Road Safety Bill [Lords]

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Stephen Hammond: During the previous debate, the Minister argued that a slip of the mind would allow mitigating circumstances to be considered. Surely a slip of the mind for a SORN would also allow mitigating circumstances. If he is so keen on people not driving without insurance, this is the preventive measure that would allow him to be that tough. This is the amendment that would say, “You habitually fail to apply for insurance and you keep your vehicle off the road without insurance with the intent of driving.”

Dr. Ladyman: The penalty of £100 will be a fixed penalty. We hope that it will be sufficient to prod the significant number of habitual non-payers of insurance to think better of it in future. We also hope that it will catch those who are not habitual non-payers of insurance, but are conveniently lax about when they renew and take advantage of the fact that they do not need an insurance certificate until the next time they renew their car tax. The penalty will also target those who take the view that they need insurance only long enough to tax a car, and who cash in the tax and continue to drive without insurance or tax.

In my view, £100 is the appropriate penalty for what is essentially a paper offence; the more serious offence of taking the car on to the road will attract much higher penalties. The hon. Gentleman will see later that schedule 4 specifies the circumstances under which it will be possible to immobilise or take away people’s vehicles. [Interruption.] I am delighted that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire has returned to his seat in time to hear his hon. Friend propose that he should be liable for 45 penalty points and £15,000 in fines. He will be able to ally himself with me on this amendment.

Stephen Hammond: My right hon. Friend will have done the right thing and made his SORN declarations, which I mentioned in my opening remarks.

I hear what the Minister says, although I am surprised at the level at which the Government have set the fine. It is not even as much as the average insurance premium, which might have been a more appropriate level. Should the Government wish to rethink that and come back with an increased fine for the offence, they would have Conservative support. However, I have listened to the Minister and do not wish to delay the Committee any further and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 22 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Schedule 4

New Schedule 2A to the Road Traffic Act 1988

Question proposed, That this schedule be the Fourth schedule to the Bill.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I should like to ask the Minister some quick questions about paragraph 5, entitled “Disputes”, on page 96.

The Minister will agree that the DVLA database is not 100 per cent. perfect. If mistakes are made, how will the disputes procedure work? Will there be an appeal mechanism? Will compensation be paid at the full book value of the vehicle concerned? Will the Minister take us through how the procedure would work, because the issue is left entirely to regulations. The procedure is opaque; it is not at all clear how the procedure would work.

Dr. Ladyman: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with full details. Clearly, the procedure will have to be set out in the regulations when they are laid. However, I assure him that if an individual’s vehicle is moved or they incur loss through no fault of their own, we will make sure that they are properly compensated. I shall happily write to the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the Committee to explain the procedures that will be used.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 4 agreed to.

Clause 23

Careless, and inconsiderate, driving

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Paterson: We are in favour of the courts having more flexibility. As we understand it, the clause would give a wider range of powers to the courts, so we approve of it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 23 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 24

Breach of requirements relating to children and seat belts

Mr. Carmichael: I beg to move amendment No. 89, in clause 24, page 31, line 13, at end add

    ‘insert in column (6) (Endorsement) “discretionary” and in column (7) (penalty points) “3”’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 22—Breach of requirement relating to seat belts—

    ‘In part 1 of Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 in the entry relating to section 14 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act, insert in column (6) (Endorsement) “obligatory” and in column (7) (Penalty points) “3”.’.

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Mr. Carmichael: I shall deal with the amendment and new clause, which have been tabled to probe the Minister, in fairly short compass.

The effect of new clause 22 would be to add penalty points for a contravention of the law, the imposition of which would be obligatory. I was one of those who were not comfortable with the idea of compulsory seat belts when they were introduced. There may be others present who were of a similar mind. Given what we now tolerate by way of the nanny state, it seems pretty small beer in comparison.

However, where children are concerned, different standards apply and a nanny state or an alternative provision is often a good idea. That is why it would be appropriate to send the message that whatever someone wants to do with their own welfare and safety is a matter for them as an adult, but that the law takes a different view about the treatment and safety of children. For that reason, there is a compelling case to associate penalty points with the failure to secure children properly in the back seat of a car.

Dr. Ladyman: This is one of those issues that reasonable people can dispute reasonably. There is no ethical or philosophical reason why the offence should not be endorseable, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but it is my view and the Government’s view that the financial penalties are adequate. Faced with those penalties, people will want to obey the rules. The important thing is not so much that we make the offence endorseable, but that we continue to work with the police to encourage them to prosecute people who do not wear seat belts or who allow passengers not to wear them. I am pleased to say that in 2003, the police took action against 145,000 people for such offences, but we must keep up the pressure to achieve that.

