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the Lords Message [12th July] communicating a Resolution relating to Human Rights (Joint Committee), be now considered;
this House concurs with the Lords in the said Resolution; and
the following Standing Order be made:
Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): The tragic death in the early hours of this morning of PC Jon Odell, killed by a hit and run driver while he was carrying out checks on speeding motorists in Kent, gives added poignancy to tonight's debate, particularly as it has come just four days after two students were killed by an out-of-control car while they stood on a pavement in Nottingham. I know that I speak for the whole House when I extend condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of these three young people, and those of the estimated 40 other people who have been killed on our roads during the past four days.
In the final five days before Christmas there is every likelihood that another 50 people will die. Every day, on average, 10 people are killed in road crashes--about 3,500 will have died this year. Yet despite such an appalling state of affairs, the Library has confirmed that at no time since the 1997 general election have the Government initiated a debate on road safety. Indeed, according to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety--PACTS--the last time the Government of the day had a debate on road deaths was in November 1994. In the six years since then more than 20,000 people have been killed on our roads.
Research undertaken by the Transport Research Laboratory compared hospital and police reported road casualties--it concluded that official statistics are substantially under-recorded. The true financial cost to the nation of crashes involving serious and slight injuries is probably more than £18 billion a year--twice the official figure.
I would like to say much more about RoadPeace's detailed research document, "The Missing Chapter", published in response to the Government's road safety strategy launched in March this year, but I do not have sufficient time this evening to do it justice. I urge the Minister and his colleagues to study it closely.
I deliberately do not use the words "road accident", because crashes that result in injury or death are seldom an accident, but rather the result of incompetent driving, at one end of the spectrum, or reckless driving, at the other--the latter often associated with excessive drinking.
With an average of 10 deaths every day on the roads, that puts the Hatfield rail crash, which resulted in four deaths, into context. Yet the Hatfield disaster attracted massive media attention, with questions and statements in the House, and major disruption of rail services. In contrast, the thousands of deaths in road crashes have been ignored.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): As chairman of the all-party group that supports RoadPeace, I commend the hon. Gentleman for the tremendous work that he does. Does he agree that the public perception of the difference between road and rail deaths is not helped by the official Opposition, who last night described the Government's attempts to recoup money from speed cameras for communities as a stealth tax? Will he, on behalf of the Liberal party, join the Labour party in condemning that?
Mr. Russell: I shall indeed, because all of us in public life should welcome any measures that may reduce road deaths. I also pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the part that he has played in RoadPeace and in many other ways to bring to public attention the awful number of road deaths in this country. I mentioned that people leaving trains to use their cars has had the consequence of more road deaths. Indeed, on 8 December, The Oxford Times reported:
It would be wrong to say that successive Governments have totally ignored road deaths. My complaint is that too little has been done. Nothing has been done to address the fundamental issue that road crashes and their consequences are not given the importance that they should. I particularly should like to praise the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) who, when he was a transport Minister, introduced the country's first casualty reduction target. That was a good start, which we need to build on. That welcome initiative was an attempt to change the attitude of society which, over the years, has seemingly shrugged its shoulders and become accustomed to accepting the huge human and financial cost of deaths on our roads as one of those things that we can do little to prevent.
I have never accepted the inevitability of any death on our roads. I hope that tonight the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), will give a commitment that the present Government does not either. Surely, the aim should be for a zero death rate, not a target that would still mean that nearly 2,000 of our citizens were being killed every year? The present projection is that one in 80 people will die as a result of a road crash, but the Government's target is to reduce that to one in 160. To bring that statistic into the Chamber, between four and eight hon. Members face the prospect of being killed in a road crash.
No price can be put on the loss of life, but the best official estimates are that the financial cost to the public purse of every fatal crash is about £1 million; it is about £110,000 for a serious injury crash; and £11,000 for a slight injury crash.
I welcome the Minister, but, in truth, I would much prefer a Minister from the Home Office, not the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, to respond to my debate. The biggest single measure that can be taken to reduce road crashes would
Making cars and our roads safer creates the feeling that the question of reducing the number of people being killed or injured is being addressed. However, if dangerous driving habits are not challenged, all that we are doing is making it more likely that bad drivers will feel even more immune to the consequences of their driving.
