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9 Oct 2006 : Column 94

I would like to go much further; we could do more retrospective work. Another canard is that such changes will make very little difference, but the evidence shows that although accident rates are declining, the rate of accidents involving heavy goods vehicles has increased by 8 per cent. There is also evidence that the greatest threat is at night. Many heavy goods vehicles are well lit, but not all, and the minimum we expect is that British HGVs have the tape fitted to make them clearly visible and further to decrease the number of road traffic accidents. I do not understand why the Government are so reluctant to accept that point. As Lord Berkeley said in the other place, this issue is a “no-brainer”. It is a straightforward minor measure, but the Government have got very steamed up about it.

The final canard is that the pressure to adopt the measure comes from those who manufacture the tape. I have worked with lobbyists on the issue, but if it saves people’s lives it is appropriate for the industry to promote it. Many companies have already installed the tape, and drivers and cyclists—as I am—know that it can be seen clearly at night. That gives cyclists especially a chance to get out of the way. Too many accidents are caused because people simply do not see the poorly lit vehicles that do not have the appropriate reflective tape.

This is a minor road safety measure that could make a difference and I plead with the Government to accept it. Everyone seems to want it and I suspect that opposition to it comes from within the road transport lobby, although I do not know. That lobby is split on the issue, and given that people’s lives are at risk, we should be prepared to make our case. Otherwise, we will be surrendering to the basest instincts and I am not prepared to do so.

Mr. Paterson: I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who managed to get his name down first on our amendment. We are happy to join him, because this is a ridiculous situation. We debated the issue at some length in Committee and the facts are clear. Indeed, the Minister agrees with us. We had all-party support, because everybody agrees that night-time collisions are a problem.

In 2001, there were 9,000 collisions in which an HGV was struck by another vehicle. In 34 per cent. of those cases, the HGV was struck on the side. Research by the university of Darmstadt found that 37 per cent. of all collisions with trucks at night occurred because they were seen too late. The same study also found that adding retro-reflective contour markings reduced accidents involving trucks and passenger cars in conditions of poor visibility by 95 per cent. In the USA, where retro-reflective markings are mandatory, side and rear impact collisions involving HGVs have fallen by 41 per cent. The Loughborough report, which was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, showed that fitting ECE 104 markings to new HGVs would cost about £100, or just 0.001 per cent. of the vehicle’s cost.

The measure is inevitable. As long ago as 2004, the Commission recommended that all new HGVs in the EU weighing over 3.5 tonnes should be fitted with ECE 104 retro-reflective tape. It is not only the Italians who have broken ranks. They went ahead and imposed this simple measure, which has a remarkable impact, and
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the Greeks, Spanish and French are also considering similar action. The Dutch transport safety board has also recommended the compulsory use of retro-reflective contour marking. We do not, therefore, understand why our Government are being so timid. I am astonished that the Minister said that he had been involved in action against the Italians. That is bizarre.

The total cost of road accidents in 2001 was £17.76 billion. The markings cost only £100 per lorry, but the cost of having a lorry off the road is £212 a day.

Dr. Ladyman: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should find it surprising that we seek to defend British industry from anti-competitive practices in other countries. That is the rationale for a commitment to the whole of Europe moving together on such issues. It is not an EU matter alone. The UNECE is the body that has to agree the measure on behalf of all the states in Europe, not only those in the EU. The simple reason why we argue that the change cannot be achieved before 2010 is that we believe in the rule of law and it would be illegal. I do not know how many different ways I can say that. Even if we accept the new clause tonight, it would be illegal and we would be breaking treaties to which this country is a party.

Mr. Paterson: That is a bizarre way of looking at cost. To hauliers, costs arise when their trucks are not running on the roads. If trucks are not run into, they carry on running, and the haulier does not have to bear the cost of having to repair them, will not have them off the road, and will not lose business. The Minister’s way of looking at the issue is completely inverted— [Interruption.] Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis have already started to use retro-reflective tape voluntarily, because they know that it is worth while to do so.

