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Mr. Dover: Does my hon. Friend know of any newsworthy unfortunate accidents in his area? Has he been approached by many people--victims or drivers--about this issue?

Mr. Merchant: Yes, I have been approached by many people; I said at the start of my speech that my interest had originally stemmed from that.

It is not up to me to analyse individual accidents.I would be in danger of using only hearsay evidence. I have heard of some, and I have read details of accidents

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outside my constituency in which bull bars clearly played an important part in inflicting injuries, but I hope that we would not need to base our judgment entirely on the evidence of fatalities that have occurred. I would hope, as I said when I was discussing safety measures on vehicles, that we could be forward-looking enough to work out where accidents would be at their worst and take steps to prevent them from happening.

Pertinently, the hon. Member for Newport, West mentioned the macho image of driving. Why do people want bull bars on their vehicles? In general, they are not put on for safety reasons. The signs are that they do not improve the safety even of the occupants of the car, and some studies say the reverse. No; people put bull bars on their vehicles because it is a fad--a trend. Unfortunately, motoring is very susceptible to trends. It should not be.

The object of getting in a vehicle is to travel and it should be to do so reasonably comfortably and, above all, as safely as possible. I deprecate fashion accessories that have nothing to do with safety or with the drive. Moreover, this fad is dubious because it panders to people's image of driving as an aggressive, macho power kick, and that is one of the most dangerous elements evident when someone is behind a wheel. I start from a position of considerable doubt, even if there were no evidence of danger, because of the psychological aspect.

Bull bars are a visual element. The definition of a bull bar in the Bill is a "protection system". There is evidence that in many cases it is not a protection system but a decorative, visual system. I hope that the hon. Member for Newport, West takes note of that.

I am worried about the reference to a "metal" bar because, although I have no evidence for saying so, common sense tells me that a bar might be made of other materials that might be equally dangerous. They might be equally tough--as are carbon fibre-based materials--or they might on impact do equally serious damage.A plastic bar might fracture, producing sharp edges that would drive into someone's side. The Bill's scope should be not narrowed but widened.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds(Mr. Spring) mentioned a survey carried out by RoSPA and Auto Express, which showed that three quarters of those surveyed believed that the bars were fitted to vehicles only because they were fashionable and that90 per cent. of the readers of Auto Express--people in driving for driving's sake--wanted bull bars banned. Eighty-nine per cent. believed that bull bars were dangerous. The public view is perceptive and should be taken into account when we examine such issues.

I made passing reference to PACTS. Its conclusions are interesting. Its members are experienced people who know what they are talking about and have considered the matter in detail. The council said in September 1995:

which is probably permissible under European agreements--

That comes on top of conclusions that back up virtually everything that the hon. Member for Newport, West said and gives further credence to fatality and injury figures.

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The council backs the Transport Research Laboratory's initial findings of 35 deaths and 350 serious injuries. The council's view is powerful evidence that needs to be taken into account. We cannot agree today with certainty on a specific figure for deaths, but that does not matter because in my book, one death is too many--indeed, one potential death is too many. I am sure that, however one reads the statistics, more than one death has resulted from bull bars. That requires us to act.

We could simply wait, but I believe that the evidence is strong enough and that commonsense signs are powerful enough for that to be a dangerous and rather irresponsible direction to take. Alternatively, we could explore the possibility of taking limited action in the knowledge that we are probably restricted from the overwhelming action that I would like to see because of European agreements.

If we can take limited action, there is a powerful argument for doing so. There is also a powerful argument even for temporary action. I understand the problems and limitations, and especially the upset that such action will cause tidy legal minds or tidy departmental minds. However, if we had a three or four-month period in which we introduced a total ban, we would probably succeed in delivering a death blow--perhaps I should not have used that phrase--or in making an impact on the industry and on consumer attitudes that would be so powerful that the fashion would never recover. In other words, the fashion would be wiped from people's minds.

Mr. Dover: Is it not far better to use persuasion? Already, the number of vehicles with bull bars fitted has declined and some bull bars have been taken off. Surely that means that the art of persuasion is working and that it is far more effective to ensure that people realise why bull bars are dangerous objects and why they should take some avoiding action.

Mr. Merchant: I entirely agree that persuasion is important and I hope that this debate is part of the process of informing and persuading. Sadly, however, persuasion is normally not sufficient with human beings. Not everyone who is attracted by bull bars will be persuaded, and there will remain irresponsible individuals who will continue to use them. They will probably be the worst offenders because they will have bull bars for entirely the wrong reasons. They are exactly the people who may then, regrettably, be involved in fatal accidents. We are talking about people's lives and about the terrible mayhem that still occurs on Britain's roads, which would not be tolerated in any other part of our national life. Bearing that in mind, we cannot simply rely on persuasion, important though it is. We must take further steps and those steps must be legislative.

