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Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) : This is my first opportunity to debate with the Minister in his new post, to which I welcome him. This is probably not the day on which to begrudge the Government their few moments of self-congratulation. They surely have little enough on which to congratulate themselves at the moment. This debate on road safety, which comes almost exactly a year after the last such debate, allows the Minister and his Back-Bench colleagues to bask in the comforting feeling that, despite the deepening recession and chaos all around them, something positive has been achieved in the past year. Opposition Members at least are happy to debate road safety again and we thank the Minister for the opportunity.
The Minister quite properly gave us a run-down of his Department's activities over the past year. Certainly, if we are to measure the success of the Minister's campaign by the number of press releases that it has generated, it has surely been a major achievement. Every few months one Minister or another launches a "major" or the "biggest-ever" campaign to cut road casualties. I am the first to acknowledge the usefulness of publicity campaigns to keep an issue high in public consciousness. I welcome the Government's announcement in the autumn statement of a further £10 million for publicity over the next three years. However, if publicity campaigns are to be truly effectively, they have to be supported by practical measures and assistance to organisations involved in road safety.
Column 821In that context, I am pleased that the Government took our advice and that of many other organisations and changed the transport supplementary grant to allow specific money to be earmarked for road safety. I welcome that change in the mechanism. However, as I shall point out later, I believe that the situation regarding local transport schemes is still far from satisfactory.
The Opposition are always willing to give credit where credit is due. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said last Friday, one of the most pleasing aspects of the Queen's Speech is the commitment to reduce the number of accidents and deaths on our roads. I also welcome the long overdue appearance in the Queen's Speech of the proposals in the North report to tackle dangerous and drunken driving ; they are to be brought into legislative form. I acknowledge also the implementation of the recommendations of the Horne report, which will bring road safety improvements, in particular to pedestrians and to cyclists. We look forward eagerly to the opportunity to debate those measures in the House.
However, the Opposition would be failing in our duty if we were only to applaud and to go along with those measures without looking at the wider implications of transport as a whole. Small, piecemeal measures are a sign of a piecemeal transport policy--a policy which has little vision and little energy. It is what one would expect from a Government in their final term. It is what one would expect from a Government who are running out of steam and are in disarray. Even the welcome extra money, which was announced in the autumn statement, is unlikely to bring about the radical improvement in the number of road casualties or, indeed, the significant improvement in transport for which the Minister is obviously hoping.
Ms. Ruddock : The hon. Gentleman asks what our policies are. I shall refer to policies that will be a real and radical alternative to those of the Government and which are clearly ours and have been published in our policy documents. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read them. They have been frequently reiterated in the House. The test of a policy lies in its results. I regret very much that the results do not show the improvement for which Transport Ministers have been striving over the past few years. Figures for the whole of 1989 and for the first half of 1990 show a steady and regrettable rise in the number of road deaths. Perhaps it is too soon to judge and perhaps the true comparison of figures does not take account of the long-term effects of publicity, but I fear that the Minister's aim of cutting casualty rates by one third remains an elusive target. I hope that the Minister will agree that the disappointing figures demonstrate that more needs to be done and done more urgently. I remind the Minister that every road death costs about £630,000, according to his Department's own figures. The British Medical Association estimates that in 1988 no less than £4,000 million was spent on medical and ambulance services treating the victims of road accidents. I do not want to appear churlish and I do not want to re-run last year's debate, but many of the demands that were made on both sides of the House at that time have not been met in
Column 822the intervening months. I shall highlight two issues, to one of which I am delighted to say the Minister has responded positively. The arguments for bringing in the measures that I shall highlight--random breath testing and compulsory rear seat belts--were made by me in the debate last year and by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East last Friday in the debate on the Loyal Address. The measures are supported by a wide range of safety organisations, including the British Medical Association and PACTS--the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Despite what the Minister said this morning, the case for random breath testing remains extremely strong. I was interested to see that, according to a recent report by the transport and road research laboratory on public attitudes towards various road safety measures, 77 per cent. of those interviewed supported random breath testing. Drinking and driving, as the Minister acknowledges, is the single main cause of death and injury on our roads. The BMA estimates that more than 25,000 casualties each year are directly attributable to alcohol. Evidence shows that the deterrent effect of random breath testing would be significant in reducing the number of drink-drivers. We have made a firm policy commitment to introduce random breath testing when we are in government.
