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Column 850forget all about it. We need to put the message across that, as drivers, they will have to take on some adult responsibilities for the safety of themselves, their passengers and all other road users. However, it is no use preaching or talking down to that age group. A much more direct, hard-hitting, street-wise approach is better. Alexei Sayle hit the right note in the BBC's "Drive" series early this year. We are reworking that series into a video, with a full supporting pack of teachers' notes for use in sixth forms and colleges.
Changes will also be made to enhance the theory element of the driving test, which should have an impact on the way in which people are taught to drive. Early in the new year we will launch a scheme for those who have passed their driving test but who want further training. The scheme is being promoted in conjunction with a large number of major insurance companies which will offer insurance discounts sufficient to meet the entire cost of the training. However, I believe that we also need more appropriate sanctions for new drivers who pass their tests but who then go on to drive badly and commit offences. Research shows that new drivers who commit offences are twice as likely to be involved in accidents as those who do not. I will be frank: I am talking about young men who think that they are great drivers, that they can drive on water, and that somehow the law does not apply to them. Sadly, they are wrong. The House has to hit those young men where it hurts most--in their egos. They might lose their licences and find themselves back with their fathers sitting beside them and L-plates on the front and back of the car. It might bring home to them how seriously irresponsible driving is viewed. That proposal will involve the introduction of primary legislation which we hope to put on the statute book at the earliest opportunity. I am confident that this package of measures will reduce the unacceptably high number of road casualties involving inexperienced drivers.
Mr. Ottaway: I apologise for intervening again when I know that the Minister is trying to conclude his speech. Might not amendments to the daylight saving regulations have some impact on saving lives? It is believed that a change to the regulations could save hundreds of lives.
Mr. Norris: My hon. Friend is perfectly right to draw attention to this important subject in which, as he knows, a number of Departments of state are interested. The daylight hours issue involves consideration of a variety of important aspects, ranging from business interests, to transport operators needing to harmonise timetables, and the needs of travellers, the rural community and so on.
I do not suggest that what I am saying represents the definitive Government position precisely because all those interests need to be synthesised. I also appreciate that views about the matter vary greatly in Scotland and between the north and south of the United Kingdom, because geographical differences impose different daylight regimes on communities.
There is no doubt that the proposed legislative changes will reduce significantly the number of road accidents. It is true that there may be more accidents in the morning, but the saving in the number of accidents that occur in the evening will more than compensate for that. I have no emotional, business or other interest in the subject, but I have to say that, merely from looking at the analysis of
Column 851road statistics and at the time profile of when accidents occur, that conclusion is clear. We cannot escape from debating this important issue; it should be central in our minds. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making his point.
We have achieved a great deal since we embarked on the casualty reduction programme. We are also doing very well by international standards. Great Britain had 7.5 road deaths per 100,000 people in 1992--a figure lower than any other OECD country. Norway had 7.6 road deaths per 100,000 people, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston will no doubt confirm. The Netherlands had 8.5 road deaths; Germany, 13.2; the USA, 15.4; France, 17.3; and Spain, 20. So there is no need for Brussels or anywhere else to lecture us about improving road safety.
But we still have plenty to do. We must keep up the activity that has enabled us to make those achievements. We must now begin to look to the longer horizon beyond the year 2000 and set a new target for 2005 or 2010. It is easy to pluck a figure out of the air, but there is no point in doing that. We must set a target which is both challenging and realistic.
We set the 1987 target on the basis of a careful assessment of what could be achieved given the possibilities open to us. We now need another assessment of what we can reasonably aim for in the first decade of the new millennium. We must decide whether to set another global target--reducing all casualties by a specific percentage--to concentrate on fatal and serious casualties, or to set targets relative to distance travelled. We intend to consult widely with the various road safety authorities and organisations to develop a shared target that will maintain the momentum and make our roads even safer.
I know, from the many interventions that we have heard this morning and from the number of letters in my postbag, that many hon. Members are interested in the subject and are prepared to make significant contributions to the debate.
I do not believe that I, any of my predecessors, or the Department is the fount of all knowledge in these matters. We have a great deal to learn. I hope that this debate will introduce some new thinking that will enable us to achieve our aim of making road transport, and transport generally, in this country as safe as is humanly possible.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): A debate on road safety is long overdue, but it is very welcome. Unless we have the opportunity for proper and regular debate about road safety issues, we cannot discuss the details of long-term decisions that must be made. The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) intervened to talk about summer time and how we deal with it. It is right that that subject should be debated in the House. All kinds of considerations are involved in the debate, but clearly those who care about road safety want a full and informed public debate so that the decisions of the House reflect the needs of the country across the board. This debate is also welcome because it gives us an opportunity to tackle the Government about their road safety record so far. We have heard a great deal about the progress which the Minister says that the Government have made. However, he said that he is not the fount of all knowledge on this important issue, and I agree with him on that.
