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17 Oct 2007 : Column 281WH—continued

Given that much export credit is now given by countries outside the OECD, and that that can bring difficulties in the future, we are doing our best to work with such countries to ensure that there will be common standards. An objective of the OECD is to reach out to the export credit agencies of non-OECD countries to ensure that they play by the same rules as the agencies of OECD countries. In that context, it is reassuring that Brazil recently agreed to sign up to the
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OECD’s aircraft sector understanding which governs export credit agency support for aircraft sales, and that several non-OECD countries, including China, have attended OECD meetings on export credits as observers.

The hon. Gentleman would expect me to put the debate in the wider context of what the Government are doing about climate change. He paid tribute to the Government for being a world leader on climate change issues. It is important to put matters in context. We are all concerned about emissions from aircraft and from aviation. It is one of the reasons why we want aviation to be brought into the reform and future of the EU emissions trading scheme.

Also, because of our commitment, we have recently announced two major projects. A Severn barrage would have a major impact on producing more renewable energy in the future, and on cutting emissions. We are interested in the major feasibility study on it. The hon. Gentleman will also have noted the recent announcement about a carbon capture and storage project. We want a major UK demonstration of that important technology.

I promise to reflect on what the hon. Gentleman has put to us thoughtfully and with much intellectual rigour this morning. I have set out the Government’s position, but nothing is set in stone. We will look to the future together.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I am sure that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) thanks the Minister for his reply.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.

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Road Safety

2.30 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Last week, a national newspaper carried an article entitled “Why are our young people killing each other?” The story referred to the violent murder of a young boy who was simply minding his own business. His murder brought the number of young people’s deaths from gun or knife crime in the UK to 51. Only the families and friends of those young victims know the pain and hurt of losing a loved one in such violent circumstances. I hope that we all recognise how precious life is but, regrettably, it is of little significance to some others. I do not wish in any way to demean the memory of those 51 individuals, because they are as precious to their loved ones as all those who daily lose their lives on our roads are to their loved ones.

The startling statistics for road deaths show that while individual drivers do not go out with the intention of having a road traffic accident that could result in a fatality, the way in which some people drive on our roads, especially some young drivers, means that young people are killing one another on our roads. Let me make it clear that the vast majority of drivers of all ages on our roads are good drivers. However, among the 3,200 lives lost and 30,000 injuries resulting from road traffic accidents there is a disproportionate number of deaths and serious injuries in the 17 to 25 age group. Male drivers in that group are over-represented in the crash statistics. Under-25s account for one in eight licence holders, yet one in three drivers who die on our roads are in that age group.

Some people argue that the word “accident” should not be used, as it implies that there is something inevitable about such collisions. They believe that they are almost entirely avoidable with appropriate training and testing, the correct attitude, a licensing regime that supports an extended learning period for new drivers, and appropriate sanctions on those who transgress. Single vehicle crashes involving novice drivers occur most often at night between 10 pm and 6 am, and mainly involve speeding with other teenagers present in the vehicle. There is substantial evidence that when teenage passengers are present with young drivers the risk of a crash increases significantly.

I imagine that almost everyone in the Chamber possesses a driving licence. Even with many of the smaller engine vehicles constructed today, it is easy to exceed the maximum speed limit on our roads. How many of us can honestly say that we have never found ourselves inadvertently exceeding the speed limit on an open road when the weather and road conditions were good? It is easy for the speed to creep up without the driver realising, and that is even more so on a long journey. Passing the driving test in 2007 provides nothing more than a certificate allowing the holder to drive safely on their own, and it is worrying that the majority of those who pass are deemed not to be the finished product or a finished driver. Learning to drive is really about preparing for that one day when the test is taken in the hope of passing it.

Only yesterday evening, I spoke to a constituent who hopes to become a qualified driving instructor. He informed me that it is possible for someone to sit the
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theory driving test on their 17th birthday, and within two months take and pass their driving test. Thereafter, that person can go out and drive any car with any size of engine. Drivers who have just passed their driving test are informed about the opportunity to develop their skills through the Pass Plus scheme, but only about one in eight takes that opportunity. I have explained how easy it is in today’s modern vehicles to drive at excessive speeds, and while it has been shown that speed is all too often a contributory factor in many crashes, accidents often happen because the driver cannot handle or control the vehicle.

