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Speed Limits

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Angela Smith.]

10.16 pm

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) rose--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. An Adjournment debate has started. Could hon. Members please leave the Chamber quietly?

Mr. McWalter: I am grateful to the House--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must have quiet in the Chamber.

Mr. McWalter: I am grateful to the House for providing me with an opportunity to broach the subject of speed limit policy and, with it, the philosophy of risk which our current speeding policies incorporate.

Most people agree that current speeding law is not in a good state. Speed limits are widely disregarded, and there is widespread sympathy for those caught infringing that law, which, according to an official Government document, is breached by almost all members of the British population at one time or another. One response to a law that is widely disregarded is authoritarianism, or the imposition of the will of the Government on those who are governed. However, we do not live in authoritarian times, and when a law is to be applied, it is a better and more durable solution for those to whom the law is to be applied to accept that it is a good law and worth honouring. The Kantian view of the law is that the people should embrace it as something that they themselves would have wanted to make.

Is there a way of persuading motorists to accept that there should be much stricter enforcement of speed limits? I believe that there is. My angle is to suggest that many roads need to be reclaimed by non-motoring users, although roads that are devoted explicitly to motorists could have a higher limit in relation to which there would be strict compliance. My theme is that information technology offers opportunities that previous generations did not have. I anticipate that such a policy, even if it did not lower average speed--as I believe it would, should or could--would result in speed being used more appropriately.

I am therefore approaching the debate from the perspective not only of safety but of motoring being an enjoyable although admittedly dangerous pastime. I feel that if we could break motorists' habit of disrespecting all limits, we could achieve greater compliance with limits which had as their object the reclamation of streets for playing children, when the limit could be as low as five miles per hour; of country lanes for cyclists and equestrians, when the limit could be perhaps 45 mph but with bespoke limits at hazards; and of roads through villages, with a speed limit of 20 mph.

My quid pro quo for that is something that will probably meet with alarm in some quarters: a much higher limit on motorways when conditions permit, and a higher limit again for those who are advanced drivers or riders.

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I am asking for consideration to be given to strict compliance zones monitored by computerised cameras, and for those speed limit signs to be indicated by a double red ring. The disc with two red rings would show the motorist that he should not exceed that speed, that his movements are likely to be monitored and that infringement will generate a prosecution. Of course we already have the requirement to halt at some junctions but my approach generalises that idea.

At the moment, we are sleepwalking into an era of much greater monitoring of traffic, but without the radical rethinking that needs to be done. On the A414 dual carriageway in my constituency, for instance, hidden cameras are being installed by a road which even local pensioners regard as negotiable at more than 40 mph. If we ask motorists to obey limits that they do not understand and do not respect, and if we then multiply by a factor of 10 the number of prosecutions for speeding--as is beginning to happen in some areas--our administration of the law will be anything but Kantian in the sense of our having a law of which motorists themselves would approve. Laws that people do not respect are not embraced but resisted.

I want higher motorway limits under appropriate conditions and I want reclamation of country lanes and roads and residential areas for use by non-motorists. I expect that many computer models and statisticians will say that reclamation would of course lower fatalities on the roads but that those higher limits would raise them. I am not sure that there are any computer models that would assess how much safer it might be if we replaced a culture in which speed limits are ignored virtually universally with a culture in which 95 per cent. of motorists thought it right to comply with the limits because they perceived them to be intelligently worked out and a reasonable compromise between their desire to enjoy their motoring and their responsibility to those who use roads not for motoring.

What should that higher limit be? With modern vehicles and dry conditions, and where there is close monitoring of motorists' behaviour, I am suggesting that 100 mph would be an appropriate limit. Furthermore, I think that the Government should have as an aspiration a higher limit--say even 120 mph--but only for those who have passed an advanced motorists' or riders' test, and then only when the technology exists to ensure that the vehicle has been adapted to transmit messages to receptors that clear it for such speeds in the appropriate conditions. This builds in the idea that those who have demonstrated proficiency and thoughtfulness can be entrusted to use a larger range of speeds responsibly.

Of course, if such changes were introduced without any amendments to the existing system--as I believe was suggested in the Conservative manifesto--the results would be utterly unacceptable. Being tailgated at 70 mph is frightening and there is also very little enforcement of the general guideline that says that motorists ought to be able to stop in the distance that they see to be clear. The prospect of being tailgated at 100 mph rather than 70 mph is horrific, so if we have a new contract with the motorist, strict enforcement is essential. The penalties for behaviour such as tailgating must be harsh; in the worst cases, such behaviour is nothing short of attempted murder.

I think most drivers would welcome strict enforcement, which should ultimately take the form of an intelligent speed adaptation--speed limiters in the vehicle linked to

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the global positioning system--in return for increased motoring freedom and for greater protection from death-engendering irresponsibility. I note that the Government are interested in intelligent speed adaptation, but that they have not come round to the view that an ISA vehicle can slow down if it approaches another vehicle at the wrong speed. That feature of ISA suggests that it makes possible safer faster speeds.