I mentioned two possibilities--doing nothing or taking limited action. There are two other possibilities. One is to press forward with greater vigour to try to achieve a European settlement on the matter. I have no objection to that being done, but I am sceptical--it is not the only sense in which I am sceptical about the European Union--about anything resulting from that in the near future.

I have worked on directives, or objections to directives, where it has been promised that one will be introduced next year, and then that it will be introduced the year after.

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Four or five years on, one normally finds that it has not been finalised or agreed, or, if it has, it has been watered down. When it eventually comes, it is not properly applied across Europe. I have no objection to a directive, but we would be literally taking our lives into our hands if we sat back and waited for one.

I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that the House should take definitive action. That is why I so much welcome the Bill. It may be that once it has been scrutinised, improved and brought into law, we would clash with the European Union over it. I for one would not find that especially unwelcome. Apart from anything else, it would put tremendous moral pressure on European institutions to act more quickly and responsibly. Even if, having passed the law, we were prevented from putting it into full effect, that law would shame the European Union into taking action. For all those reasons, I find the argument in favour of firm, swift and full action against bull bars overwhelming. I hope that some means will be found to bring into law in this country a measure that will not only enhance safety on British roads but save British lives.

1.30 pm

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newport, West(Mr. Flynn) on introducing the Bill. He may be surprised to hear that from me because on the previous occasion on which we met in a public debate, we were of different opinions. That does not mean that we must always be at odds with each other.

I support the Bill, its spirit and its determination. When I read it, I was especially pleased that it was so determined to hammer home the point about the harm that bull bars can do. It provides for a three-month gaol sentence for any person driving such vehicles, which are killing machines. There is no other term for them. The Bill's spirit is appropriate.

I do not believe that concern about violence on the roads--that is what we are dealing with--is restricted to the hon. Member for Newport, West and those who have been immediately involved with the sponsorship of the Bill. I am well aware that my hon. Friend the Minister has been following the issue for some time. He has been hitting the bureaucrats. I am sure that he will tell us about the results of that. If he is getting at the red tape and the dilatory thinkers, they will not stand a chance.

We are talking about 'roo bars, crash bars or bull bars which originated in the Australian outback. It is a romantic notion to think of vehicles skidding across that wide open landscape trying to avoid damage from leaping kangaroos, which are much attracted by the headlights of cars. In the right environment, bull bars are valid. In the Australian outback, kangaroos are a hazard, as were cows when cowcatchers were fitted to trains in America in the last century.

Times have moved on. It is a curious paradox that Australia, where one might have thought that there was good reason to keep such bars, has now banned them. The news has travelled from down under back to the mother country and we are behind the Aussies. I love the Australians dearly for many reasons, but this time it is salutary that we should consider their experiences. In 1980, Australia's transport department began studies that showed that bull bars, and their increasing use in urban areas, were causing more accidents, injuries and fatalities and that pedestrians were particularly at risk.

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In this country bull bars are legitimately used by farmers in their four-wheel drives. The RAC, and probably everyone now in the Chamber, would admit that in the right situation they are perfectly acceptable. However, the difficulty is that in the early 1990s vehicles with bull bars achieved a tremendous boom in popularity, and became a common sight on urban streets.

This morning, making a quarter of an hour's journey in my little Ford estate--which has no bull bars--while I was going round Trafalgar square, down into Parliament square and into the House of Commons, I spotted three jeeps with bull bars in that small area, although I am glad to say that I also spotted seven without.

It is good to arrive in the House of Commons car park and realise that we are now, by election, a bull bar-free zone, but we must still ask ourselves why on earth people put bull bars on vehicles. Much as we love to pretend that we live in the country, we do not have to brush cows and bulls from the motorways or from our streets. They are not even seen in the streets of my leafy constituency of Sutton. The majority of bull bars are fitted purely as a fashion accessory to vehicles that have never been driven off the highway and into the countryside--vehicles that have never crossed turf in a field and never will. Fashion has gone mad.

