HC Deb 07 September 2004 vol 424 cc181-205WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Jamieson.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

May I welcome you all back after part of the summer recess and express the hope that you are duly recharged and rested and that we can look forward to some excellent, constructive and responsible debates in Westminster Hall?

9.30 am
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con)

I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the issue of road traffic deaths and road safety, which is of concern to many in the House, as is attested to by the attendance this morning. The United Kingdom has a good road safety record compared with many other countries. The Minister would probably agree that we are one of the world leaders. The latest figures from the Department for Transport show that in 2001 the UK suffered 3,598 road deaths whereas France, which has more than twice the land area, suffered 8,160. In Germany the comparable figure was 6,977 and in Italy 6,410. In Japan the number of deaths exceeded 10,000, which is horrendous. The United States has a larger population, but none the less the figure was a staggering 42,000. However, we have no reason for complacency.

Road traffic safety has undoubtedly risen up the agenda in recent months after being eclipsed by issues such as schools, hospitals and crime. I see that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) is in his place. Just before the House rose for the summer recess he introduced an excellent ten-minute Bill, the Motor Vehicle Manslaughter Bill. I am sure that he will refer to that in his own contribution, should he be fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

A number of serious cases have come to my attention since I became an MP. There is a wide range of issues to which one could refer in relation to road traffic safety and road traffic deaths. We could have a whole debate on rural speed. There is no doubt that while the Government have made progress in tackling speed, they have made more progress in urban areas than in rural. In a rural constituency such as mine, which has 122 parishes and where half the population live in a village of well below 1,000 people, casualties and accidents on rural roads remain a hugely significant issue.

I could spend much of the debate talking about motor cycles. Indeed, two of the cases to which I shall refer later concern motor cycle accidents. A constituent, who, I am pleased to say, is a safe motor cyclist, has drawn my attention to the problem of people who as teenagers or in their early 20s have experience of riding a low-powered motor cycle. Later in life, perhaps when they are more prosperous and have a family, they return to motor cycling after some 20 years and buy extremely powerful machines. They think that they are as adept at riding such a machine as they were at riding, for example, a Yamaha 125 when they were 17 or 19. They are not. Many accidents are caused in that way.

Not only the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety but the Motor Cycle Industry Association has called for a review of direct access to high performance motor cycles. I come from the more libertarian wing of politics. I do not like unnecessary controls on people, but that is something that should be considered. Indeed, one case to which I shall refer involved a motor cycling instructor, whose capacity as a safe motor cyclist was not in question, yet tragically he was killed in a head-on collision with another vehicle.

I could talk about seat belts at some length. The campaign in the 1970s and onwards for people to wear front seat belts is being backed up by an ongoing campaign for belting up in the back, which most people support.

Drink-driving remains another area of concern. A not uncontroversial proposal has been discussed to reduce the alcohol content in the blood limit from 0.8 to 0.5 mg. That is of particular concern in rural areas, where often the only safe way to get to a pub is by car. The proposal is controversial, not least because most fatal alcohol-related accidents involve those who are way over the limit, not those who are around and about it. The Department for Transport has suggested that 50 lives could be saved if the limit were reduced to 0.5 mg. I suspect that that is within the margin of error.

I intend to concentrate on two issues. The first relates to the law in relation to road safety and fatal road traffic accidents. The second is speed cameras. I do not think that I could speak in this debate without at least referring to speed cameras, which are hugely controversial, not least in Norfolk right at the moment. The most prominent recent case involves my constituent, Mrs. Jenny Mason. In January 2003, Mrs. Mason's 42-year-old son Andrew was killed in a head-on collision with a car that had been attempting, unsafely, to overtake a lorry on the A1066 in my constituency. Mr. Mason did not have a chance. He flashed his headlights twice. He braked hard and veered into the verge. Unfortunately he crashed into the car. He was catapulted into the air, struck the roof of the car and landed in the middle of the road. He was a motor cycle instructor and had an advanced driving certificate. He had been due to give his daughter away at her wedding four days later. His wife, Mairi, describes the impact of his death simply: His mum lost her eldest son; I lost my husband and our three daughters their father. It has blown our lives apart.

Charles Wright, the 90-year-old who was driving the car involved in the accident, was charged with careless driving. He did not attend court for his prosecution because he claimed he was too frail, although he was obviously not too frail to get behind the wheel of a motor car. Originally he was given a £150 fine, ordered to pay £200 costs and disqualified from driving for 12 months. One can find many similar cases in different parts of the country. Indeed, were I to go through all the cases I have come across in preparing for this debate, there would be no time for any other contributions. No matter where one looks, one finds similar stories of people causing a death and being given a sentence that, in the eyes of most reasonable people and particularly in the eyes of the victims' families, is simply not just.

There have been a number of calls over the years in different Adjournment and other debates and most recently in the Motor Vehicle Manslaughter Bill proposed by the hon. Member for South Dorset for a change in the law. When the Minister addressed the Select Committee earlier in the summer on the proposals for a road safety Bill, he declined to propose a change in the law. One of my purposes in initiating this debate today is to give him the chance to reconsider whether a change in the law is now justified and apposite. My own feeling, looking at the various cases around the country, is that a change is now justified.

I will mention just one other case in passing because it comes from Norfolk, although not from my constituency. Mrs. Bridget Wall chained herself to the railings outside the House of Commons in late July before we rose because of the death of her son Adam, who died from head injuries received in a collision with a van that pulled out of a junction in front of him as he rode his motor cycle along the A47 at Walsoken in Norfolk. The driver later appeared in court, where he admitted driving without due care and attention; he was fined £180 and given six penalty points. In the Eastern Daily Press on 17 July, Mrs. Wall made a point that has been made by many other victims: I want people to be aware that the Government has violated human rights by not acknowledging the people killed. I cannot begin to mourn Adam until something is done about this gap in our legislation and until I have won this fight.

My constituent Mrs. Mason would echo those words. I am pleased to say that, as a result of her persistence, I was able to arrange a meeting between her and the chief constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, who leads on road safety issues for the Association of Chief Police Officers. It was a very constructive meeting, and I thank Chief Constable Brunstrom publicly for meeting my constituent. That still leaves the question of what the Minister will do when the Bill comes before the House—I hope this autumn—because it is not clear that the Government have got the balance right.

At present, the law on this issue fails. There are several offences on the statute book relating to dangerous or careless driving. The first is causing death by dangerous driving, which requires the prosecution to show that the driving of the accused caused the death of another person, that it fell far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver and that it would be obvious to such a driver that driving in that way was dangerous.

The second driving offence is dangerous driving, without causing death, which requires the prosecution to show that an individual's driving fell below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver and that it would be obvious to such a driver that driving in that way was dangerous.