8 pm

It is extraordinary that this should happen in what is supposed to be a sovereign Parliament. Members of all parties agree that this very simple and cheap measure would save lives. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon)—it is a pity that he is not here—made a very good comment in Committee:

Dr. Ladyman: There is a United Nations committee treaty to which we have signed up; the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe is not a European Union body, but we signed a treaty to say that there must be type approval in accordance with the UNECE agreement. That is a treaty to which our sovereign Parliament signed up.

Mr. Paterson: But the Italians, the Greeks, the French and others are going ahead, because they know that the measure will save lives.

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Dr. Ladyman: I shall say this one final time: they are not doing so. The Italians have gone ahead and will face infraction proceedings as a consequence. The others may have talked about it, and bodies may have recommended the measure to them—just as bodies have recommended it to me—but if they go ahead, they will face the same infraction procedures.

Mr. Paterson: So it is a choice between infraction procedures and hanging around until 2011, by which time there will have been 1,540 more collisions. We are discussing a road safety Bill at a time when more than 3,000 people a year are killed on our roads, and before us is a measure that is backed by responsible Members of Parliament of every single party. The Minister is being utterly pusillanimous—absolutely feeble to a degree. We will push the new clause to a Division later, and I hope that the hon. Member for Stroud will join us. The situation is utter nonsense. Our very simple measure would save lives, and we feel strongly about it. We believe that given that Members of Parliament think that the new clause would save lives, they should have the right to vote on it, and it should be made law.

Moving on to the other new clauses in this group, we have a similar case in respect of mirrors. We find it extraordinary that the Minister, as a Kent MP, did not back new clause 21. I cited in Committee the terrible example of what happened to the wife of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) who was driving in the fast lane of a motorway in Kent. Alongside was a Hungarian truck that was correctly set up according to Hungarian regulations, with mirrors on only the left side of the vehicle—that is, on the driver’s side in Hungary. The truck was completely blind on the right-hand side—the offside, where my hon. Friend’s wife was driving—and the driver forced her into the central barrier. I am glad to say that she was not hurt, but we have found that there is a consistent pattern, as those accidents are always happening. It is such a simple measure to make it mandatory to install mirrors on both sides of all heavy trucks operating in the UK. The Hungarian driver was aghast and horrified by what had happened, but he was operating within the rules as they stand. Again, the Minister has been utterly feeble, which I find bizarre considering that he represents a marginal Kent seat.

There is a political angle to the issue, because why should not just British citizens but all those who come to this country—there were 1.5 million vehicles from abroad here last year—be put at risk for the simple lack of a mirror on the continental blind side? The Minister appears to be lagging behind the European Commission, which only last week said that it would require large trucks to install blind-spot mirrors. EU member states have to improve infrastructure on vehicles, and the Commission would ensure that vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes installed new mirrors so that they could see not just cars but motorbike riders and cyclists. It said in a statement:

All that the new clause would do is pre-empt the European Commission and introduce a measure with profound safety benefits in this country.

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Again, other countries have already taken action; the Dutch and Belgians have introduced measures on blind-spot mirrors. I therefore hope that the Minister, who, as I said, has been utterly pusillanimous on the issue of retro-reflective tape, will steel himself to take action on this issue. The measure would be very cheap, as it does not cost much to install mirrors on heavy goods vehicles. It will soon be mandatory to do so, but let us get on and make it mandatory now.

Turning to new clause 22, it is the same old story. Every year, about seven people are killed in this country while hitching up a tractor to a parked articulated trailer. The trailer’s air brakes remain on until it is connected to the tractor’s air supply. When the tractor reverses, there is a large clunk as the fifth wheel engages with the trailer and the whole unit remains stable, because the air brakes are still locked on the trailer. All too often, however, the driver does not engage the handbrake because he believes that the whole unit is solid. After jumping down from the tractor he climbs on to the trailer to connect the Susie hoses to engage the air. As soon as the air passes into the trailer, the brakes disengage, and the whole unit moves. In some cases, sadly, the driver panics, and while trying to jump off and scramble into the cab he is run over. In other cases, the united vehicle rolls up or down the slope, crushing someone else.

