HL Deb 13 March 2000 vol 610 cc1356-73

7.45 p.m.

Lord Davies of Oldham rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to promote their road safety strategy.

he noble Lord said: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest. I have the honour to be president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. The society is a powerful force in promoting road safety and therefore has an unsurpassed interest in the development of this country's road safety strategy. However, the interest in which I am most delighted is that declared by the Prime Minister, who himself introduced the Government's road safety strategy a short while ago. It includes some very tough overall targets: to reduce in 10 years by 40 per cent all road accidents and to reduce accidents to children by 50 per cent over the course of 10 years.

It might be thought that the Prime Minister is particularly concerned about the latter due to the impending arrival of the Blairs' fourth child. There is no doubt that the issue focuses the minds of soon-to-be parents, but I am sure that the Prime Minister is responding to an even more profound public issue than that. I refer to the sense of shock that is felt throughout the nation at how poorly our figures for child safety compare with those of our European counterparts.

As we know, vastly greater numbers of people, both adults and children, are killed and maimed on our roads than on our railways, yet the most enormous public debate takes place after each railway accident. Such accidents are enormously tragic but involve much smaller numbers than the daily carnage on our roads. That partly helps to explain the wholly unjustified degree of complacency in society about our road statistics. The British feel that they compare rather well with other drivers. They feel that they are more considerate. It is the case that in our country, as in other developed countries, the number of road accidents per mile driven has been falling for a considerable period of time. There have also been improvements in in-car safety through the better design of cars. But we are surely not entitled to be complacent when we look at the child accident figures.

A ready excuse is sometimes offered for those too. It is said that our urban environment is more obviously intense and that cars are closer to where people live and move about on pavements. However, serious research shows that that factor probably accounts for only half the number of accidents involving children. The other half of those dismal statistics is due to our failure to train our children sufficiently well in road safety. It is also a matter of bad driving.

The Government have set several ambitious targets. However, one must remember that it took 20 years to implement the universal use of seatbelts and 20 years to make drinking and driving socially unacceptable. For that reason, to aim to take 10 years to secure a marked reduction in driving speeds is a pretty tall order, but it is an extremely important element of increasing safety in our urban and village environments.

There is no doubt that speed kills. It is a major factor in one in three accidents. In accidents involving pedestrians, at 20 miles per hour one person in 10 will be killed. At 40 miles per hour, nine out of 10 will fail to survive. Improvements in car safety may have benefited the occupants of cars, but they have done little for cyclists and pedestrians.

In their road safety strategy, the Government have placed great emphasis on the role of local authorities. I should like to ask the Minister to give an assurance that local authorities will be provided with sufficient specific resources to tackle these issues; that they will be effectively monitored on their performance; and that they will be assisted in implementing best practice. It is clear, for example, that we need the extensive deployment of 20 mph speed limits near schools. We also need extensive traffic-calming measures. We should not pretend that these are popular measures; yet we are asking local authorities largely to bear the brunt of taking decisions on these issues. Elected local authorities have the right to be concerned about their popularity. I say this only a couple of months before the next set of local elections.

The Government have taken a number of important factors into account in their strategy. We need improved training on road safety issues for our children. We also need training for parents. I point out in particular a matter identified in the road safety strategy; namely, the experiment carried out in Drumchapel, near Glasgow. That project showed how parents contribute to the safety of their children.

It is also quite clear that we need better standards of driving. That means that we should address in forthright terms whether the driving test is a sufficient test of motoring competence. I believe that it must be recognised that the present driving test is inadequate in several key respects as regards testing driving competence.

An area that has particularly concerned the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and which is also recognised in the road safety strategy, is that of the standard of driving among fleet drivers. That issue will need to be pursued with great vigour because improvements must be made. After all, those people drive the most on our roads. On average, a business or commercial driver will drive for many more thousands of miles than the ordinary private motorist. The management of occupational road risk is recognised in the strategy and is an issue on which the society has also been campaigning vigorously.

In addition, we need to address an issue which I raised in this House last year, but which did not meet with wholehearted enthusiasm on the part of the Government. If we are doomed to live with a situation where for so many people the car has become a mobile office, we certainly need to introduce constraints on how office techniques are deployed at 40, 50 or 60 miles per hour. I draw particular attention to the use of mobile phones. It is not possible to concentrate on the road while at the same time receiving what may be in some cases important messages.