Once we have clear speed limitation--initially through digital cameras, but later through more sophisticated devices--we put ourselves in a position to reclaim the streets and the country lanes. Of course, I welcome the Government's home zones initiative, but it is just a three-year pilot which only began last year. Something more radical is needed to change motorists' attitudes.

The children who are denied the chance to play in rat-run streets in my constituency, such as Masons road in Adeyfield, which are primarily residential, and the horse riders and cyclists who would like to use in safety the cut between the villages of Nettleden and Great Gaddesden, would welcome a system in which it was recognised that roads are for all of us and not merely for motorists. I noticed in the Minister's speech in the previous debate that whenever the subject of roads was mentioned, it was entirely in terms of the benefits to motorists. I submit that we could get the motorist who has bought a sports car or a fast motor cycle to embrace such a policy and use speed only when it is appropriate.

The problem is that successive Governments have developed speed policies that have more to do with statistics than with psychology; they have more to do with a middle-aged emphasis on caution than with any carefully reasoned policy about producing a law that would be obeyed by at least 95 per cent. of the population. We have motorways with a 70 mph limit, to which, on a clear road at night, virtually no car conforms. The occasional exception might be the motorist like me--I was not sure at what stage we were going to end tonight--struggling back from Westminster at 2 am in a 1.2 litre Vauxhall Corsa. A speeding policy that is not respected generally--even if it is respected by people like me under those circumstances--brings the law into disrepute.

I believe that this has major consequences away from the motorways as well. On my journey here today, I travelled along a winding country lane where, in many places, there is not room for two cars to pass. Cars regularly travel along that road at 60 mph, with the potential for a head-on collision at 120 mph. Country lanes are dominated by cars, large vans and other dangerous vehicles, and those who wish to proceed at a gentler pace are subject to what one can only describe as a death-threatening attack.

Enforcement policy does not extend to country lanes, so the chances of being fined for speeding in a country lane is negligible. Indeed, the Government document says that the limit is complied with. I am not surprised--it is ludicrously high. Sometimes, when there is a fatal accident, the tracks show the speed of the vehicle that killed the horse rider, cyclist or pedestrian, but that is information which it might have been better to have earlier.

I note that the Government paper on this subject argued in favour of lowering speed limits in most circumstances, although it was remarkably blase about the 30 mph urban limit, which I believe should be generally lower, and the

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60 mph limit on rural roads, which, as I have indicated, should be a lot lower. A claim was made that some lower vehicle speeds could contribute to global warming targets--although not the lowering of 30 mph to 20 mph. That aim is obviously laudable, but I question its rationality.

Someone visiting her mum in a rural area 130 miles away might drive for an hour on a clear motorway at 70 mph and then along narrow country lanes at 60 mph. If we had a universal limit of 30 mph, that would make a major contribution to global warming. However, the five-hour journey that separated her from her mum would mean that she would visit her mum a great deal less frequently. That brings home the fact that our current social arrangements have presuppositions about speed and journey times built into them.

In my view, if that person is to visit her mum and get there in something like two hours, I would like her to do it more safely. She could do it by cutting her speed in the country lane by X miles per hour and increasing her speed on the motorway by X miles per hour. With 54 per cent. of road deaths occurring on rural roads and 4 per cent. on motorways, it is clear that there are many values of X which would make that journey safer. Of course, if a higher speed were used inappropriately, the balance of argument would not be nearly as strong. The Government paper said:

However, the advantages of targeted increases in speed limits as a trade-off were given no consideration.

As a youth in the days before general speed limits I must confess to having been a rocker on a fast motor cycle--[Interruption.] Yes, I had hair as well. Doing that was dangerous, but it was also enjoyable--some people might say that it was enjoyable because it was dangerous.

The role of the state is to prevent people from doing things that endanger others who have not assented to be part of the dangerous pursuit. I want us radically to rethink our speed limit policy in that light. We need a policy that at least 95 per cent. of motorists think is reasonable. For instance, in my constituency, hidden cameras have been introduced on a dual carriageway, but when the limit seems to be too low that sort of measure receives little public support.

There is a consistent thread through what I have said, which echoes the Government's agenda. People have the right to use their motor vehicles for enjoyment and I am aware that that includes driving and riding fast. With rights come responsibilities, however, and we must have in place effective monitoring systems so that those who wish to avail themselves of such rights but do not wish to act responsibly can have the right withheld.

I have also said that roads do not belong to motorists. Some roads do; others are multi-functional. Increasingly, we should make it clear that on many roads the motorist is an interloper whose first law of behaviour should be to show consideration for others.

Our policies on speeding need radical revision. Our attitudes to roads and motorists need revision. Using modern technology and a new policy that emphasises the interplay between rights and responsibilities, we can aspire to reclaim the streets and yet we can get the motorist--passionately, perhaps--to help in that task.

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10.32 pm

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