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1.5 pm

Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham): I am afraid that I fundamentally disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Dover). We are debating the serious

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matter of road safety and, in view of the potential danger of road vehicles and the real danger as shown by accident statistics, it is incumbent upon Parliament and the nation to ensure that steps are taken to require all motor vehicles to comply with the highest standards of safety. That should be a mandatory requirement. One cannot allow individuals to make decisions about fittings on their cars that are designed to protect their own safety when what might provide safety for them may be to the detriment of others. We require impartial, carefully calculated and scientific engineering design that will enable cars and other vehicles using our public roads to have the highest degree of inbuilt safety.

Like many hon. Members, my attention was first drawn to bull bars and the potential risk by constituents. I was vaguely aware of such additions to vehicles but I had not thought about the safety aspect. I had assumed that, in the 1990s, additions that sprouted on cars were subjected to exhaustive tests and complied with the highest safety standards. Perhaps that assumption is a damnation of the system.

When I received letters and phone calls from constituents I became very concerned, because the evidence suggested that these additions to vehicles gave rise to great risk and that people were being killed because of them. I listened carefully to the comments, many of which were not deeply scientific but were based on commonsense judgment. I was contacted by a local GP, Dr. Roger Wells, who was motivated purely by his own judgment and his medical knowledge of the damage that can be caused when a person is hit at certain levels of the body by a fast-moving piece of metal, which of course describes a bull bar.

I looked into the matter in more detail and was surprised to find that tests had not been carried out before bull bars becoming available. In my naivety, I always assumed that a vehicle had to meet safety regulations on car bumpers and the collapsible elements of a car's structure for it to receive type approval and to minimise the damage not only, of course, to the driver and passenger, but to pedestrians. I am disappointed, therefore, that, in a way, we seem to be going backwards: something has come in first and we are talking about the safety implications only now.

One point has been missed.

Mr. Alan Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes a lucid case. Will he reflect on the fact that many of the libertarian arguments adduced today for opposing the Bill were the same type of arguments that were used to try to prevent the compulsory use of crash helmets? Now, everybody recognises that lives have been saved and people have not been turned into cabbages because they do not suffer the serious injuries that they otherwise would have suffered. Today, we are hearing almost a rerun of that pterodactyl case.

Mr. Merchant: That is true in relation to crash helmets and safety belts. I am not a libertarian, but I have some libertarian tendencies in the sense that I do not like unnecessary state intervention or unnecessary regulation, but that is not to say that I reject regulation if it is necessary. When it comes to safety and, especially, individual safety on the road, an extremely dangerous place, regulation is justified.

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I want to inject one word of caution. As far as I am aware, today's discussion has linked bull bars with the danger that they can cause in an accident, but there has not been much discussion of the other contributory causes. That is not, in any sense, a defence of bull bars--no one would think, from what I have said, that I am in that line of business--but we must bear it in mind that, for a bull bar to cause damage, there must be at least one additional contributory factor: speed, error by one of the parties involved and so on.

That is an important point, not just because it puts the whole thing in proper perspective. During research into the causes of accidents, apparent anomalies can emerge as the accident is probably multi-factorial: it could be ascribed to speed, to weather conditions or to a pedestrian's mistake. Statistics might not show that the bull bar played an important part in an accident. However, the reverse can be true. We can fall into the mistake of thinking that only the bull bar is to blame when other factors also contributed to causing the accident.

Mr. Norris: My hon. Friend's observation is especially acute bearing in mind the fact that, at 40 mph, more than 80 per cent. of people involved in a pedestrian accident are likely to die, whether the vehicle has a soft front or a bull bar. That is a regrettable fact that we should never forget. It is in that area that some of the analytical difficulties lie.

Mr. Merchant: Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point.

I reach two conclusions from this. First, important though it is to legislate on this matter, we must keep it in context and be cautious about the statistics, whatever they are and whenever they arise. Secondly, in legislating, we must bear it in mind that other action must be taken in the realms of road safety. Speed in particular is a major cause of accidents, but there are others too.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will well remember this. I have spoken in the House many times on road safety matters, which are a particular concern of mine, and on previous Bills on the subject, some of which have passed into law. I have always been motivated by the general desire to achieve a reduction in accidents. The law has an important part to play in that, but it is mistake to think that any one measure alone will achieve everything that we want. Nevertheless, the issue of bull bars has been in the public domain for some time. Months, indeed years, have passed in which we have been able to identify a cause of serious damage to humans on roads without taking any real action. I greatly regret that.

Evidence from the RAC, the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety, road safety officers and RoSPA has mounted, and action has been taken by companies such as DHL, which has been mentioned, and insurance companies such as CGA Insurance, all of which I welcome, but none of which has yet taken us the necessary further step to legislative action. That seems largely to be because of confusion over the roles of the Government and the European Union. It seems that, all too often, the EU acts when it is not necessary and fails to act when it is necessary. There is no doubt that if the EU were determined enough, action could be taken at European level. I would, however, very much prefer that action were taken at national level, and it is regrettable that, under our treaty arrangements, and so on, that does not entirely seem possible.

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We should be listening to the day-to-day experience in this country, and acting on it. I was in touch with Andrew Rogers of the Bromley road safety unit in my borough and quickly discovered that, based on their professional judgment, the head of the unit and the borough's director of engineering, Gordon Hayward, are totally opposed to bull bars, and say that the sooner that they are removed from all vehicles the better.

I rely heavily on such experience and judgment because such men have the full-time task of monitoring road safety at local level. They are not sitting behind a desk compiling statistics--valid though they may be--or talking about it, as we do in the House. They are out there at the sharp end, at street level, seeing what happens and judging where there is safety and where there is not. They do not make their judgment on the basis of statistics, as I understand that the Metropolitan police force is not among the forces conducting a statistical analysis.

It is important to look at the wider statistics on accidents. The 1995 accident figures for Bromley statistics showed a rise in the number of deaths from nine to 12 since the previous year. That occurred after many years of a declining trend in the number of fatal accidents. There has also been an increase in serious accidents from 115 to 129, and 275 accidents in the past year have affected people under the age of 18. Unfortunately, those figures are also matched nationally. Figures published yesterday showed an increase in road deaths nationally, which I very much regret. It follows great achievements in continuing reductions in the death rate on the roads over the past decade. We must therefore double our efforts in all directions to do everything that we can to reduce accidents, deaths and serious injuries. The Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) will play an important part in that process.

Mr. Dover: Has my hon. Friend any knowledge of the number of accidents involving vehicles with bull bars in or near his constituency? I would be most interested in the answer.

Mr. Merchant: My hon. Friend must have missed my point. When I was reporting the views of road safety officials in Bromley, I said that they did not have those figures because the Met was not one of the forces collecting them. I sincerely hope that it will conduct such research and collect figures. I would very much welcome that. However, I felt that I could rely on the professional judgment of the road unit, based not on statistics but on the experience of men who have been in the business long enough to have a good feel. In a way, I would rather rely on that than simply on statistics that are capable of many interpretations.


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