Against that background, I emphasise that a great deal needs to be done. We need the Government to back their strategy with great vigour. Careful monitoring will be needed to see whether promises contained in the strategy are kept. I seek a reassurance from the Minister, whom I hold in high regard for the work that he has done so far, that the issues outlined in the report will be followed up.

7.55 p.m.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, for initiating this debate only a week after publication of the Government's road safety strategy. My contribution to the debate is offered from two perspectives; first, as chairman of the European Secure Vehicle Alliance—an associate parliamentary group dedicated to reducing vehicle crime, and, secondly, as a past president of RoSPA. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, now holds that distinguished position. I wish him the very best of luck.

I welcome in the strategy the extremely broad context across which the Government seek to reduce road casualties, especially the specific references made to both cycling and motorcycling, and the clear intention to seek support from all areas within both national and local government and society at large.

I shall focus my remarks on where I consider that a partnership approach can best provide effective education and training for young adults to become responsible road users on both two and four wheels. While chapters 2 and 3 within the Tomorrow's Roads—Saler for Everybody strategy refer to this issue, one must also be mindful of the Government's response to the report of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Young and Newly Qualified Drivers: Standards and Training, an inquiry to which the European Secure Vehicle Alliance submitted both written and verbal evidence.

My assessment suggests, however, that there remains a significant gap in addressing the needs of 15 and 16 year-olds, especially as the new national curriculum makes specific reference to road safety only in key stages 1, 2 and 3—for children aged from five to 14 years. The Government's strategy papers outline in detail their thinking on how to increase the effectiveness of driver training once a candidate has applied for a provisional car driving licence at 17 years of age and older. However, little attention is focused on the critical years, those from 15 to 17, when the expectation and interest of young adults, as they anticipate becoming road users, is often overwhelming.

Reference to the expansion of the Driving Standards Agency schools programme is welcome, as is the commitment to the provision of Internet material. I should also like to commend the British School of Motoring's new SIGNAL programme targeted at sixth form and FE colleges. However, surely we should aim to do far more.

Perhaps I may remind the House that England and Wales enjoy one of the best road safety records across the developed world and yet have the worst vehicle crime records. Half of all convicted vehicle crime offenders are aged 16 or under. Over two-thirds are aged 21 or under. Bearing in mind that we are also aiming to achieve a targeted 30 per cent reduction in vehicle crime over the next five years, much will be gained by adopting shared strategies targeted at young people to reduce both vehicle crime and road accident casualties.

One example of such an approach developed within the Avon and Somerset Constabulary and called Operation Impact involved considerable police and community effort in encouraging young people to take a responsible attitude to road usage. On average, 13 young people lost their lives in accidents involving stolen vehicles between 1992 and 1994. In 1997, there was only one fatality involving a stolen vehicle. I have no doubt that a sustained strategy, aimed at both crime and accident reduction, can achieve extraordinary results.

The importance of communicating effectively with young people as they start to face the transition from school into adulthood has also been recognised by the Department for Education and Employment. Its concern in aiming to reduce truancy and school exclusions must be helpful in aiming to reduce crime and social exclusion. For a number of potentially disaffected students, an opportunity to learn about vehicles and road usage is undoubtedly effective in opening up pathways into employment or further training.

Further, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 illustrated the commitment of the Home Office to tackle more effectively youth justice issues while also encouraging local authorities and the police to work in partnership with other community leaders to reduce crime and disorder. One should also be mindful that the Department of Health has also set 10-year targets to reduce accident death and serious injury rates. I therefore recommend a strategy entitled, "Community Education Involving Vehicles", which could contribute to the related strategies of the government departments I have mentioned.

The ESVA has been associated with a number of community-based motor projects across the country, all working towards the shared objectives of reducing crime, collisions and social exclusion. I would commend the SKIDZ project based in High Wycombe. It has been able to take most advantage of the newly emerging strategies, as it has only been operating for the past 18 months. It aims to provide a staging post for 15 to 17 year-olds making the transition from school to college and/or employment.

In conclusion, I urge that all government departments adopt the challenge of harnessing coherently the interest that many young people from the age of 15 have in vehicles and in passing their "riding and driving" tests in order to make our roads safer while at the same time reducing crime and offering our young people a pathway to becoming responsible citizens.

