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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I want to consider new clause 18. It stands in my name and that of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) but, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) rightly said, he tabled an identical new clause in Committee. I am also pleased to receive the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney).

Like the right hon. Member for Bracknell and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, I am a patron of Reflect, and we shall continue to advocate the cause of adding retro-reflective tape to heavy goods vehicles because the problem of conspicuity will not go away. Until the Government sign up to regulation ECE 104, all the issues that pertain to that will not be resolved. In passing, I emphasise that I heartily support the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), but I intend to concentrate on new clause 18.

I shall not go through all the debates that have been held on the matter, except to consider the stage that the study, which is looking into the matter, has reached. I want to ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether she has any additional information on that.

Those who support the change can feel somewhat aggrieved that the usual arguments are used against it. It is argued that the change does not need to be included in primary legislation, yet Italy has done so. It is
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contended that such a provision would be excessively costly, yet we are considering between £50 and £100, which is not a great sum for those who own or drive heavy goods vehicles to pay to save someone's life. Other arguments focus on whether such a change would be effective.

No one has proved to my satisfaction that the proposal would involve anything other than a minor change to vehicles. Most heavy goods vehicles, not only the newest, are eligible for it, although it is sometimes argued that it would be easier to introduce it for new vehicles. So the reality is that this would be a minor change, but anyone who drives at night, as I suspect most of us do, knows that coming across a heavy goods vehicle—particularly side-on—that is neither lit not fitted with retro-reflective tags can be highly dangerous. I take that as read.

I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give us some additional information. We were led to believe that the study being undertaken by the ergonomics and safety research institute at Loughborough university should have been completed in February 2005. It would be good to know what results it has produced, and whether any recommendations that it has made are with the Department for Transport. If so, may we have some reassurance—in another place, if not here—that they will be looked at, so that this minor change can be put into place sooner rather than later, through secondary legislation if not through primary legislation?

Reflect has run a very good campaign on this issue, and many lobby groups have worked very hard on it. This is a very specific and—dare I say it—almost minor issue, but those groups have really put their shoulders to the wheel to get this change introduced. I hope, therefore, that the House will listen to them, that the Minister will provide us with the information that I have requested, and that we can be assured that we shall get some satisfaction on this matter even if the new clause is not adopted, and that the provision can be introduced. We should all feel safer when driving at night if that could happen.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): In replying to the debate on new clause 11, I would like to say that the extent of HGV wheel loss is still uncertain. I know that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) cited Brake's figure of 10 fatalities, and that might well be accurate. However, we are not clear as to the scope of the problem, and we would need to have that information before contemplating any action. Having said that, we are committed to carrying out further research, and that research has been approved by Ministers. It will look into HGV wheel loss, update existing data and explore the current situation on wheel detachment. In particular, it will look at wheel fixing standards and the advantages and disadvantages of directional wheel stud threads and methods of tightening, and carry out an assessment of after-market wheel locking and indication devices. Some of those devices can be misleading, so we need to ensure that we are not going to make the situation worse.
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Research has demonstrated that a major factor in HGV wheel loss is a lack of regular and effective maintenance. Whether devices are fitted—and whether such fitting is mandatory or not—maintenance must remain of overriding importance. Anti-loosening wheel nuts and other devices aimed at preventing, or warning of the imminence of, wheel loss are on the market. At present, our understanding is that they would not totally prevent wheel loss. However, the new research will, among other things, consult various stakeholders on this issue.

In the Department's view, anti-loosening wheel nuts will not prevent the fundamental problem, which is the loss of clamp force. Research carried out on behalf of the British Standards Institution shows that a loss of clamp force can take place without any rotation of the nut, so the use of locking nuts would not counteract the problem. We need to do more work on this issue before we decide whether the right hon. Gentleman's proposal would solve the problem. It would make matters worse to introduce a system that masked the problem and created confidence that it had been resolved, when in fact the lack of maintenance was the key issue. Further research is therefore needed. For that reason, I hope that the new clause will be withdrawn.

Mr. Greg Knight: I appreciate the tone and content of the Minister's reply. First, is she able to give the House some idea of when the research will be complete and of the time scale by which the Government hope to be able to reach a conclusion? Secondly, will she undertake to see that the research is published at that time?

4.30 pm

Charlotte Atkins: I am not exactly sure when the research will be available. It will certainly be published, however, and we want to make sure that we investigate the matter in some detail. Although the right hon. Gentleman has expressed his concern about this matter, and it is devastating when it occurs even if it is a relatively small problem, we do not have the information about how often it happens. [Interruption.] I am now reliably told that the research will take about a year. It is therefore important to get it right rather than to dash to some sort of solution. Plenty of products are on the market, but it is not clear whether they will resolve the problem. I repeat that maintenance is the key to ensuring that such wheel loss, with its devastating effects on all concerned, does not occur.

On new clause 13, I am not aware of the Spanish experience of using reflective clothing or of whether they would have greater ease in enforcing such a measure than we would. Certainly, I support the comments about the requirement for everyone to carry reflective gear—we might even be talking about reflective babygros if we are not careful. This is a serious problem, especially if one happens to be on a motorway, and it is important that people can be seen. Clearly, the new clause relates only to reflective clothing worn when leaving a vehicle, except when it is properly and lawfully parked—effectively, therefore, it relates only to circumstances in which the vehicle is illegally parked. Apart from that, we advise pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists to wear fluorescent clothing during the day and reflective clothing at night, to improve their visibility to other road users. The advice is also
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contained in the highway code, on which we rely in this country to advise people about how they should behave in such an accident situation. This country adheres generally to the highway code and people see it as the bible in this regard.

Mr. Martlew: Would the Minister make representations to manufacturers that such equipment should be included in the boot of new cars when they are sold?

Charlotte Atkins: Certainly, we can consider that. Whether one is carrying the red triangle or appropriate reflective clothing, anything that helps the motorist and their passengers to remain safer after an accident or when they have had to stop for whatever reason is worth considering. Obviously, we are keen to bear down on unnecessary accidents, and on unnecessary injuries, which happen frequently, after an accident has occurred. Our leaflet, "A guide to safer motorway driving", contains advice on what to do when vehicles break down on motorways. We believe that drivers and their occupants are not at great risk when they follow that advice. Basically, the advice to them is to wait on a nearby bank, if they are on a motorway, not on the hard shoulder. We have all heard of awful incidents in which people who thought that they were safe on the hard shoulder were not. I was involved in an accident in which I managed to get my car half on to the hard shoulder, and was then able to get away from the car to safety, having called the police.

It is important for people to understand what they should do in such circumstances. Others who had been involved in the accident sat in their car, which was very unsafe. If a car had collided with my car, there could have been a huge pile-up.

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