Road Safety Bill

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Mr. Jamieson: The use of the word ''mitigation'' is becoming a bit confused. If someone feels that they have been wrongly accused they can go to court, and the court could throw out the evidence. The person would essentially be not guilty of the offence of which they had been accused. Mitigation is usually where there has been a guilty plea or where the person has been found guilty and the offender wants to plead some very special circumstances. As I understand it, there may be some offences in respect of which magistrates have discretion over both the points and the financial penalty, but in most cases the law clearly sets out that the penalty points are mandatory. Generally, however, it is within the gift of the magistrates to operate their discretion over the financial penalty. The guidance to the court and the magistrates would not come from my Department. I
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am sure that careful note will be taken of the information that is given to the offender along with the notice. Safeguards are built into the proposal.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 17

Speed assessment equipment detection devices

Mr. Chope: I beg to move amendment No. 22, in clause 17, page 22, line 43, leave out 'detect, or'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 39, in clause 17, page 22, line 46, leave out 'detected' and insert

    'provide information about the location of'.

Mr. Chope: My amendment and that tabled by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross are incompatible. The latter would outlaw all equipment that provides information about the location of speed assessment devices; my amendment would limit the ambit of the clause to devices that interfere with the speed assessment equipment.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I tabled the amendment because there are several devices on the market, including the Road Angel. I regret that I speak with some ignorance, although some hon. Members may have this equipment, which I believe may be purchased at considerable expense. I am told that the Road Angel contributes to road safety; it is very effective in reducing the number of accidents among people who have the equipment because it alerts them to accident blackspots, which is where cameras are placed; the driver then modifies his driving accordingly. I have no basis on which to question the assertion made by those who market the devices, so they must surely be a good thing. If they go further and interfere with the operation of the speed assessment equipment, no one would wish them to be on the market or to be used. However, if their purpose is to allow motorists to be more aware of accident blackspots, surely we should not prohibit them as the clauses proposes.

Mr. Stinchcombe: On Thursday 20 January, the hon. Gentleman criticised fixed cameras because he said that local people get to know where a speed camera is placed and slow down, then accelerate away. Would not his amendment lead to even more such behaviour?

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman is facing up to the fact that the speed cameras are of limited use. I thought that he and his hon. Friends and the Minister were arguing that they were of use. Obviously, as I described earlier, people slow down at the point where a camera is if they know that it is there. The purpose of installing a camera is to reduce the number of accidents at its location, and in many cases a camera will secure such a reduction.

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I think that I have referred to this in Committee before, but the best-located speed camera that I know is on the A30, west of Exeter, at a junction that is not grade-separated as it should be. Drivers know that the camera is there, so they slow down, and the number of accidents at that crossroads has been reduced accordingly. If someone who does not know the road well has a Road Angel, it will alert them to the camera's presence. They will slow down, and the chances of there being an accident at that dangerous crossroads will be reduced. That must be good for road safety.

The point that I made in the earlier debate to which the hon. Gentleman referred was that too many people now regard speed cameras as a substitute for the general law on speed limits. They think that they have to comply with a speed limit only where there is a camera. This matter is about the psychology of enforcing speed limits; it is about finding appropriate limits; and it is about the reduction, which we have greatly criticised and continue to criticise, in the number of police officers who patrol the roads.

The principal point that I raise in the amendment is that if motorists are enabled more easily to identify an accident blackspot, that must contribute to road safety rather than undermining it. That would be the effect of the amendment.

John Thurso: As the hon. Gentleman said, my amendment is diametrically opposite to his. That is for a specific reason: I wanted to probe the Minister as to the Government's thinking on clause 17 and the reasons for its wording. I thought that, rather than draft an amendment to do something similar to that tabled by the hon. Gentleman, I would not pander to the boy racer element but would aim for something a little more responsible, listen to what the Government had to say and withdraw the amendment on that basis.

I want genuinely to probe the Government's precise thinking on the clause. I have experience of a detector. It goes back a few years to, I think, not long after the hon. Member for Christchurch introduced speed cameras. A friend of mine acquired a device that he plugged into his dashboard. We went tooling down the M40 and the device kept going beep. He later discovered that it beeped every time he went past a microwave oven. A great many such devices were sold at that time, but they detected any and all forms of microwave energy and were set off by all sorts of things apart from cameras. In fact, many people believe that many of these devices, which are sold on the basis of being accurate, are of great value to the people who sell them and to no one else.

4.45 pm

I am reliably informed of another, far more worrying, device, which, I believe, is already illegal, and which, it is claimed, somebody has fitted to their car. It is capable of detecting a hand-held radar gun that is laser-operated and sending a reciprocal beam that causes the gun to jam and reset while setting off an alarm in the car. The driver can then slam on the brakes so that, by the time the constable has reset the gun, the driver will be at a speed that is legal. It seems
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to me that the fitting of that device, which is at one end of the spectrum, should be illegal. I hope that it is. The device has no purpose other than to permit the driver to exceed the speed limit and hope to fool any covert or overt detection.

I now come to the devices that the hon. Member for Christchurch mentioned, such as the road angel, which I do not know anything about. He says that the device sits in the car and goes peep when it detects something, so that the conscientious driver in the car, who is not intentionally exceeding the speed limit, immediately checks their speed to make sure that they are doing the right speed when they go past the camera. This morning I amused myself by reading the Handbook of Rules and Guidance for the National Safety Camera Programme for England and Wales for 2005-06. If the argument is that the device is to help safety, under camera signing rules a fixed camera must have a warning sign within 1 km of the first camera, which may answer a question that my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) raised the other day. For mobile sites, warning signs must also be placed in advance.

There is also rule 4 on ''conspicuity''. It says:

    ''Fixed speed camera housing must be coloured yellow, either by fully painting both the front and back of the housing or fully covering both the front and back of the housing with retroflective sheeting.''

There are even recommended paint numbers and other such specifications. The handbook goes on to say that cameras must be conspicuous and visible and at a minimum distance of 60 metres if the speed is 40 mph or less or 100 metres at all other speeds. It strikes me that if one is paying attention to the road while driving along, missing one of those cameras with all that colour, signing and distance means that one probably deserves to get nicked. I do not see how a device that may go peep on the dashboard would make a great deal of difference. Therefore, what I am interested in finding out is whether there is a real argument that such devices can help safety or whether they are just going to help people who are predisposed to go a little faster than they ought to.

My second question is for the Minister. With all that signing, do we need also to have maps and all sorts of other things that help people to work out where cameras are? What is the logic of making everything as visible as it is and permitting such devices? As I said at the outset, I will not press the amendment to a vote. It is a probing amendment. However, I am interested to know what the logic is in removing detectors, but not removing other equipment in the car that can detect a location but do not detect the device itself.

Mr. Chope: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that train drivers receive audible warning signals to back up their visual inspection. If it is good for train drivers, why is it not appropriate for car drivers?

John Thurso: I am not sure whether you will rule that question in order, Mr. Pike, but I would have thought that there was a straightforward difference—the way in which the vehicle is driven. One is on rails, where a dead hand is used, the method of control is different and the critical aspect is making sure that
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drivers stop at red lights, do not pass them and observe a number of other commands that are external to the cab. A car driver is in variable control mode. He is turning the wheel, using the accelerator, the clutch, the break and other elements and he has a visual sign that he needs to be able to see. The eye is the principal organ that the driver is using in the operation. So, there is a clear distinction. The question for the hon. Gentleman is why an audible sign adds to safety, given the conspicuity that is already prescribed.

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