Column 852In the brave new privatised and deregulated world which the Government are busy setting up, it is difficult to see how issues of public safety and road safety can be integrated.
Mr. Jacques Arnold: If the hon. Lady thinks that this debate is long overdue, can she tell us why, when the House spent 24 or more days debating subjects raised by the Opposition, those opposite did not raise road safety once? Today we are debating it in Government time.
Ms Walley: The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the Government have the initiative in determining the business agenda of the House, although a number of days are allocated to the Labour party--and also the other party, whose members are not in their places this morning. We currently have proposals before the House to debate only private Members' Bills and such on Fridays. If the Government were as interested in road safety as the hon. Gentleman suggests, they would have ensured not only that we had this debate in Government time, but that we had this debate when all members of the House were present. However, I am in danger of going down a route that is not in the best interests of road safety, so I shall make some progress with my speech.
We need to ask whether the Government are treating their transport policy any differently from other areas of policy making. We can see from the announcements that have been made this week about the privatisation of Railtrack that the Government are desperate to find money to pay for the tax cuts which they feel that they will need to win votes at the next general election. When there is such an agenda, it is essential that within that framework, which applies just as much to road transport as to rail, the Government should pinpoint the importance of issues such as public safety and road safety, which we are discussing today.
Throughout the country, the public are crying out for safer roads. The Minister was right to recognise that that is what they want. They are right to demand that, nationally and locally, the Government and local councils do what is required to ensure road safety. The Opposition are right to challenge the Government on their failure to provide a framework within which we can adequately--I stress "adequately"--identify, plan, enact, enforce and monitor the effectiveness of the safety measures that people are entitled to demand and expect.
The Minister made a comprehensive speech and we heard a great deal about the progress that he and his Department have made. I am always ready to give credit where credit is due and I was pleased to note the change of attitude--the Minister used the word "psychology"--in respect of cycling. It is long overdue. I acknowledge that the Government have set targets and that considerable progress has been made towards meeting them.
I wholeheartedly welcome the fact that the total number of child road accidents in 1993 was 15 per cent. lower than the 1981-85 average. I note that there has also been progress towards meeting the casualty reduction target for fatalities and serious injuries. We must continue to make progress at each and every opportunity. However, we must not be complacent. Neither can we ignore the fact that the number of slight injuries has increased, meaning that progress towards the target for all casualties is slower than hoped for. We must recognise that fact and do something about it. The figures for 1993 show 3,814 fatalities, 45,000 serious casualties and
Column 853257,199 slight casualties--which is 306,013 too many. Whatever progress we have made, each accident is one too many.
We can cite statistics, but that does not show the human misery, the agony and the remorse behind them. The almost universal response of all involved in a tragedy is that lessons must be learnt in a way that will prevent further such accidents. Other factors include, not least, the victims and their families. That is something that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) wants to raise in his speech.
It is the Minister's job to plan for safer roads. Who else can? He should have given us some information on the Government's policy to hand so much responsibility to the Department of Trade and Industry's Deregulation Committee, which was set up last night. The new deregulation procedures will not receive full parliamentary scrutiny, so the hon. Gentleman should have given us some sign of what the changes will mean. For example, is it the case, as has been rumoured, that a large number of road traffic Acts or sections of them will be deregulated in January? What are the implications of that? Will there be an extension in the number of domestic working hours of drivers of heavy goods and public service vehicles? Is that part of the Government's agenda? What are the implications for the underpinning of safety measures?
At the same time, the Minister will be busy deregulating buses. We should not forget that only yesterday London bus drivers presented a petition to the House expressing concern about the safety of the engines in Routemaster buses. He will also be busy dismantling the, in our view, effective system for overseeing the London lorry ban and operating licences for heavy goods vehicles and buses.
Mr. Fabricant: I am grateful to the hon. Lady, my near neighbour, for giving way. Does she not think that there is room for deregulation in the road traffic Acts? Is she aware that under current regulations hackney carriages--black cabs--have to carry a bale of hay in the back? Does that not need deregulating?