Mr. Peter Bottomley : The hon. Lady talks about the evidence. Again, we shall debate this matter at great length when the Bill comes forward, but has she received from the BMA or from anybody else any evidence that any other country has a lower level of drink driving than Britain? Has she any evidence that any other country has reduced drink driving as fast as we have over the past 10 years? To list the people who believe something is no substitute for actually producing the evidence which I should like to consider.
Ms. Ruddock : No one would seek to understimate or undermine the enormous success in respect of drink driving in this country, but, as the Minister acknowledged today, being the best in certain matters is not sufficient. My argument and that of those who believe that random breath testing is a deterrent is that it would further improve on the good results that we have had to date. We are talking about how to make a further improvement. The evidence is that that measure would produce that further improvement.
The Minister referred to this issue as though random breath testing were synonymous with the police stopping people at will. We do not support the unfettered right of the police to stop people at will, and the analogy of the sus law is not appropriate. We would introduce a policy under which there would be roadside check points, and a random sample of drivers would be stopped and tested. That is the way in which we can monitor that the tests are being done in a specific and random way without an infringement of
Column 823civil liberties. I still hope that the Government will support that measure in due course. Again, we shall be able to debate that matter further.
The other measure to which I referred at length last year and turn again now is the introduction of the compulsory wearing of seat belts. The case for that remains convincing. The measure would reduce rear seat casualties, of which there were 23,000 in 1988, by 70 per cent. It would also reduce front seat casualties. As the Minister said, it is supported by 82 per cent. of those who were polled recently. I am therefore delighted with the Minister's announcement this morning. However, I wonder whether there is a need for a consultation process, because the evidence seems clear that there is already a real consensus. I think that the Minister should go ahead without further ado, but let us not quibble on that point because he has made that commitment and I welcome it.
Mr. Chope : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she said, but does she accept that the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety has recognised the need and the desirability of consulting on this matter before implementing any new regulations?
In last year's debate, I called for road safety to become part of the national curriculum. As has been said, there is a tremendous difference in the attitudes taken by different schools. Some schools place high emphasis on teaching children about road safety, but others do not. We believe that road safety should be part of the national curriculum. I am sad to learn that the Department of Transport-Department of Education and Science working party that has been considering this issue has still failed to come up with any recommendations. Given the increase in child casualty rates in 1989, this matter is now a pressing priority.
However, I welcome the measures that the Minister has announced in relation to children and young people. I welcome especially his attitude towards the measures relating to motor cyclists, whom we acknowledge are one of the most vulnerable groups of road users. Sadly, however, none of that excuses the Government's failure to develop a coherent and co-ordinated transport policy. It is not for lack of being asked to do so, because organisations as disparate as the Confederation of British Industry, the City of London, the local authorities associations, the English tourist board and many others have called for that, as have many of the Minister's hon. Friends. We all want a strategic plan to try to solve some of the country's appalling problems.
Another year has passed without effective action being taken. Congestion continue to increase, especially in London and the south-east. Our rail, bus and tube networks continue to buckle under the strain. Passengers continue to face delays, cancellations and high fares on public transport while motorists face traffic jams and long delays. We all suffer the environmental consequences of that chaos.
The Minister made much today--and has done so in a number of speeches--of the need to encourage cyclists. We very much endorse that strategy. Encouraging cyclists and encouraging people to walk as much as possible are essential parts of any future transport policy. However, it is impossible to make the position amenable to cyclists and pedestrians without a comprehensive transport policy. We
Column 824cannot simply tell cyclists--although I would do this also--that they should wear helmets and that they should take as much responsibility as possible for their own safety, and then tell them that local authorities cannot afford to institute cycle routes and will not do so. We need to ensure that there is a safe space in which cyclists can travel. That requires an integrated and comprehensive transport policy.
Mr. Harry Greenway : It is dangerous to speak like that to suggest that simply because we do not have an integrated policy for cyclists--I, too, would welcome that--a helmet is less important for cyclists. If that is what the hon. Lady is implying, she is wrong and I hope that she will recognise that.