Then there are the careless driving offences. Under such an offence, an individual can be prosecuted for driving without due care and attention, and a prosecution will generally be appropriate when their driving shows serious miscalculation or disregard for road safety. Under the same section of the relevant legislation, an individual can be charged with driving without reasonable consideration, which is appropriate when their driving behaviour amounts to selfishness, impatience or aggressiveness, or causes inconvenience to others.

Then there is an offence of causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, and I stress the reference to drink or drugs because one of the central issues is that there is no simple offence of causing death by careless driving. The nature of the offence of dangerous driving means that the burden of proving that driving was dangerous results in prosecutors being reduced to offering a charge of careless driving, which has much weaker penalties. With such a charge, the magistrate must consider the seriousness of the carelessness or the lack of consideration that constituted the offence. The basic offence of careless driving—leaving aside the issue of being under the influence of drink or drugs—completely ignores the fact that a death has been caused, which is one of the most serious problems with it. As the law stands, no account is taken in many cases that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service bring before the courts of the fact that a death has been caused. That is the central issue, which I want the Minister to address.

What will the Government do to acknowledge the widespread feeling among our constituents, of all parties and in all parts of the country, that the law needs to be able to take account of the fact of a death, irrespective of other circumstances?

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con)

Most of us will have had such constituency cases. In my case, a constituent called Callum Oakford died when a driver drove carelessly. My hon. Friend may want to invite the Minister to say whether the Government, if they have no solution, are prepared to allow a free vote on an appropriate Bill to make it possible for the effect of dangerous driving to be made known to the court. Most grieving families do not necessarily want a punishment, but they want acknowledgment of what has happened. That matters just as much whether the driver has been drinking, taking drugs or driving carelessly.

Mr. Bacon:

My hon. Friend is right. The lack of acknowledgment is the central problem. I do not pretend that legislation can provide an easy answer, but he makes an interesting suggestion. If the Government are not prepared to introduce proposals, perhaps they will allow a free vote on the issue. I would like the Government to consider introducing a charge of negligent driving—an intermediate offence between careless driving and dangerous driving—to allow courts to take account of the fact that a death has been caused. Recognition is the most important issue for families.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

Is it not the case that driving under the influence of drink or drugs is dangerous in itself? Surely there must be a presumption that anyone driving under the influence of drink or drugs should be charged with dangerous driving, whether he has caused an accident or not.

Mr. Bacon:

I agree with my hon. Friend. As he has no doubt seen, the sad truth is that there are many cases in which it is not in dispute that people were under the influence of alcohol—in some cases it is not in dispute that they were banned from driving—but they are still let off with what most members of the public would view as a cursory slap on the wrist. If someone is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or driving without insurance or when they are banned, there ought to be a presumption that those factors are taken into account in determining the penalty. In all events, a death, no matter how it was caused or the extent of the culpability of the driver, should be taken into account.

One must be able to imagine circumstances in which a death is caused in an accident but the driver is not culpable. I happen to know of a case in which someone driving through a green light, with a passenger seated to the left of them, was hit by someone coming from the side, killing the passenger. The person who hit the car was on a red light. In that case, the driver was not culpable and yet he was driving a vehicle in which someone was killed. It is not a given that the fact of a death should render the driver liable to prosecution. In the case that I have just cited, the other driver was probably liable. The facts should be available to the court, so that it is able to make a full, informed decision, because families of victims need acknowledgment of what has happened.

It should be possible, though not always necessary, to take full account of the consequences of drivers' actions in sentencing. It ought to be possible to define an offence of negligent driving, which would explicitly recognise that serious injury or death had been caused, by defining a duty of care that, if breached, would render the driver liable to more severe penalties such as imprisonment, disqualification or community service. I am not a lawyer, and the hon. Member for South Dorset might say that if we introduce an offence of negligent driving we might encounter the same problem that we have with dangerous and careless driving—namely, defining the degree of dangerousness or carelessness.

I do not stick rigidly to the idea that the offence should be called negligent driving. It is possible that a better route would be to define an offence that takes into account the fact of death rather than the quality of driving, as in the proposals made by the hon. Member for South Dorset for an offence of motor manslaughter, and a further offence of aggravated motor manslaughter. I am agnostic about that, and I am interested to hear what the Government have to say. There must be a method of changing the law to get the acknowledgment, which is lacking, into the courts.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but I hope that he will return to his starting point. The crucial matter is to reduce the number of deaths and serious accidents involving motor cyclists. Much of what he says about changing the law is absolutely right, but I hope he will stress the fact that we must not allow people who have been off a motor cycle for many years to go back on one without being fully trained. That is probably the cause of most motor cycle deaths today.

Mr. Bacon

I look forward with interest to the hon. Gentleman's speech. The very first thing that I was sent when I arrived at the House of Commons three years ago was a little pen pot from the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, showing down the side statistics for the number of deaths and serious injuries per 1 billion passenger miles on different forms of transport. I vividly remember that the figure for travelling by air was 0.1 deaths and serious injuries per 1 billion passenger miles, the figure for travelling by train 0.7, the figure for travelling by car 40-something, the figure for travelling by bicycle in the 800s, and the figure for travelling by motor cycle about 1,400. There is no question but that motor cycles are the most lethal machines on the road.

Given how phenomenally fast motor cycles are, and how great their acceleration, there is a case for saying that if someone wishes to have a very powerful Ducati, BMW or Harley Davidson, they should undergo special instruction. I am sure that Mrs. Mason, whose son was a motor cycle instructor, would support that. I look forward to the contribution of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who was quite right to say that we must focus on accident reduction in all possible ways.

Other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall refer to just one further subject: speed cameras. They have become controversial recently. Perhaps the truth is that everyone would like a speed camera outside their house or near where they live, but does not want the inconvenience of speed cameras elsewhere. If they are being reasonable, most people accept that speed cameras have a role to play.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

indicated assent.

Mr. Bacon

I see that the Minister agrees. I suspect that most people would also agree, however, that speed cameras are not sited purely according to safety criteria. I wait to hear him laugh and nod just as vehemently as he did at my previous point, but he does not. That is because the Government maintain what most people do not believe—that there is no question of speed cameras being sited on any ground other than safety. They maintain that speed cameras are purely about safety and that the motive of revenue simply does not enter people's heads. The Minister might be right about that, or he might be wrong, but I support the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) to have a review of the position of speed cameras, and I would like to have a sensible debate on the basis of facts.

I gave an interview on my local radio station this morning, which cut to a report from someone standing next to a speed camera on Grapes hill in Norwich that is perhaps the most notorious in East Anglia. There is no evidence at all of a cluster of collisions there. The site is a major urban dual carriageway that goes downhill, and I have been informed by Mr. Barry Parnell of the average speed at which motor cars are clocked there. He was the chief executive of the Norfolk safety camera partnership until he resigned earlier this summer following the issue of a report, still not made fully public, commissioned by the chief constable of Norfolk, Andy Hayman, on the criteria by which safety cameras were being installed. Mr. Parnell has since said, however, that his resignation was for entirely unrelated reasons.

