HC Deb 04 February 1976 vol 904 cc642-4W
55. Mr. Gwilym Roberts

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will now make a statement on bus and coach safety.

Mr. Wrigglesworth

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is yet in a position to make a statement on bus safety.

Dr. Gilbert

Following the tragic accident at Dibble's Bridge last summer I instituted an investigation into the safety of coaches and the possibility of improvement in this field.

The first point I should make it that in this country coach travel is much the safest form of conveyance on the roads. The number of deaths per passenger mile is far lower for coaches than for other forms of road transport and in general the record shows a steady improvement. During the period 1970–74 the average number of fatal casualties in buses and coaches was 66 per year; it follows that, when 32 people lose their lives in a single accident, as happened at Dibble's Bridge, the annual figures will be disproportionately affected. None the less, public attention and concern was understandably focussed on the question of coach safety last summer, and many suggestions for improvement have been canvassed.

Concern has been expressed that some coach drivers may suffer from fatigue, either as a result of excessive working hours or because, as part-timers, they do not have sufficient opportunity to rest after other work. The statistical evidence has been reviewed and special studies have been made of recent accidents involving coaches, but, as yet, no evidence has been found that drivers' hours or driver fatigue have played a significant part, or that part-time drivers are more prone to accident than others. Health standards for coach drivers have also been reviewed, and I have no reason to think them unsatisfactory. Research will continue and I shall of course be prepared to give the matter further consideration if any fresh evidence emerges.

Concern has also been expressed about the speed of coaches on motorways. It has been suggested that all coaches should be prohibited from using the outer lane, or that lower speed limits should be imposed upon them, or even that they should be fitted with engine speed governors to ensure that speed limits are obeyed. The evidence available to me does not support these proposals. Modern coaches are designed to perform safely at motorway speeds, and the very low accident rate for coaches on motorways bears this out. I shall remain reluctant to introduce new regulations in this field unless further evidence emerges which reveals the existence of a real road safety hazard.

Anxiety has also been expressed about the roadworthiness of coaches. The Dibble's Bridge tragedy drew attention particularly to the dangers of brake failure and of roof collapse when vehicles overturn. As regards brakes, coaches, like all motor vehicles, are already required by law to have secondary braking systems which provide a minimum level of performance at all times. My Department's engineers conduct regular inspections of all coaches, with powers to suspend the public service vehicle licence for any vehicle which they consider unroadworthy. However, in this field periodic inspection can be no adequate substitute for regular and conscientious maintenance. The maintenance record and facilities of all coach operators are taken into account by the Traffic Commissioners when granting public service vehicle licences, and are kept under frequent review.

It has been suggested that the installation of electric retarders on coaches should be made compulsory as a means of overcoming brake failure. I am, however, reluctant to introduce such a requirement. I believe that it is better to lay down minimum performance standards which vehicles must achieve without specifying the means of obtaining that performance, since in this way safety requirements are fully met without inhibiting future developments in design. In this context I am now undertaking consultations on the implementation in this country of the European Community Directive on Braking which lays down a wider range of minimum brake performance standards for coaches.

The problem of roof strengths is being investigated by the United Nations Econo- mic Commission for Europe, but this work is not likely to be completed before mid-1977. In the meantime Her Majesty's Government, with the Government of the French Republic, are sponsoring a regulation on roof strengths under the 1958 Geneva Agreement. I intend to incorporate the provisions of this regulation into the Conditions of Fitness Regulations when my consultations with manufacturers have been completed. This will mean that the roofs of all new coaches must be capable of withstanding a load equal to the maximum weight of the vehicle up to a maximum of 10 tons.

I am urgently considering the introduction of new regulations for emergency exits on coaches. These could in certain circumstances be awkwardly placed, though happily there have not yet been any incidents in which passengers have been trapped because of this. I am, therefore, now undertaking consultations on proposed changes in the legal requirements, in particular with regard to the provision of emergency hatches in coach roofs.

I am studying the contribution that seating arrangements should make to the safety of passengers, including plans for greater seat strength and for a new energy-absorbing design for seat backs, with all potentially dangerous attachments such as metal ashtarys removed and with a greater height to prevent whiplash injuries.

I am also considering the installation of seat belts where there is no other shock-absorbing structure available, as in the case, for example, with the front and centre-rear passenger seats and the driver's seat.

Finally, I am considering proposals with regard to the licensing of operators and the testing of vehicles which are designed to strengthen the existing procedures; and I shall, in due course, consult representatives organisations about them.