Given that the hon. Gentleman is not going to convince me to make the offence endorseable, I hope that he will withdraw his amendment. In any event, it would have made carrying children without a seat belt an endorseable offence in the rear of the car, but not in the front, which I suspect is not what he intended when he drafted his probing amendment.

Mr. Carmichael: My understanding was that carrying children in the front of the car would have been covered by other provisions. The Minister makes a fair point, and as I said, they are probing amendments. He is right: an horrific number of people are caught by the police for the offence every year. I know that because I have prosecuted an horrific number of them over the years. A significant number attend court personally or say by letter that they are prepared to take the financial hit—the financial penalty. For a person to take that view for themselves is a matter for themselves. Children should be treated differently, and the only way in which people are going to take the offence seriously is if they receive points on their licence, rather than a mere financial penalty.

The matter will not go away, and I think that eventually we will have our way. For today, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

5.15 pm

Mr. Paterson: We on the Conservative Benches believe that it is anomalous that the fine for someone who does not wear their seat belt in the front is different from that for someone in the back. Anyone who has seen safety videos showing a child or person on the back seat being catapulted over the front seat will know that that does not make sense. The Minister has struck the right balance with clause 24 and we support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 24 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 25

Using vehicle in dangerous condition etc.

Mr. Paterson: I beg to move amendment No. 66, in clause 25, page 31, line 33, at end add—

    ‘(3)   Subsection (1) does not apply to an employee driving a vehicle owned by his employer in connection with his employment where he had no reasonable cause to suspect there was anything wrong with the vehicle.’.

We think that there is a flaw in the clause. We understand entirely what the Minister is seeking to achieve, but, as we said in debate in another place, we have concerns about the impact on employees who might be thoroughly professional and responsible drivers. Somebody let loose with a truck worth £100,000 or £150,000 plus its cargo, and who is a highly trained driver, is by data a responsible person. However, unbeknown to him, there might be something faulty with the vehicle. First, it might just be physically impossible to see the fault—it might be in the engine—and secondly, given the complexity of modern vehicles, he might not be technically competent to detect the fault in the first place.

I am concerned with the wording in line 17: “using vehicle”. Should the Minister not have been thinking about the person who is “responsible” for the vehicle? This is one of those grade II probing amendments, and if the Minister can come up with a good explanation for how the sort of person whom I am talking about will be excluded, I will happily withdraw it.

Mr. Carmichael: If the hon. Gentleman is talking up the seriousness with which he approaches the matter, I am concerned about the use of the word “owned” in the amendment. He will be aware that these days many companies do not own their vehicles—they lease them. To my mind, that is an obvious loophole in the amendment.

Mr. Paterson: I think that the word that I used was “responsible”. I think that the hon. Gentleman gets the drift of where I am coming from. I am concerned about
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employees being caught by the clause, and before we consider supporting the clause I would like the Minister to give a serious reply.

Dr. Ladyman: I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. I agree with him entirely; in the circumstances that he described, it would be inappropriate for the individual to be held responsible. Section 48 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 provides for the following:

    “Where a person is convicted of an offence under section 40A of the [1988 c. 52.] Road Traffic Act 1988 . . . the court must not—

      (a) order him to be disqualified, or

      (b) order any particulars or penalty points to be endorsed on the counterpart of any licence held by him,

    if he proves that he did not know, and had no reasonable cause to suspect, that the use of the vehicle involved a danger of injury to any person.”

For example, if an employee is ordered to drive a vehicle, so long as he can demonstrate that he did not know, could not reasonably have known and had no grounds for suspecting, that the vehicle was dangerous, clearly, he would have a complete defence against prosecution.

Mr. Paterson: Following that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26

Breach of requirements as to control of vehicle, mobile telephones etc.

Mr. Paterson: I beg to move amendment No. 67, in clause 26, page 32, line 5, after ‘device’, insert

    ‘except in circumstances where a motor vehicle with a manual gearbox is placed in neutral and the handbrake applied, and a motor vehicle with an automatic gearbox is placed in Park’.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 11—Offence of using a mobile phone while cycling—

    ‘A person who rides a pedal cycle on a public road while using a hand-held mobile telephone or other hand-held interactive communication device, is guilty of an offence under section 28 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (dangerous cycling).’.

Mr. Paterson: The amendments are probing in nature. They try to address the world as it is rather than as some people might prefer it to be. We contend that in some circumstances, it could be a major safety gain to allow drivers to use a hand-held mobile phone when their vehicles are guaranteed to be stationary. If the car has a manual gearbox, it should be in neutral with the handbrake on, and if it is automatic, the gear lever should be placed firmly in “park”. We are thinking of circumstances such as a young mother caught in a large traffic jam who needs to get a message to her baby-sitter, someone who is collecting a child from school or someone with an elderly relative who needs to warn a carer that they are completely stuck on the M1 and might be stuck for hours. There is a clear case that the mobile phone is a useful safety tool under such circumstances. People have suggested the
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possibility of pulling into the nearside lane. When stuck on the M1, as I was the other day, it is not really possible to move lanes.