The camera has now been turned off, although it is still in situ and may be turned on again. Most residents of Norwich and people who visit it from outside, including the many who live in South Norfolk but work in Norwich, are bewildered as to why the camera is there. As I have said, the road is not the site of a collision cluster or an accident blackspot. I tabled a parliamentary question to try to find out how much revenue had been raised by the speed camera, because allegations were floating around, although I do not know whether they are true, that that camera had raised revenues of many hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not more.

It seems to me that the way to get round the problem is to make quite clear, and to publish on a website, the safety criteria used for each speed camera and the revenue that each raises.

Mr. Jamieson

The information is there.

Mr. Bacon

It is there now, is it? I am grateful to the Minister for telling me that, because when I tabled a parliamentary question not long ago, I was told that the information was not collected in that form. If that is correct, it is a welcome advance.

The Minister and the Government have not yet succeeded in bringing people all the way with them. If asked, most people say that there is some merit in speed cameras. I think that most people who question the placing of speed cameras on some sections of the highway would still acknowledge that cameras have a role—particularly, for example, outside schools.

In my constituency, I am pleased that, following pressure from me, the local district councillor and the school, the county council has agreed to introduce a speed limit of 30 mph in a small lane parallel with the A140—but some miles to the east—just outside Shelton with Hardwick community school, in what was a 60 mph zone. That limit was plainly unsuitable outside a small rural school where at 8.30 in the morning—I have stood outside to watch—a large volume of traffic avoiding the A140 on the way into Norwich comes round a corner at high speed, to meet school buses and parents dropping off their children. Some juggernauts come the other way, also to avoid the main road. I am pleased that the council has seen fit to introduce a new speed limit there.

In a conversation a few weeks ago, the Minister pointed out to me that counties have the capacity to introduce any speed limit from 20 mph to 70 mph on roads under their control, subject to the national speed limit—those were his words. When I talk to local county officials, I sometimes get the feeling that they tend to blame central Government, and when I talk to central Government I sometimes get the feeling that they tend to blame local government. The Minister said—and I take it that he is correct—that the power exists for counties to exercise much more latitude than they are sometimes willing to. Too often, they seem to be waiting for further guidance from central Government when they have the autonomy and capacity to act in many cases. I am grateful to him for that point.

All I say about speed cameras is that a policy that allows, encourages, permits or requires a speed camera on Grapes hill in Norwich, where there is no accident or collision cluster, but that does not require one outside Shelton school—as a matter of common sense, most people who visit that site would say that it was a good idea to force cars to slow down before they reach Shelton school—is plainly in need of adjustment. The plain fact is that the Government have not finished their work in making the case to the public on the issue of speed cameras. If they are to bring the public with them, they need to be more open and straightforward than they have sometimes given the impression of being. For a Government who have been dedicated to the proposition that perception is reality, there is a little way to go. I hope that the Minister will agree.

In conclusion, let me reiterate my central point. I want the Minister to address the issue of road traffic accidents where a death is caused and to consider the possibility of making a change in the law, by introducing either an offence of negligent driving that allows the fact of a death to be taken into account, or an offence of motor manslaughter, so that the families of victims in many different constituencies throughout the country, who have felt so aggrieved and let down by the justice system, feel that they get their day in court.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

May I help the House before I call the next speaker? There are 14 Back Benchers present, of whom eight have applied to speak. The winding-up should begin at 10.30, give or take a minute or two, so we have slightly more than half an hour to get at least eight speakers in. That is up to the House.

9.59 am
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on obtaining this important debate. As joint chair of the all-party group on road safety, I know only too well the cost to families and communities of deaths and injuries on our roads.

The Government have done much to tackle road safety issues, not least by radically expanding the number of speed cameras. I very much welcome that because it has been hugely successful in reducing the number of accidents, as has the legislation on using mobile phones. Of course we all welcome the Government's commitment to bringing in a road safety Bill.

However, in this Room we all recognise that there continue to be more than 40,000 largely avoidable deaths and accidents on our roads every year. That is why so many people have turned up for this debate. In addition, in this country we must recognise that dangerous driving is endemic. When last recorded, the UK had the fourth worst record in western Europe for child pedestrian deaths. However, I am pleased to congratulate the Government again because, to their credit, they have committed themselves to reducing child deaths by 50 per cent. by 2010.

A great deal more must be done. If we are to achieve our aims, we must listen to people working in road safety. I recently chaired a meeting held by Brake, the road safety charity. It has launched a campaign entitled, "Watch Out, There's a Kid About!" calling for the Government to get tough with dangerous and speeding drivers. I shall return to that later.

I must say that I was disappointed with the recent announcement of a reduction in penalties for speeding motorists and I do not think that it was welcomed by the vast majority of road safety campaigners. In the neighbouring constituency to mine there is a very good campaigner—a woman who set up the charity, Support and Care After Road Death and Injury, after her 27year-old son was killed by a drink-driver. She was absolutely disgusted that the Government had come up with such an idea. She believes that the Government are sending out a very mixed message to the public.

In Halifax, the Calderdale road safety officer said that, although there might be a case for graded penalties, I do take issue with some of the gradings. I mean for example, the new rules would mean that speeders who travel between 31 and 39 mph in a 30 mph limit would be given two points and a £40 fine. Compare this with the fact that a pedestrian hit by a car travelling at 30 mph has a 50–50 chance of survival, but if they are hit at 40 mph, 19 out of 20 pedestrians will be killed.

Brake's chief executive, Mary Williams, who is well known to the Minister, went even further: We are shocked and appalled at this proposal, which flies in the face of the facts of speed. She went on to give some examples that are already well known to us all. There is a lot of opposition to the Minister's proposals to bring in the grading system. It is also sad that the proposals were announced only five days after Joshua Berrill, aged two, was dragged to his death by a hit-and-run driver in Birmingham and was left lying in the road outside his grandparents' house.

The "Watch Out, There's a Kid About!" campaign is all about trying to do something about the issue. I shall briefly go through some main points of the campaign that are well worth supporting. First, we would like increased penalties for speeders, because we believe that they are ridiculously low. Some fines are less than one would get for littering, and many of us believe that they should be raised and that more points, not fewer, should be put on the licences of speeders. It must be said that the limit is not just the limit; it is the law. It is certainly not a target speed that drivers are allowed to exceed.

The second point is that we would like motor murder charges to be brought against hit-and-run drivers who kill. There should be a maximum sentence of life for the worst offenders. Thirdly, it is crucial that there should be 20 mph zones around all schools, and 10 mph home zones in heavily residential areas. Presently, they occur only in little pockets around the country and are not standard, which leaves many communities furious about fast roads—the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) graphically outlined an example in his constituency near a school. We are right to demand reduced driving speeds in vulnerable areas.