Ms Walley: Every time I get into a black cab in London I am made aware of the great concern among drivers about what the Government's deregulation proposals will mean for them. If they were simply about bales of hay, that would not be a problem. However, if the proposals undermine the safety of taxi operations and private hire vehicles, that is a different matter. Much wider considerations have to be taken into account.
The Minister is going to be busy privatising the Transport Research Laboratory. He made much reference in his speech to the importance of research and I believed him when he said that he valued research. But does he not value independent research? Does he not value the independent body of knowledge that has been built up at the laboratory at Crowthorne in Berkshire? What effects will privatisation have on the long-term future of transport research? Of course, the Department of Transport has cut the budget for research, against the express wishes of many distinguished Conservative Members--some of whom are usually in the Chamber for transport debates, but regrettably are not here this morning.
Column 854The Minister will be busy making arm's- length agencies such as the Highways Agency responsible, with the private sector, for the construction of motorways and for repair work to motorway service areas. He will also be busy, at a local level, considering even more contracting out of services, which will include the design and building work done by highways engineers. He will be busy cost-cutting by 20 per cent., thereby undermining the effectiveness of civil service departments responsible for vehicle testing, driving standards and vehicle inspections. It is no wonder that people feel a deep sense of unease and anxiety about the effects of all that on road safety. No amount of statistics can gloss over that. I want to give a few examples of areas in which we could have expected real progress. The prime one is seat belts. I listened carefully to what the Minister said on that issue. Last week was the first anniversary of the tragic accident on the M40 involving a school minibus. A year ago there was a public outcry and widespread demands for seat belts to be fitted to new vehicles. What have the Government done other than to promise on 19 July action ahead of the European Union to seek agreement on the introduction of compulsory fitting of seat belts to all minibuses and coaches used specifically for the transport of children? I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman had to say. He promised us action in advance of what could be done through Europe. I have not seen the introduction of any new regulations to implement that promise.
Mr. Norris: This is very important--I want the hon. Lady to say now, on the record, what measure she believes should have been taken in this respect that has not been taken. I want her to say what measure. She knows well that she simply cannot do so.
Ms Walley: It is clear that the issue is complicated and technical. Since it became an issue, the Government have had 12 months to find a way of fitting seat belts in advance of Europe and through the construction and use regulations. That is what people, and especially parents, want. They want to know that there is a seat and a seat belt for every child.
The Minister made many references to ending the three-to-two seats rule. I looked into the matter very carefully and I understand that that has been done and that considerable progress has been made in Scotland where, if I understand the position correctly, there is a difference. Where two children to a two-seater seat is now a requirement, local education authorities have a disregard. When the Scottish Office give grant settlements to local councils, any extra cost that the change has entailed is disregarded. Why has the same provision not been made available in England, as it would do so much to ensure that we have two children to two seats, rather than having mere rhetoric on the subject?
On fitting seat belts in minibuses, the Government have all the expertise of the civil service available to them. We want seat belts fitted and we want an agreement that that will be done in advance of any European directive on the matter. If there is a will to do it, a way will be found.
Column 855The public want action. I understand that the issue is technical and complex, but we want action more quickly than Europe can achieve it. That is what the organisation to belt up school kids wants and that is what we want from the Minister.
Mr. Norris: I do not want to embarrass the hon. Lady any more, but that is not good enough. She is simply trading on people's natural concerns about improving safety standards in the most appalling and cynical way. It does not do her or her party any credit. She knows very well that unless changes in United Kingdom law are agreed by the Community and reflected in directives, they are in every practical way of no effect. I ask her again to state, among all the words that she trots out so easily, what measure she would have introduced during the past 12 months to remedy the problem that she described so graphically.
Ms Walley: I will answer. The Minister's reply sounds fine, but why did the Department of Transport issue a statement on 19 July--if my memory serves me correctly--to say that it would introduce some sort of regulations in advance of European legislation and that the Government were seeking a procedure for achieving seat belt regulations in advance of a decision by Europe? They did so after suggesting research, which I have no doubt has been carried out. It is now up to the Minister, who is responsible for road transport, to find a way to introduce those regulations. He said that he had carried out the research and he promised that the regulations would be introduced in advance of European legislation. It is now November and we have not yet seen the regulations. We await them in advance of a European commitment.
Mr. Norris: The hon. Lady must know that the Community must agree before we can introduce legislation in advance of a Community directive. The delay has not been on the Government side. The hon. Lady is also wrong to say that the M40 tragedy triggered the desire for regulation, as the M2 coach accident was the spur. Since that accident, the Government have worked quickly and hard in Brussels to persuade the Community to grant us the right to go faster than it is going--the Community that the Opposition so wholly, enthusiastically and uncritically endorse. The reality is that the hon. Lady cannot produce one shred of evidence to show that we have not acted with all expedition in the matter. By treating it in such a cynical manner, she has done her party no service.
