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Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Secretary of State accept that, although it is important to change the law to ensure that the Data Protection Act 1998 does not impede fining people who drive unlicensed or uninsured, it is equally important that people who operate the system are aware of the law? When the Select Committee took evidence on that, we found a great deal of confusion about the state of the law.
Mr. Darling: There is much to be said for clarity about the law, no matter what subject we tackle, but I agree with my hon. Friend and we clearly need to attend to the problem. It is important to stress that, shortly, especially when the MOT computerisation programme is completed, the police will be able to tell whether a car has got its MOT, whether it is taxed and whether the driver is insured. That information has not hitherto been available on a database to police officers, but it will be shortly. This will cut down on evasion. It will also make it easier for the police to take action if they find someone driving without insurance, a licence or an MOT.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State consider the problem of people who seek to avoid more serious charges by failing to identify who was driving a vehicle at the time of an incident? In a recent case, a constituent of mine, Tony Davies, was the innocent victim of a road traffic accident in which the two people in the other vehicle refused to identify who had been driving and got off with a lighter charge as a result. What plans does the Secretary of State have to deal with this issue?
Mr. Darling: The Bill contains provisions to deal with that problem. Failure to disclose who was driving will result in a penalty of six points. My hon. Friend is right; at the moment, it might be open to a serious offender to refuse to identify who had been driving because they could get off with a lesser penalty as a result.
We wish also to provide a new system of endorsement of driving licences that will allow non-Great Britain licence holders to be given fixed penalties for traffic offences. We are also seeking powers that would allow the police and other officers to take a deposit from non-GB licence holders in lieu of a fixed penalty, or pending a court hearing. This will ensure that overseas truck drivers do not escape punishment when they commit offences, as can happen too easily now. We are also seeking the power to enable the disclosure of driver and vehicle data to foreign authorities, when that would be important.
Ms Keeble: In regard to HGV drivers coming from abroad, will there be any discussions in Europe to ensure that the requirements are equalised? I am referring in particular to the restriction on insulin-dependent diabetics.
Yes, such discussions are continuing with a view to reaching an agreement on those issues. As traffic between this country and the rest of Europe
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increases, it is only sensible to try to ensure that people are treated in the same way. We particularly want to avoid a situation in which, for very good reasons, someone could be dealt with quite strictly here but could escape if they went elsewhere. This would benefit all the countries involved, and those discussions are taking place at the moment.
Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston) (Lab): Further to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) has just made on HGVs, the Secretary of State has not yet mentioned any measures relating to these vehicles. They are involved in a high number of accidents, especially during the night. These accidents often involve side impacts, and many of the drivers involved have said that this is because they did not see the HGV until it was too late. Has my right hon. Friend seen the evidence submitted by the organisation Reflect, which calls for ECE 104 to become mandatory in the UK? This would require retro-reflective markings to be fitted to the sides of all HGVs. Does he accept that this is a good suggestion, and that that provision should be introduced throughout the whole of the EU?
Mr. Darling: I have seen some of that evidence, and I know that it has been considered in Germany in particular. My understanding is that the evidence is still being evaluated, and that it is not overwhelming. However, the Government will look very seriously at anything that would reduce the number of accidents involving HGVs. My hon. Friend is right to say that HGVs are involved in a number of accidents, and we need to consider what we can do to reduce that number.
The Bill will give the police and other authorities greater powers to deal with problems on the roads. This is supported by a strategy published this morning by my Department and the Home Office, which reaffirms road policing as a priority area.
The last strand of the Bill contains measures to improve driving standards, which is one of the most important elements of what we are doing. It is a fact that young and newly qualified drivers have a greater likelihood of being involved in an accident in their first year of driving. Indeed, one in five accidents involve a driver who has passed their test in the preceding year. Furthermore, 17 to 21-year-olds represent about 6 per cent. of licence holders, yet they are involved in about 12 per cent. of all injury accidents.
The Bill will put in place measures to provide for higher standards for professional driving instructors and to regulate driving schools, including not only those who give instruction, but franchisees as well as employees. The aim is to ensure that drivers and riders of all types of motor vehicles are tested in accordance with the demands of today's traffic conditions.
