Railways and Transport Safety Bill

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Miss McIntosh: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He has been very helpful, but can he explain why his Department has not come forward with follow-ups to its paper of 2000?

Mr. Jamieson: I was just coming to that. Members will be interested to know that we are working on the development of a framework to assess what speeds are appropriate together with what speeds are actually

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being driven on rural roads. We expect the first results of that work to be available some time in the middle of this year. That work will feed into our plans to revise the guidance on setting local speed limits more appropriately. We also plan to publish advice on village entry signing later in 2003 to assist local authorities in introducing more 30 mph speed limits in rural villages.

The problem of inappropriate speed in rural areas is a real concern. Vehicle spends that are below the speed limit but are considered too dangerous for a particular road cannot be tackled by the use of more conventional and highly successful enforcement cameras. However, we have finished trials on devices that we believe will help enormously in that area. Trials of vehicle-activated signs as a measure to curb inappropriate speeds, especially in rural areas, by warning drivers of potential hazards ahead or reminding them of the speed limit in force, were very successful.

The Committee will be pleased to know that the revised Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002 contain much more flexibility in allowing their use. My officials are also currently preparing guidance in the form of a traffic advisory leaflet, which we hope will be available by the end of this month. We are committed on the issues and are taking appropriate action.

4.30 pm

The hon. Member for Vale of York talked about cameras and where they are placed. The partnership scheme between local authorities, the judiciary and the police can bring in the use of a camera in certain areas. Where there have been trials, the overall effect of reducing casualties has been dramatic at certain sites that had had a poor road safety record that involved speed. The difficulty is that we do not want to see a plethora of cameras in rural areas where they will not have any effect in reducing casualties, nor do we want a plethora of signs that can be deeply intrusive. We must consider that issue, not least because of the cost of installing such cameras that might have only a minimal effect. We need to focus our energies and finite resources on creating safer environments.

The hon. Lady asked about the number of road accidents in which drugs had been a factor. It is quite difficult to estimate that. Alcohol is far more common and easier to detect, although research has shown that drugs are present in about 18 per cent. of road accident fatalities. However, that does not mean that the drugs are a causal factor in those incidents.

I am sorry that the last time the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington visited Plymouth he had such an unpleasant experience with a speedboat and the chain ferry bearing down on him. I believe that there was an occasion many years ago on which the chain ferry had a slight altercation with a frigate—the chain ferry came off worse, but I am pleased to say that nobody was hurt. I hope that I am not putting the hon. Member for Vale of York off her trip. One or two large, grey ships with guns on them go up and down the Tamar, and if the hon. Lady behaves herself, I might even see if we can get her on one of those as well.

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So that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington can be certain, I tell him we are not doing away with the rural road hierarchy, but putting into place something that is realistic, based on good advice and appropriate to reduce the casualties on those roads.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge made some good points, but I am not quite about speed limits in gradations of fewer than 10 mph—a speed limit of 35.6 mph might not be immediately understood by road users. Nevertheless, local highways authorities may reduce the speed limits where they think that that is appropriate. However, as I said earlier, that must usually be associated with other measures as well, to make it effective.

There is widespread consensus that we need to do something about safety on rural roads. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that the new clause and the way in which it sets out a rather rigid hierarchy of speed limits would give us what I said earlier was our ambition, which is to reduce the number of casualties on the roads. I shall therefore ask that the new clause be resisted.

Miss McIntosh: I am upset and disappointed that the Minister cannot support the new clause and is asking that it be resisted. I have not been put off by my visit to his constituency, and, having driven a frigate—HMS Cumberland in the Gulf—I hope that the Minister can organise it so that I can drive the chain ferry as part of my visit. Perhaps I could drive the ferry and the captain could have the afternoon off, as long as I do not go over a particular speed.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his comments to the hon. Member for Ilford, North. Those of us who represent rural constituencies are deeply vexed about the incidence of traffic and accidents, fatalities and casualties on rural roads. The figures show that North Yorkshire is second only to Lincolnshire in having the highest number of road accidents on rural roads. For the benefit of the Committee—in particular, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington—the road accident casualties by road-user type horrifyingly show that the number of motorcyclists and passengers killed in 2001 reached 583, which surpasses the figure for child pedestrians although it is not as high as the figure for adult pedestrians.

I should like to put at rest the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge: the amendment was meant as a useful probing exercise. I am grateful for the benefits of a good debate, a good discussion and a thoughtful response from the Under-Secretary.

We have a number of speed cameras in North Yorkshire. I know that it will not go any further than the Committee when I say that not every camera has a film in it, although as we speak, I am sure that most cameras have a film. To provide a deterrent, one would hope that most cameras would record the evidence. I was trying to elicit the point—the Under-Secretary's remarks have been most helpful—that the costs of putting up a road sign are considerably less than the costs of fitting and manning a camera and

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scrutinising film. Even changing a road surface can lead to considerable expense.

I do not know whether the Under-Secretary necessarily responded to my points on enforcement, but he will be bringing forward further provisions in the middle of the year. I entirely support his remarks that the issue does not concern only reducing vehicle speed. We are united in wanting a reduction in the number of casualties on all our roads, and in particular on rural roads.

