HL Deb 07 July 1986 vol 478 cc66-72

7.11 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (The Earl of Caithness) rose to move, That the regulations laid before the House on 3rd June be approved. [25th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, these regulations make minor amendments to our system of vehicle speed limits which was established two years ago. I must stress that we are concerned with vehicle speed limits and not with our national or local road speed limits.

The effect of the regulations is threefold. First, they establish a 60 mph speed limit on motorways and dual carriageways for passenger vehicles and car-derived vans towing a trailer, typically a caravan. Secondly, a 60 mph dual carriageway limit is established for light goods vehicles towing a trailer. Finally, a 40 mph speed limit is introduced on all classes of road for agricultural motor vehicles.

These regulations have been the subject of much consultation. They have been approved by all the caravaning organisations, the RAC, the AA, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and the Police Federation. In particular I should tell the House that RoSPA was asked for its views by my honourable friend the then Minister of Transport, Mrs. Lynda Chalker. She was particularly concerned that its views should be taken into account, and it expressed no opposition. I beg to move.

Moved, That the regulations laid before the House on 3rd June be approved. [25th Report from the Joint Committee]—(The Earl of Caithness.).

Lord Underhill

My Lords, despite the consultation to which the noble Earl refers, I am extremely concerned about the regulations. They increase the speed limit of vehicles towing a caravan from 50 mph to 60 mph on dual carriageways and motorways. They amend the 1984 regulations. What has happened to justify the increase in the speed limit, especially bearing in mind that the 1984 regulations were based on the 1983 national speed survey?

I have a copy of that in front of me. I shall not deal with what it says about single carriageways because they are not affected by the regulations. But on dual carriageways cars towing a trailer had the lowest mean speed of all vehicles (47 mph). Only 28 per cent. of cars and other light vehicles towing a trailer exceeded the maximum limit, and of those the standard deviation was only 7 mph. What justification is there to throw on one side the result of that speed survey and the regulations that were passed in 1984?

On motorways, too, cars towing a trailer had the lowest mean speed of 53 mph. To achieve that mean speed, many would have been travelling below 53 mph. On both dual carriageways and motorways the speed limit is to be increased to 60 mph. What has taken place to justify that increase since the national speed survey in 1983 and the regulations in 1984? Is it that the Department of Transport no longer takes any notice of national speed surveys and advises the Minister accordingly?

Noble Lords will recall that in 1984 caravan weight ratios were abolished. On 8th March 1984 (at col. 421 of Hansard) the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, who was at that time handling the matter for the Government, stated: In practice, it is likely that 50 mph is widely regarded as the limit for all combinations". He was referring to combinations of weight. At that time 60 mph was proposed and some organisations expressed concern about the safety aspects. Hence in 1984 the Government decided to withdraw the 60 mph proposal in favour of 50 mph for all vehicles towing caravans and other trailers.

On that occasion, I expressed my concern for I travel a reasonable amount—including on touring holidays—and I travel on the roads in Scotland of which the noble Earl will be aware. It is frightening even how, with a limit of 50 mph, when caravans are being towed if there is a wind causing them to veer from side to side. I keep as far away from them in those circumstances as I can for my safety. I am worried about the extension.

Agricultural vehicles are something I know little about, but I do not think there are many which could exceed a speed of 40 mph. But the regulations say that the limit is to apply on all roads and not just dual carriageways, and so it includes lanes. Is there to be no limit on width? Many of us have driven along country lanes, and a wide agricultural vehicle travelling at 40 mph would put the fear of everything into me. I should not want to go anywhere near one. Has regard been paid to width? We cannot vote against the regulations, but I must ask that question.

Why have the Government changed a view which they formed based on the 1983 speed survey and in view of the arguments in this House when the regulations were introduced?

Earl Attlee

My Lords, on these Benches we broadly approve of the regulations. We accept that between 1983 and 1986 the power, the brake horse power and the braking ability of the average motor car has increased. I frequently travel on motorways and naturally stick to the 70 mph limit. But there are people who do not stick to the limits and even at 80 mph or 90 mph they are overtaken. Whatever speed, there is always a car that is going faster. In the past few years, the development of the internal combustion engine has increased dramatically. Vehicles are using less fuel and producing more power, and so it is logical that speed limits should be increased.

However, I support the noble Lord who has just spoken on this matter. I have driven a car towing a caravan. If a caravan is badly weighted even at 50 miles per hour, it will start to sway. If one has a caravan that tends to sway and it passes a high-sided commercial vehicle, or is overtaken by a high-sided vehicle, a vacuum is caused. As that vehicle passes—whichever way round it is—if the caravan is on an outward swing while being overtaken, the vacuum will cause it to swing out and the danger is that there will be a collision. I accept that if caravans and trailers are correctly loaded, this danger is very much less.

