Previous SectionIndexHome Page



'(1)   Within 12 months of the coming into force of this Act the Secretary of State shall by regulations establish a Road Accident Investigation Service ("the Service") which shall—



(a)   investigate the causes of road accidents particularly where they result in death or serious injury,



(b)   commission and publish the results of research into the causes and consequences of road accidents, and



(c)   make recommendations to the Secretary of State.



(2)   Regulations under this section may provide for the organisation, operation and powers of the Service.



(3)   The Secretary of State may make financial provision for the Service.



(4)   The power to make regulations under this section is exercisable by statutory instrument.



(5)   No regulations shall be made under this section unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'.

Rob Marris: New clause 17 addresses a matter that may be familiar to some hon. Members. However, it may be less familiar to others and to those outside the House who follow our debates. That is why I shall start at a level that some may consider to be somewhat basic.

Many vehicles sold in the UK and around the world now have on-board computers, which are said to be more powerful than those used in the 1969 Apollo mission to the moon. They record various information and sometimes govern—through electronic traction controls and anti-lock braking systems, for example—how a car can be driven. I shall return to that in a moment, but the computers are also sometimes called black boxes—a term that will be familiar to the House, as it is often used in connection with aircraft. The new clause calls such an instrument a "vehicle data recording device", and I take this opportunity to thank the Slower Speeds Initiative for its help with this matter.

Many data recording devices are linked to air bags, which were introduced in 1974 and are now incorporated in every new car sold in this country. They have become very sophisticated and no longer expand when a car goes over a bump in the road, for example. New technology controls the extent and speed of an air bag's inflation, according to external information gathered by sensors and fed into the black box. Air bag sensors log pre-crash speed, engine revolutions per minute and accelerator and brake pedal positions. They can also detect whether a driver's seat belt was fastened and whether a car was started after the air bag had been deployed.

Interestingly, the sensors also monitor minor impacts that do not trigger inflation. The sensors are very sensitive, and take fresh readings of speed and control pedal positions, for example, every five seconds. They store that information for up to 60 days, but some sensors and computer chips in cars are now so sophisticated that they can detect and store a lot more data.

The National Transportation Safety Board in the US wants the fitting of such sensors and black boxes to be mandatory for all vehicles by 2009. The latest figures I have are for about a month ago, when 15 per cent. of vehicles in the US had been fitted with these devices. They have been used for prosecutions both in America and in Canada—a point to which I will return.
 
8 Mar 2005 : Column 1458
 

Some people are concerned about the cost of these black boxes.

5 pm

Mr. Greg Knight: The scope of the hon. Gentleman's new clause would appear to allow the Government to order the retrospective fitting of these boxes to vehicles currently on the road. Is he arguing for that, or only for fitting them to vehicles that have yet to be manufactured?

Rob Marris: Unusually, in a sense I am arguing for both. I am not seeking for the Government the power to retro-fit black boxes, but the new clause would allow them to access information contained in black boxes already to fitted to vehicles. So this is a question not of retro-fitting but of future fitting to vehicles that do not have them, and the retrospective accessing of information from vehicles on the road that already have such boxes.

These devices cost between £200 and £300, which is a lot of money in vehicle manufacturers' terms but perhaps not so much in safety terms. I stress that the new clause relates only to impacts causing injury; such a device would not be a Big Brother in the cab that could be used, pursuant to the new clause, to "do" people for speeding. The police, accident investigators acting on the state's behalf in criminal prosecutions and those wishing to pursue civil proceedings could interrogate the information in a black box only when there has been an injury following a collision. That is a key point in terms of public acceptance.

Norwich Union is already giving insurance discounts to certain drivers in a pay-as-you-drive scheme that uses such technology to determine how many miles they are driving, at what time of day, and so on. Under the terms of such a policy, the person in question agrees not to drive between 11 pm and 6 am. The technology is already being used by the private sector, and it is being introduced by motor manufacturers not for vehicle safety reasons in the sense of preventing and investigating accidents, but in order to prevent injuries such as those relating to airbags, to which I have referred.

I mentioned cases in north America in which such information has already been used. According to Maclean's magazine of 22 March 2004—for those few Members who do not know, it is a weekly Canadian news magazine—

More than a year ago, the Canadian authorities were using such information for criminal prosecutions. In Ontario it has been used since the late 1990s.

The Department for Transport does not know whether such information is being used for prosecution in this country, but I suspect that it is not. I asked a question for written answer last year—addressed to the Home Office, not the Department for Transport:


 
8 Mar 2005 : Column 1459
 

The Home Office did not know—although to be fair to the Minister concerned, I must explain that the exact answer was:

During the last Session, I tabled early-day motion 1186 on that very issue, expressing disappointment, and it seemed to me that the Road Safety Bill would be a very appropriate means by which to introduce a new clause on the subject.