Fourthly, the campaign calls for a scrapping of restrictions on the placement of speed cameras, which say that four deaths or serious injuries must have occurred before a camera can be put up. That is a shocking rule if one considers how the parents of little Joshua must feel; at least three more people must be sacrificed on that danger spot before a camera can be installed.

Fifthly, the campaign calls for something that many road safety people are seeking: automatic number plate recognition cameras.

Mr. Jamieson

indicated assent.

Mrs. Mahon

I see that my hon. Friend is nodding so I hope that we are on to a winner. Such a measure would catch unlicensed, uninsured joyriders, whom we all have in our constituencies. They travel at the most excessive speeds and cause many tragedies in our communities. We want these practical and do-able measures implemented. They are sensible and would help to further the Government's laudable campaign to reduce child deaths on our roads.

I want briefly to address sleep disorders and their effect on driving, which is a road safety issue that I have recently been campaigning on. I welcome the Government's think tank that focuses on the dangers of driving while tired. It is doing some very good work and I hope that sleep disorders will be included in the future. To a certain extent, that issue has been neglected. According to the British Medical Journal, 20 per cent. of all motorway accidents are caused by excessive sleeplessness and more than 300 people a year are killed as a result of drivers falling asleep at the wheel. Some of those accidents are caused by people who have an undiagnosed sleep disorder. Clinical remedies are available for such people and, therefore, there must be joined-up thinking between the Department for Transport and the Department of Health to educate the general population. More money should be made available for sleep centres, and for treatment, which is cost-effective. However, it is a matter for the Department of Health.

It is estimated that sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnoea and narcolepsy, affect about 770,000 people in the UK. That is a similar number to diabetes or people who suffer from severe asthma, yet it is overlooked. Such disorders may be easily treatable. The Royal College of Physicians points out that there is a particularly high incidence of sleep apnoea among professional drivers, as it is more common in middle-aged men who are overweight. A survey of 35 professional drivers at one depot found that nine were at an extreme or high risk of that condition and four were at risk of other sleep disorders. Therefore, the matter is well worth examining and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

I want to allow other hon. Members to speak, as it is important that they highlight what is happening in their communities. I thank the Government for what they are doing and say to them that we want more.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I make a further plea for brevity.

10.8 am

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

I have listened to your plea, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and if I speak for longer than five minutes, I am sure that you will let me know.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on securing this important debate and on the extremely sensible points that he made. I want to dwell on the safety of vulnerable road users— pedestrians, riders and, in particular, cyclists. I have been championing cycling for many years in the House. I am sure that hon. Members remember the Cycling Safety Bill of 1993 that I introduced—perhaps not. I was persuaded to be the chairman of the all-party group on cycling and I am still its vice-chairman. I will not dwell on the benefits of cycling.

This summer the Government have been ranting on about obesity and I have therefore noticed it. The British population are getting disgustingly fat—never mind obese. One can see it when one wanders around. The Minister looks surprised, but that is what his Government have been talking about and they are right. The benefits to health of bicycling and of taking exercise are well known. Anyone who went to work today knows how congested our cities are and there are also leisure aspects of cycling.

I applaud the Government's 2000 White Paper, which said that they wished to see cycling—the number of cycle trips—trebled by 2010. That is a good idea and I would love to see it happen. Unfortunately, in the first two years after the Government's White Paper the number of cycling trips decreased. Indeed, the Office for National Statistics found that 25 per cent. of people who can ride a bicycle, do so less often than they did two years ago. A third of people walk less than they did two years ago.

There has been a reduction in cycling accidents, but that has been accompanied by a reduction in cycling. I have not been on a bicycle since over an hour ago. I do not wish to sound pious; cycling is the easiest way for me to get to the House of Commons from my house. I took my children—they are only seven and five—cycling on Sunday, and they adored it; we went on a 3-mile ride. That is great from a leisure point of view.

Motorists find cyclists an irritation, particularly on the tiny lane near where I live. Motorists whizz past and terrify my small children and me. Some of them do not even slow down to 40 mph on that small lane, although they should not be going faster than that. Things are similarly bad in cities.

Why do people not cycle? The question is simple, and can be answered in one word: danger. Cycling is very dangerous and people fear the danger. The Office for National Statistics found that almost three quarters of people agreed, and 47 per cent. strongly agreed, with the statement: The idea of cycling on busy roads frightens me. It frightens me, too. People are frightened, and the attitude of drivers—including those of us in this Chamber who can drive—is to blame. We cannot wait, we are in a hurry; we are perhaps late for an appointment or want to go out to dinner. Whatever the reason, we rush past and do not give people the time that we should, and we do not slow down as we should.

Of course, the problem is not just the fear but the reality of danger. A cousin of mine was killed in a bicycle accident on Clapham common about 14 years ago. I was talking to a journalist from the Gallery only yesterday who was limping and on crutches, having fallen off a bicycle—although that was through no fault of a driver. She said that she expected to be hit about three times a year by cars in London. That is pretty serious. I do not get hit so often, but perhaps that is because I am rather larger than her and eyeball the motorists.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk said how dangerous cycling is, and made the point that there are 800 deaths and serious injuries per billion passenger miles among cyclists. But how do we make cycling safer? We used to be told in the highway code: All drivers should give a pedal cyclist a wide berth of at least six feet. That advice was dropped some 20 years ago—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—but, in any case, I assure hon. Members that that never happens. One is lucky to get six inches, let alone six feet.

To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, if one hits, knocks off and kills a cyclist, the charge is most likely to be careless driving. However, hitting a cyclist is in itself a dangerous act, and there should be a presumption of dangerous driving. I understand that if one is found guilty of dangerous driving one automatically loses one's licence for two years. If the accident is the cyclist's fault, the motorist would not be found guilty, or the charges would be dismissed. I would like to make all motorists, including those in this Chamber, realise the seriousness of the issue of vulnerable road users, who are outside the little metal box in which we motorists are rushing to our appointments. We motorists should understand that we can be lethal.

The consequences of dangerous acts must be brought home to people. I suggest that there should be guidance—I do not think that the matter needs legislation—for the police or the Crown Prosecution Service to say that motorists who hit cyclists should be charged with dangerous driving.

If any of us were caught driving while over the limit—I am sure that none of us would ever do that—we would lose our licence. We may not even have seen another road user. Any motorist who has struck a cyclist, pedestrian or horse has already endangered life, if the accident was his or her fault. We have today already heard of several tragic deaths. Road safety for vulnerable road users could be improved if the CPS and police took such occasions more seriously, instead of wondering whether they would get a case through, and if Government guidance said that anyone who hit a vulnerable road user should be charged with dangerous driving.