Ms Walley: I am pointing out that parents do not understand the delay. I await with interest a detailed letter from the Minister setting out each and every move that he has made since the matter first became an issue--a letter setting out what he has done to ensure that regulations are put on the statute book in advance of European directives. The Government promised us those regulations, but have not delivered them. If there are reasons for the delays, the Minister should tell us what they are.
We will return to that issue time and again because people clearly want the regulations. Although people in some parts of the country might be willing to insist that commercial operators provide seat belts, that is no substitute for regulations so that minibus and coach operators know exactly what should be fitted, in what
Column 856circumstances, how the belts should be maintained and what should apply retrospectively. We need clear guidance on all those matters.
Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth): Will the hon. Lady put me out of a predicament? I listened carefully to what she and my hon. Friend the Minister said. Is she saying that she wants the Government to act unilaterally, without a collective decision with our European partners? Does she want us to do as we want and to tell the rest of Europe to go to wherever?
Ms Walley: People outside this place who take an interest in such debates will see how the issue is being turned into a different issue about Europe. We need to know exactly what the Government have done in advance of European legislation. They said that they would find a way.
How councils' stretched budgets can shoulder the price of safety is another issue. More than anything else, the Government's empty rhetoric on seat belts sums up the difference between what they say and what they mean. That is true of road safety education and road safety officers, who should have the resources to do the work--working in partnership with voluntary agencies such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, motoring organisations such as the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club, and other council departments, especially schools, the police and the local authorities that employ them--of co-ordinating road safety at a local level.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that road safety education is essential. Indeed, he said so in his speech. Education has a major part to play in making the changes necessary for improved road safety relevant to people of all ages, especially to the young. One change must be in the attitude to excessive speed and use of the roads. The debate has various aspects and strands. It is clear that motor manufacturers' advertising campaigns have stressed speed--often at the expense of road safety, and we must study that.
Mr. Fabricant: Does the hon. Lady accept that there is a distinction between acceleration and speed? I take her point. She is right in saying that some advertisements pander to the boy racer. Does she accept, however, that acceleration can get people out of, rather than into, difficulty and that there is a difference between acceleration and top speed?
As good as they are, unless the Department of Transport's campaigns on speed, drink-driving, pedestrian safety and the use of seat belts in cars are backed up by properly resourced, local road safety officers, their success cannot be maintained. I cannot stress too strongly how important it is that, having made progress, we maintain it. Just because there has been some success with the drink-driving campaign, that does not mean that we can ease off; we must keep up the pressure and maintain the results. Road safety officers can play an important role in achieving that.
We must pay more attention to the proper enforcement of regulations that already exist. Clearly, following the first road traffic legislation, it was natural for the police
Column 857to be handed powers of enforcement. We could not have anticipated today's world of performance-related pay for chief police officers. How can the Transport Minister guarantee adequate levels of enforcement for traffic officers for motorway incidents and routine patrol work when the interim report of the Home Office review of core functions fails to define traffic police work as the major objective that we would like it to be?
Who is responsible for guaranteeing that police resources are available for enforcement of road traffic offences and how is that to be done in future? There has been a great change in the way that local police forces operate. They will have a set of objectives and targets--it is crucial that road safety should feature among them. When the Minister winds up, will he tell us what relationship he has with the Home Secretary on that issue and how he wants to set objectives in respect of the work of the police?
What priority has been given to ensuring that there are enough police to carry out lorry checks and speed checks? I am sure that those who followed the Sowerby bridge incident and other such accidents will be aware of the dangers ahead on our roads. There are fewer and fewer police carrying out spot checks, and fewer controls on maintenance standards and on the limit on hours worked by heavy goods vehicle drivers and bus drivers. Such factors increase the likelihood of serious accidents--we must take account of that. I was glad that the Minister said a great deal about speed cameras. From what I have read--I do not have his first-hand knowledge of the west London experiment--I believe that the cameras have led to a decrease of more than one third in the number of accidents, which must be welcomed. That shows that we need far more speed cameras, as well as the resources to buy them and to place them where they are most needed and can make the biggest contribution to reducing the number of accidents. We also need the money to ensure that the evidence from those speed cameras is properly processed. We hear a lot about profit generation and the ways in which, within the police service, different offences can lead to income generation. I am glad that the Minister said that he would ensure that those cameras are placed where they are most needed in the interests of road safety. There are many new laws and regulations, including construction and use regulations, which will be beneficial. I shall mention one that the Minister did not: bull bars on on-road vehicles. The research carried out shows that the Minister could easily act to outlaw bull bars to ensure that they are not used on cars as they are at present. I should like the Minister to have said something about how that could be done and what he proposed to do in future. It is a cause for worry, particularly as the impact of bull bars is so great that, rather than causing less severe accidents, the chances are that accidents will be severe, if not fatal.