8.2 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, for giving us such an early opportunity to discuss the Government's road safety strategy. In his foreword to the Government's strategy document, the Minister said: Safety is the most important responsibility of anyone involved in transport—whatever mode we are talking about". In its review of policy on speed management, the Government say at paragraph 14: There are real benefits to industry, business, commuters and other motorists of being able to reach their destinations reasonably quickly". In paragraph 16 we find the phrase, unnecessary suppression of speed could be damaging". I am afraid that government policy seems to continue to give greater emphasis to the reduction of journey times, as against the promotion of road safety. Some commentators suggest that this may be out of fear of the media and lobbyists portraying the motorist as being persecuted. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Davies, I suggest that it is the children who are killed or injured on the roads in Britain in numbers twice as great as in Germany and Holland who are the real victims of persecution.

Of course we welcome the plan to reduce these casualty figures by 50 per cent by the year 2010, which, if achieved, would bring Britain to the same level that now obtains in Holland and Germany. But, in my opinion, the Government's road safety strategy is too timid a document and may be insufficient to achieve its objectives. I should like to give your Lordships two examples of faults in the present system.

I have been involved in the planning and consultation of the proposed bypass at Marcham, which is on the A415 between Abingdon and Witney. The scheme provides a road junction between the bypass and the village street. This was planned to be provided by a simple, centre of the road turning lane on the bypass for traffic turning right into the village. At the consultation meeting, the residents said that this would be unsafe with fast-moving traffic on the bypass and asked for a roundabout. The engineer believed that they were correct in their criticism. However, he had to tell those at the meeting that a roundabout would slow down all the traffic and increase journey times for travellers. Because of this the economic benefits of the scheme would be reduced and it might, therefore, not qualify for funding. Such benefits are calculated using cost-benefit techniques, which add together the small time savings of the people using the road. These are then set against the cost of the scheme to provide an economic justification.

The system is perverse. The journey time savings are very small and probably imperceptible to most road users. But there are a lot of users, and when the time savings are multiplied by lots of people you get a lot of money. The probability of a serious accident without the roundabout, or other form of controlled turning, is high; but, of course, it is unpredictable. The point that I wish to emphasise this evening is that the appraisal techniques being used need to be revised to give less weight to small time savings and to give greater priority and emphasis to safety. That will help to promote road safety.

Paragraph 60 of New Directions in Speed Management says that time savings are an important economic element in assessing the case for investment in roads and public transport. As an economist I would agree that such techniques may have value in comparing two or more alternative schemes, but to impute a monetary value to someone saving a minute or so on a journey home, while not making adequate allowance for safety, has very little intellectual respectability.

My other example concerns the new proposals allowing some small part of the income from fixed penalties generated by speed cameras to be spent on the costs of enforcement. This trial in six areas starts in April and is planned to last for two years. We are very grateful for this long overdue initiative. People are crying out for proper enforcement of speed limits, even if they do not always observe them when they are driving. Yet at the meeting held between the police and local authorities in the Thames Valley area to discuss the implementation of the scheme—and I quote from the unofficial notes taken at the meeting: The DETR also worried about the Thames Valley Police plan to prosecute 250,000 drivers in the second year so this has been reduced to 180.000". I ask the Minister to repudiate that approach. As is well known, the cameras are already set with a threshold above the limit. Is it not right that those people who exceed the speed limit should have some action taken against them? We do not have a quota for prosecuting drunk drivers, so I do not understand why there should be one for those who speed.

While extra money will go to the police, magistrates' courts and local authorities to deal with the increased workload arising from the trial scheme, can the Minister say whether any extra funding will be allowed to the Crown Prosecution Service? This will be necessary to make the scheme successful; otherwise, the most serious cases—those which have to be taken to court—will not be pursued.

In conclusion, I want to suggest a development to the trial scheme for hypothecating some of the money raised by penalty notices for speeding, which may help to swing public opinion even more firmly behind the trial. Local authorities suggested that, as well as covering the additional costs of enforcement, a part of the hypothecated fund could be used to carry out physical improvements that would enhance safety and for which highway authorities will never have sufficient funds however generous the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Davies, made that point. We need better signing, road marking, application of skid resistant surfaces and minor engineering work at accident blackspots. However, as I understand it, that proposal was rejected.

When the trial scheme relating to speed cameras is reviewed—I suggest it should be done at the end of year one, without waiting for two years—I hope that consideration will be given to diverting resources into positive accident prevention.