10.14 am
Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on securing this important debate.

My interest in road traffic deaths and road safety results from the tragic deaths of three constituents since I was elected in June 2001. Anthony Wakelin was killed in October 2002, Tom Dowdney died a year later, and Claire Clements died last April. All were killed due to, at best, the carelessness of drivers. None of the victims' families received any justice in the courts following those tragedies, hence my ten-minute Bill introduced on 13 July, to which the hon. Member for South Norfolk referred. It aimed to introduce new offences of motor vehicle manslaughter and aggravated motor vehicle manslaughter. I have since received a very positive response to my proposals from people all round the country. I hope that the Government, and particularly the Home Office, are listening. The Minister has given evidence to the Select Committee, and we have heard about the Department for Transport's proposals for graduated speeding penalties and the Police Federation's proposals for an offence of using a car as a dangerous weapon. However, we have not heard anything from the Home Office in response to the Halliday consultation. If nothing else, I am here today to encourage the Department to respond and to take action.

The Government's record is generally good. As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) told us, the number of deaths or serious injuries is down by 20 per cent., and for children it is down by a third. We all welcome that, and I applaud the general approach of prevention and trying to change driver behaviour. I welcome the 20 mph speed limits that we are increasingly seeing around the country, including in the village where I live. We now have cushions, humps and indeed the full chicanery running through the village. It is not attractive, but it works and sadly it is necessary.

As long as drivers take the car for granted as our own private space, regard it simply as a means of getting from A to B and forget that it is a lethal weapon, we will need ugly traffic calming in villages, speed cameras—however unpopular they may be—and tougher penalties for drivers who kill. That is the missing element in the Government's approach: they are not coming forward with tougher penalties. There was a minor change in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 to the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving, but we need to go much further, which is why I am impatient about the Home Office dragging its feet.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab)

Yesterday was the second anniversary of the tragic death of Jessica Leigh who, at the tender age of 14, was knocked down and killed by a young motorist who was speeding but walked out of court with just a £300 fine and six penalty points and who is still driving. Does not that sort of case cry out for the measures that my hon. Friend is advocating?

Jim Knight

Certainly, and I am sure that that case echoes many that we have heard about at our surgeries and through our postbags. The problem that the Crown Prosecution Service and the police have in proving dangerousness means that the charge becomes one of carelessness, hence the very lenient fines and the injustice felt by the families when the person can continue driving. It is that gap that the hon. Member for South Norfolk referred to.

I will not regurgitate everything that I said when I introduced my ten-minute Bill because it is on the record, but I want to respond to what the hon. Gentleman said about that gap. I am flexible about the solution to the problem of bridging the gap. He has made proposals that we need to consider. Currently, I agree with the charity RoadPeace that defining words such as "dangerousness", "carelessness" and "negligence" is difficult and provides a field day for solicitors and barristers. Such definitions focus first on the nature of the driving and not on the death. I propose a charge of motor vehicle manslaughter because it would make the death the starting point for the investigation and the legal system's consideration.

However, whatever the solution, as long as drivers such as James Boffey get away with a £200 fine for killing the likes of Anthony Wakelin in my constituency, and as long as victims and their families fail to receive justice and the Home Office continues to drag its feet, I and many others will continue to raise the issue in this House.

10.19 am
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on his excellent speech. I will be brief.

Norfolk is a fairly sparsely populated county, but it covers a large geographical area and contains a large number of small country roads. Cars and motor cycles are getting more sophisticated and much more powerful, and public transport is notoriously sparse and inadequate. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, there have been a significant number of high-profile road traffic fatalities in Norfolk and some have involved motor cyclists. He referred to a case in his constituency and also touched on the Adam Wall case, which took place in Walsoken on the A47 in my constituency, although Bridget Wall—his mother—is a constituent of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard). I have been involved in the case, in which a van pulled out of a minor road on to the A47 as it was getting dark. There is no question but that its driver was driving dangerously, and when he pulled out, the motorcyclist had no chance whatever. Adam Wall was tragically killed, which has devastated his family.

There is undoubtedly a gap in the legislation in this country. Relatives are asking not for revenge but for recognition in the law of the victim's rights and an acknowledgement of the fact that someone has died. When someone is convicted for careless driving, with just a fine and points on their licence, it often leaves the victim's family angry and bitter. It does not enable them to achieve closure.

I can talk from personal experience. My stepfather was killed in 1978 when driving south on the A1. A lorry had crossed over the southbound carriageway and was squatting in the central reservation, but had left part of its trailer just in the fast lane. There were no lights on that section of road, my stepfather's headlights would have been dipped, and he tragically went under part of the trailer and was killed instantly. The driver was convicted of careless driving and fined about £40. That obviously left us with a sense that there had been no recognition of the fact that someone had died, never mind that the outcome had a profound impact on the insurance situation.

That was a long time ago, and the A1 has become safer. There are fewer gaps along it, and lorries now have lights on their trailers. As I am sure the Minister will tell us, road safety is improving all the time. However, my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk has made a compelling case for a change in the law. In my judgment as well as his, we need a new offence of causing death by negligent driving. At the very least, there is a need for an intermediate offence between careless and dangerous driving. I support him 100 per cent. in his campaign, in the same way that I support the excellent campaign by Bridget Wall, the mother of my constituent.

Finally, I endorse what my hon. Friend said about speed cameras: yes to them outside schools, in residential areas and at accident blackspots, but no to them on open stretches of road where there is no history of accidents.

10.23 am
Mr. Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab)

I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on raising this vital issue, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) for introducing the case of Josh Berrill, a young boy who was knocked down and killed in my constituency on Burney lane—a road that the Minister knows.

Josh was just two years old and was due to start back at his toddler group on Monday. The hearts of everyone in the city went out to his mum and dad, and I must praise their fortitude and courage in championing a campaign for change. I praise, too, the Birmingham Evening Mail, which has added its voice to the campaign. The parents are determined to ensure that something good will come out of the tragic incident, because the fact is that young Josh was not the first but the third boy to die on Burney lane. The fact is that a child a week is knocked down and hurt in and around Washwood Heath, and the fact is that, nationally, children from less privileged backgrounds are five times more likely to be hurt by cars.

The Government have worked hard in the area and given a substantial amount of money to Birmingham city council. However, it is now clear that a cheque is not enough to deliver change, and I hope that the Minister will support the work of local residents in pressing Birmingham city council to fast-track road safety improvements in and around my constituency. Road safety is not just vital for rural areas, as the hon. Member for South Norfolk has highlighted, but a live issue in our major cities and towns.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

A commendably brief speech. I call Mr. Mark Lazarowicz.