In response to the adverse reaction from the motorcyclists action group, I support the motor cyclists as road users and hope that they will use the roads as sensibly as they possibly can. Aggressive motor cyclists occasionally use roads in rural areas such as North Yorkshire and Cumbria and impair the enjoyment of other road users such as horse riders, cyclists and pedestrians. I hope that we can all use the roads with equal regard for others. I am grateful for the Under-Secretary's comments and assurances, and we shall watch out for the provisions, which he has assured us will come forward in the middle of this year. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New clause 22

Prescribed limits

    '( ) The Road Traffic Act 1988 (c.52) shall be amended as follows—

    (a) In Section 11(2):

    (i){**?h=8pt**}in (a) leave out ''35'' and insert ''22'';

    (ii){**?h=6pt**}in (b) leave out ''80'' and insert ''50'';

    (iii) in (c) leave out ''107'' and insert ''67''.

    (b) In section 8(2) leave out ''50'' and insert ''35''.'.—[Mr. Don Foster.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Foster: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I am conscious of the time and I am also conscious that this is a matter that many Government and Opposition Members would be interested in debating. I therefore hope that there will be an opportunity, if we are not able satisfactorily to finish the debate today, to return to the topic at a later stage of the Bill's passage.

As I have done in relation to other road safety matters, I shall begin by placing on the record my praise for the work done by a large number of people in seeking to reduce the number of accidents caused by drink-driving. We ought to record our great thanks not only to the police for their work, but to Government Departments and past Governments, which have undertaken effective advertising campaigns, particularly at Christmas.

I also want to record my tribute to local organisations and local newspapers, such as The Bath Chronicle, which have worked in the field—[Interruption.] Its readers will be delighted to know that so many Committee members are avid readers. Like many other newspapers, it started a campaign in autumn 2001, which it has continued since, working

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closely with local police and developing a name-and-shame approach in the event of any drink-driving prosecutions.

The new clause would reduce the current limits on alcohol in blood, urine and breath. It is worth recording that Baroness Castle of Blackburn, who as Barbara Castle first introduced the breathalyser law on 10 May 1967, said at the time that she thought the blood limit was overgenerous. It was, and is, 80 mg in 100 ml. I will touch briefly on the fact that there has been a great deal of work subsequently to suggest that the limit is overgenerous and that it would be appropriate to reduce it.

I note with interest that in a speech on 30 November 1996, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), when she was Opposition transport spokesperson for the Labour party, made a clear policy commitment that Labour would reduce the limit to 50 mg once in office. The night before that speech, she said:

    ''The new Labour Government will show no leniency to those who wilfully put their desire for a pint before the life of a person. The pain and misery of drink driving lasts for life, not just for Christmas.''

That was the clear commitment made by the Labour party before the 1997 general election. Having won that election, the Government undertook various consultations, and in their February 1998 report, ''Combating Drink-Driving—Next Steps'', said:

    ''For drivers in the 50–80mg range, the risk of a non-fatal accident is around 2 to 2.5 times as high as for a sober driver: for a fatal accident the risk is about 6 times as high.''

That is the category of drivers that my new clause would affect.

All the data gathered for that Government consultation report pointed to the need to reduce the limit along the lines proposed in the new clause. In March 2000, however, the Government changed their tack. In ''Tomorrow's roads: safer for everyone—the Government's road safety strategy and casualty reductions targets for 2010'', they said:

    ''The European Commission is currently reviewing its existing proposal for a Directive on the drink-drive limit. Though we do not yet have details, it is likely there will be continued pressure for a harmonised 50mg overall limit in Europe, and possibly even lower limits for specific categories of driver. If the UK acted unilaterally, we could end up having to readjust to new European regulations soon afterwards.

    We therefore intend to deal with proposed reductions in the European context.''

In other words, the Government put off the issue and waited to see what European directives would be introduced.

More recently, the Under-Secretary made it clear in a written answer on 20 March 2002 that the Government had no plans to make a change in the foreseeable future:

    ''The limit will stay at 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. The Government consulted on this in 1998 and waited upon proposals from Europe before considering the matter further. No firm legislation was forthcoming from the European Union although the European Commission produced a Recommendation which, among other measures, recommended community wide

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    harmonisation of the legal blood alcohol content limit for motorists at 50 mg.''—[Official Report, 20 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 361W.]

4.45 pm

Now, it is clear that even when the Government were saying that they were not minded to take any action they were aware of the desire at European level for a reduction in this country to bring about harmonisation. With the exceptions of Ireland, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom, drink-drive limits in all other member countries are set at 50 mg. The limit is lower in Sweden and lower still in many parts of eastern Europe. When we touched on the issue previously, the Minister of State emphasised that the penalties in other countries, which are mostly lower than the penalties here, should be taken into account. I have checked the Minister's documents, which are incorrect. In the majority of countries, the disqualification maximums are higher than in this country, as are the prison sentence maximums. The one difference, to which I suspect the Minister is referring, is the limit at which automatic disqualification applies. On that, he is correct. In this country, the threshold for disqualification is lower, but overall, the penalties imposed in other countries are higher.

Of course, I would be first to admit that one cannot make strict comparisons between countries merely by considering absolute limits. A range of other factors, such as enforcement and publicity, must be taken into account. I hope that the Committee will acknowledge, however—this was reported during a debate in the House of Lords some time ago—that, overall, bearing in mind those variations, the evidence suggests that reducing the limit would lead to an increase in the numbers of deaths and serious injuries that take place on the roads as a result of drink-drive related accidents, as it has in other countries.

I would like to say much more, but I am aware that we are short of time. There is considerable merit in the amendments, which would bring practice in this country into line with that in the majority of other European countries, something to which the Labour party committed itself before it was elected in 1997.

 
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