8.9 p.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, when the road safety strategy was announced some headlines suggested that the Government had chickened out and that a blanket reduction to 20 miles per hour should have been imposed on all 30 miles per hour-limited roads. However, this is not so. Britain has reached a stage in its road safety development where we now know how to work with society and not fight it. We no longer tolerate the drink driver and the police are now backed in seeking the hard core who still imbibe and drive.

The AA Foundation for Road Safety Research has shown that speed limits are not just poorly obeyed; their rationale is not understood. Some 50 per cent of drivers do not know the national speed limit for a single carriageway road and are puzzled about the archaic links between speed limits and street lighting. There is to be a new template offering guidelines for how and when limits are to be used. The guidelines are important not just to help lower speeds. The AA wants drivers to understand that limits on speed are there to help reduce death and injury. Where limits are at odds with the character of the road, the character must be changed or else drivers must be told the reason for the limit being set. Similar to the practice in some countries, the speed limits could be altered dependent upon the time of day. This has been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham in respect of schools.

In reality it is not just lower speed limits we need; it is lower speeds where safety so dictates—a system where the prosecuted driver is seen as a fool and not as being unlucky. The Prime Minister has explained that the aim is to make speeding as socially unacceptable as drink driving. And who would disagree with that?

The new road safety strategy is about more than just speed. It includes changes to the driving test, crash test legislation, penalties—I hope that it will be recognised that the fear of losing a driving licence through accumulating points is much greater than the fear of a fine being imposed—extension of health and safety into occupational driving, and much more.

If time permitted, I would expand on driver training and the relationship between the driving records of parents and those of their children as researched by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the United States. The enthusiasm is there to ensure the success of the strategy. But are the resources?

I now turn to enforcement. Some noble Lords may recall my association with traffic officers and the fact that I go on patrol regularly. Resources dictate the number of traffic units on the road at any time of the day and this will vary from force to force. It is a matter of operational priority as to how the available funds are spent. However, divisional traffic units are being reduced on a regular basis not only because of the increasing cost of purchasing and maintaining the various types of vehicles but also because chief officers sometimes want to be seen as being politically correct.

Your Lordships may be aware that a few constabularies have about 10 per cent of their total strength engaged in traffic duties, with the average being about 5 per cent. However, are your Lordships aware that the Metropolitan Police have only 3.03 per cent of their strength as traffic officers? For reasons which are unclear to me, the Met is reducing its traffic division so that these highly trained and specialist officers can go on foot patrol and be more visible to the general populace. But how many people will see a foot patrol? And how many people will see a traffic vehicle in full livery? The reality is that many more people will see the car which can also reach an incident much more quickly than a foot patrol.

In addition, the commercial vehicle unit in the Met which, as its name implies, concentrates on all matters involving commercial vehicles, is being disbanded. These specialised officers will go to division and, in time, their skills will be completely lost. How does this tally with better enforcement? If other constabularies are also reducing their traffic divisions—as, indeed, they are—1 fail to see how enforcement can be improved. Enforcement on the roads will become similar to the position in the fire service—that of responding to demand and not patrolling our roads. So where does that leave road safety? Without sufficient traffic officers and suitable vehicles, enforcement will never be improved. It can be improved only if the saving of lives on our roads is taken more seriously, the appropriate resources are made available to all forces and chief officers are reminded of the high cost of each life lost on the road.

In the Australian state of Victoria motorists are used to zero tolerance. There was initial opposition to this apparently heavy-handed method of road policing but it has been widely acclaimed for its success and now has the general approval of motorists. Despite the high cost of achieving a dramatic reduction in lives lost and people seriously injured, the overall financial savings have been substantial. Until such time as a similar system is supported in this country it will be difficult to achieve our proposed figures. Lancashire constabulary has been awaiting Treasury approval for such a scheme for some time now. I believe that it seeks something between £6 and £7 million with an anticipated saving of at least £40 million. I hope that approval will not be withheld for too long and that not too many lives will have been lost before the money is made available.

In conclusion, I return to occupational drivers, who have already been mentioned. Years ago a company used to castigate its drivers who committed driving offences by transferring them from the company BMW to the company Lada. That tended to concentrate their minds!

8.15 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, we should thank the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, for initiating the debate. Brief as it is, I hope that it will elicit some interesting responses from the Minister to the points that have been raised. After all, that is the point of Unstarred Questions.