10.24 am
Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op)

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) for securing this important debate and to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) for highlighting in a moving way the consequences that a death on the roads has for families in our constituencies. That reminds us that although we may have a good record compared with other countries in Europe, last year 3,400 families experienced the personal tragedy that arises from a death on the roads. Although we may never reach a zero death rate on our roads, we should aim for that, and take forward positive measures to improve safety for all road users, whether pedestrians, drivers or cyclists.

In the limited time available to me, I want to make three points. First, I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) said about the need to move ahead with the Halliday review on driving offences. It was commissioned in 2003 and was meant to appear in the new year of 2004. It is now some way past the new year and hon. Members will be aware that the review arose from a wider interdepartmental review of traffic penalties, which started in 2000 and concluded in 2002. It is now four years since the review process began, so it must be concluded quickly.

Secondly, there is the issue of drink-driving. One of the most worrying recent trends has been the way in which, after more than two decades of significant advances in combating drink-driving, casualties from drink-driving have begun to rise again. In 2002, there was an increase in fatalities and serious injuries of some 10 to 20 per cent. compared with four years previously. That is extremely worrying. A number of measures have been proposed to tackle that rise, and it is time to consider greater use of random testing and intelligence-led breath testing. In the UK, we conduct a breath test for only every 67 drivers, whereas the average European probability of being breath tested is one in 16. It would be worth considering a change to that policy.

Thirdly, I agree with the concern expressed my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) about the consultation on speeding penalties, and particularly the suggestion that there should be a reduction in the penalty for lower levels of speeding. That sends out all the wrong messages, and underlines the view held in some quarters that a little speeding does not really matter. That is a dangerous attitude and I hope that the Government will resist invitations from certain quarters to follow that line. I understand the case for increasing the penalties for exceeding speed limits by a high amount, but reducing the current level would be a bad step. One of the problems is that speed limits are not effectively enforced, or rather that offences are not always pursued for speeds below 40 mph. That must be tackled, so it would not be right to reduce the penalties at the lower level.

On the positive side, it is possible to make a difference to road safety. I am pleased that in my own area in Edinburgh there has been effective work between the city council, the police and various other agencies, which has had a real impact on deaths and injuries on the roads. One particularly important statistic is that last year, for the first time since records have been kept, not a single school-age child was killed on the roads in Edinburgh. It may be difficult to maintain that record, but I hope that we can, combined with reductions in other deaths and injuries on the roads.

The effective use of a combination of measures such as education, traffic engineering, 20 mph zones and traffic calming can make a difference, along with the use of speed cameras. The police in Edinburgh have said that the package of measures has made a major contribution to the general reduction in deaths and injuries on the roads in the city. As other hon. Members have said, the number of deaths on the roads has fallen during recent years, although there have been worrying trends in more recent years. Nevertheless, every death and injury on our roads is a personal tragedy for the families of those involved, and any measures to make a significant reduction in the toll of death and injury are to be welcomed. The Government are going in the right direction. I urge them to continue along the lines that they have taken in recent years, and to resist those who spread urban myths about speed cameras being a means of raising revenue and the rest of it.

I do not want to spoil the all-party bonhomie, but I have to say that it is a bit rich that some Opposition Members contribute to the spreading of urban myths and so help to denigrate the important effect that speed cameras can have in reducing deaths and injuries on the roads. I urge the Government to continue with their programme, and to resist robustly any attempt to reduce the effectiveness of measures designed to deter speeding drivers.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

On the assumption that he will speak for no longer than three minutes, I call the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan).

10.31 am
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab)

I shall make three points in three minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The first is to do with driver tiredness. My constituency will long be associated with the Selby train crash, which was ultimately caused by driver tiredness. I congratulate the Minister on the many activities in the Department that have highlighted that issue since that time, particularly the "Think!" road safety campaign and its publicity on driver tiredness. A summer radio campaign integrated with publicity about speeding and drink driving has just finished. There is a whole array of different advertising now, which is planned throughout the year, and that campaign is a model of its kind.

However, I want to press the Minister on an issue related to driver tiredness that was highlighted in the Yorkshire Post during the summer—the idea of French-style rest areas, which was floated by Ministers in 2002. They would be something less than service stations, but have basic toilet and rest facilities and play areas for children, perhaps. I understand that by 2006 there will be an experiment with rest areas on motorways, although there may be planning problems. There are arguments both ways on this issue; the facilities have to be reasonably substantial to have real effect. I would appreciate it if the Minister said something about that.

I turn to the issue of motor cycles. I live in a constituency not dissimilar to that of the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), who introduced this debate with such intelligence. It is a big, rural constituency in the biggest rural county in England, North Yorkshire, on whose roads 28 motor cyclists were killed last year. The county has no speed cameras at the moment. People will want to scrutinise the road safety proposals for the county that the police and the county council will bring forward at the end of the year. If the police do not decide to go down the path of speed cameras, rigorous questions will be asked about the notion that there are no sites that justify the placement of cameras in North Yorkshire at the moment.

However, the police have been involved in many good initiatives. The "Handle it or lose it" campaign, centred in Sherburn in Elmet, provides a plan on the web of accident blackspots that motor cyclists should avoid, which has been very good. I support the hon. Gentleman's proposal to have another look at the law in relation to middle-aged men, whom The Sunday Times has referred to as men aged between 30 and 60, which includes most of us here today. Under-21s have to spend two years riding lower-powered bikes before graduating to higher-powered bikes—should that not be the same for everyone?

I shall make my final point in just a few sentences, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although a cheque is not sufficient to ensure road safety, it is necessary. I have 88 villages in my constituency, and, as the hon. Member for South Norfolk said in introducing the debate, speed and road safety are the No. 1 issue in rural areas. In Selby we have the Selby bypass, and the Minister has been involved in the Bilborough Top works on the A64. None of that would have been possible without public expenditure. I hope that in summing up for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) will say what assurances he has from the shadow Front-Bench Treasury team that road safety and highways will be a priority should there ever be a Conservative Government again, because it is important to maintain expenditure on road safety for many years to come.

10.35 am
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on introducing the debate in an extremely thoughtful and serious way. The topic has brought out a degree of unanimity in the Chamber, which is one of the best reasons for coming back from the recess for this short period.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), have spoken about the need to change the law, and I would certainly favour such a change. Two options have been proposed. However, as I think the hon. Gentleman said, the main point is not which option is right, but that one of the options should be implemented. I slightly favour the view that the starting point should be that a death has occurred and that the charge should be based on that, but the views expressed by the hon. Member for South Norfolk could equally be the answer. I would support any change in the law based on either option, and such a change is urgently needed.