Ms. Ruddock : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not think that that is what I meant. I said that I support the Minister and all other hon. Members who have called for personal responsibility and for the wearing of cycle helmets. I endorse that absolutely and enthusiastically. However, if one is wearing a cycle helmet but does not have a safe space in which to cycle, one is just as likely to have an accident as if a helmet was not worn. Although a cyclist may save his head, he may still be injured. Every cycling organisation in the country believes that there should be a safe road space devoted to cyclists. The hon. Gentleman, like myself, represents a London constituency and I am sure that he understands the need for a strategic network throughout the city, but that can be devised only if we have a strategic authority to oversee it.
I turn now to some of the wider aspects of road transport. The Minister defined road safety as "casualty reduction". However, we are bound to take account of the wider impact of road traffic on our communities. The environment and people's health are now directly jeopardised by the increase in traffic on our roads. I recently visited Norwich, which is a fine city in which one would imagine that things are still operating reasonably well and that the environment is still acceptable, and even there an air survey taken on the morning I arrived found a dangerous level of air pollution which was jeopardising people's health. In London, we are well used to that. We are constantly told that the levels of air pollution exceed the limits of the World Health Organisation and that they arise directly from road traffic. Although there are regular reports and studies, the Government fail to act. We know--the Minister knows--that traffic is continuing to grow in London and that the number of vehicles coming into the city is constantly increasing.
I must take the Minister to task for a measure that he did not mention this morning. It is an example of the Government demonstrating their schizophrenia on this issue. I am referring to the forthcoming legislation on red routes. The Government say that their purpose is to increase the traffic flow in central London. In fact, the measure is more likely to increase the volume of traffic and to cause greater congestion and greater air pollution. It is hard to believe that the Government still refuse to acknowledge that we need restraint not encouragement of road traffic. London's traffic problems will never be solved by encouraging private and company motorists to make greater use of our roads.
Column 825six-lane motorway route into parts of east London, is being built without any extension being provided to the docklands light railway, which would carry large numbers of people by public transport? Although I am not opposed to that crossing--it was in the Abercrombie plan of 1943--I am opposed to it without the inclusion of public transport across the link because without that it will encourage the generation of traffic in London rather than providing the proper balance to which the Government are now notionally committed.
Ms. Ruddock : My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and demonstrates that there is no rationale for building more road space unless the Government are also committed to making that road space usable primarily by public transport and, as my hon. Friend suggests, to providing a link between any road network and the public transport system or an extension of the public transport system.
The Minister correctly drew attention to the vital role of local authorities in reducing road casualties and improving road safety. I commended him earlier on changing the transport supplementary grant mechanism, but, if local authorities are to make a real contribution to the Minister's target, more resources must be provided. Some local safety schemes are relatively inexpensive to implement and show a quick rate of return. Sometimes simply changing a junction or improving road markings can make a great difference.
However, local authorities are increasingly having to look at whole areas if they are to avoid displacing road traffic from one street into another. Area studies are needed and we also need
traffic-calming and other measures to protect residential streets and our children and pedestrians, and to direct through traffic along the most acceptable routes. Such schemes were commended by the Minister and they are not cheap. My borough of Lewisham is a case in point. Partly because of the success of Government publicity and partly because of people's growing concern about the environment, more and more residents are asking councils to do something about the danger on our roads.
Last year I spoke about Gellatley road in my constituency. That is a residential road used by 16,000 vehicles a day. That presents immense danger and the road has a proven accident rate. The local authority wishes to undertake another study in the Ladywell area. The implementation of measures for that tiny area of four or five roads in my constituency would cost about £70,000. That is a small sum, but it is the entire budget for all the traffic management schemes allowed in the borough. That is nonsense. Clearly, there is a shortage of funds for local authorities to deal with essential safety work. The local authority associations, in conjunction with PACTS, underlined that message when they estimated that a further £30 million would be needed this year to enable local authorities to play their part in reducing casualties.
There is another problem. I understand that cycling and safety schemes on non-designated roads will attract Government grant from next year, but that traffic-calming schemes will not necessarily do so. Councils are, therefore, hindered in implementing traffic-calming schemes on non- designated roads which, in the main, are the ones for which they seek aid and cannot get it. The Minister should
Column 826look again at the conditions of grant to see whether it can be extended to cover all roads and all types of traffic calming. I am sure he will agree that traffic-calming measures have a positive effect on road safety. Councils need more money to enable them to introduce more schemes and Lewisham council is an example. I draw the Minister's attention to a major obstacle to road safety which I know that he acknowledges. The question of reducing speed limits has been raised in the House before and I was delighted at the support given to a suggestion to reduce the limit to 20 mph in some urban areas. The evidence shows that we should look more widely at the issue. There is definite correlation between speed and accidents. Of course, emissions from vehicles travelling at high speed are now known to have environmental consequences. I endorse what the Minister said, but I should like to know more about what he intends to do other than merely meeting advertising associations. Advertisers continue to promote their products according to speed and vie with each other using such slogans as, "It doesn't take a test pilot's licence to take this car flying." and "It is capable of 150 mph so why did it take six years to get here?"