Ours is a reasonable, common-sense amendment. It is supported by an interesting piece of research that I dug out from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. It was published by Graham, Cohen, Park and Lissy at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. I shall not go into too much detail—it is a lengthy report at 100 pages long—but, in brief, the report says that the scientific evidence to date on cellular phone use while driving is weighted toward the risk to the driver and passengers as well as other road users. Incredibly little research has been done into the benefits to the users of mobile phones—benefits not just to households, social networks and businesses but to whole communities. Many of those benefits, including public health and safety benefits, have not yet been recognised or quantified.

One of the main topics of the report is improved knowledge of emergencies. The authors have evidence from emergency personnel that because motorists use cellular phones from their cars to report emergencies, emergency personnel are better able to anticipate the emergency situation and what type of equipment might be needed. Emergency workers report that they receive information from multiple callers with different views of the same scene and are better able to distribute their vehicles and manpower.

The other important element is the golden hour, a concept originally described by Dr. R. Adams Cowley. The golden hour is the one-hour period following severe injuries during which getting a patient to accident and emergency has an enormous impact. The likelihood of getting that golden hour is increased enormously by the use of mobile phones. A survey in Australia sounded out 700 cellular phone users on the issue. The report’s conclusion is simple. Enormous benefits are gained from being able to use cellular phones at the appropriate moment, but they have not yet been assessed. Very little research has been done.

Our amendment would allow mobile phone use under clear circumstances: in a traffic jam with no prospect of getting to a phone, or in emergency circumstances when it would be sensible to be allowed to use a hand-held phone. We totally endorse the Government’s view that hand-held phones should not under any circumstances be used when a vehicle is moving.

I turn to our new clause on bicycles. I might get myself into trouble with people who are frequently seen in the popular press on their bicycles, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). Even my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has frequently been seen using his bike. I do not like to conjecture whether he uses his phone; perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Henley does. The issue is simple: a bicycle is under better control with two hands on the handlebars, not one hand on the handlebars and the other on a hand-held phone. I do not need to elaborate further.

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Mr. Knight: I rise to support the common-sense approach of my hon. Friend on the two issues. Of course it is important that we send out a message to motorists to discourage them from using a mobile phone or other interactive device while they are driving—in the normal sense of the word. I think it was Lord Reid who in a famous case decided that when a motorist is stationary in a queue of traffic, intending to continue his journey, he is still driving in the legal sense, even though the car is not in motion and no other road user is at risk from his activities at that moment in time. As presently drafted, the law could lead to a police officer walking down a line of cars that are stuck in a traffic jam, giving out tickets to motorists who happen to be on the telephone.

Yesterday, I had the misfortune to be stuck in a traffic jam on the M1 motorway between junctions 29 and 28. Presumably due to the incompetence of two or more motorists, there had been a collision, and the radio reports indicated that two lanes of the motorway were closed. The length of my journey was increased by approximately one hour and 15 minutes. As it happened, however, I did not have to reschedule any meetings.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Which car were you in?

Mr. Knight: I was in a Mercedes-Benz.

Mr. Bellingham: Not the Ferrari.

Mr. Knight: I do not own a Ferrari. It occurs to me that it would be more, not less, likely to increase the road rage of a driver in such a position if he felt that he could not telephone ahead to inform those he was seeking to meet that he had been unavoidably delayed. How much more that would be true of a young mother held in a traffic jam who realises that she will not be there to meet her child at the school gates. Not everyone has the benefit of a hands-free car kit. If she could use the phone, her mind would be put at rest, and the safety of the child would be assured.

There should be a common-sense approach. I well remember that, some 20 years ago, I had attended a concert with a musician friend of mine, and was travelling home with him in the band’s van. He knew a short cut. The road was controlled by some temporary traffic lights because of a trench that was being dug, but the stretch of road was perfectly straight for at least half a mile. I am sure that the temporary traffic lights were necessary during the daytime, but it was 2 am and my friend’s van was the only vehicle travelling in our direction. There were no other vehicles on the road—certainly none coming the other way.

The temporary traffic lights were on red and my friend did something he should not have done. It was 2 am, he could see that there were no other vehicles about, so he went through the red light. Guess what happened, Sir Nicholas. As soon as he was through the red light, two police officers jumped out of a hedge, pulled him over, and gave him a ticket for going through a red light.