I give a general welcome to the strategy despite some of the doubts about detail which have been expressed. I am a little worried by the report itself which has a circular construction, as it were. That is almost bound to result from having a large number of solutions or actions which are repeated. I suggest that the Government should occasionally tackle these matters the other way round. At the end of a report of this kind they should list the actions and then all the problems which those actions will solve. Had that been done, we would be able to understand the report much more easily.

Before I go any further, I wish to say how much I support what the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, has just said about enforcement. My understanding is that road traffic control and enforcement is not one of the core activities of the police. It seems to me that a major benefit would be obtained if the police had the resources to devote to the enforcement part of the strategy.

The slickly entitled report, The Numerical Context of Setting National Casualty Reduction Targets—which, of course, I have read from cover to cover—clearly indicates that in the past 10 years three factors have been the most important in terms of our success in achieving reductions in injuries. Those factors are: safer cars, measures to reduce drink driving, and road safety engineering.

Looking ahead, the drink-driving campaign effect may no longer continuously reduce the number of accidents. I hope the Minister will comment on whether it is fair to say that the anti-drink-driving strategy has been replaced by a strategy to educate parents, children, young people, drivers, driving instructors and road users in general in an appreciation of the way in which dangerous behaviour, and especially speeding, can impact on one's own and other people's safety; in other words, another "hearts and minds" campaign. If that is the case, I should be glad to hear it, as there are far too many people who speed and far too many people who speed without any sense that they are doing anything wrong. Speeding does not seem to carry with it a connotation of guilt.

I also wish to welcome and, like the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, stress the report's emphasis on those who are particularly vulnerable, for example, children who walk and cycle, younger car passengers—that is an interesting statistic among those with which we have been presented—and all those, whether children or not, who cycle and walk. A comprehensive approach needs to be adopted here. There needs to be training—as I have mentioned—the adoption of local transport plans; area-wide and route-length traffic calming; better speed controls on rural roads and the new system of 30 miles per hour limits in villages—as someone who in the past has lived in a rural area, I very much welcome that measure—together with the new system of road classification. Attention should also be paid to the needs of those living alongside through-roads in urban and residential areas, who are very often some of the most deprived people in our society.

As to the issue of imposing new speed controls, I have another question for the Minister in regard to signing. Some of the signing of our roads at present is so confused as to be positively a detriment to the understanding of even the most attentive motorist. Not very long ago, I went along a road somewhere in western Gloucestershire where there were a series of six or seven signs, each only a few tens of feet away, some of them blocking one's view of the others as one approached. New guidance from the Government on how signing should be arranged so that it is not overemphatic but clear would be most valuable. Consistent signing across the country is extremely important. Many of us travel in more than one county and more than one metropolitan area and, moving from one area to another, I notice that even road signing is not consistent, and certainly traffic signing is very inconsistent.

I welcome the Government's emphasis on the use of good practice—for example, traffic clubs for parents with small children are an excellent idea, as is the Gloucester safe city approach to safer roads and traffic calming. As I said, I welcome the area-wide and route-length traffic calming approach, but I would counsel the Government against thinking that it is particularly easy to achieve. It is amazing how, in any given area, drivers want to obtain their own rat runs while preventing anyone from rat running through their own streets. I remember that the consultation process on this kind of area-wide traffic calming—I have the bruises on my body to this day—can take literally years to achieve. Surrey was one of the first counties to attempt to do it.

I welcome also the concern about inappropriate speed on various categories of road and the partial hypothecation of fines for camera surveillance, to which my noble friend referred. However, I do not want to steal the thunder of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. I have a feeling that I know one of the points he will be making. In general, I have found about 15 areas where legislative proposals will be required. Can the Minister tell us whether at any stage he, his noble friend and his right honourable friend have considered whether the upcoming Transport Bill might be a good vehicle for legislation of this kind, even if it is a matter only of making provision for order-making powers? In some cases that may be enough. It is an important Bill; it has a number of diverse sections and it seems to me that some of the legislative burden the report indicates may be lightened by dealing with it in this way.

8.23 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, for introducing his Unstarred Question in his lucid way this evening. It has been suggested that we on these Benches are not interested in road safety. I wish I had half an hour available to speak today because nothing could be further from the truth. As acknowledged in the Government's paper, the previous administration made remarkable progress in reducing casualties despite massive increases in road traffic and car ownership.

