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Mr. Liddell-Grainger: One measure that has been very successful in many areas is the introduction of the flashing "20 mph" signs that teachers switch on when children are coming and going around a school. Perhaps we should try to persuade the Government to introduce that system across all areas of the country.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Unfortunately, I was attending a Committee when the Secretary of State made his speech; otherwise I would have spoken in this debate. The hon. Lady and I jointly chair the all-party group on road safety, along with one of the Liberal Democrat MPs. One of the things that I have tried to impress on the Government relates to the length of time that British summer time lasts. There is an increase of child road deaths in the winter months and, if the Government will not consider abolishing turning back the hour, I would like them to consider reducing the period of time involved. At the moment, we are on winter time for four or five months, but even a reduction of that period would have significant consequences, if the Government will not go the whole way and abolish it completely.
The Bill contains proposals to deal with fatigue-related accidents, which account for about 20 per cent. of deaths on motorways. I have been working on this issue with a small working group involving people from both the medical side and the road transport side. I welcome the inclusion in the Bill of measures to mitigate driver fatigue through the provision of picnic sites for motorway users and the better enforcement of EU rules on drivers' hours. According to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, up to one fifth of accidents on motorways, and about 300 fatalities a year, may be caused by drivers falling asleep at the wheel. We should take that statistic very seriously.
Although the Bill includes measures to address driver fatigue, I am worried that it does nothing to tackle the serious problem of drivers with undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorders. About 770,000 people in the UK have a sleep disorder, many hundreds, if not thousands, of whom are driving on our roads today. People with untreated obstructive sleep apnoeaa prevalent sleep disorderare up to 12 times more likely that others to have a road accident. I have tried to take that up with the Department of Health, but the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), did not seem very interested, so I hope that Transport Ministers will talk to him and perhaps get a bit further than I did.
The Royal College of Physicians has pointed out that there is an especially high incidence of sleep apnoea among professional drivers, as the condition is common
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in middle-aged men who are slightly overweight. A study of 35 professional drivers at one depot found that nine of them were at extreme or high risk of the condition and that four others were at risk of other sleep disorders. Although the Bill addresses sleepy, yet otherwise healthy, drivers, I am concerned that it misses an important opportunity to tackle the worrying problem of accidents caused by drivers with undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorders.
I shall cite one example. In August 2003, John Stevens died in a road accident while driving to work. He was 41, with a wife and two young sons. As a motorway roadworks technical manager, John's job involved driving long distances and he was an experienced driver. In the year leading up to the fatal accident, John had become progressively sleepier during the daytime, despite sleeping for seven hours each night. He did not think that the sleepiness could be due to a medical condition, even when he suffered a minor accident after falling asleep at the wheel. His employers eventually insisted on a medical check and he sought help.
John's general practitioner diagnosed sleep apnoea and referred him to a clinic for diagnosis and treatment. Almost all patients who need medical treatment go on a long waiting list, and three months before John's appointment, he crashed his car with fatal consequences. That demonstrates just one example of the devastating effect of the lack of awareness of sleep disorders in the UK and the importance of speedy diagnosis and treatment.
I recently met Professor John Stradling, who told me that there is a currently a seven-month waiting list for diagnosed patients to receive treatment for sleep apnoea, so at any one time hundreds of people could be waiting for treatment or diagnosis. A joined-up response from the Department for Transport and the Department of Health is required to tackle the problems caused by sleep disorders, because the number of people affected is not small. Such people are ticking time-bombs on our roads and motorways. I urge the Government to seize the opportunity to address the matter in their proposals on driver sleepiness. Edinburgh university sleep centre puts the cost of treating 500 sleep apnoea patients for five years at £400,000, yet the cost of accidents caused by the same 500 untreated patients over the same period is put at £5.3 million, so I hope that the fact that I have raised the matter will encourage the Department for Transport to examine it. Additionally, under criminal law, it is no defence that a driver had an accident while asleep. The presumption is that the driver should have known that he or she was likely to have fallen asleep and thus not have driven. That is an unfair presumption to make about people with sleep disorders who do not know that they have such a medical condition.