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There we have police officers in a rural area, hiding in a hedge to catch a motorist going through red lights at 2 am when there were no other vehicles around. I know that, without the amendment, there will be some regulation-ridden, pen-pushing nincompoop of a police officer, who will go down a line of parked cars, giving out tickets to people who are using a telephone. Even though it is quite safe for them to do so, they will be guilty of an offence because technically they will be driving.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister will seriously consider accepting the amendment.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Having just collected my children, which is why I was delayed, and knowing what a nuisance it is if people use mobile phones, I think that it is reasonable to include the provision. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree? If people want to phone, they can park and get out of their cars. The much bigger risk, which the provision is designed to prevent, is people driving around when children are crossing the road, stopping and starting and posing a real risk to the safety of those children.

5.30 pm

Mr. Knight: I do not accept the hon. Lady’s conclusion. In the incident in which I was involved on the M1, it would have been highly dangerous to encourage motorists to get out of their cars and wander across to the hard shoulder to use the telephone. The car in front of the car in front and all cars as far as one could see were stationary. Let me put the question back to her: what danger does she see in a motorist using a telephone when he is in a traffic jam with his vehicle in park or with the hand brake on?

Ms Keeble: The problem in a built-up area is that the jam can start to move. Children can run in front of the cars because they think that they are parked. One’s attention can be elsewhere and there can be an accident. One has only to do a regular school run to know that. If one is on the M1, one can pull in to service stations and other places in order to make phone calls.

Mr. Knight: The hon. Lady has not answered the question that I put to her. I am talking about being in a traffic jam on the M1, from which one cannot pull over, and being clear that one will be in that position for some time. When I am on a normal A road or in a town centre, temporarily stuck in traffic, I do not put my car in park or have the hand brake on, because I expect to move away fairly shortly.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman seems more concerned about people being caught breaking the law than he is about whether they are actually breaking it. He mentioned earlier that we should take a common-sense approach. Would it not be common sense, instead of looking for
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opportunities to relax or even break the law, to encourage people to buy hands-free sets? Those can be bought in most service stations for less than a tenner.

Mr. Knight: I am anxious to ensure that, as far as possible, people are not able to say in respect of particular legislation that the law is an ass. If one is stationary in a queue and one’s vehicle—if it is automatic—is in park, one’s hand brake is on, and one is using a phone that is not a hands-free device, what danger is one posing to other road users? I venture to suggest that the answer is none. That is why I believe that a common-sense approach should be taken to the provision.

Mr. Harris: Surely the danger from a legal perspective is that we are leaving it to the driver to decide what kind of traffic jam he or she is in. Is it one that will be stationary for the next 20 minutes or for one minute? Would not the right hon. Gentleman’s approach open up a new range of work for lawyers: pleading specific circumstances in favour of a particular defendant? It should not be up to individual drivers to decide that they are in a particular type of traffic jam. They are either in charge of a vehicle or they are not, and the law must be clear—for good reasons.

Mr. Knight: I have a greater confidence in the common sense of a good motorist than the hon. Gentleman does. There are circumstances, such as a long-term traffic jam, in which it is safe to use the telephone. Responsible motorists would not dream of using a telephone if they felt that their delay was of a transitory nature only, and that the queue was about to move. I am not with him on that point.

On new clause 11, I support my hon. Friend. Too often, people who ride on our highways on pedal cycles think that they are exempt from the laws of motoring. Yesterday, after I had managed to survive the hour-and-a-quarter delay on the M1, I went to my house in Pimlico and then drove to this House down Warwick way, a fairly straight road with several sets of traffic lights. In Warwick way, I saw two cyclists, one with no hands on the handle bars—one hand was holding his mobile phone and the other was dangling by his side. His friend, who was cycling alongside him, was alternating between riding on the road and on the pavement. These two characters went through three sets of red traffic lights in Warwick way.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman followed them.

Mr. Knight: I did not follow them, but because it was a straight road I could see them. It was just about lighting-up time but they had no lights on their bikes. Sometimes, one wishes that the police would show the same enthusiasm for stopping pedal cyclists who break the law as they do for stopping motorists when they do the same.

Stephen Hammond: I rise to support the common-sense amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). The
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word “driving” in road traffic legislation is extremely wide, and the answer to the question about the traffic jam is that it is a traffic jam in which the person concerned has decided to apply their handbrake or to put their car into “park” so that they are stationary. The amendment makes that clear; the vehicle will be stationary only in those circumstances.

With reference to new clause 11, if people use a mobile phone while cycling they present a hazard to themselves and to other road users. We should be sending a strong message to all road users that, if they use a mobile phone while driving, they will not be paying sufficient care and attention to what is happening to them, and will put themselves and others in danger.

I suspect that the Minister will tell us that there is already an offence of being in charge of a cycle while not properly in control of it, and that using a mobile phone while cycling demonstrates that the cyclist is not cycling properly or safely. If cycling while using a mobile phone is an unsafe and undesirable practice, and the Government are aware of it, why should there be a specific offence that applies to motorists, but no such offence for cyclists? The Minister will have to provide an extremely convincing response or accept the amendment.

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