Evidence recently produced by the Department of Transport shows that drivers under the age of 21 are involved in 1,000 fatal accidents a year. We must acknowledge that and act accordingly. I welcome the Government's four-pronged attack, particularly pre-driver training in schools. When can we expect the introduction of the legislation mentioned by the Minister? It is now about a week since the Gracious Speech. I wonder why it did not include such legislation--it is not as though we
Column 858face a taxing time with a heavy legislative programme. Why did not the Gracious Speech include legislation to enable the Government to respond to the problems mentioned by the Minister in his speech? What is the Government's response, particularly to the proposal advanced by the AA for a graduated points threshold for new drivers? Developments in Europe provide an opportunity for enhanced safety, but there are more opportunities that the Government could grasp. The Minister said that theory tests would be introduced on 1 July 1996. There is much uncertainty about who will manage the tests, how they will be introduced and to what extent they will be hived off to the private and commercial sector.
I am glad that the Minister mentioned the second European Community directive on driver licensing, which would require voluntary minibus drivers to take a separate official driving test to drive vehicles with a carrying capacity of more than eight passengers. I think that there is some common ground between us over that issue. We are aware that the United Kingdom is different from most other European countries in that voluntary organisations depend far more on their own minibuses than is the case elsewhere in mainland Europe. There are many good reasons for that. One reason is the lack of investment in public transport, which is not on a par with that of other European countries.
The Opposition are also aware of important financial
considerations. But, having derogated in that way, is there some way for the Government to introduce national guidance so that volunteers driving minibuses on behalf of organisations do not drive them simply according to a set of guidelines issued by a county council, but drive them to a standard that complies with national guidelines issued by the Government? It is a skilled operation and it is crucial that minibus drivers are competent to handle vehicles. We also need tighter regulations for those employed in the minibus industry. Fears a out road safety apply as much to rural areas as to urban--some policies impact equally on both. We have heard a lot about drink-driving, and the campaign to kill speed, which must be maintained. We must understand the way in which the creeping privatisation of the arm's-length agencies for inspections and training results in lower standards.
There are worries about the future viability of school crossing patrols. I am concerned that they are being reviewed in many parts of the country. In urban districts, local safety schemes are effective in reducing the number of road accidents. However, the money available for traffic calming and traffic management, which benefits all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians, is not enough to cope with the demand.
Our exchange on cycling was useful. No one is more pleased than me at the change in psychology on cycling, which is now recognised as a healthy pursuit that can drastically reduce road traffic. Stoke-on-Trent is twinned with a city in Germany, Erlangen, which has a wonderful system for cyclists. It is second nature for people to cycle whenever possible and there are facilities for people to leave their cycles so that they can travel to and from work. I am pleased that a school in my constituency has recently received some grants to enable it to build cycling facilities. I hope that that will open up other opportunities. The city engineer will have to integrate those facilities into wider traffic systems.
Column 859We must consider ways to change the attitude of engineers responsible for highway policy. Where cycling has been overlooked for many years, we need to ensure that engineers are properly trained and receive national guidance from the Department of Transport to show clearly how cycling can be encouraged. I look forward to seeing a copy of the guidance notes to which the Minister referred. I am glad that the traditional casual approach to road safety is being challenged. Leeds council, for example, has responded to that challenge by
"moving out of the ghetto of bright armbands, and poster competitions, and into the realms of sustainable transport, public health and quality of life issues."
It has set up a road danger reduction forum. I hope that the Minister will encourage similar forums in other parts of the country. I hope that the Minister will endorse the new approach to road safety, which is based on reducing danger at source while promoting equity and accessibility for non- motorised users.