I thank the Government once again because the Bill contains good measures and they have a good record on road safety. Important matters have been addressed and I hope that the Minister will take seriously the suggestions that hon. Members and I raise during the debate.
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East) (Con):
My constituents will welcome much that is proposed in the Bill. In Bournemouth, in 2003, more than 20 per cent.
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fewer road casualties occurred than in 2002. That is a considerable decline, which will undoubtedly be enhanced by some of the measures contained in the Bill. We have seen such declines previously, however, only to see them equally dramatically reversed a year or two later. The fact remains that the average number of serious and fatal casualties in Bournemouth has been the same over the past 10 years103 citizens killed or seriously injured on our roads every year. That means 100 partnerships and families temporarily or permanently deprived of a loved one because of carelessness or irresponsibility on our roads. I am therefore encouraged that all parties in the House are approaching this Bill in a constructive spirit of support.
All of us have received representations from interested parties expressing concern at some of the measures in the Bill and proposing amendments to improve it. Such representations apply to the range of points and fines available through the fixed-penalty system, on which I read the article by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) in The Times yesterday with great interest. I must declare an interest because of my current six penalty points for speeding, in which I suspect that I am not alone in the House. I was sorry to read that one hon. Friend has recently been banned from drivingthere but for the grace of God . . .
I agree with those who say that the current penalty point system needs to be revised. Of course, I do not object to the provision of safety cameras provided that they are placed at obvious and known places of accidents caused by speeding vehicles. We have been reassured by the Government that that is the case, and I hope that the Minister will repeat that in his wind-up today. I welcome the commitment given by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) that the next Government will audit the current provision of safety cameras to re-justify their location.
There is no doubt that safety cameras influence most of us to keep our speed within the law. It is not so much the minimum fine of £60 but the awful prospect of being deprived of driving, and thus, in many cases, of livelihood, which concentrates the mind wonderfully. I suggest that most of us do not exceed the speed limit deliberately, and that we do so neither purposely nor excessively: for example, when temporary cameras are put in place on roads that are being repaired and that are not clearly indicated. That was the case when I incurred both my penalties. That is no excuse, but is unfortunate. I therefore agree with the proposed variable, graduated system of penalty points, which differentiates levels of speed. In addition, I suggest that the fixed minimum fine be raised from £60 to £100. That would be fairer, and also effective.
I welcome the enforcement of legislation against uninsured drivers in the Bill. The Royal Automobile Club tells us that the current average penalty for driving without insurance is £150, which is far too lenient to discourage such extremely serious and irresponsible behaviour. The current cynical perception of many uninsured drivers is that there are not enough police patrolling our roads to apprehend them, and, of course, they will avoid on-street parking where they can. Better detection, as the Bill proposes, together with higher penalties and proper enforcement would change that perception and the practice; nor should foreign drivers be exempt.
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I agree completely with the provision of motorway rest areas, which will contribute greatly to the reduction in fatigue-related accidents, but surely we do not need to pilot the provision of such rest areas, because of their obvious effectiveness where they already exist. The experience of the French péage motorways and trunk roads where such rest areas are frequent is sufficient to propose to the Highways Agency that it should proceed with their introduction on our roads forthwith.
I welcome the proposed enforcement of measures against foreign drivers committing offences in the United Kingdom. Such measures should be the same throughout the European Union. While I will always support the right of a national parliament to introduce laws and standards to reflect and respond to the situation in our constituencies, the whole point of the European Community is to ensure and enforce minimum standards in every state. Such a policy need not be restrictedin the context of road safetyto the 25 European Union member states; it could apply to all 46 member states of the Council of Europe, perhaps through an appropriate convention. I look forward to an assurance from the Minister that a level playing field will be introduced throughout the EU.
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