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2.46 pm

Mr. Phil Woolas (Oldham, East and Saddleworth): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) on securing this important debate on road safety. He has a long track record of campaigning for better road safety, as the transport convenor in Edinburgh and, for many years, as leader of Edinburgh city council, on which he served with distinction.

I am sorry that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), cannot be here to respond to the debate. Unfortunately, he is on important constituency business. He asked me to emphasise that his absence should not be taken as indicating any lack of priority being given to road safety. Indeed, I know from personal experience just how seriously the Government and the Department take this issue, and, in my experience, that was the case under the previous Conservative Government as well. It is a privilege for me to speak in this debate, and I shall, of course, pass on my hon. Friend's points to the Under-Secretary and Ministers from other Departments. That is a job that I take very seriously.

There is a close relationship between speed, accident frequency and casualty severity. The relationship is not straightforward, however, and it has never been possible to produce a precise figure for the contribution that speed makes to the cause of accidents. For some time, Governments have taken the view that speed is a causation factor in about a third of accidents, but so much depends on witness statements and on the road and traffic conditions that no one can be certain about it.

That uncertainty has allowed some commentators to promote the view that the speed at which we drive is not an issue in seeking to reduce road accidents. Indeed,

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sceptics and, unfortunately, some elements of the press persist in misinterpreting a Transport Research Laboratory report on recording contributory factors to road accidents by asserting that speed is a factor in only about 7 per cent. of cases. The figure is certainly more than twice that, and if we add all the contributory factors relating to speed, we reach the figure of one third.

In the real world, however, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it is telling that when we actively improve speed management or speed enforcement on roads with a high level of casualties—perhaps through traffic calming or the use of enforcement cameras—the number of casualties is reduced, often by 50 per cent. The evidence that speed contributes significantly to the cause and severity of road accidents is overwhelming.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman may not be able to answer this now, but do the Government have plans to amend the current speed limits?

Mr. Woolas: If I may, I shall mention that later.

Unfortunately, a jump is then made to the assertion that accident frequency is almost entirely dependent on the speed limit that is applied for any given stretch of road. Although it is important to try to apply speed limits sensibly, coherently and at levels that meet the demands of road safety, the environment and traffic flow, it is the actual speed of traffic, among other things, that determines the level of accident risk rather than the speed limit per se. That is clearly illustrated by the fact that collisions still occur at speeds within the speed limit, suggesting that speeds are too high for the prevailing conditions, or that driving speed is inappropriate. It is as important to combat driving at inappropriate speed as it is to treat the problem of drivers exceeding speed limits. That does not detract from the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith.

The UK's road safety record is, along with that of Sweden, the best in Europe. Even so, the Government are not complacent and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when launching the road safety strategy in March 2000, announced challenging new targets for reducing road accident casualties by 2010. The targets are a 40 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed and seriously injured, but a tougher 50 per cent. target for children. That is because we are particularly determined to combat the needless and tragic loss of young life on our roads.

Combating the worst effects of excessive and inappropriate speed is complex. That is why the Department undertook and published a fundamental review of speed policy two years ago. Its recommendations were accepted by the Government and incorporated into the road safety strategy. The speed review concluded that speed limits should be set at levels that are safe, suitable for the road function, and at levels most likely to be respected by drivers. Motorists would be less willing to comply with limits set at inappropriate levels. Officials are working on improving information and guidance to local authorities on setting local speed limits.

Guidance to local highway authorities currently exists in the form of the circular Roads 1/93. It remains good and helpful advice, but we need to build into it the

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additional experience and better practice that has emerged over the past 10 years or so. The speed review also highlighted the difference between what has been achieved in reducing casualties on urban roads and on rural roads. The improvement in reducing casualties on urban roads is twice as good as that on rural roads. One factor is that rural roads are different in design and nature from urban roads, which makes it difficult to be consistent in setting speed limits. We have recognised that for some time, and work already put in hand is beginning to pay off as we seek to restore the balance.

