HC Deb 20 May 1974 vol 874 cc64-6W
Mr. Leslie Huckfield

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he has yet received the report on the multiple accidents on the Ml motorway on 13th March; and whether he will make a statement.

Mr. Mulley

Yes. A series of accidents occurred in both carriageways over a distance of some 14 miles on either side of junction 18 between 8.0 and 9.0 a.m. Known casualties to date are six fatalities, 27 seriously injured and 14 slightly injured.

It seems that visibility at the time of the first accident in the southbound carriageway was between 100 and 200 yards but that this deteriorated soon afterwards and between 8.15 and 9.0 visibility over the length involved varied with a minimum of 50 yards. The carriageways had been salted and the surface was wet. Southbound traffic was more than normal and two-thirds of it was heavy vehicles. Northbound traffic was about normal: rather less than two-thirds was heavy vehicles.

At 00.15 a.m. on 13th March the BBC broadcast warning of fog over a wide area. Warnings of fog patches on motorways in the South Midlands were broadcast four times between 5.43 and 7.55 and, following police reports to the BBC Motoring Unit, between 8.13 and 8.20. By this time the first accident involving several lorries had occurred, and news of this, together with a warning of dense fog on the motorway, was broadcast at 8.24. Further broadcasts were made at 8.43 and from 9.0 onwards giving weather conditions and information about traffic diversion arrangements which worked well on this occasion. Further guidance to police forces about broadcasting arrangements is being prepared by the Home Office.

Although the police have not yet completed their investigations it appears that a major factor in the accidents was the failure of many drivers to keep an adequate distance from the vehicle in front and to pay attention to the road ahead. This demonstrates the continuing need to educate drivers in the importance of these matters especially in fog. The fog code and segregation rules are neither sufficiently understood nor observed. I am putting in hand a review of the code to see if its presentation can be simplified and given a greater impact before the onset of the autumn and an increased risk of motorway fog.

This length of the Ml is equipped with battery-operated flashing amber signals— Motorwarn—to indicate that drivers should not exceed 30 mph. These signals provide only a rudimentary and inflexible warning system and the police are concerned not to blunt their impact by overuse. Before the first accident on the southbound carriageway it was not considered that visibility was low enough to call for a 30 mph limit. The signals were not activated until after that accident and even then were ignored by some drivers.

The Motor warn system is being replaced by more versatile remotely-controlled matrix signals. On existing motorways priority for installation is being determined by traffic volume and accident experience. The North ants section of the Ml is the third section in priority and 1 am satisfied that this is right. I have given instructions that the installation programme should be expedited as much as possible, but because of shortage of equipment and long delivery dates—some 50–60 weeks—installation cannot be completed before the winter of 1975–76 at the earliest.

No other worthwhile warning devices are at present in production and available. However, research is in hand at the TRRL to develop fog detectors and prediction devices which could lessen the time lag in switching on motorway signals and on devices for displaying on vehicle windscreens vehicles speeds and distance from the one in front.

A central barrier is installed along this length of the Ml and the police consider that in several cases this saved vehicles from crossing the central reserve. The police report several witnesses as saying that high-intensity red rear lamps on vehicles were much more valuable than ordinary ones. My Department recently issued guidance encouraging the use of such lamps in conditions of poor visibility. It is too soon, however, to decide whether they should be made compulsory.

Other recommendations relating to the erection of a barrier alongside this length of the Ml where it runs adjacent to the railway, to an additional access point between the carriageways north of the Watford Gap service area and to additional road markings to indicate the approach to motorway junctions, are now being followed up.