Given such slogans, how can we believe that the motor industry is serious about promoting notions of road safety? The industry encourages people to break the law. At the recent British international motor show, cars that could reach 170 mph were on display. Why are such cars being produced and promoted as being able to reach that speed if manufacturers are not tempting people to try them out and drive them at that speed. We applaud the efforts of car manufacturers to improve vehicle design, but safety still takes second place to speed in the message to sell cars.
I have attempted to range fairly widely, because it is clear that we cannot separate road safety from the fundamental debate about how to plan the nation's overall need to transport people and goods. The Department of Transport continues to predict that by 2025 there will be an increase of 100 per cent. or more in the number of vehicles on our roads. However, implementing the whole roads programme which Ministers constantly applaud would increase capacity by only 2 per cent.
The consequence of the Government's laissez-faire attitude will be a massive increase in congestion. Tragically, it will be impossible to reach the target of reductions in casualty rates that the Government have set. We support and welcome much of what the Government are doing to reduce casualties and improve road safety. However, that is no substitute for a strategic plan for an integrated transport policy that gives priority to an efficient, environmentally friendly and affordable public transport system. Public transport remains and has the potential to be the safest form of movement available to our people, and it is the best way to safeguard our environment and our neighbourhoods.
Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West) : In spite of her customary great charm, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) did not contribute enormously to the debate. Apart from the ritual party political mumbo-jumbo and vague waffle about co-ordination and planning of public transport, she agreed with almost everything said by my hon. Friend the Minister. We should be thankful for that. I strongly agree
Column 827with my hon. Friend the Minister and praise what he and his Department are doing. I should declare an interest because I have the honour to be the president of the Guild of Experienced Motorists which represents about 50,000 of Britain's private motorists. Not long ago I was talking to our late and much lamented friend Ian Gow. I said, "Looking back on your political life what is it that gives you cause for the most shame?" He said, "It is the fact that we now have double figure inflation." I told him that my greatest shame was that in 25 years in Parliament under successive Governments each year we still see on our roads the slaughter of more than 5,000 people and the injury of 300,000. That is a national shame. The 300, 000 people who are injured have not all just had a bump or a knock, because the figure includes people who are ruined for life. Many families are also ruined. Many people are reduced to cabbages and others lose limbs. It is a serious matter. It works out at 500 people in an average constituency each year. People stand 10 times as much chance of being killed on the roads as they do of being killed through murder or manslaughter. The figures are disgraceful and the nation should be ashamed of them.
I am pleased that the Minister and his Department have succeeded in giving a much higher profile to this immensely important and tragic subject. The equivalent of a Lockerbie disaster happens every three weeks on our roads and the equivalent of a football stadium disaster happens every fortnight. If the media would give to our roads the attention that they give to other matters there would be much greater public awareness. In that sense I am entirely in favour of the policies announced by the Minister to raise public awareness. In May I drew attention to the fact that I think that the roads in Cambridgeshire have the worst safety record in Britain. Certainly, East Anglia as a whole has the worst record. That is a disgrace. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister has announced that the region is to receive 20 per cent. of the £3 billion budget that has been earmarked for road improvement. I am sure that everyone in my constituency will be grateful for that.
The North report is an important and detailed document on road safety. I am delighted that the Government have embarked--not before time--on the task of implementing some of the recommendations that are set out in it. I am sure that we all look forward to the introduction of the implementing Bill.
I was glad to hear the Minister's announcement on seat belts. I have always advocated their use. I think that events have proved that those of us who supported their introduction and use were right. I am concerned that my hon. Friend did not refer to lorries and heavy goods vehicles generally in this context. I am appalled when I see a heavy goods vehicle in which young children are sitting beside the driver, possibly with a lady with a small baby, and there is no sign of anyone wearing seat belts.