In the UK we have a better record than most of our continental partners, but there is one area where we know that we are weak—that is, the casualty rate for children, which is disproportionately high. Worse still, the most disadvantaged sections of our society are disproportionately affected. There is nothing much more tragic than a child or youngster killed or seriously injured by a motor vehicle. The paper quite properly devotes its first substantive chapter to addressing the problem. However, it has taken the Government nearly three years to say what is their strategy for dealing with it.

My noble friend Lord Brougham and Vaux raised the vital point about the need to install a deeply ingrained sense of responsibility at an early age, and of course schools have a major part to play. The noble Viscount, Lord Simon, raised important points in regard to the numbers of traffic police available, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, also referred to the core responsibilities of the police.

Chapter Three of the paper—Safer driversTraining and Testing—is interesting to me as I am a qualified army heavy goods vehicle driving instructor. Accidents are caused by a lack of skill or poor attitude on the part of one or more drivers. It is interesting to note that organisations involved in fleet driver training programmes say that they are able to reduce the claims experience of a fleet by about 20 per cent with an average of no more than one day's training per driver, perhaps less. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Davies, that we are not doing enough driver training post-test. But there is only so much that the Government can do. I am not confident that the insurance market is working as well as it could. Surely the insurance industry has a role to play in insisting on proper driver training in order to reduce claims experience in high risk fleets.

Chapter Four covers drink, drugs and drowsiness. Again I agree with much of the paper. I have some anxiety about evidential roadside breath testing. I should need to be convinced that there are no changes that could be made to procedures in order to be able to best utilise police resources. One of my worries is that a serious RTA can be a confusing and distressing place, even for experienced police officers. What needs to be determined at the scene is who was actually driving what and whether any of the drivers might be under the influence. I should be much happier if evidence of blood alcohol or drugs levels was established at the police station and that there was no doubt about the identity of who supplied the sample.

However, I will keep an open mind. It might be possible to insert the necessary checks and balances. It might also be worth looking again at where the police can carry out an initial breath test, as suggested at paragraph 4.16. The chapter also discusses the problem of drugs. We must make sure that the powers and hardware available to the police meet the requirements.

Speed is an emotive subject, but speed kills. During a recent Unstarred Question I explained that speeding was a problem of bad driving, unskilled driving, but I also rejected some of the more draconian penalties suggested. The paper recognised that some speed limits may be unrealistic and that that could lead to negative public acceptance. However, there may also be good reasons for a speed limit—normally a high accident rate of which the ordinary motorist would be unaware. Perhaps we could have some indices displayed to indicate the accident rate relative to the low rate of a good motorway. If a motorist knows that a road is dangerous, he will be much more willing to adhere to the legal speed limit. Conversely, the noble Lord, Lord Davies, drew attention to the difficulties local authorities have in setting speed limits.

The paper says quite a lot about penalties, and many road safety organisations advocate much stiffer penalties. There are two difficulties here. First, whatever is the maximum penalty, the court can only take into consideration exactly what the driver has done wrong—and we all know that a moment's inattention can have the most tragic consequences. Secondly, let us take, for example, the offence of driving without a licence. The Government's response to the Select Committee report indicated that for the lowest socio-economic group this offence may attract a fine of only £100, not a great deterrent if paid in instalments over a year.

We shall shortly be debating the Government's flagship Transport Bill, which will make a substantial doorstop but which makes no provision for road safety. We shall be tabling many road safety amendments and this paper will be a useful guide. I will be tabling amendments to provide for the impounding of illegally operated goods vehicles along the lines of the Bill I introduced during the last Session. I hope the Minister will be able to accept these amendments, as well as other helpful ones that I shall be tabling—with some thunder, I might add, as suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood.

We do not have much time this evening, but I suggest that the Minister should allow some considerable time for road safety amendments when he plans the progress of his Transport Bill.

8.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham for initiating the debate. It is timely in that it follows the Government's policy statement, to which many speakers referred—mostly in glowing terms, although with a few reservations and some quite severe ones on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. There are many aspects of the policy that people will welcome. There may be one or two that some noble Lords would wish to go further.

I pay tribute also to my noble friend, the representative on earth of RoSPA, and indeed to his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux. I very much regretted that some tedious business in this House to do with mailshots and the London election kept me from attending RoSPA's conference last week. I should have liked to meet many of the activists there.