The accident statistics for rural areas are grim. In 1992, an AA foundation study revealed that rural roads in Cambridgeshire accounted for 89 per cent. of fatal accidents and that 44 per cent. of all traffic accidents occur on rural roads. Those roads were found to be more dangerous and to cause higher casualties than urban ones. Will the Minister tell us what action he proposes to take in rural areas to reduce single-vehicle accidents; accidents at T-junctions and staggered junctions; accidents on private drives and slip roads and those involving heavy goods vehicles and slow-moving traffic? Many issues deserve to be properly considered in this debate, which is all too brief. I do not think that Fridays are the best time for such a debate. Just as there has been a change in the psychology governing cycling policy, so there is a great wind of change that wants to alter our sitting days and the way in which the business of the House is managed. A debate on a Friday does not guarantee that the subject in question gains the maximum amount of attention. Road safety needs to be properly debated.
To make our roads safer is an enormous task and it can be undertaken only in a consistent, comprehensive and co-ordinated manner. The Government have fragmented and dismantled many of the agencies that used to underpin road safety and it is clear that their approach to it is piecemeal. We have heard some encouraging policy suggestions from the Minister, but we will look closely to see how he follows them up in the long term.
Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West): This is an important debate. At the risk of being ungallant, I regret to say that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) has not made a good fist of it. I agreed with some of the points she made, but the impact of her speech suffered because of the dismal turnout on the Opposition Benches. I am not fussed about the Liberal Democrats--the only surprise in their case is when they turn up. We all know that hon. Members have constituency engagements on a Friday and I would excuse the absence of Opposition Members if it were not for the fact that they are always rabbiting on about integrated transport, as though they knew all about it. Today would give those Opposition Members a wonderful opportunity
Column 860to explain their case and I am sorry that the hon. Lady does not have the support that perhaps she deserves from her colleagues. I must declare an interest, because I am not merely a stalwart, but I have the honour to be president, of the Guild of Experienced Motorists, which has about 60,000 members. We consider ourselves to be one of the premier road safety organisations in the land. Our theme, if it can be called such, is care, courtesy and concentration at all times. The guild takes a close interest in road safety. I entirely agree with the Minister that our accident reduction record is extremely good. We compare extremely favourably with Europe, but we should not be too smug about that. We must keep relentlessly on the job of reducing road accidents. It is sobering to reflect that a Lockerbie-type accident happens every month on our roads. To put it another way, if 4,200 people were killed by shotguns each year, the outcry would be deafening. We would go berserk and demand legislation. That number of people are killed on our roads each year, to say nothing of the 50,000 people who are seriously injured and possibly permanently maimed. For that reason, we must take the subject of road safety seriously.
I was interested to note what my hon. Friend said about drink-driving, because the guild has been active in stopping that practice. It has been a particular success story because young people now consider it normal for the driver not to drink. If there is still a problem, I am afraid that it is still evident in my generation, which is largely at fault.
The great statistic has always been that one accident in five is caused by drink. According to lateral thinking, however, that means that four out of five accidents are not caused by drinking. We must try to reduce those accidents.
In the past, Governments have faced great difficulty--
Mr. Miller: I am not trying to trick the hon. Gentleman into a silly position, because I am sure that he is not suggesting that the 510 deaths that occurred in 1993 as a result of alcohol-related accidents are not serious and do not need to be addressed. Surely he is not saying that his generation, members of which are perhaps not as astute as some younger people, does not need the rod as well as the carrot.
Sir Anthony Grant: Certainly not. I praised young people, but I readily acknowledged that much of the trouble lies with older generations. We must recognise, however, that four out of five accidents are nothing to do with drink. We must aim to reduce that accident rate in the future.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North mentioned Cambridgeshire. Everything in Cambridgeshire and throughout East Anglia is excellent. It is the healthiest region and it has the lowest unemployment rate. You name it, everything is wonderful there, with one exception: the region has the worst record of road accidents. That is a disgrace and I am glad that the hon. Lady referred to it.
In my constituency, the A45 and the A505 are nightmares to drive on. They are straight, narrow roads with sudden bends. People come off the motorway at high speed and then endeavour to overtake. Those roads are a deathtrap. I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of attempting to reduce road accidents in rural areas. That is one reason why the debate is so important.
Column 861Until recently, successive Governments had not caught up with the motor car phenomenon. They recognised that increased prosperity and more vehicles were a good thing--I accept that up to a point. When I started motoring it was a joy, but now all too often it is a nightmare. We know that motorways are an important feature of the transport infrastructure. They are far and away the safest roads to drive on-- statistically that is incontrovertible. On the M25, however, one often drives in a 70 mph traffic jam.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) spoke about the dangers of excessively powerful vehicles and I have found that the more powerful the vehicle I drive, the faster and faster I drive from one traffic jam to the next. Apart from the Netherlands, which is smaller than this country anyway, Britain is more overcrowded with vehicles than any other European country. We must address that serious problem. The answer for the future is rather draconian: we must ensure that there are fewer bad drivers and fewer bad cars on the roads.