Our extraordinarily simple technical measure would, we estimate, prevent seven deaths a year. The kit would cost about £100, as we are merely suggesting that an alarm be triggered if the tractor is left with the handbrake off. In Committee, the Minister said that he could not proceed with the measure for all the reasons that have just been given, as the infrastructure of vehicles is a European competence. However, the European Commission is not composed of unmenschen—its members are human beings. If he engaged with them and talked to them—he said in Committee that he would, and he has had the whole summer to do so—we could achieve a result. The measure is terribly simple and would save seven lives a year.

Finally, new clause 27, which was tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), requires daytime running safety lights to be installed on motorbikes. On the whole, we think that that is a good idea. Indeed, a study by the Institute of Transport Economics at Oslo in Norway discovered that it resulted in a 32 per cent. reduction in multi-party daytime accidents. The proposal therefore has merits, as information about permanent lights on motorbikes from the Transport Accident Commission in Victoria in Australia demonstrates. We therefore support the new clause. Our main aim, however, is to persuade the Minister to steel himself to take action. We have tabled three measures that would save lives, that are very cheap, and that have been introduced in other European countries. Will the Minister therefore accept our new clauses?

Mr. Leech: May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on the amount of work that he has undertaken on the issue? I shall be brief, because much of what I wanted to say has already been said by him and by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson).

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I wish to express my support and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends for new clause 12, which was tabled by hon. Members on both sides of the House and would make the use of ECE 104 retro-reflective markings mandatory on all UK-registered HGVs. Although there would be a minor cost to the owners of such vehicles, the new clause would have a significant impact in improving road safety and reducing casualties on our roads. The new clause would enable other motorists more easily to identify the size and shape of the vehicle, especially in poor light and at night.

Evidence suggests that in 2001 about a third of all collisions involving HGVs were when they had been hit on the side by another vehicle. More than a third of those side collisions at night occurred because the other driver saw the vehicle too late. The same research, which was carried out by the University of Darmstadt, concluded that the number of collisions in poor visibility or at night could be reduced by up to 95 per cent. simply with the addition of retro-reflective markings.

Where those markings were introduced as mandatory in America, it resulted in significant reductions in side impacts on HGVs. Not only has it reduced the number of accidents, it has also had a significant cost benefit in terms of economic savings because there were fewer accidents.

The cost of introducing the markings would be only about £100 per vehicle. When that is factored into the overall cost of an HGV, it is a mere drop in the ocean. I have never bought an HGV, but I have been given information by Reflect, which estimates that the cost of the markings would be less than 0.01 per cent. of the overall cost of the vehicle. By comparison, that would be equivalent to paying only an extra 80p on the cost of my car to improve its safety.

I am slightly disappointed that the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who has much experience with HGVs, is unfortunately not in the Chamber to add something to the debate. I am sure that he could have made a number of comments and I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say.

The overall cost would be a small price to pay for saving lives. It would reduce the number of collisions by an estimated 1,185 between now and 2010, if the Loughborough university report is to be believed. Given that the number of deaths from accidents involving HGVs has risen while the overall number of deaths on the roads has dropped, it is clearly time that this practical, cost-effective measure to improve HGV safety was made mandatory.

Mr. Greg Knight: I rise to draw the House’s attention to my new clause 27, which would require all motorcycles used on a public highway to display dipped headlight beams continuously and a red light during daylight hours, with an exemption for historic motorcycles. Any motorcycle failing to comply with that requirement would be guilty of an offence.

It is not a radical innovation. Careful motorcyclists in this country have already developed the practice of using their headlights at all times. Why? Because it increases their visibility and safety, so it is to be welcomed. The practice has been given official sanction. The highway code advises all motorcyclists to use their lights during
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day-time hours. It even includes a cartoon with a caption pointing out that it is wrong to drive a motorcycle without lights, so there is official blessing for the contents of new clause 27 in the highway code. The new clause would merely enshrine good practice in legislation.