The new roads strategy, as my noble friend Lord Davies said, was launched by the Prime Minister. It is important to recognise the importance that that places on it in terms of our overall transport policy. It is a comprehensive 10-year strategy. It will require some challenging policies to be followed through by the Government and by others. The targets we have set are: a 40 per cent overall reduction in serious accidents and deaths; a halving of the number of child accidents; and a 10 per cent reduction in the rate of slight injuries. All will be tough to achieve, because some of the easy gains have already been made—not that they were all that easy. I pay tribute to the previous administration, and in particular to Peter Bottomley, who launched the previous version of that strategy, under which many achievements were made. As a result, in many respects our road safety record is good compared with that of other countries, but it is appalling when one thinks that 3,500 people still die every year on our roads. That applies particularly to the figures for children, where, as has been said, we do not have such a good record internationally.

A radical attack is therefore needed on the remaining problems in the area of road safety. That involves not only the Government but local authorities, the police, other enforcement agencies, and the road safety organisations such as RoSPA. Above all, it involves those who use the roads, and drivers in particular. I hope that the strategy can attract the support of all those groups.

My noble friend Lord Davies referred specifically to the role of local authorities and asked whether they would have sufficient resources and powers. I should like to place it on record that there will be adequate resources. We have already substantially increased resources within local transport plans. I believe that that will be followed through in subsequent spending rounds. The gearing towards safety issues will be written into the heavy guidance that we give in our local transport plans. More powers will also be given, for example, in relation to speed limits.

The issue of child safety probably symbolises the approach of our strategy as a whole. It brings together a large number of different policy strands. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said that there is some repetition. There is indeed some overlap between the various elements, and they reinforce each other. That is part of the importance and comprehensive nature of the strategy. We clearly want to change the environment in which children walk and cycle. That means better enforcement, lower speed limits, and traffic-calming zones in areas where children go to school, play and live. It means that local authorities must carry out child safety audits. It means more and better-designed pedestrian areas and better-designed roads. It means action on education, both for parents and children. It means attention in particular to safer routes to schools whether children travel by bus or bicycle, or on foot. Indeed, it means better car design, building on the improvements that we have seen, and in particular the use of seatbelts. In order to reduce the number of child victims, we need to intensify action on all of those fronts.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, referred to the change of mindset that we have achieved to some extent in relation to drink-driving and said that we need to apply that to speeding and other irresponsible forms of driving. I totally agree—not that we have entirely cracked the drink-drive problem. A number of recalcitrant drivers on our roads still habitually do not observe the drink-drive limit. We plan a robust package of measures to reduce further the dangers of drink-driving. That includes the Home Office review of penalties, and changes in relation to police procedures.

I hope that I can assure the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that the use of evidential roadside testing will not only improve the efficiency, but also the accuracy, rather than the other way round, of the drink-drive roadside testing procedure. I also reassure the noble Earl that we want to put the drug-driving regime on a similar basis to our reinforced and enhanced drink-driving regime. That is indeed a growing problem.

Probably the next change of mindset that we need to bring about relates to speed. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, majored on that, as did my noble friend Lord Davies to a considerable extent. Speed has to be seen in a wider context. Our review of speed policy, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, referred, looks at all other aspects. It looks at economic and environmental, as well as safety, aspects. Not all aspects move in the same direction. It must be recognised that some balance has to be achieved. In relation to cost-benefit analysis, I say to the noble Lord that it is always invidious to put a price on injury and death. However, the new approach that we adopted in the Roads Review last year places a much higher premium on safety than used to be the case under the old cost-benefit approach. I hope that to a large extent that meets his point.

It is right that we should try to ensure that speeding is seen as irresponsible in most circumstances, in the same way as drink-driving is seen to be irresponsible. My noble friend Lord Davies referred to the differential impact if a pedestrian is hit at different speeds, and a child pedestrian in particular. Those figures are dramatic and they are not well known among the general driving public.

My noble friend Lord Simon referred to the fact that the aim is to reduce actual speeds rather than reducing speed limits for the sake of it. That involves education. It involves enforcement and road engineering. To respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, it also involves signing. We are engaged in looking at both urban and rural signing to see how we can make it more effective.

In this context, we are placing a great deal of responsibility on local authorities. Our whole approach to the new template of speed limits on our roads system requires local authorities to look particularly at those areas where serious road safety problems have been identified. They will be required to look particularly at urban residential areas. The noble Baroness is right: there are severe problems in densely populated areas where some of the most disadvantaged populations and populations of children live. Local authorities will need to look at those areas with a view to reducing speed limits and to provide home zones and other traffic calming measures in our villages, where the norm should be no more than a maximum speed of 30 mph; on rural lanes in appropriate circumstances the current default limit of 60 mph should be reduced.