I welcome this afternoon's publication of the Government's consultation paper, "Road Traffic Penalties", which proposes tougher action against motorists who drive dangerously, or at excessive speed or while drunk. But what is the point of tougher penalties, when the courts do not use to the full extent the powers that they already have? The Government would do better to get magistrates and judges to start imposing existing penalties in advance of introducing the proposed new ones.
Let me cite an example of the way in which road deaths are treated as less important than any other form of involuntary death. It was set out in shocking, graphic detail in a full-page report in The Sun of 6 December, under a lengthy headline that read:
What sort of message does that send out? Quite simply, if someone is killed in a road crash, the guilty person is treated more leniently than if he had killed using a weapon other than a car driven recklessly. The mother of one of the teachers said:
That takes us beyond the DETR--it involves not only the Home Office, but also the offices of the Lord Chancellor and the Solicitor-General. In October, accompanied by my constituent Mr. Raymond Mason, whose wife was killed in May 1999 in a road crash, which left him with three young sons to bring up, I had a meeting with the Solicitor-General. We were concerned because the driver whose car killed Mrs. Mason escaped prosecution. I regard our one-hour meeting as potentially the most productive that I have experienced since I became a Member of Parliament.
The Solicitor-General, in consultation with the Home Office and other Departments--I hope that they include the DETR--is now considering changing the law in the following ways: creating a new offence of causing death by driving negligence--the court would determine the severity of the case and the sentence; the referral of all crashes involving a road death by the magistrates court to the Crown court for trial by jury or sentence by a judge, even in cases where a guilty plea is entered; immediately suspending the licence of the driver involved in a fatal crash, pending a medical inspection to determine whether he or she has a health condition that may affect driving; providing for an extension, beyond the current six-month legal limit, when alternative charges can be introduced if further evidence emerges either from the defence or prosecution that affects the original charge.
There must be a national crusade against the number of road crashes. The only sure way to reduce road deaths and injuries is for civilised society to regard those who drive at speed, fail to stop after an accident or drink and drive in exactly the same way as we regard those who carry out assaults. We need to shame the irresponsible as if they were thugs--thugs on wheels. We regard assault as unacceptable. We need to change attitudes so that those who endanger others through their driving are likewise condemned for their irresponsible behaviour. Their actions result in thousands of deaths and injuries every year.
The Government, supported by MPs and councillors, should set an example by making driving skills and attitudes the major features in improving road safety. It is all very well making our highways and cars safer, but if reckless and anti-social drivers carry on regardless, crashes will still occur at a sickening rate. We need much tougher legislation against bad drivers, and encouragement for the courts to hand down deterrent sentences against drivers who cause death and injuries.
The worst culprits are the young, and they are often the victims. One in four drivers who die are under 25. That reflects both on their driving inexperience and tendency to take risks. Brake points out that most serious crashes are caused by drivers; the roads and vehicles are not to blame. Deterrent sentences are therefore the most potent method of reducing road crashes.
Drivers who cause accidents through their failures should be more readily disqualified than currently happens. Their vehicles should be taken from them for varying periods. Those who drive too fast put lives at risk. It is regrettable that not everyone agrees that breaking speed limits, especially in built-up areas or on narrow country roads, is socially unacceptable, dangerous and a major cause of deaths and injuries.
What are we to make of Government calls for tougher action against frequent offenders when we consider the action of Judge Tom Longbotham at Swindon Crown court? Last week, he quashed a three-month driving ban on a speeding motorcyclist because he was finding it difficult to get to work. The motorcyclist had been convicted of his third speeding offence; he had been travelling at 101 miles per hour. I can do no better than to quote the road safety manager for the Royal Automobile Club Foundation, Mr. Kevin Delaney, who said of the judge's decision:
Although there is general condemnation for those who drive while under the influence of drink or drugs, not all drivers have got the message. Tonight's Colchester Evening Gazette reports that, so far this month, Essex police have breathalysed 182 drivers who were over the limit. That is about 50 more than in the corresponding period last year.
I welcome the prospect of more traffic-calming road safety measures to prevent deaths and injuries; of more speed cameras to deter motorists who endanger others through driving too fast; and of educating drivers in how tiredness and lack of concentration such as the use of mobile phones can lead to crashes, but the biggest single measure is for society to regard those who cause crashes in the same way as it does those who are guilty of acts of thuggery and violence.