I was delighted when the Minister spoke of clamping down on vehicle licensing evasion. He pointed out that £145 million per annum was lost because people did not pay their road licence. Let me praise the fact that Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire were used as pilot regions in that clampdown. One million vehicles on the road are uninsured. One might ask how their owners can purchase vehicle excise discs. They simply obtain a temporary cover note and get a tax disc for a year, if necessary. They subsequently continue to drive while uninsured and cause the most appalling accidents, annoyance and injury. One's insurers can help in that respect, but that does not help to get one's vehicle repaired. I hope that the Government will carefully review the scandal of uninsured vehicles.
Mr. Fabricant: Just as one has to display a vehicle excise licence on the windscreen, would it not be a good idea to adopt the practice of many European countries and of the United States, and require drivers to display a certificate of insurance on the windscreen? I mean not the certificate in its traditional format, but a smaller document that could easily be checked by police officers.
Sir Anthony Grant: That is an excellent idea, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will give it thought. It is one thing not to pay one's road tax and to cost the Government money. It is quite another thing to drive while uninsured. I hope that my hon. Friend's suggestion will meet with favour.
I know that the Government are giving serious thought also to improving driving standards. I have always been critical of the fact that one can get in a little Mini, tootle around a suburban road at 30 mph and pass a driving test--then get straight into a Ferrari or Jaguar and belt round the M25. Entirely different driving techniques are required. Everyone assumes that the roads are always as in spring or summer--clear and free of ice. European drivers appreciate that driving conditions can differ.
Good eyesight is a matter of particular interest to the Guild of Experienced Motorists, which makes sight-testing machines available to local authorities and other organisations. The results are staggering. Those tests
Column 862reveal how many people should not be driving. I shall let the House into a secret. I took the test as the president of the guild and was told, "You ought to get another pair of spectacles."
Lady Olga Maitland rose --
Lady Olga Maitland: I am sorry to interrupt, and I hope that my hon. Friend's funny story will follow my intervention. Is he aware that it is possible to take a sight test for night driving? That test, devised by Professor Paul Cook, confirms that different perceptions are involved, which may require rectifying by the use of different spectacles.
Sir Anthony Grant: Anything that draws the public's attention to the need for good eyesight and appropriate spectacles is important. One member of the guild's council is a retired senior police officer. He told the story of a motorist who was stopped for driving erratically, but who was perfectly sober. The officers noticed that he was not wearing spectacles and asked him to read the number plate of the police car parked some yards ahead. The motorist asked, "What police car?"
I am confident that the Department, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister are applying a good deal of new thinking. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who is a zealot in this respect, and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who brought huge enthusiasm to his task. I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Minister talk of the progress made in achieving the target set for reducing road accidents. I shall suggest one or two more targets. It is important to get unroadworthy vehicles off the road. The report of the Royal Commission on pollution should be studied carefully. In due course, no car that is environmentally unclean should be allowed on the road. In future, I hope that all vehicles will have catalytic converters and use unleaded petrol. I look askance when I am in a traffic jam and ahead of me is a disgusting old banger belching forth the most filthy fumes, which has in its back window the sign "Nuclear? No thanks". There is a lot of hypocrisy.
Many road casualties involve stolen cars. The level of car theft in this country is among the worst in Europe. We need to address that scandalous and disgraceful situation. Drivers of stolen cars are most likely to cause mayhem and accidents. Another target for the future is that there should be no car on the road that is not fitted with a full security system, an immobiliser so that it cannot be driven away--there are many inexpensive immobilisers on the market--and a tracking device. A tracker allows the police to identify the changing location of a stolen vehicle almost immediately and to halt it at the next junction. Such equipment should be installed as a matter of course, as are seat belts and radios.
The greatest cause of accidents on motorways is vehicles driving too close to each other and failing to allow for their speed and the road conditions. When I drive up the M11, I am appalled to see heavy goods lorries travelling within inches of vehicles in front. That causes terror to some of my constituents. One can imagine poor
Column 863old ladies driving along on the inside lane. My wife--who is not actually a poor old lady--drives up the M11 and keeps to 70 mph on the inside lane, but enormous juggernauts travel only 2 ft or 3 ft behind her. That practice could be defeated by the use of available technology that shows when a vehicle is too close. I am advised that it is also possible for such a device to govern the vehicle's speed. I should like also to see vigorous testing of heavy goods vehicles. One police officer in my constituency told me that the police test HGVs whenever they can, and that it would make one's hair stand on end if one knew the condition of the brakes and other equipment on many of them. I will not get into a Euro debate but many such vehicles come from Europe, where standards may not be as high as those in this country.