Those changes, which will be introduced via the local transport plans and other measures that local authorities will apply, will help to change behaviour on the worst of our routes, those that are most subject to safety problems. It will also require enforcement—both self-enforcement in the sense of road engineering and signing, and police enforcement. We need to take tough new steps to ensure that speed limits are enforced and that we discourage dangerous driving generally. That is what the tougher penalties element of the package is concerned with. In particular, we shall be looking at a new offence of gross speeding: speeding well in excess of the speed limit.

Part of the enforcement involves the technology of cameras. We are introducing a new funding regime, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, referred. For the first time that involves hypothecation—back to the costs of the police, the local authorities, the courts and the CPS. That can also be used to deal with safety problems. It is not a revenue-raising operation. It is related specifically to safety problems and to installing cameras in areas where safety can be improved.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, focused on the number of people who would be caught on such cameras. That is not exactly the point. The point of safety cameras is deterrence and achieving a lower actual speed limit, and therefore achieving safer roads. Clearly, a large number of penalties will be involved, and there will be an enforcement aspect. The measure of the success of the new policy will be whether it deters people from driving at excessive speeds.

My noble friend Lord Simon and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, referred to the role of the police in this matter, and in particular that of the traffic police. It is true that the number of officers specifically designated as traffic police has reduced over the past decade or more. This is primarily a matter of operational priorities for chief constables. Against that, one must look at the success of automated enforcement via safety cameras and other measures. The fact is that at the moment 2.2 million people are brought before the courts for Road Traffic Act offences. That is a significant increase compared with the trend in accidents in spite of the growth in traffic volume. It means that the police are becoming more effective in the detection and prosecution of road traffic offenders.

It is also true that the role of road safety in the priorities of police forces is being underlined by the Government and the Home Office in reports of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, in letters of advice from the Home Secretary to chief constables, and in the more general advice that goes to chief constables.

My noble friends Lord Davies and Lord Simon referred specifically to work-related safety issues. That is being addressed in this policy. We are bringing the Health and Safety Executive into this area almost for the first time. I am happy to report that the interagency group will he chaired by Mr Richard Dykes of the Post Office. I am sure that that will have a dynamic impact on the standards of work-related driving.

Both Front-Bench speakers made cross-references to the proposals in the policy and the Transport Bill. They are both right. Many of these propositions will require both primary and secondary legislation which will impinge on parliamentary time. The Transport Bill has already been introduced in another place and is a pretty hefty piece of legislation. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that appropriate amendments will be moved both there and in this House and we shall have to consider whether they can be incorporated into the Bill.

The bulk of the policy will require separate legislation, and the Government are committed to bringing that forward as rapidly as the parliamentary timetable allows. In particular, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, will be aware that last year I supported his efforts in relation to impounding lorries to ensure that there are safer HGVs on our roads. I hope that in some guise that reappears on the statute book before this Parliament comes to an end. I say no more than that at this point. Should the noble Earl table appropriate amendments in this or other fields, we shall consider them with the usual consensual approach to road safety issues. I very much appreciate the tone of all the speeches made by noble Lords this evening. We have a common interest in improving road safety. We must build on what has already been achieved and ensure that we do so in a way that achieves the very challenging targets that have been set.

The only other matter to which I refer in this context is that alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Brougham and Vaux. When I referred earlier to education, I was concerned primarily with younger school children. The noble Lord referred specifically to a pre-motoring period in which school children might become interested not so much as pedestrians and cyclists, and therefore possible victims of the motorised transport system, but as potential drivers. I believe that this is an area that can fruitfully be explored further and that it is one in which the various partners to which I have referred can become much more engaged. The noble Lord and I met not long ago and discussed this matter informally. I should like to take those discussions further with both the noble Lord and other interested groups in this House and elsewhere.

Lord Brougham and Vaux

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for raising this matter. I much appreciate the time that he and his colleagues spent discussing the matter at a dinner the other night. I believe that that discussion was fruitful and that, with a bit of push and shove, we shall get somewhere.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I hope that it does not require much of a push and shove. However, pushes and shoves from the noble Lord are always welcome. With that, I thank my noble friend Lord Davies for initiating the debate.