Sir Anthony Grant : Indeed. It is disgraceful that there is no requirement that seat belts should be worn in heavy goods vehicles. I hope that the Department of Transport will consider the use of seat belts by children and others who ride in heavy goods vehicles. I tiptoe delicately into the subject of drinking and driving. I know that the beady eyes of my hon. Friend the
Column 828Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) are just behind me. I am sure that we all pay tribute to the remarkable contribution that he made on this and other issues when he was in office.
I am not wholly convinced by the opposition to random breath tests. When such tests were introduced in New South Wales, Australia, there was a 35 per cent. reduction in prosecutions. The Guild of Experienced Motorists conducted a poll among its members and, as I recall the outcome, 80 per cent. were in favour of something of the nature of random breath tests. The 80 per cent. may have been right or wrong, but I do not think that we can dismiss the concept lightly.
Drinking and driving is immensely dangerous--so much so that many people, perhaps, should give up driving and stick to drinking. It is gratifying that there has been a reduction in the incidence of drinking and driving, thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham.
We must note however, that four out of five accidents are not caused by drinking. Let us not be obsessed with the issue. Why are so many accidents unrelated to drinking? Undoubtedly, speed is a vital issue. Speed may not necessarily cause an accident, but when one takes place it will be infinitely worse and more damaging if excessive speed is involved. There is unanimity between the two Front Benches that it is ludicrous that motor car manufacturers should be advertising cars that have maximum speeds of 140, 150 and 170 mph. Some of these products are cheap cars that can be purchased by those who are incapable of driving them safely. These are cars which require the skill of Nigel Mansell to operate them safely. In an earlier age, we would have expected only Stirling Moss or Fangio, or others of that nature, to operate them. It is absurd that such cars should be made available on a large scale because there is no place where they can be driven at the speeds of which they are capable. It is absurd also that they should be positively advertised as being a good thing. I shall support wholeheartedly anything that my hon. Friend the Minister does in this respect. I am glad that the Opposition take the same view.
Mr. Alex Carlile : Will the hon. Gentleman join me in condemning especially the heavy publicity that has been given recently to a Vauxhall Carlton which is capable, apparently, of achieving 170 mph? It should not be available for public purchase, even at the outrageous price of, I think, £45,000.
Sir Anthony Grant : I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. I would not, however, confine my criticism to the Vauxhall company. I could mention many other motor car manufacturers, but I shall not do so.
Mr. Roger King : I understand that General Motors and Vauxhall are not selling the 470 high-speed Carltons that will be available--they have been subjected to intense development by the General Motors Lotus subsidiary in this country, and will reap some export rewards as a result-- without the purchasers and future users having gone through a test. If my memory serves me right, that is the position.
Sir Anthony Grant : I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has led me to standards of driving. I am glad to know that some motor car manufacturers are taking the issue seriously. The standard of our driving tests is entirely inadequate for our modern roads and modern vehicles. I
Column 829have always said that it is ridiculous that motorists can tootle around suburbs in a Mini, or whatever, at 30 mph, and then step into a Porsche, or what have you--they usually opt not for a Porsche or something of that sort but for a relatively cheap car--and belt down the motorway like maniacs. There is a need to raise the standard of driving so that we can ensure that motorists are qualified to drive the vehicles that they are able to purchase.
The Swiss and the Austrians, for example, are used to appalling weather conditions. They are appalled at the way in which British drivers operate in adverse road and weather conditions. They are accustomed to the difficulties that ensue, whereas we in Britain assume that the weather will always be mild and pleasant and the roads in a superb condition. The fact is that the weather and the roads are not always pleasant and superb and that most motorists are unqualified to drive on dangerous roads.
Ms. Ruddock : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that irrespective of how good a driver one may be, it is questionable whether anyone can drive well at 170 mph. Even if anyone can, the fact is that there is a speed limit which means that any car that is driven at such a speed will be driven illegally. It is important to stress that no one can drive legally on our roads at that speed.
Sir Anthony Grant : That is right. That is why I question the purpose of advertising vehicles that are capable of such a high speed. It would seem that such advertising has the effect of inviting people to exceed the speed limit.
There is a problem, because some high-speed cars are geared so highly and go so fast that it is jolly difficult to drive them slowly. I shall make a confession. many years ago I was cruising in my car and found that I was travelling at a speed which was disgracefully above the speed limit. I did not know that I was travelling so fast. That was a long time ago when I was younger and very foolish.