The courts should make much greater use of the power of disqualification, which is the greatest deterrent that they have. I would add one other. If the courts could confiscate vehicles, that would get bad vehicles and bad drivers off the road and that would be a much more salutary punishment than a fine.
For years, the Ministry of Transport was the Cinderella of Government. Today, transport is assuming a much higher priority. I was afraid that it would change from being the Cinderella to being one of the ugly sisters, but I am satisfied that, under the stewardship of my hon. Friend the Minister and the new Secretary of State, it will become the Prince Charming.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I want to spend a little time sharing with colleagues ideas about death on the roads. It is easy to be complacent and argue that we have one of the best records in the world. On that basis, we could all pat ourselves on the back and go home. The figures in the document to which I referred earlier, the "Statistical Report on Road Accidents in 1991" by the European Conference of Transport Ministers, published last year, shows that Britain has 433 vehicles per 1,000 population. Many vehicles travel on this small island, yet we are almost at the bottom of the table on road risk. Therefore, the general advice to motorists and pedestrians is that it is safer to travel in Britain, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe or in the United States, Canada or Japan.
I am pleased that the Minister acknowledged that we should not be complacent, because 4,000 people still die on the roads every year. Although the figures throughout Europe and the UK are falling, people are still needlessly dying. We can do much to improve road safety. The Minister mentioned road design, and we could educate drivers and improve vehicle design. The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) referred to some of those measures. When all of that has been dealt with, the fact remains that we need to legislate against drink-drivers and the lunatic fringe, who show little responsibility towards others.
How should society deal with a person who causes the death of another while at the wheel of a car? I contend that we should approach the offence just as we approach that of any other culpable death. I hope that hon Members will bear with me while I go through the statistics because it is important to see what is happening and put it in perspective.
Column 864In 1992, an estimated 510 fatal accidents involved illegal alcohol levels, with 610 casualties. The corresponding figures for 1990 are 650 and 760 respectively. That shows that the vast majority of road deaths--some 85 per cent.--are not caused by drunken drivers. The hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West made that point. Although it is impossible to tell how many of the deaths were accidents and how many were caused by negligent driving or bad vehicle maintenance, the latter category may account for as many as those killed by drunk driving.
On the charges brought, in 1992, 402 people were tried at Crown court level for causing death by dangerous driving, compared with just two for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Committals for trials at magistrates courts ran at 307 and six respectively. The offence of causing death by dangerous driving is therefore numerically more important than the alcohol-related offence. For that reason, it should be
straightforward for the police to charge somebody with that offence. The Road Traffic Act 1991 replaced the offence of causing death by reckless driving with the offences of causing death by dangerous driving and of causing death by careless driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The change was intended to facilitate a greater number of such charges being brought against a driver who had killed, but it has not worked.
The most detailed figures available from the Home Office statistical bulletin, "Motor Offences, England and Wales, 1992", are for offences causing death or bodily harm. As well as the two aforementioned offences, that category includes causing death by aggravated vehicle taking, which is another point mentioned this morning, and causing bodily harm.
Since 1989, the number of people charged with those offences has remained static at about 600. The conviction rate has not improved, with some 400 people found guilty of those offences every year. Although the number of people charged with such offences is proportionately higher as the number of road deaths has declined, it is not a highly significant improvement. The difference between the number of accidents in 1991 and 1992 was just 1 per cent. It is difficult to obtain a conviction in cases involving causing death by dangerous driving. In 1992, just 9.44 per cent. of cases of that nature coming before a magistrates court were discontinued. That may seem a small figure--less than 10 per cent.--but it compares with just 4.35 per cent. of charges of careless driving. Of the cases heard, 82 of the 402 led to acquittals and two never came to trial. That compares with 24 of the 300 cases of driving without due care and attention heard at Crown courts and 12,606 of the 88,422 charges of driving without due care and attention offences, which is the most common careless driving offence. Proportionately, more cases are discontinued and more are dismissed or acquitted when death by dangerous driving is the charge. That is important as it backs up speculation that it is difficult to gain a conviction for such a charge.
Organisations and individuals concerned with that matter suspect that the Crown Prosecution Service would rather not risk a charge of causing death by dangerous driving but prefers the relative certainty of a guilty plea to driving without due care and attention. That charge, however, is not suitable for such a serious offence. The