It is worth putting what we are talking about into context. The 2003 figures, which I obtained from the Department for Transport, show 3,508 deaths and 33,707 serious injuries. Of course, those figures do not include many lesser injuries that go unreported. As others have said, the total is roughly equivalent to a Hatfield and a Potters Bar incident in the United Kingdom on a daily basis. If those events were taking place on the railways, in aeroplanes or on any mode of transport other than our roads, there would be a public outcry. One of the most shocking parts of the statistics is the number of child deaths: 4,100 in the last year, 58 per cent. of which—some 2,381—involved pedestrians. Quite apart from the huge personal distress that all those cases will have caused—instances of which have been described by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber—it is estimated, according to the Government's own figures, that road accidents cost the economy some £3 billion and the NHS some £l billion.

Several hon. Members talked about trends in road safety, and it is true that for most of the post-war years things have been steadily improving year on year. A number of factors are responsible for that. One is the education of drivers, which has been improving through the driving test mechanism and through education on television and in other ways. Secondly, there has been an increase in legislation. Thirdly and very important, there have been huge improvements over many years in the safety of cars—improvements that have not yet manifested themselves to the same degree in other vehicles. Road engineering has also been an extremely important factor in improving safety.

Above all, there has been a change in public attitudes. Thirty years ago, the attitude to drink-driving was, "Oh, what a shame you got caught"; today, no one would think that a drink-driver was anything other than an antisocial criminal. It is, however, worrying that in recent years the trends have started to slow down and, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) pointed out, have in some cases even reversed. Drink-driving is an example. During the recess, I had a meeting in my constituency with the area commander for Ross-shire. Incidentally, talking of large constituencies, I can safely say that mine is the largest represented in this Chamber today. The commander told me of a very worrying trend, which is an increase in the number of drink-drivers. It is being seen in two groups. One is middle-aged people—people of about my age, in other words—and the other is very new, very young drivers. Drivers in their 20s appear to have taken in the message about drink driving very well, but the commander has noticed that that is not the case for those other two groups.

In addition, we are talking about not people just over the limit—the chap who had two drinks that were slightly bigger than usual—but those who are two, two and a half or three times over the limit and serious transgressing. We need to look again at how we can combat that. The commander's view is that the problem is coming back because there is less advertising and, perhaps, less concentration on drink-driving because to a certain extent we had won the fight in the past. Reducing the limit for alcohol in the bloodstream from 0.8 to 0.5 mg will continue the campaign of awareness, although it will not affect those people who drive when they are two or three times over the limit.

My second point is about speed. I have never particularly liked the slogan "speed kills", although it is perfectly accurate. People of my age think that they are experienced drivers who transgress just a little bit and that the slogan does not apply to them. When they are told that speed kills, their immediate impression is of a boy racer in a souped-up little car who is driving many miles an hour over the limit.

I travel every week—sometimes many times—on the A9. I have often come up behind respectable-looking people in respectable-looking cars that potter along at 50 mph—I sometimes wish that they would go a bit faster on the open road—but then disappear from my view when the road goes into a town or village and I slow down to 30 or 40 mph, whichever is the limit. It is clear that the driver has not slowed down at all. There is a huge gulf in the understanding and awareness of such so-called experienced drivers as to what speed does and how it kills.

I am concerned about the Government's proposals, particularly as they relate to the 30 mph limit. Frankly, the difference between 30 and 39 mph is literally that between life and death. I accept the principle that a more serious offence should result in more serious punishment, but I am very concerned that relaxing the penalties will send the wrong message about what we want to achieve, remembering that 58 per cent. of children who are killed are pedestrians, most of them probably in an area with a 30 mph limit.

I would like to have covered many more points in this comprehensive debate. My last point is about uninsured drivers. It is reckoned that they are 10 times more likely to have been convicted of drink driving, six times more likely to have been convicted of driving an unsafe vehicle, and three times more likely to have been convicted of driving without due care and attention. I urge the Government to give full and immediate attention to the Greenaway report, which was published recently. Having listened to all the considered contributions of hon. Members today, I suggest to the Government that the time really is right for a road safety Bill that deals with all these matters. May we please look forward to one in the Queen's Speech?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I commend the Liberal Democrat spokesman for his brevity.

10.43 am
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on introducing this very important debate. When we had a Conservative Government, we had a full five-hour debate on road safety on the Floor of the House almost every year. The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) asked what priority a Conservative Government would put on road safety. By our very actions we demonstrated when we were in government that we took road safety extremely seriously.

It is a pity that so many hon. Members who wanted to participate in today's debate have been unable to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), a distinguished former road safety Minister, was here and would have liked to participate. The remarks of many others have been cut short because of the time constraints. The first thing that the Minister can deliver is a guarantee that we will have a full day's debate in Government time on this important subject.

Of course, the Government's problem is that their record is not very good, unlike that of the Conservative Government, under whom the number of deaths on the roads fell by thousands. The number of people killed on the roads fell by more than 1,000 when I was the road safety Minister for two or three years in the early 1990s. More than 1,000 fewer people were killed on the roads each year as a result of Conservative policies. The most recent statistics show that more people were killed on the roads in the United Kingdom in 2003 than when the Government took office in 1997. It is hardly surprising that the Government do not want to debate the matter, because they know that they are on the back foot. They have alienated thousands of motorists by insensitive enforcement through speed cameras, while ignoring the serious issues that affect so many road users, whether pedestrians, cyclists or car drivers.

The number of people killed on our roads last year was more than 3,500. In the period 1984–93, deaths on our roads were reduced by 32 per cent. In the 10 years since 1993, deaths have gone down by only 3.8 per cent. That shows that more than 1,000 deaths on the roads each year are attributable to the Government's failure to maintain the reduction in fatalities on the road that was commonplace between 1984 and 1993. There are many reasons why we had a successful policy during that period, but there is no time to go into them today.

What is going wrong? Why are we in this situation? There has been a vast increase in the incidence of driving while under the influence of drugs, which is associated with the Government's failure on drugs policy in general. There has also been an increase in the number of people driving under the influence of alcohol. The number of people killed and injured in crashes involving a driver over the alcohol limit has risen to 20,000—the highest since 1990. Meanwhile, the number of traffic police has fallen by 11 per cent. since 1996. Fewer breath tests are being carried out, there are fewer prosecutions for driving without due care and attention and fewer bad drivers are being brought to book.

There is an epidemic of driving without insurance and without a licence. People talk about penalties and the need for more disqualifications, but so many people who are disqualified immediately get back behind the wheel. There are many people driving without road fund licences, and the rising incidence of people failing to stop after an accident is a worrying trend. They leave people dead or dying in the road and drive off, and there is far too much of it. In my constituency, as I am sure is the case in other hon. Members' constituencies, there are too many horrendous examples of that. Road safety is in dire straits, and the Government are far too complacent about it.