Mr. John P. Smith : The hon. Gentleman is extremely honest. Does he agree with me that it was irresponsible that an article that appeared recently in the Sunday Correspondent --it was written, of course, by that newspaper's transport correspondent--argued in favour of the motor car concerned because it could outpace a police car?
I have been led neatly and conveniently to the fact that an enormous number of road accidents are caused by those who are driving stolen cars. Those who steal cars nearly always end up in some sort of crash. They are irresponsible and they take the view that the vehicle does not belong to them anyway. Much more attention should be given to fitting in vehicles devices that prevent them from being stolen. Manufacturers should be encouraged to ensure that vehicles cannot be stolen as easily as at present. I hope that the courts will regard the stealing of vehicles as a much more serious matter. The courts tend to think, "This is the peccadillo of a young juvenile." It is not only an intolerable offence, but it can lead to serious accidents and death.
Many other hon. Members wish to speak, so I come to my two final points. I am pleased that the Minister
Column 830mentioned the accursed business of people driving too close behind the vehicle in front. It is the cause not necessarily of major accidents, but of many minor accidents, particularly on our motorways. It is the wretched business of driving on the assumption that the car will stop as soon as the brakes are applied. It will not. Cars go on for a long distance. That is the cause of pile-ups. The problem can be overcome easily by electronic means. It is perfectly possible to fit vehicles with devices that show that they are too close to the vehicle in front. I hope that the Minister will study the research and see whether it is possible to introduce some regulation to ensure that vehicles are fitted with such a device. It would save an enormous number of accidents and an enormous amount of nervousness and terror on our roads. I cannot count the number of times I have driven up the M11 followed by a vehicle within inches of me which could not possibly stop in time. Many elderly people in small cars must use that road, too. The heavy goods vehicles are the worst of all. It is a disgrace and a scandal how closely they drive behind other vehicles. That should be said loudly and clearly and I am glad that the Minister has taken it on board.
I should like the courts to make much greater use of
disqualification. Disqualification for serious driving offences is not nearly sufficiently used. I should like the courts also to exercise powers, if they have them--the Minister will tell me whether they do--to confiscate vehicles. Nothing would be a greater deterrent than if a vehicle involved in a road traffic offence were confiscated. I do not care whether vehicles belong to companies and firms, as so many do. It would deter companies that supply vehicles from having irresponsible employees driving their vehicles. All too often, companies say, "Here is your company car. Here are the keys. Get on with it." Greater responsibility is called for from many companies in that respect.
After decades of pumping more and more cars on to the roads and of more and more deaths, with successive Governments little appreciating the consequences, I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has raised the profile of this issue in the Queen's Speech. I and, more importantly, the Guild of Experienced Motorists wish him every success.
Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley) : I am grateful for being invited to join this important debate. I am a northern Member of Parliament and often we hoof it back to our constituencies on Fridays, but this is a special day for me. My local vicar, the Rev. Keith Butterworth, was invited this morning to open our proceedings with Prayers. Therefore, it is a special day for him, the House and me. I shall not miss this opportunity of making one or two worthwhile points about this important matter. Unlike the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant), I do not have to declare any interest in representing any guilds. I am simply attempting to represent my constituents who are extremely worried about these serious problems.
I am a motorist, so I am aware, as are all other hon. Members, of the many dangers that we encounter on our travels in towns and cities. Street lighting, which is one of the most important aspects of safety, has not yet been
Column 831touched on. Any motorist will notice the variations between high-quality lighting, poor lighting and, in some cases, no lighting. Great improvements have been made in the standards of street lighting but, unfortunately, in some towns it is still at the standard as it was 50 years ago. It should be greatly improved.
I am not trying to introduce a sour note, but, often, local authorities would like to improve street lighting but are prevented from doing so by cash limitations. If there are problems of poor and inadequate lighting, it is no good the Government occasionally exhorting local authorities to spend less. I have a little story to tell about that.
A few days ago, I was walking home from this House late at night with a colleague. He noticed that the main street by the side of the river was in darkness and remarked that it had been so for weeks. He mentioned it to the policeman who said that he would make inquiries. A day or two later, the policeman reported to my hon. Friend that the lighting had not been maintained because the local authority had run out of funds. That meant that a major road was in absolute darkness. Street lighting affects not only vehicle safety, but personal physical safety vis a vis violence. I put down that marker not because I am whingeing, but because it is an important point that the Minister must face when he considers safety. A family who loses a husband or a dear child carries that tragedy with it for the rest of its life. Whether to maintain street lighting cannot be determined on money alone.
