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Mr. Andrew Turner: The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) has told a very sad story. We all sympathise with him and his two Wolverhampton colleagues, as well asof coursethe bereaved family.
It is common during road safety debates for Members to say that deaths could occur in certain circumstances, but I do not intend to take that line myself. Let me first express to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) my support for his new clauses, and explain to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) that I tabled new clause 7 because my constituents wanted something to be done about the dangers involved in using rural roadsespecially as pedestrians, cyclists or riders, but sometimes as motorists. I felt that devising and debating a new clause would do no harm.
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There is considerable objection to the concept of national speed limits, because they are seen to take from the motorist the responsibility for making his own judgments about conditions pertaining on a particular road. I sympathise with that view: I believe that it is the responsibility of the motorist behind the wheel of a dangerous missile to decide at what speed that missile is less or more dangerous, and to adjust his behaviour accordingly. However, I also observe considerable concern about the proliferation of a range of different speed limits, and, for that matter, the proliferation of a range of signs on the highway, particularly in rural areas. I refer the Minister to an amendment that I tabled to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 when it was a Bill, which proposed that planning authorities should consult highway authorities on signage in areas of high environmental value, such as areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks and conservation areas.
Many of us believe, and others have observed, that extra road signs do not make things safer, and that the kind of work so favoured by traffic engineersestablishing barriers around corners so that pedestrians cannot step off the pavement, driving pedestrians into cages before they cross roads, and producing a proliferation of lines and devices on the surfaces of carriageways and on lamp posts and signpostsdoes not make things easier. In fact, such measures give the motorist the false impression that he is safe.
I refer the Minister to documents circulated by the British Council of Shopping Centres, the Council for the Protection of Rural England andthis is the one that came to my attention most recentlyEnglish Heritage, in association with the women's institutes. They suggested that such signs not only make driving more dangerous because they create a false sense of security in the motorist's mind, but damage the environment. I therefore tried to devise an amendment that would achieve my constituents' objective but not lead to a proliferation of road signs. In the nature of things, that is likely to produce a blunt instrument. That is my explanation to my Front-Bench colleagues of the fact that I propose a national speed limit of sorts.
My constituents, especially those who ride in the Upton Cross area, have observed increasing traffic speeds among people travelling from Newport to Ryde and avoiding the main road, on which there are a number of speed cameras. That is the situation described earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. Stroudwood road and the other roads in that area are very narrow, only just capable of carrying two lanes of traffic, and there are white lines, or hazard lines, down the centre. Motorists think, "There's a division in the middle, so we can adopt a reasonably high speed." They tend to ignore the high hedges abutting the carriageway on either side, the absence of verges and the fact that, given the many equestrian centres in the area, riders are likely to be crossing, and using, the road. It is said that there are more horses than people on the Isle of Wight; there are certainly more horses than there are small girls to ride them. Riding is not a toffs' sport on the Isle of Wight even if it is in other parts of the country, which I doubt.
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I hope that my new clause can be said to be relatively carefully crafted, and will prevent a further incidence of mad sign diseasethe defacing of our streetscapes with lumps of aluminium and plastic, and the defacing of our rural areas as well. First, it establishes what a rural road is. Under subsection (7), a rural road must fulfil three conditions: no speed limit other than the national limit must apply, there must be no street lighting and, most importantly, there must be no white line down the middle. If a local authority wishes to impose a limit, it need only remove the white line. That in itself will tend to make motorists more careful.
Secondly, I have given the Secretary of State power to designate speed limits for England, and the highway authority power to designate them in respect of a highway authority area, or an area of a principal authority subordinate to that highway authority. That is in subsections (3) and (4). Thirdly, I have proposed that no signage is necessary if there is a national scheme. If there is no street lighting, if there are no markings in the middle of the road and if there is no speed limit, it will be obvious to the motorist that a speed limit designated by the Secretary of State applies.
Rob Marris: It may be more difficult for those of us who live in and represent urban areas to understand entirely what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I thought that we already had such limits de facto. If I go from Wolverhampton to the rural areas of Staffordshire or Shropshire, I see a derestriction sign which means a maximum of 60 mph unless a different limit is posted. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that what I would call a default speed limit should be less than 60 mph, or more?
Mr. Turner: I am suggesting that when the Secretary of State or the highway authorities so decide, the default speed limit should be less than the national speed limit, and that, when the Secretary of State so decides, no signs are necessary, and when the highway authority decides the samethis is covered by subsection (6)the only sign necessary is one at the entry of the designated area, which shall be coterminous with the area of a highway authority, county council, unitary authority, metropolitan or other borough, or district in a rural area. In all those areas, designation will be by the highway authority. It is really quite simple.
Let me refer to the eighth point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire. I propose that a highway authority should be able to set a speed limit below that designated by the Secretary of State. Areas differ, and the council of the Isles of Scilly may prefer a lower speed limit than that which is appropriate for some of the roads that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) mentioned.
May I gently suggest to the hon. Gentleman that his views on the issue may be coloured by the constituency that he representswhich is also where, I suspect, he livesbecause it is an island? If I travel westwards from Wolverhampton in my constituency, I cross a peninsulathe southern part of Staffordshirefor approximately 8 km and then enter Shropshire. Under the scheme I understand him to be proposing, when I left Wolverhampton I might see a
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sign telling me that I was in Staffordshire and that the default speed limit was 50 mph. I then cross into Shropshire, where I might see one sign suggesting that the default speed limit was now 45 mph. If I missed that one sign and carried on driving at 50 mph in Shropshire, I would be doing 5 mph over the speed limit. If that is the system that he is suggesting in the new clausethe one-sign approachit is a little impractical, and unfair on motorists. If people come from the Isle of Wight they will not know that in Shropshire, the default speed limit is 45 mph.
Mr. Turner: That is a fair point. Perhaps as a former geography teacher, I have an optimistic view of people's knowledge of county boundaries. The boundary of my county is very clear and no one enters it without knowing that they are doing so. As I have said, I tabled the new clause not because I intend to press it to a vote but because I look forward to hearing hon. Members' views and those of the Minister on it. There are considerable differences between different areas, and perhaps I have been unduly restrictive in the signage that I have proposed under subsection (6), but I am deeply aware of the need to avoid a requirement for local authorities to put intrusive road signs every 100 or 200 yd through rural areas. I am talking about rural roads here, not major roadsalthough I would like those restrictions to be applied to major roads, too.
That said, I take the view that the new clause is worth tabling and discussing. The proposal would certainly work in rural areas such as Devon, Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly, where the boundaries are clear and well known. I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, whose city used to be in Staffordshire and is now only geographically within it, and not administratively. That problem arose following the reforms many years ago, which we were unable to undo. However, the new clause is worthy of consideration and I hope that the House, and the Minister in particular, will give their views on it.
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