People have rightly concentrated on fatal accidents in which the victim was blameless, but let us also consider those fatal accidents in which the road user was at fault but death was a disproportionate consequence of their error of judgment. The Department for Transport's road safety research report on dangerous driving and the law identified 5,780 fatal accidents for which information was available. Of those, 2,581–44 per cent.—showed that the driver at fault was killed. In 1,171 cases, or 20 per cent., the pedestrian at fault was killed. It is no consolation to us to say that they were at fault. They did not expect their error of judgment to result in their death. Just outside my constituency, a pedestrian walking across the road using her mobile phone stepped out in front of a newly qualified young driver, and there was nothing he could do to avoid the impact. That pedestrian did not deserve the consequence she suffered.

Would we not be better off with more education? I ask the Minister to take up the message about education and, particularly, the campaign by the Institute of Advanced Motorists, of which I am proud to be a member. I joined when I was the Minister with responsibility for road safety. Indeed, it should be compulsory for all road safety Ministers and transport Ministers to pass the Institute of Advanced Motorists test. Furthermore, it would set a really good example to the country if all Members of Parliament took the IAM test.

I shall conclude by quoting the advice given by Bryan Lunn, the IAM chief examiner, in the current edition of Advanced Driving, the magazine for advanced motorists: I would like to see driver and rider education given a much higher profile in the Government's Road Safety Strategy. Engineering and enforcement can only achieve so much and are, in the main, negative strategies. The third and fourth road safety Es—education and encouragement—are much more positive. The truth is that some current engineering solutions and enforcement campaigns to support the Government's Road Safety Strategy are frustrating or alienating large sections of the motoring public. We need the full support of drivers and riders if we are going to achieve a reduction in the number of people killed and seriously injured on Britain's roads each year. By giving education and encouragement a higher profile in the Road Safety Strategy, we are much more likely to get that support. I heartily endorse that important message and I hope that the Government will take some action.

10.51 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

I am glad that we have had the opportunity of kicking off this short part of the parliamentary timetable with such an important debate. I wish to start by congratulating the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) on his sensible, thoughtful and mainly consensual approach to the issue. It was in contrast somewhat to the approach taken by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), although he highlighted the importance of the issue to all Members of Parliament—as have many contributions to the debate. We all know of examples of incidents in which children have been killed and know of families who have lost fathers, mothers and loved ones. All of us have experienced such consequences at some time or another.

I wish to put the debate into context from the Government's point of view. We need to correct some of what was said by the hon. Member for Christchurch. It will be impossible for me to answer in detail all the points that have been made, but I shall endeavour to correspond where appropriate. Car ownership in the country is growing. The number of vehicles on the road is increasing by about 1 per cent. per year. There are more vehicles on the road throughout the world. In fact, last year there were nearly 1 million deaths as a result of road accidents in the world. As the hon. Member for South Norfolk said, given the number of vehicles on the road, this country has a good road safety record. Other countries, not only in Europe but throughout the world, are looking to see how we have been so successful. I emphasise to the hon. Member for Christchurch that we have been successful over many years—for probably 30 or 40 years. As a result of several measures, Labour and Conservative Governments have been successful in gradually reducing the casualties on our roads.

Four years ago, we published our road safety strategy entitled "Tomorrow's roads—safer for everyone" in which we set out targets of a 40 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured and a 50 per cent. reduction in child casualties because, although our record is good overall, the record for deaths of and injuries to children is not as good as it should be. It does not compare with that of one or two of our European partners. We were also aware that children who live in disadvantaged areas are especially vulnerable. As my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) said, such children are particularly at risk.

To put the matter into context for the hon. Member for Christchurch and to get it on the record, I want to explain that the 2003 casualty figures show a continued progress downwards in the number of road casualties. The total number of deaths or serious injuries is 22 per cent. below the baseline that we took from the year 2000.

Mr. Chope

What about the deaths?

Mr. Jamieson

I will come to that in a moment. There has been a 22 per cent. reduction. There has been a 40 per cent. decrease in deaths of and serious injuries to children. In three years, we are more than three quarters of the way to the 50 per cent. reduction, which is not a catalogue of failure. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman tried to make some sort of party political point out of the matter.

We are being successful. That success is not due to the Government alone, but to local authorities controlled by all three parties—and, in Scotland, perhaps also by other parties—working together with us and taking those issues seriously.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about the number of deaths. The number of deaths on the roads has remained at a plateau of approximately 3,500. Over the years, the numbers of deaths and serious injuries fell in parallel, but four or five years ago the number of deaths reached a plateau, whereas the number of serious injuries continued to decrease. That trend has also been observed in other European countries. We are not entirely sure why it has happened. Half those casualties are people inside vehicles, so despite all the work that we have done on issues such as seat belts and on making cars safer, the number of people killed in cars has remained static.

Another contributory factor to the deaths is two-wheelers—an issue raised by several hon. Members. We have considerable concerns about people on two wheels; we want to encourage motor cycling, but we want it to be safe. We set up the Advisory Group on Motorcycling, which has been meeting for some time and which, for the past year or so, has been under my chairmanship. The group has recently made a number of suggestions and recommendations, which we are examining closely to see how safety for motor cyclists can be improved without discouraging people from taking up motor cycling.

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) may have made a slip of the tongue when he said that there were 4,100 children killed each year on the roads. I think that he meant to say "killed and seriously injured". Only 171 children were killed on our roads, but that is a lot of children—the equivalent of a medium-sized primary school. Nevertheless, those numbers are being driven down each year, which is to be welcomed.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk raised the issues of motor cycling and of drink-driving. The latter is still a matter of concern to a number of hon. Members. The number of people who are drink-driving is probably increasing again. The vast majority of people in the UK, young and old, take that matter very seriously. However, there is a group of people—younger men and, to some extent, younger women, in the 20 to 30 age group—who cause those casualties. That is a matter of concern, and some of our advertising and effort has focused particularly on that group. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the appalling deaths of his constituents, and other hon. Members have experienced similar situations. They focus our minds on the issue.

The announcement of the outcome of the preferred options on the review of traffic penalties was made in July 2002. One of the consequences of that review was that the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving was raised from 10 to 14 years' imprisonment, which came through the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Other changes will also be made, when parliamentary time allows. I cannot predict what will be in the Queen's Speech, but I hope that there will be a road safety Bill. It is possible that I may still be the Minister who sees that Bill through, but that will be determined by events this week. Such changes will include proposals for a separate review of road traffic offences, and will deal with the problems of dangerous and careless driving. We will shortly be consulting on those issues.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, it looks as if time is running out. A number of issues remain to be discussed about cameras and their placement. I assure the hon. Member for South Norfolk that we received reassurance from the partnership that the cameras in that area were all placed in locations where there had been casualties. If hon. Members have any doubt about such issues, they should get the figures from their partnerships, or look at the Department's website, which contains most of the material and deals with some of the more detailed issues.

This has been a short debate; I hope that we can have a longer debate on the issue another time, because there are so many enormously important matters to be addressed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I thank the Minister for his measured reply and I congratulate the House on the quality of the debate. We now move to our second debate, initiated by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda).

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