Macho, ego-boosting, fitted to vans and pick-up trucks, bull bars have now caused unacceptable damage. They are an extra hazard on the road, in addition to road rage and ram-raiding. Indeed, I suspect that much of the ram-raiding is carried out using such vehicles. So what are bull bars really for? It must be vanity. It is estimated that no less than 12 per cent. of the vehicle fleet in this country have had them fitted. As the hon. Member for Newport, West said, 500,000 vehicles are involved, and that is fashion design gone mad.

I do not believe that a bull bar is worth the sacrificing of a life. Three tragic cases, out of many more, come immediately to mind, such as that of 12-year-old Helen Baggs, hit full-square in the chest. I was deeply moved by the description by the hon. Member for Newport, West, because she was his constituent and he must know her family well. It is always deeply painful for a family to lose one of its loved ones, but to lose a child is even worse.

We also think of pensioner Ivy Harnett, and 13-year-old Victoria Moule, who was seriously injured. I pay tribute to Victoria's mother, Sharon Moule, who has worked tremendously hard to bring to public attention the awful and totally unnecessary suffering brought about by bull bars.

Surely vanity should not be allowed to cause 35 fatal accidents over the past year, and 350 serious injuries. And according to the RAC, the real figures could be twice as high, because it is difficult to obtain correct figures from the police. Of course the police force is not trying to be deliberately obstructive, but there is a genuine difficulty in analysing precisely what was the cause of an individual injury or death. One thing is for sure: whenever bull bars are attached to a vehicle involved in a serious accident, the injury will be infinitely greater. It is ironic that when more effort than ever before is being put into designing safer cars, we are still producing devices that are the antithesis of good practice and safety.

It is worth bearing in mind the new tests carried out by the BBC1 consumer programme "Watchdog", which are said to show just how dangerous bull bars are. Research

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showed that nine out of 10 children would survive if hit by a car travelling at 20 mph and without bull bars but that all would most certainly be killed if knocked down by a vehicle with bull bars and travelling at only 12 mph. It is therefore hardly surprising that Sharon Moule should have been so determined to carry on her courageous work. She provides a salutary lesson because she has in her daughter a consistent reminder of what bull bars can do. Her daughter is still suffering from her injuries, has dizzy spells and has fallen behind at school, yet Mrs. Moule says:

    "We are the lucky ones."

I hope that in future there will be no more cases like that involving Victoria Moule.

Most cars and vans and newer models of four-wheel-drive vehicles are now designed with what are known as pedestrian-friendly bonnets and fronts that crumple on impact, but bull bars transform the bonnet into a solid barrier. About 8 per cent. of pedestrian casualties of road accidents are children. The hard, narrow steel bull bars are set at a child's eye level and adults are likely to be hit in the chest, abdomen or pelvis, but adults and children alike will be hit in the legs by the reinforced bumper area of the crash bar. In some well publicised cases, surgeons, coroners and police officers have expressed the opinion that accidents would not have been fatal had bull bars not been fitted.

Research in Germany, New Zealand and Australia concludes that bull bars turn slight injury accidents into serious ones and serious accidents into fatalities. It is interesting that not one researcher has concluded that bull bars add anything to safety. Research in Germany found that a collision between a pedestrian and a car fitted with a steel bull bar can be fatal at only 16 mph. Because of the better energy absorption, the speed at which a fatality occurs when elastic, plastic devices are fitted is 37 mph. Further tests found that a vehicle equipped with a steel bull bar was six times more unsafe than one without.

In addition, the fitting of bull bars can provide a sense of invulnerability. Drivers believe that they are beyond harm and can hurtle along the roads, up and down back streets and in and out of traffic. We have all seen them sitting high up in their seats, holding a big wheel and hitting the accelerator, confident that the bull bar will protect them from everything. It might, but it certainly does not protect pedestrians. In fact, such drivers' safety is only illusory.

Research has shown that drivers of vehicles fitted with bull bars are at risk because their feeling of security is undoubtedly misplaced. Bull bars increase the risk of serious injuries to the occupants of a vehicle. A car fitted with bull bars will absorb the energy of any impact in such a way as to trigger the mechanism that brings into operation the safety bag or, indeed, delay it, as the case may be.

There has been some debate as to whether the Department of Transport has carried out sufficient research into the effects of bull bars. I draw the House's attention to a working paper that the Transport Research Laboratory at Crowthorne in Berkshire produced at the suggestion of the Department of Transport, because it makes interesting and useful reading. It certainly adds to the arguments in favour of the Bill. The document states:

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A detailed, six-page document follows, which anyone can examine and which leaves us in no doubt about how important it is to consider direct action and not just to leave regulation to wishful thinking, self-regulation and self-motivation. Those are not working.

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