In conclusion, the Bill will help to create a safer and fairer environment for motorists. It will provide additional protection for all road users, but especially the more vulnerable groups of pedestrians and cyclists.
My right hon. Friend has not really mentioned the impact of motorists' road safety on
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pedestrians and cyclists. When cyclists are involved in road accidents, it is always up to them to prove that a motorist was the guilty partyone presumes innocence before guiltbut that can often be difficult. What additional measures will be put in place to protect cyclists and give them fair chances?
Mr. Darling: My law might be a bit rusty because it is 18 years since I practised it, but I think that it is always necessary to prove the guilt of anyone involved in a road accident, so not only cyclists face that problem. My hon. Friend is right that we want to improve the safety of cyclists, and several measures in the Bill will help to do that, although they are not specifically aimed at cyclists. Education and other measures can help to improve cyclists' safety. The onus of proof, however, applies to all road accidents, as it does to any other crime.
The Bill contains many measures that will improve road safety, but I come back to a point that I made at the start of my speech: legislation is only one part of what we need to do. We must raise awareness and give courts the tools to deal with people who offend. We need to express the view that the courts will do their duty when people appear before them. The one thing that should unite us allI was struck by this the last time we discussed railway accidentsis that 10 people will die today in road accidents, so 10 sets of families and friends will lose someone. It should weigh heavily with us that most such accidents are avoidable, so the country would expect the Government and the House to do everything possible to reduce the unacceptably large number of people who are killed every single day. I hope that everyone will support the Bill.
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): To begin on a note of consensus, let me say that the Conservative party entirely shares the concerns that the Secretary of State and other hon. Members have expressed about road safety. For that reason, I am happy to make it clear at the outset that we will not divide the House on Second Reading, although my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and I will set out several changes and additions that should be made to the Bill, which we will try to achieve during its passage, especially in Committee.
Let me make some general remarks about road safety that pick up where the Secretary of State left off. We share the concerns expressed. However, despite the progress made over the years to reduce casualties in Britain and the fact that we are doing better than many European countries, we need to give the matter more attention. Although I have shadowed many briefs over the past seven years and served in several Government Departments, this is the first time that I have dealt directly with transport issues, and I am startled by our inconsistent attitude towards different types of transport.
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If 300 people were killed in a railway accident there would be a huge public outcry and a major investigation, which would almost certainly be followed by policy change. If an aircraft accident caused the same number of deaths, there would be a detailed investigation, procedures would be examined and training and qualification standards would be overhauled. If a cross-channel ferry sank with the loss of 300 lives, the most detailed inquiry would be held. But when 300 people die on the roads, pretty well nothing is done, despite the fact that 300 people die on our roads every month. All we seem to do is shrug our shoulders. Perhaps that extraordinary tolerance of road casualties is partly because they happen so often. Whatever the reason, it is not in any way a rational response.
Dismissing road casualties as the inevitable consequence of driver error does not make sense. Every casualty represents a personal tragedy. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Stinchcombe) referred earlier to the tragic case of Alexine Melnik, whose father copied the letter that he wrote to him to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. It is a moving document describing the tragic circumstances of his daughter's death and the unsatisfactory outcome of the case, with the verdict that it was an accident caused by a momentary lapse of concentration. As Mr. Melnik points out,
If someone had been carrying a loaded gun, and had accidentally shot and killed an innocent bystander, would that person face a charge of carrying a gun without due care and attention? Would the court have accepted a claim of a momentary lapse of concentration so readily? I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will have had similar cases brought to their attention, and that we all feel as strongly as those who intervened on the Secretary of State during his speech.
The problem relates not only to drivers. The AA EuroRAP results show that driver error is not the only main factor. Some roads are much more dangerous than others. Imagine the horror that would rightly be expressed if the Strategic Rail Authorityor, soon, its successor bodieswere to publish a table showing that one was far more likely to be killed on a train travelling between Slough and Swindon than on one travelling between Milton Keynes and Rugby. That would not be tolerated for a moment. What would happen if the Civil Aviation Authority revealed data showing that some airports had consistently more aircraft crashing than others? Rightly, neither public opinion, nor the airlines, nor their customers, nor the authorities or anyone else, would accept that position. Yet that is exactly what we seem willing to accept on the roads.
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