Turning from motorways to dual carriageways, we have another problem. One has cars towing caravans, and they quite often have a "mating instinct"; they follow one another. If cars towing caravans are travelling at 60 miles per hour and ordinary cars are keeping to the speed limit, there is only a 10 miles per hour differential which I do not think is sufficient. It means that with almost every car today able to go just a little faster, with caravans being towed at 60 miles per hour, and cars which can travel at 65 miles per hour trying to overtake them, there will be an awful build up on our roads.

I think that we should be very much happier if noble Lords accept what I suggested earlier. I am quite sure that the noble Earl the Minister will say that cars are more powerful and faster these days. What if he were to say, "All right; caravans with trailers travel at 60 miles per hour. Therefore on motorways and dual carriageways we shall raise the speed limit of ordinary vehicles from 70 to 80 miles per hour"? The average speed at which most cars travel seems to be 80 miles per hour. I think that would cut down the danger because it would keep at least a 20 mile per hour differential.

I know that we cannot vote against this Motion anyway. I think that this is a step in the right direction, but we should like the noble Earl the Minister to give consideration to raising the national speed limit for ordinary vehicles.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, in my view, as an ardent motorist (as obviously is the noble Earl) following caravans doing more than 50 miles per hour is a frightening experience because one becomes mesmerised by them going from one side of the carriageway to the other. They do not do it intentionally. It seems that if they are not locked solidly behind the car, and if they have any leeway at all, they swing from side to side. I imagine—although I am not particularly worried about it—that the crockery and everything else inside must also be thrown about.

I would also agree with the noble Earl, as we have done sometimes in this House before. I am quite certain that the majority of motorists in this country would hope that the private vehicles would be now allowed to travel at 80 miles per hour. I am overtaken by cars travelling at 120 miles per hour. I travel at the statutory 70 miles per hour, or perhaps 75, but no more. I can admit that because I do not expect I shall be taken away by the police. I have good views in both my back and side mirrors which I hope is a hallmark of good driving.

I think that the noble Earl is on the right lines. Everybody I have talked to about this over the last five years hopes for the introduction of an 80 miles per hour speed limit for private cars. Naturally those who tow caravans want the speed limit raised. They would, would they not?—presumably because they could get from A to B faster. I entirely agree with what the noble Earl has said. I think that the caravans will cause congestion on the roads. Lorries will be unable to pass the caravans, which delight in travelling in convoy. Certainly they do so on the roads of Scotland; but there are not, luckily, many dual carriageways or M. roads in Scotland. I hope that the day never comes when the beautiful small roads become big roads. I would want the limit raised, and I hope that the time will come when we can discuss that point.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I would not go upwards; I would maintain the speed limit of 70 miles per hour. Many cars, lorries and coaches regularly exceed that speed limit today. I know that this is slightly off the subject of trailers, but I am sure that most Members of the House who drive on motorways will agree that many vehicles drive far too close together. Therefore increasing the speed limit simply increases the chances of accidents. It also increases fuel consumption, and I think that through excessive speed we sometimes use an excessive amount of fuel on our motorways.

I am not at all happy with the increase from 50 to 60 miles per hour for towed trailers behind passenger vehicles. I drive regularly up and down the M.2 on the main route to Dover and the condition of that road is appalling. Caravans are relatively light in weight. These regulations do not refer only to caravans. A small trailer that is unladen bounces all over the place and can take charge of the car, particularly if it is a light car, and that can cause an accident.

1 think that the greater the speed, the greater the danger of jack-knifing occurring when a towing vehicle has to do an emergency stop. I know that there are anti-jack-knifing devices for large articulated vehicles. However, not being a caravan owner I do not know whether there are such devices for caravans or other trailers; I rather suspect not. I would be happier if we were not approving these regulations tonight because I think they are a retrograde step. Vehicles towing caravans tend to drag them all over the road, and the faster they move, the less chance the drivers have to control them.

I am also rather worried about the setting of a speed limit of 40 miles per hour for agricultural vehicles. Some of the lanes down which they go are extremely narrow, and very winding. I suspect that a vehicle such as a combine harvester will take up the whole road. Some of the more modern and powerful agricultural vehicles can go at 40 miles per hour. I do not wish to be harvested with my family in the car and end up as a mixture of chaff spread all over the road. 1 think that this is a possibility because there is no chance of getting out of the way. Farm trailers are not always very well loaded. They are loaded for a journey of only one or two miles. Therefore, in an emergency stop the trailer will take control of the towing tractor, no matter how large it is.

I think that this is an unwise move. I hope that my noble friend and his department will keep a very careful watch on the results and monitor them carefully. I look forward to my noble friend coming back in another two years' time to cancel these regulations and to return to the lower speed limit.

7.30 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

Perhaps I may respond to some of the concerns raised; in particular that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, who asked: what has happened since 1984? As the noble Lord rightly said, these regulations were considered in 1984, but were not pursued at that time because further consultation was needed. That consultation has now taken place.

