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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Hear, hear.

Mr. Yeo: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is true that opinion polls are not yet making that the racing
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certainty to which I look forward, but we are not quite in extra time yet. If that happy eventuality comes about, however, and the British people have something to celebrate later in the year, I will require the relevant authorities, the Highways Agency and others, to assess what steps can be taken to reduce accident rates on roads classified as high risk—marked in black on the AA EuroRAP map. In the first full term of a Conservative Government, we will extend that requirement to all roads classified as medium-high risk, which are shown in red on the same map.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that overriding powers should determine speed limits—for example, on roads that cross a local government boundary, as in my constituency where the limit moves from 40 mph to 30 mph on the same road, because separate local authorities are involved? Would he suggest that there should be some overriding power above local authorities?

Mr. Yeo: I am suggesting that we have clear data showing that some roads—happily, a relatively small number—are much more dangerous than others. We need to try to analyse what steps could be taken, and the hon. Gentleman may have just suggested one of them. I do not know whether changes in speed limit, for reasons such as he has described, are a factor on those high-risk roads. Given that we know that some roads are much more high risk than others, it is worth exploring whether simple steps—such as the one that he suggests, perhaps—could be taken to reduce those risks. I am sure that we would do that with any other transport mode, and we ought to start doing it with roads. Tolerating the idea that some roads are more dangerous than others seems simply unacceptable.

Data about other fatalities also need to be addressed. Young male drivers are five times more likely to be killed than middle-aged drivers. That is a horrifying statistic, and it is probably due less to inferior driving skills than to the attitudes adopted by some young male drivers once they are behind the wheel. I recall from my student days the circumstances in which fatalities might be higher than average. Particular concern arises when young males are driving with members of their peer group as passengers. Nothing in the Bill appears to address those challenges, which is a pity. Is it not time to explore new ways of encouraging more responsible driving by young men?

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): What my hon. Friend says is absolutely true. The Secretary of State has been dealing largely with people who are insured and qualified to drive, but many accidents are caused by people, mainly young people, who are flouting the law by driving in the first place. They are actively encouraged by magazines and websites to save the money that could be spent on insurance for souping up their cars. Not enough is being done to clamp down on alterations that are made to cars: it is apparently still legal to soup up engines with nitrous oxide. People who are simply not capable of dealing with such powerful motors go out and flout the law, and get away with it.
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Mr. Yeo: That is an important point. I am sure that the encouragement that some newly qualified young drivers may receive from a variety of sources to act in the way described by my hon. Friend is one element of the problem. Another, of course, is the fact that penalties for driving without insurance are often lower than the cost of obtaining insurance. A number of issues need to be dealt with and, as I say, the Government do not seem to be taking sufficiently urgent notice of them—in the Bill or elsewhere.

David Taylor: Should there not be a graduated system of driver licensing? Although the current arrangements have rightly been strengthened in recent years, they could be toughened even further by means of a two-stage approach. The first stage would restrict the size of vehicle that could be driven and the number of passengers carried; secondly, driving at night could be prohibited. One driver in 10 is under 25, and one in four who are killed is under 25. As the hon. Gentleman says, there is an important link to be investigated.

Mr. Yeo: That is an interesting suggestion. I think that we should adopt an evidence-based approach. If data suggest that particular types of driver are particularly prone to certain accidents, we may be able to identify measures—such as graduated licensing—to tackle that. I think that the Secretary of State accepted the principle when he expressed surprise at the idea that, with his existing driving licence and many years' experience of driving a car, he could get on to a very powerful motor cycle and would not be restricted from engaging in what might be a more risky activity—although I am sure that in the Secretary of State's case, it would not be. I have observed his measured approach to these and other issues over the past nine months or so, and I am sure that if he got on to a very powerful motor cycle, it would be equally measured.

The hon. Gentleman's general point is valid. I think that the public are ready to accept such changes, and there is recognition that by adopting an evidence-based approach we could reduce the risk. Some of the points made in the Transport Committee's report "Traffic Law and its Enforcement", published last autumn, reflect his thinking.

I have touched on the twin problems of roads that are more dangerous than the average and drivers who are more accident prone than the average. If the Government are to adopt a more comprehensive strategy, and if we are to reduce the number of people killed and seriously injured on the roads, they must accept that measures to tackle those problems directly will be needed.

A hollow laugh will greet the statement issued by the Secretary of State this morning—and referred to, albeit briefly, in his speech—about a new strategy for policing the roads. The Conservative party strongly supports the use of more police to tackle illegal and antisocial use of the roads, but this is the Government who have cut the number of traffic officers by 1,500 since they came to power. In 1999, traffic officers were conveniently redefined to include operational and organisational support officers, who are employed to perform functions other than being out on the streets. The actual number of operational traffic officers, mainly on motor cycles or in patrol vehicles, has dropped even further—perhaps by between a quarter and a third—since 1997.
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That really is a scandal, and it is, I am afraid, one reason why the public now have such low regard for Ministers. The Secretary of State, who really should know better, is making a grossly misleading attempt to claim that he is doing something to address the problem through an initiative. Actually, the fact that there are fewer traffic officers enforcing the law and making our roads safer is entirely the result of this Government's policies.

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend has hit on an important issue that affects rural areas in particular, where people want the security of seeing bobbies on the beat and road traffic police. Does he agree that if more road traffic police are around, fewer people will take the risk of drinking and driving?

Mr. Yeo: That is beyond doubt. Indeed, the likelihood of being caught drink-driving—I shall deal with that issue in a moment—is one of the most effective deterrents to taking such risks.

Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman mentioned using the EuroRAP map, which indicates in black the roads with a higher incidence of such problems. Do he and his party support the deployment of safety cameras—they are often called speed cameras—in rural and urban areas?

Mr. Yeo: I shall come to cameras in a moment, but the simple answer is that where cameras can be sited so as to reduce accidents, we of course support their use. I wholeheartedly endorse the aim of reducing the unnecessarily high number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads, and cameras situated in the right position can contribute to that process.

The Bill contains a number of measures that are desirable in their own right, and will have our support. Overall, however, it is something of a hotch-potch of measures, rather than an absolutely coherent approach to the problem. It contains provisions directed specifically at the problem of drink-driving, and the Government are right to be concerned about that issue. The steady progress made in cutting the number of casualties resulting from drink-driving accidents seems to have halted in the past decade or so, which must be a cause for concern. I agree with the Secretary of State that more effective enforcement of existing drink-driving limits is essential if such progress is to be restarted, and we will want to explore how that can be done in more detail in Committee.

A central part of the problem is that, even according to the Government's own figures, the number of traffic police will still be lower in future than it was originally. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has just pointed out, if drivers feel that there is less chance of being caught, the likelihood of their offending, hoping that they can get away with it, is clearly greater. More will take the risk, and sadly, more casualties will occur.

Of course, "driving under the influence" does not just mean drink-driving. Drugs are also an issue, which my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will pursue later in the Bill's passage.

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