Data collected from black boxes could be used for criminal and civil proceedings following an accident in which injury occurred, pursuant to my new clause. Such data could also be used for some medical purposes and for research and crash prevention. I have referred to the court proceedings angle, but for medical purposes, the data from black boxes could be used retrospectively in trauma research to improve injury predictions, support decisions about service provision and improve the responses of emergency services to crashes and so forth. A study showed how measured

That was a quote from a study by R. Martinez in 2003—"Medical Use and Emergency Response, SAE Vehicle Recorder Topical Technical Symposium"— from a symposium of June 2003 in Virginia USA.

The data could also be used for road safety research, as well as the medical research to which I have adverted. It could be made available to bona fide researchers, as the new clause would allow, to improve the understanding of the "crashworthiness" of vehicles and the potential for crash avoidance. The data will help researchers find out what went wrong before a crash—perhaps a Gautier going at 154 kph in a 50 kph zone in Montreal. The quality of crash investigation statistics could improve substantially, which also ties in with new clause 20 in the same group.

We need to bear in mind that cars change. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), having been a solicitor, will remember that when road traffic accidents led to injury, the police used to go out and measure the skid marks. That used to provide some indication, usually within about 10 or 15 per cent., of the speed at which the vehicle was travelling before the brakes were applied. It would then be possible to measure the point at which perhaps a child had been knocked down. With anti-lock braking systems, that can no longer be done, because those systems, which are fitted to most cars sold in the UK today and have been fitted to many for several years, stop the wheels from locking. There are no longer any skid marks, so information that used to be vital to the police in investigating road traffic accidents is no longer available. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford nodding in agreement. If black boxes were fitted to every new vehicle, and if the information in those already fitted to vehicles on the road were made available to crash investigators, it would help with prosecutions or civil proceedings, and also with research and crash prevention.

An analogy could be made with tachographs in heavy goods vehicles, which have been around for years. There is some evidence that drivers who are aware that black
 
8 Mar 2005 : Column 1460
 
boxes—vehicle data recording devices—are fitted to their vehicles actually drive more carefully. The Metropolitan police conducted a study and attributed a 25 per cent. reduction in crash rates to a safe driving programme that included the fitting of VDRDs. I appreciate that that poses the question of how much of the 25 per cent. improvement was due to the safe driving programme. An awful lot, I suspect, but some of it could have been connected with the fact that the drivers were aware of the black boxes within the vehicles. A Dutch study of driver response to black boxes used in several vehicle fleets estimated a crash reduction of 20 per cent. Again, that is not necessarily cause and effect, but one starts to see a correlation. A German study of young drivers found that awareness of a black box being fitted to a vehicle forced a change in driving habits and made the young drivers much safer.

Clearly, we are talking about a potentially important safety device and the technology is already there. Black boxes are already fitted to many vehicles and the practice of fitting them is likely to become more widespread. As far as I can determine, however, the information is not accessible to researchers, investigating authorities or the courts. The problem is that standards differ between different motor manufacturers who sell vehicles in the UK. Understandably, for data protection reasons, those manufacturers are reluctant to allow anyone access to the information contained in the black boxes that they have fitted to vehicles.

The UK Government should take a lead within the EU on the issue of vehicle data recording devices. Pursuant to my new clause, or something like it, we should specify a date, perhaps 2009, by which all vehicles sold in the United Kingdom would have to be fitted with vehicle data recording devices and access would have to be permitted to the software in those devices.

As one of the 25 member states of the European Union, we should be pushing for such initiatives to be taken across the EU. It is certainly the case that with some EU countries we would be pushing at an open door. To set a date of 2009—four years hence—may seem to give only a short time for the development of such sophisticated technology but we are in no way starting from scratch. The technology exists; it is already being used in other countries and is increasingly being fitted to cars. I urge the Government to consider seriously my new clause, or something like it, so that we can get a move on and save lives. If people change their driving habits and/or we can obtain information that allows better crash investigations and better medical investigation of the injuries sustained in crashes, so that we know how the injuries came about because we know more about the crash, we shall lessen injuries and save lives.

The new clause is simple and, I hope, fairly straightforward. It includes penalties for people who interfere with the devices—because, sadly, in this day and age one has to do that. However, the thrust of the new clause is to get the Department for Transport, working with other Departments, to make mandatory the fitting of VDRDs—so-called black boxes—to all
 
8 Mar 2005 : Column 1461
 
new vehicles from a given date, which I hope will be 2009, and to allow access to data that is already being gathered from the black boxes fitted to many vehicles in the UK.


Next Section IndexHome Page