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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he has the permission of the Minister and the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) to take part in the debate?
I support most of the remarks made by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford. One can speculate about the reasons for the unusually high number of road traffic accidents in mid-Essex. For example, we have had an exceptional amount of rain in the past nine monthsbut then again, so have other parts of Essex and the United Kingdom. Essex has also had exceptional population growth around the constituency of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford, on the edge of the constituency of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), and certainly around the main town in my constituency. Houses are being built at an enormous rate, creating much more traffic.
Another factor is the various road schemes to which the hon. Member for West Chelmsford referred. The Great Leighs bypass is proceeding very rapidly, and the A130 is progressing rapidly into the southern part of Chelmsford. We are also awaiting development of the Hatfield Peverel to Witham link road, which I should like to mention very briefly, and which has featured in previous Adjournment debates.
It was announced as long ago as January 1998 that that link road would proceed. Since then, preparation for the scheme has meandered very slowly, only now to be confronted with a public inquiry. I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber would like that public inquiry
Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford): The hon. Gentleman mentioned Hatfield Peverel. He will be as horribly familiar with the roadworks there as I have become in the past few weeks. Does he think that it is possible that, because those roadworks are causing such huge congestion to motorists trying to use the A12, many people are leaving the A12 to seek alternative routes, causing a build-up of traffic on minor roads that were probably never designed to cope with the number of cars now using them because of the roadworks? That in itself may be contributing to the problem and is another reason why we all want those roadworks to be completed as quickly as possible.
Mr. Hurst: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's speculation on the issue. On a number of occasions recently I have crossed back-country lanes through his constituency and my own to avoid those roadworks.
I do not think that any of those factors alone have created the increase in road traffic accidents. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford emphasised the consequences of speeding. Another enemy to road safety that is growing apace is the practice of tailgating. In 1963, when I qualified to drive motorcars, my late father told me, "Whatever you do, son, keep back from the vehicle in front if you wish to overtake." It seems that that policy has disappeared and that the policy of other drivers is to get as close as they can to the vehicle in front so that they can overtake quickly. The practice creates a dangerous situation on many roads on which it is not possible to manoeuvre.
I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. I should like to see a concerted campaign by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to reduce the practice of tailgating and draw people's attention to its risk. It is a major hazard and is probably a major determinant of road accidents.
I think that, with the road schemes that are proceeding, the future for mid-Essex is probably brighter. At least those roads will become safer. I also agree entirely that, by its nature, dualling of the A120 west to Stansted will assist greatly. Of course, we also look forward to a sensitive scheme that creates a better carriageway through to the A12 east of Braintree. I believe that such a scheme is being considered. However, it will have to take very acute account of the villages and environment between Braintree and the A12.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): Let me begin by extending condolences that I am sure the whole House will wish to extend to the families of those bereaved in the most recent accident. Let me also acknowledge the depth of concern about the subject among Members representing the constituencies involvedshown, I think, by the attendance of a number of Essex Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). The hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) is also present.
I do not want to go into all the figures, because the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has set them out very clearly. So far we have made good progress towards achieving what are ambitious targets for dealing with road deaths and road accidents, although of course each death is one too many, and our task will not be completed until we have made such accidents a thing of the past. I want to focus on Essex, however, and on the issues that have been raised tonight.
The local transport plan for Essex county council contains targets to reduce the number of people killed and seriously injured that are very much in line with national targets. The recently submitted annual progress report, which presents progress in the first year of the plan, shows that 1,122 people were killed and seriously injured on the roads of Essex in 2000. That is 5 per cent. less than the 1994-98 average. The number of children killed and seriously injured was already 18 per cent. below the baseline average.
Because of the hon. Gentleman's special interest, my Department also obtained more up-to-date figures for Essex from the county council. I can therefore tell him that 9 per cent. fewer people were killed or seriously injured in the 12 months ending in August 2001 than in the previous 12 months. I hope to see a further overall reduction in the number killed and seriously injured on the roads of Essex in the calendar year 2001 compared with 2000, showing that Essex is working hard to play its part in meeting the national target reductions.
However, as the hon. Gentleman said, there are some specific problems within the overall figures. He said that there had been a 10 per cent. increase in the number of people killed on the roads in the same August-to-August period. That apparent reversal of a previous downward trend is very disturbing, and I share his concern. I understand that the increase is largely due to more accidents and casualties involving motorcyclists. Indeed, over the same period non-motorcycling deaths fell by 6 per cent. I have asked my Department to work closely with Essex county council and the police to establish the reasons behind the increases, and to look at ways of combating the problem.
I understand that the county council has reported a significant increase in the number of motorcyclists on the roads in Essex in recent years, and that there has been a sharp increase in leisure motorcycling. That is not confined to young people; older people have returned to riding motorbikes as a leisure activity. Already a working partnership between the police and local authorities, including Chelmsford borough council, has been set up to identify why that is happening and to look at some of the profound issues that it raises, including safety issues.