I applaud and commend the Minister for making a further reference to seat belts. Four or five years ago I stayed behind on a Friday when a Member attempted to introduce a Bill on seat belts. I was amazed at the hostility from the various organisations that resisted the Bill. The legislation has now been vindicated. Ministers tell us how greatly seat belts have benefited society. Even if we have never been involved in an accident, we have benefited because of the great savings to the National Health Service. We recall the many horrendous accidents resulting in people going through windscreens and spending many months in hospital sometimes never to return to work. Further measures on the introduction of seat belts would be applauded, as they are acknowledged to be financially beneficial to society as well as to health through the prevention of accidents.
I am extremely uncomfortable when I drive across a level crossing. One may talk about demanning and reductions in manpower, but I am sure that we have all seen photographs of the most horrendous accidents when cars are smashed into by trains at unmanned level crossings. I do not believe that it would be a wise policy to increase the number of self-controlled level crossings at junctions where motorists may be caught unawares, with horrendous consequences.
I emphasise to the Minister that there should be extensive determination throughout the country to introduce improved street lighting of a proper standard. Never mind about cost controls and limits, street lighting is one expense we cannot afford to cut. I applaud the Minister on his further proposals about seat belts. My final rider is my concern about unmanned level crossings. For goodness sake, let us think carefully before we increase the number of such crossings.
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Sir Hal Miller (Bromsgrove) : I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham), who emphasised that street lighting is an important contribution to improved safety, even though it is unpopular in some suburban and rural areas on account of the disturbance it may cause.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this important debate although, as a cyclist, the suggestion that I might be inconspicuous struck me as rather odd. Obviously I shall have to pay greater attention to the need to make myself more conspicuous and I welcome the opportunity to do so this morning.
I want to restore some balance to our discussion, which has revealed that there is a clear difference in approach between those on the Labour and Conservative Benches. The Opposition Front Bench spokesman has enticed me to make a challenge. The hon. Lady seems to regret the fact that, because of much increased economic activity, we are now suffering congestion on our roads. I hope that she is not suggesting that we should return to Labour policies to reduce our economic activity in order to enable our transport system to cope adequately. That appeared to be the implication behind some of her remarks about returning people to public transport as a preferred means of travel. She appears to ignore the 30 million people who have driving licences and the 22 million cars on our roads, 20 million of which are licensed.
Ms. Ruddock : I am sorry to have enticed the hon. Gentleman into this debate. Does he acknowledge that there is even greater economic activity in some of our competitor countries, including, for example, Germany, where the level of car ownership is much higher than in Britain? None the less, the German Government have pursued policies to create a better public transport system and the people use their cars less and public transport more as a result.
The hon. Lady viewed with disquiet, if not distaste, the idea that there might be a further increase in car ownership in this country. The hon. Lady should note that it is still the ambition of many people to take advantage of the increased personal mobility and the opportunities for education, vacations and undertaking family responsibilities that car ownership presents.
I want to tackle the Minister--
Ms. Ruddock : But the hon. Gentleman is tackling me and I want to put the record straight. We do not object to an increase in car ownership. I gave the Department of Transport figures for the increase in the number of vehicles on our roads, which anticipate that car use will increase by 100 per cent. at least, but the Government's road building programme puts the increase in road capacity at 2 per cent. There is no way in which one can sustain that increase in car use without further disastrous problems, including, for example, an increase in accidents.
Column 833Sir Hal Miller : We are not talking about Dinky cars that we want to own and put in a show case. Of course people want to use their cars--95 per cent. of all personal movement takes place on the roads and 77 per cent. of that movement is by passenger car.
In the unfortunate temporary absence of my hon. Friend the Minister I should like to tackle him on the difference in the number of cars and the number of cars that are licensed. One of the best ways to improve safety as well as the environment my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South -West (Sir A. Grant) also mentioned this--would be to get rid of unlicensed cars or those whose licences are not up to date. Many of those cars may have been stolen and they are a hazard to cyclists and pedestrians in particular, as some are left on pavements. If we could get rid of such cars it would be a major contribution to improved safety and it would also mean that tax revenue would no longer be lost. We should have a much more effective blitz on unlicensed cars.
