced to a reasonable degree.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, when my noble friend spoke about all factors, all considerations, he referred to America, as other noble Lords have done. Can my noble friend not tell us something about our nearest close neighbour, France, where the situation is much more easily comparable with our own than anything in America?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can tell your Lordships that in France the speed limit on motorways is 80 miles per hour, and they have a death rate per 100 million car kilometres of 3 whereas ours is 1.1.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, in answer to a previous question the noble Earl made an important announcement; namely, that an inquiry is now being held. Will he be good enough to tell the House the nature of this inquiry? Is it an inquiry into accidents to coaches? Can he tell us the scope of the inquiry, who is holding the inquiry and when the report will be made?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, what I said in reply to an earlier question was not an announcement. If I remember rightly the announcement was made by my honourable friend the Minister for Transport immediately after the tragic accident to a coach on the M6 last month. We are looking into every aspect of speed and safety of coaches on motorways. We are collecting evidence from a number of sources. I understand that it is a departmental inquiry and when the results are known I shall ensure that the noble Lord knows about it.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that he totally misunderstood my noble friend Lord Winstanley when he replied that people should clean their rear lights? What he raised was the fact that the rear lights are often so bright, particularly in wet conditions, that they are a grave danger on motorways and on other roads?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, for misunderstanding him. I thought he meant that they were so covered in dirt from going up the motorway that no one could see them.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, have the Government given up any idea of raising the limit to 80 m.p.h.? I do hope so.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, as I said in my original reply, our review of the speed limits started in 1983 and was fully undertaken last year and earlier this year. We see no case for changing the overall speed limit either up or down.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, as one who has commuted on M. 1. since it was opened, may I ask the noble Earl whether the existence of a speed limit one way or the other has had any effect on the major pile-ups? Major pile-ups have resulted from people going too fast for the circumstances, which is generally well inside the limits. Is he further aware that on the M. 1. the operative speeds in lanes at the moment in ordinary and normal conditions is about 100 in the fast lane, about 75 to 80 in the centre lane while the inside lane is seldom used?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Paget. The speed limits have contributed to a lessening of pile-ups in accidents on motorways. Indeed he only re-emphasises the point I made earlier that we must all drive with more care. In relation to his average speeds, these do not accord with the figures that I have.

Lord Wells-Pestell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I find his reply to my question most unsatisfactory? Is he not also aware that his department ought to furnish him with information knowing full well that a question as to the number of summonses taken out against travellers on the motorways ought to be known and available?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for not knowing the answer. The Question on the Order Paper regarded serious accidents on motorways. I should be happy to look into his point and to write to him if that would help.