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Mr. Drew: I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position. Besides being an excellent Minister, he was an eminent scientist in a previous incarnation. Perhaps in advance of the Road Safety Bill, it would be useful to commission research into the impact of age on sleep patterns. We have an ageing population with many more older drivers. The research could examine whether that is resulting in a greater number of crashes. I hope that he will consider that. It is not a minor matter—it is of growing importance.

Dr. Ladyman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. I understand the point that he makes and I undertake to look at the matter and to discuss it with officials to see what research is available. No doubt we will discuss it as the Road Safety Bill passes through the House. If a sensible amendment could be made to the Bill, I would be happy to give it careful consideration.
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We shall have to take account of checks and balances. Where young men tend to overestimate their driving ability and resilience, older drivers perhaps—I emphasise perhaps—may be better judges of their tiredness, more willing to take breaks, better able to pace themselves and understand the risks of sleepiness and less willing to take those risks. Older drivers may be more prone to falling asleep, but they could be more likely to make good judgments in dealing with the problem. We shall have to debate both those issues further and determine how to deal with them more effectively.

Mr. Drew: I entirely agree and I am not in any way traducing the great elderly population of this country, but I still urge the Minister to reflect further on whether older drivers who have a serious problem as a result of age and infirmity should be allowed to drive at all. I hope that that consideration will be examined carefully and taken into account.

Dr. Ladyman: I agree with my hon. Friend that if an older driver has developed a condition that makes him or her prone to fall asleep and become dangerous at the wheel, it should be a matter of careful consideration as to whether they should continue to be allowed to hold a licence. I shall look further into our arrangements for checking up on that matter and ensure that people's medical conditions are properly assessed and reported to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will look further into the problem that he identifies. As I have said, if sensible amendments could be suggested to the Road Safety Bill that would be practical in effect, I would be happy to examine them.

To conclude my remarks about the campaign that we launched, it was also promoted by partnership marketing activity where interested parties reinforced the driver tiredness messages. For example, Multimap encoded the "Take a break" message into their route planner, so drivers were reminded that after two hours of driving it was time to take a break. Road Chef and Little Chef offered coffee promotions. The Royal Automobile Club, What Car? magazine and the M6 toll road all distributed publicity materials for us and free truck-back advertising has also been negotiated with Wincanton to include driver tiredness messages.

Although we rely on educating drivers about the dangers of sleepiness, it is important to remember that the police can take action and prosecute irresponsible drivers who fail to take action when they start to feel sleepy. The courts also take the issue seriously, as falling asleep at the wheel is treated as an aggravating rather than a mitigating factor when considering sentencing.

Our publicity messages are, of course, aimed at all drivers, but it is important not to overlook those who are driving for work. We estimate that about 40 per cent. of sleep-related crashes are probably work-related, as they involve commercial vehicles such as large goods vehicles and vans. Employers should also ensure that employees who have to drive as part of their job have the opportunity to take breaks and know that they can stop if they start to feel sleepy.

Professional drivers are governed by additional rules. European regulations require the use of tachographs and set maximum limits on driving time and minimum
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requirements for breaks and rest periods for most HGV drivers and about half the bus and coach drivers in the UK. Separate UK domestic rules govern those operations that are exempt from the EU drivers' hours rules.

There is also separate legislation on working time. Generally speaking, the Road Transport (Working Time) Regulations 2005 apply to drivers and crew participating in road transport activities that fall within the scope of European drivers' hours rules, whereas the main Working Time Regulations 1998, as amended, apply to those drivers operating under domestic rules.

A further measure in the Road Safety Bill should help enforcement of the rules. New powers are being sought to enable both the police and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency examiners to issue fixed penalty notices for drivers' hours offences. The penalties will be graduated according to the severity of the offence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South also expressed concern about the potential distraction caused by advertisements next to motorways. Although there is much anecdotal evidence to suggest that advertising alongside motorways can have a detrimental effect on road safety, the results of studies carried out to date have been inconclusive.The Highways Agency is concerned that, as unauthorised signs proliferate, there may be an increased impact on road safety, as well as obvious detriment to the environment alongside the road. However, it has no general powers to remove advertisements on private land.

Advertisements displayed in fields next to motorways should have the approval of the relevant local planning authority, but many are erected without the appropriate consent. Local planning authorities have powers under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to require any unlawfully displayed advertisements to be removed. The
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Highways Agency will write to the relevant local planning authority to bring the presence of the advertisements to the planning authorities' attention. I will undertake to discuss this matter again with the Highways Agency, and make sure that its officials are diligent in bringing advertisements to the attention of local planning authorities. If it appears that that is ineffective, I shall discuss the matter with ministerial colleagues to see whether other powers can be deployed or whether future legislation should be modified to include provisions to deal with this problem.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South may be aware, although the display of advertisements is not normally permitted within the highway boundary, operators of motorway service areas are allowed to display their company name on a header board fixed to service area advance warning signs. Only the name of the operator may appear, rather than merely the name of a company trading at the service area.

My hon. Friend has raised some important issues in this debate. I repeat that, as I am new to my portfolio, I do not claim to have all the answers yet. He has offered some sensible ideas and made constructive suggestions for how we should proceed, and I shall make sure that my officials study them with care. We will adopt those proposals that the evidence shows will lead to an improvement in the road safety statistics.

I emphasise, however, that in the end it is the responsibility of drivers to ensure that they do not ignore the signs of sleepiness. I shall take the opportunity provided by this debate to put on the record my plea that drivers make an effort to plan journeys so that they can stop every two hours. They should not ignore the signs of sleepiness—their lives depend on it.

Question put and agreed to.

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