Personally, I am against unnecessary legislation, so if the Minister can tell me that the current position, with the recommendation in the highway code, is an effective practice to which most motorcyclists adhere, I should probably be content and would not wish to push new clause 27 to a vote. But I have a second purpose in speaking to the new clause: I should like to tease out from the Minister his wider view, which I hope is that the provision should not be extended to cover all motor vehicles at all times on our roads. I hope that his support will extend only to motorcyclists, because somewhere deep in the heart of Brussels there is a regulation-ridden, form-filling, pen-pushing nincompoop of a Eurocrat who feels that the one-size-fits-all policy, which we see all too often in the EU, should be applied to day-time running lights and every EU member state should have compulsory day-time running lights on all motor vehicles, and further that such a provision should be retrospective and should thus apply to existing vehicles on our roads. I hope that the Minister, while indicating his support for the aims of new clause 27, will also be able to tell the House that he does not support the proposal currently being debated in Brussels to make every motor vehicle on the road use day-time running lights.

8.15 pm

There are a number of reasons why new clause 27 is good, but to go further would be bad—clutter, to start with. One benefit for motorcyclists in having their headlights on is that it makes them more visible to other road users. If every motor vehicle on the road was obliged by EU law to run with headlights or day-time running lights, we should have visual clutter and light pollution. Motorcyclists would be less visible because we would not be able to identify them from other vehicles. Such a law would remove the current safety benefits for motorcyclists.

The one-size-fits-all view is also wrong when we consider the climate and the number of daylight hours of EU member countries. Some European countries have few daylight hours; indeed, in the depths of winter some have no daylight. What might be right for them is not right for the UK. In some EU countries it is not light until 9.30 or 10 in the morning and it is dark again by 2.30 or 3 o’clock. In this country, there are many periods of good, bright weather in winter, so to say that motorists should have their headlights on at all times is inappropriate. It is the heavy hand of the nanny state.

If such a provision came into force, there would be a side-effect as it could affect the use of historic motor vehicles. At this point I declare an interest as the owner of several historic vehicles and as chairman of the all-party historic vehicles group. As the Minister knows, it is a technical issue; some early motor vehicles use gas lighting and the majority of historic and classic motor vehicles use a generator rather than an alternator to recharge their battery. The generator is—

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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): A dynamo.

Mr. Knight: Indeed. And a dynamo or a generator is less effective than an alternator and an old vehicle forced to run its headlights all day would soon have a flat battery. One of the side-effects would be to take historic vehicles off our roads because they would be unable to run.

I hope that the Minister will say that although he supports motorcyclists using headlights—as does the highway code—he does not see the need for us to go any further. Of course, new cars fitted with day-time running lights, such as the Volvo, have lights of slightly less intensity than dipped headlights, so older vehicles, manufactured before a change in the law, would experience a bigger drain on their battery.

I do not know whether unanimity is required in any EU discussions on the issue. I fear that it is not and that the issue could be decided by a majority vote, so once again the meddling European Union could impose on this country a new law against the wishes of our elected Government.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Has my right hon. Friend considered that to run headlights or sidelights on every vehicle would consume more fuel, albeit only a small amount? But in total, across the country, a considerable amount of extra fuel would be used if the regulation went through.

Mr. Knight: I will take advice from the experts on that point. I am not sure that that is correct in every case. Certainly, if one runs air conditioning, it is true, but I am not sure whether a dynamo or an alternator has the same effect. If it does, my hon. Friend has made a very good point.

I hope that when the Minister comes to speak to these new clauses he will tell the House that he will oppose, with all the powers at his disposal, the implementation of mandatory daylight running lights on all motor vehicles in the United Kingdom. I hope that if, in the discussions that he will no doubt attend, all appears to be lost at some point in the future, he will at least plead for an exemption for all those vehicles in the UK that are currently registered or taxed as historic. In earlier interventions the Minister made it clear that when the EU has spoken it is often too late to take the action that we would like to take. I hope that on this issue he can persuade the EU to show us a period of silence.

David T.C. Davies: I rise to support my colleagues in their new clauses. In answering a point made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), may I say that as somebody who has worked in road haulage for a number of years I am not aware of any lobbying from within the industry to prevent lorries, particularly new ones, from being fitted with reflective tape? I can understand why a haulier who owns 50 or 100 vehicles would baulk at paying what I think would be considerably more than £100 a time to have that fleet fitted with reflective tape retrospectively. But if this measure is to apply to new vehicles and if the cost is to be only £100 a time, it is a drop in the ocean for any haulage operator. Those who operate new vehicles tend to be the big boys anyway, and they are usually very keen to adopt any new safety procedures.

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