The police are offering motorcyclists in Essex an opportunity to improve and develop their riding skills through a recent initiative, which seeks to reduce motorcycle injury and theft. It is called "the edge", and the hon. Gentleman may well have heard about it. I am sure that he could use his high profile on the whole issue of road safety to support the project. The county council will soon publish a motorcycling strategy setting out a number of related actions that will work together to create better motorcycling facilities in the county, and to promote safer motorcycling.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of speed in accidents. It is believed that excessive speed is probably one of the main contributory factors in road traffic accidents. In Essex, about 26 per cent. of all road accidents are related to speeding. That is a reduction from 32 per cent. five years ago. For accidents involving fatalities, the figure rises to a quite staggering 90 per cent. Research evidence shows that 70 per cent. of vehicles exceed the 30 mph speed limit.
We are committed to reducing excessive speeding on all our roads. It is one of the highest priorities for accident reduction. We have a number of programmes involving education, training, highway engineering and enforcement, as well as speed cameras, of course.
As far back as 1996, Essex county council launched a speed commitment campaign to encourage local drivers to sign a commitment to drive within the speed limit at all times, which has been very successful. Thousands of organisations and individual motorists have signed up.
The local transport plan for Essex sets out some new initiatives. Particular emphasis is being placed on the need to change attitudes to speed among the young and among inexperienced drivers, who remain one of the largest groups in the casualty statistics. I am very encouraged by the work that is being done to train and educate our motorists about the antisocial dangers of speeding, as well of course as the problem of tailgating.
We are also encouraging all local authorities to improve the standards of their road network and to apply accident reduction engineering measures to accident clusters. Essex has about 200 sites that are receiving attention, with many grouped together in a whole route action plan. I understand that this year's programme includes the implementation of action plans for the A1060 Chelmsford to Bishop's Stortford road and the B1018 Braintree to Witham road. The construction of the new A131 Great Leighs bypass and the A130 improvements are also well under way.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems on the A12 and the improvements there, so he may want some more information about the progress that is being made. The improvements to the A12 are currently being considered as part of the London to Ipswich multi-modal study, which started in October 2000 and will report to the regional planning body in June 2002. The highway authorities are undertaking a route management strategy along the A12, to include measures over the next 10 years. Although, unfortunately, it will not happen straight away, there will be steady and progressive improvements along that route.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the role of safety cameras. In April 2000, we launched the trial scheme that allows the funding of speed and red light safety cameras by "netting off", with money collected from fixed penalty speeding fines being reinvested into more cameras. The Essex partnership was one of the first to join the scheme, as indeed was my own local authority.
Results from the first year of operation have been very encouraging, and hon. Members will recall that the Minister for Transport announced in August this year that the scheme would be rolled out nationally. Across the eight areas that made up the initial trial there has been a 47 per cent. reduction in the number killed and seriously injured at camera sites and an 18 per cent. reduction elsewhere in the pilot areas.
Quite often, the cameras are not the most popular things, because they have produced quite a lot of speeding tickets, but if one considers the number of people who are alive now who would not have been otherwise, it is easy to see that they have been extremely worth while. In Essex, before the introduction of the scheme, 68 per cent. of motorists exceeded the speed limit at camera sites. That has now fallen to 11 per cent.
I want to touch on issues of local transport funding, because the importance of local authorities and the police working together to reduce deaths and injuries on our roads cannot be overstated. The introduction of the local transport plans means that authorities must now have clear strategies for road safety in their areas. The draft road safety strategy for Essex has been out to consultation and I understand that it will be published shortly.
In December last year we allocated Essex £13 million for integrated transport, including road safety, in its local transport plan. That was more than double the allocation for integrated transport in the previous year. It will enable Essex to make real progress in meeting the challenging targets that have been set. I cannot comment today on the allocation to Essex for next year, but the announcement will be made shortlywe expect it to be made next month. However, I can say that Essex can proceed with some confidence on the basis of the indicative allocations for the rest of the five-year plan period.
We are committed to working with all local authorities to see a significant reduction in road deaths and injuries and to make road safety a high priority. I know that much work remains to be done and I agree that any death or injury on our roads is an unnecessary tragedy. I am, however, convinced that we can see a significant reduction in the accident statistics in the future. Given the problems that Essex has experienced, I am sure that that will be very welcome to the constituents of those hon. Members present for this debate.
The hon. Member for West Chelmsford has done well to raise several important issues regarding road deaths and injuries in mid-Essex. I know that he has kept a consistently high profile on the issue and ensured that it is at the forefront of the public debate. The Government, through the road safety strategy, have already begun to tackle many of those issues on a national level, but we will continue to rely heavily on the direct help of local authorities and the police in striving to achieve our road casualty reduction figures. Further effort on all our parts will bring about the improvements in road safety that we all seek, and will protect lives and reduce some of the horrendous injuries that too many people in Essex and elsewhere have suffered over the years.