The tenor of this debate, in which the Lotus Carlton has been taken as the reductio ad absurdum, has ignored the fact that modern cars are built to a much higher safety standard than before. The brakes, the engine management, the shock absorbers, the lights and seat belts have all led to such improvements in safety. I agree with the hon. Member for Blackley that there is a gap in our safety precautions because rear seat belts are compulsory only in cars built after a certain date, which means that the occupants of older cars are left unprotected. We would do much better to offer an inducement to people to get rid of their older cars so that better safety and better protection for car occupants is achieved. If we got rid of such cars we should also be able to reach far higher standards on vehicle emissions.
I do not go along with the Labour party approach of increased regulation and increased police activity. The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms. Ruddock) gave me cause to wonder as she talked about random breath tests and greater police activity. Usually she decries increased police activity and opposes their attempts to preserve public order on the streets. There is a real philosophical divide between us. My hon. Friends and I much prefer to use education, in which the Opposition have suddenly discovered an interest, and training, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West rightly referred, due to his experience as a member of the Guild of Experienced Motorists. We prefer to use technology and the market system. I suggest that the market ought to be given the signal that safer as well as environmentally preferable vehicles should be manufactured. The market mechanism could be used, in particular by the manipulation or adjustment of the special car tax for certain categories of vehicles.
I follow up the market side of the argument by referring to the role that insurance companies could play by introducing premiums for different classes of drivers--those with different experience and qualifications--and for differently equipped vehicles. Some of the newer vehicles, with anti- lock braking or traction control systems and, in the case of commercial vehicles, no balancing braking systems, are much safer and much more advanced. There is no direct correlation between sheer speed and braking capacity. Many older cars that are capable only of reaching comparatively minor speed levels are more unsafe. I listened with great care and much admiration to the Minister's speech because of the target that he has set
Column 834for himself. It was set originally by the former Minister for Roads and Traffic, my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), as I think he now describes it, although I believe that I canvassed for him in Welling.
Sir Hal Miller : All of us owe my hon. Friend a great debt. I am happy to associate my friends in the motor industry with the tributes that deservedly have been paid to him. I recall with great pleasure the fact that he received the Castrol gold award for his contribution to road safety.
One has to remind oneself that life is full of paradox. When the Minister served in local government in Wandsworth he was the apostle of the market and free enterprise. Now that he has assumed the heavy burdens of office, on which I congratulate him most warmly, he talks about more regulation and more legislation. He seems to have forgotten some of the market signals and education proposals to which I am trying to draw him back.
I wish also to draw my hon. Friend's attention to the use of technology. I remind him that I had the pleasure of accompanying my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) and for Meriden (Mr. Mills) earlier this week to see the Secretary of State for Transport, when we discussed the tragic accident on the M42. We suggested to him that more could have been done to prevent that accident if automatic cameras had been installed and linked to warning signals back down the M42. A similar installation is already in use on the A1-M1 at the Hatfield tunnel interchange. We do not see why they could not be introduced at interchanges such as that between the M42 and the A45 where the problems have been considerable over a long period because of the increasing use--the hon. Member for Deptford will be pleased to hear--being made of Birmingham international railway station and the national exhibition centre. Technology should also be applied to road lighting and prevention systems. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West that it should be applied both to speed and to the spacing of vehicles. I want the police to be freed from confrontation with the public and from their arduous duties. As we open more miles of road, we impose greater burdens upon the police, which some of them are having a hard time, because of manpower and finance constraints, to meet. They are put in a difficult position vis a vis the public. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Northfield is to speak later about the police presence at the scene of the M42 accident. We should be able to rely much more on automated methods of control. Speed is only one aspect of the problem. The speed limit ought to be more flexible so that it can cater for different conditions at different times. Automatic monitoring would provide us with the opportunity, which at the moment is denied to us, to bring that about. Moreover, the important question of spacing needs to be tackled.
Finally, I wish to redress slightly the balance of the debate. There has been much criticism today of motor manufacturers. My hon. Friends may not realise that great improvements have been made in the construction of vehicles and the standard of components. I am happy to be able to assure the Minister and the House that the motor industry, the manufacturers and the component makers
Column 835fully recognise their responsibilities in improving the environment, including exhaust emissions, noise and safety.