The make-up of rural roads is such that accidents tend not to be concentrated at specific locations, but scattered along sections of road. Given that randomness, it has been more difficult to target problem locations on rural road networks. However, research by the Transport Research Laboratory suggests a form of analysis that could tell us where and when to intervene. Applied to a rural network or route, an analytical tool using accident rates quantified per junction, per bend or per vehicle-kilometre might indicate priority areas for remedial treatment. Accident rates based on national figures for different types of rural road would be established, which would provide a benchmark for local authorities to use as suggested intervention levels for their own roads. To support that, a technical manual is being produced that provides practical advice.

The road safety strategy suggested that a hierarchy of roads defined by function might help in setting speed limits and might improve consistency nationally from area to area, as my hon. Friend suggested. The Department commissioned a study to consider the development of a rural road hierarchy for speed management, and the report was presented to Parliament in a written answer from the Under–Secretary on 28 November 2001.

As well as conventional engineering measures, such as road narrowing and village entry features, we expect to make increasing use of more innovative approaches, such as vehicle activated signs, to ensure significant reductions in casualties on rural roads. I assure the House that in addressing the problems on rural roads we are not diverting attention from the urban environment.

We continue to invest considerable resources through local transport plans and additional grants to fund local authorities. Arrangements on resourcing in Scotland are devolved, but there is a consistent strategy. Extra measures include funds specifically to introduce more 20 mph zones and similar schemes to improve safety, particularly for children, pedestrians and cyclists in built-up areas.

Similarly, we are funding five demonstration projects that aim to improve safety on mixed priority urban roads, such as busy high streets. These are very high-risk areas because of the mix of uses, which leads to frequent conflicts between motor traffic, pedestrians and cyclists all going about their various activities. For the House's information, the five projects are in Norwich, Manchester, Crewe, Leamington Spa and Lambeth. Powers have been devolved, and Scotland may wish to run its own project.

The road traffic penalties consultation document was published in December 2000 by the then Home Secretary. More than 1,000 responses have been received, which was much higher than expected and has led to a delay in producing considerations and recommendations. I expect that the review will be completed shortly, and will be reported to the House.

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As my hon. Friend said, drivers' attitudes as well as physical measures are important in reducing speed levels. Drivers need to be made more aware of the dangers of driving too fast. That is why effort and resources are being put into national and local publicity. Hon. Members may well have seen the recent highly effective television advertisements that highlighted the problems. It is fair to say that most people now regard drinking and driving as highly antisocial and unacceptable behaviour. By the same token, the general view on speeding is that it is a minor offence, and that if people are caught they have been unlucky, rather than acting dangerously. We must try to change that attitude and belief, and we can do that only by informing people of the true dangers of speeding.

There is some evidence that the general public are becoming aware of speed as an issue. That is good: it is a start, but we must be realistic. The Government are well aware of the vulnerability of motor cyclists, who face particular dangers. That is why the Under-Secretary has established an advisory group on motor cycling, which has been meeting for some months.

One of the most effective ways of enforcing a speed limit is to use enforcement cameras. Hon. Members may know that the Government are now allowing some fixed penalty speeding fine revenue to be reinvested in safety cameras to encourage more effective use of this technology in enforcing speed limits. The scheme that began as a two-year trial in April 2000 operates under strict rules, and is already promising to be the most important and successful road safety policy development for some time. Without those cameras, several hundred

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people who are alive and well would now be dead or seriously injured. One reason for their success is the public's consent for their placement, which is in part due to the requirement on local authorities to publicise their purpose. An indiscriminate use of cameras would, in our view, be counterproductive. Cameras can deal with excessive speeding only at particular sites or on particular routes, rather than reducing traffic speeds everywhere.

I have mentioned other measures, such as vehicle-activated signs, which are being developed. We hope that they will win the consent of the driving public, and act as information rather than threat in helping to reduce speeds.

I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend that the points that he has raised will be taken seriously by me in my meetings with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, and by Ministers in other Departments. We have a successful policy, but every death is one too many.

Question put and agreed to.

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