There are also other reasons for proceeding now. The police advise us that with the proposed regulations the law will be easier to enforce. That is a factor which has to be taken into account. Subsequent to the 1984 regulations the towing code has been published by those interested in caravanning, together with my department. This has made a lot of difference to caravanners who now have a sensible basis on winch to work when starting to tow caravans.

In the last couple of years a possible bunching on motorways has been noticed. When caravanners have to share the centre and nearside lanes with heavy goods vehicles which are permitted to travel at 60 miles per hour, as the noble Lord knows full well, to have a caravan going at 50 miles per hour in the centre lane of a motorway leads to bunching, with heavy goods vehicles behind which cannot use the outside lane to overtake. This is a problem which has been noted, and one of the many reasons why it is thought that these regulations should be introduced. The noble Lord also asked about the width of agricultural vehicles. These vehicles are already subject to a width limit, so there is no effect as regards that particular point.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, and my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve mentioned badly-weighted caravans and said that they are particularly frightened when driving behind caravans that swing, which was a point also mentioned by the noble Lord. Lord Underhill. Whatever speed a caravan is doing—for instance, if it is doing 30 miles per hour in a high wind—it has been known to move about the road, but the onus is on the driver of the vehicle to drive with reasonable care. From our experience, the move from 50 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour will not exacerbate the situation or make it worse. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that when driving in the Highlands it is not very satisfactory having to follow caravans that sway from side to side, but now that the towing code has been in use for some two years I have certainly noticed an improvement. 1 think that the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is right in saying that the weighting of caravans has improved, and they are now weighted more at the centre, which is the right place.

My noble friend Lord Swinfen asked us not to increase the limit to 80 miles per hour, which some noble Lords have suggested, but rather to keep it at 70 miles per hour. I rather felt that my noble friend wanted to bring down the limit to 60 miles per hour, but I shall pass the points to my honourable friend the Minister responsible, as indeed I shall the points my noble friend made about the M.2. My noble friend also said that to put up the limit for towing vehicles to 60 miles per hour would increase fuel consumption. I think that that would please the oil companies, particularly now that the oil price has dropped. I shall of course pass on the concerns of noble Lords to my honourable friend, and hope the House will now approve these regulations.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, perhaps he could elucidate two points that he made. He mentioned that the police say that this is a better basis for enforcement. Can the noble Earl kindly explain the reasoning behind the statement by the police that it is better to enforce the law if caravans are doing 60 miles an hour rather than 50 miles per hour? The noble Earl also said that the question of the width of agricultural vehicles is irrelevant because there is no restriction on width at the moment.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there is a width restriction.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, it is a little different to have a vehicle with a restricted width doing a lower speed than to have the same vehicle doing 40 miles an hour, and I cannot see the reasoning for this.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, will horse-boxes which are being towed or, for instance, a trailer carrying goats, such as my daughter uses, still be confined to 50 miles per hour?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, to answer the last question: no, such trailers are not confined to 50 miles per hour unless the circumstances dictate that they should be. We are talking about a regulation affecting trailers, which includes the horse-box carrying the goats which the noble Lady mentioned.

With regard to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, about the width of an agricultural vehicle, having had experience of these myself I would point out that one goes only at what one considers to be a safe speed. The regulation has been introduced for such vehicles as Unimogs, which are high-powered vehicles. If one is driving a combine down a small lane, one probably does not have the front piece of the combine attached, so as a result my noble friend Lord Swinfen is unlikely to be harvested. However, I am sure that farmers and farm workers will pay due regard to the width of the vehicle whatever speed they are going, and will drive only at the maximum permitted speed, which I must emphasise is the maximum permitted speed when circumstances allow.

With regard to easier enforcement, I believe that this was the advice given by the police at the time, but I shall write to the noble Lord in detail on the matter.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, before my noble friend finally moves that the regulations be accepted, I believe he said that a code of towing practice has been issued. What proportion of the towing public have received this code of practice? It is not just caravan owners who tow trailers. All sorts of other people tow trailers, from someone who hires a trailer to move a tent over the weekend to people towing horse-boxes, chimney sweeps towing trailers, and all sorts. What proportion of the towing public has received this towing code?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am of course unable to give the proportion of the public who have actually received the towing code. However, I can assure my noble friend that the National Caravan Council, the Caravan Club and the Camping and Caravanning Club, who together with my department, all contributed to the towing code, have made sure that this is freely available to their members. Many people who will be towing such things as horse-boxes do so on a regular basis because they derive their living from the land, but I agree with my noble friend that, whatever the circumstances, there will be the odd person who will not have seen the towing code and who will not be used to towing a trailer. If I was one of those people, I would take extra care.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend one more question. Is it the law that every car driver who tows, for example, a horse-box or a caravan must have extended wing mirrors on his vehicle? Because unless they do, in my view they cannot see the trailer moving from side to side on the road.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I believe that that is right. The mirrors have to have a sufficiently clear view around the side of all trailers.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Back to