I want to thank my local police force, Dumfries and Galloway constabulary, particularly Inspector Gordon McKnight, for providing me with some local statistics for this debate. During the three-year period from January 2004 to December 2006, 61.5 per cent. of all casualties were male, and further analysis reveals that in the under-45 age group, the average number of male casualties remained at 65 per cent. The under-16 category accounts for 11 per cent. of all casualties; the 16 to 20 age group accounts for just over 18 per cent.; and the 21 to 25 age bracket for 11.1 per cent. Overall, the 30 and under age group accounts for 47.5 per cent. of all casualties, and as one in three casualties fall into the 16 to 25 age bracket, Dumfries and Galloway constabulary decided to target that age group through education and, when necessary, enforcement.

How do we attempt to get the message about the dangers on our roads across to young drivers? In Dumfries and Galloway—and these statistics are linked to those for Cumbria—we have witnessed the death of 44 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 over the past three years. Today’s method of communicating with the younger generation is changing rapidly, and I congratulate the Highways Agency on its attempt to get that safety message across by backing the innovative cross-border campaign to try to cut death and injuries among young road users in Cumbria and Scotland. Financial resources from the agency will fund a project that uses YouTube videos and texts to get key road safety messages across to young drivers. Between now and Christmas, there will be three 20-second ads on YouTube. They may be beyond you and me, Sir Nicholas, and other hon. Members—they certainly are for me—but the younger generation often uses YouTube.

The inquiry by the Select Committee on Transport into novice drivers was published in July. I tried to hold this debate in the run-up to the recess, and it is ironic that I should have secured it on the day on which the Government’s response to the Committee’s report was released. However, I regret that I have not had time to study the response in fine detail. I have explained how easy it is for some people to pass their driving test within a few months of turning 17, and we must ask whether it is wise for people to take the test at that age. I am sure that we have all said that we do not start to learn to drive until we are out on the road on our own, after we have passed our driving test. That may be true, but if we cast aside everything that we learned when we received professional tuition, we will develop bad habits and, more worryingly, drive dangerously and all too often be oblivious to other road users and pedestrians. I fully agree that we need to foster a culture that values continuing driver education.
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Rushing to take a driving test and having too few lessons may be a false economy, especially if people end up failing the test and retaking it.

I should like to highlight some of the issues arising from the Transport Committee report that are worthy of further mention. Again, I emphasise that the vast majority of young or newly qualified drivers are responsible, but if we look at the problems that we face and at the number of road fatalities we see, as with so many other issues, that we must concentrate our efforts and focus on the few who cause problems. Young drivers are vulnerable on our roads and, regrettably, a small number are a danger to themselves, their passengers and other road users. Such unsafe driving arises from an almost total disregard for road traffic laws—speed limits are sometimes ignored even in built-up areas, where there are many more dangers and thus higher casualties if there were a crash.

The casualties that we see year on year must be reduced, and a starting point is a structured approach to driving instruction. I welcome any attempts to ensure that ongoing professional development for driving instructors is more fully considered. Further professional enhancement can only be good for those under instruction. The low uptake of Pass Plus—a scheme for people who have been successful in their practical tests—is disappointing. I pay tribute to the group of advanced motorists and motorcyclists in Dumfries and Galloway who do an excellent job of encouraging young motorcyclists and motorists to learn the skills that they need on the road, and deserve great credit for the work they do with new drivers. The Pass Plus uptake is disappointing, because the scheme benefits those who take up the additional challenge it offers. We cannot force individuals to take it up, but its success and what it offers to new drivers ought to be included in the instruction that people receive before they take a practical test. I hope that that proposal will be considered.

May I return to the issue of how quickly young drivers can find themselves on the road on their own in a powerful vehicle, having passed both the theory and practical tests? Some people advocate increasing the age at which it is possible to hold a provisional driving licence above 17, but it would make more sense to ensure that people have a minimum learning period of about a year. I have been contacted in recent days by the insurance company, esure, which believes that the number of road traffic accidents caused by, and involving, young drivers would be reduced if pre-driver education were rolled out nationally with Government endorsement and support. In 2005, esure ran the safe drive, stay alive road safety campaign in Surrey, which was co-ordinated by the Surrey fire and rescue service and involved a number of local organisations. Although I am not in a position to judge the campaign’s success, the sooner we can get young people involved in the safety aspects of driving, and make them understand the dangers of driving, the better.

Finally, graduated licences have proved relatively successful in other countries and in some parts of the United States. Some people argue that introducing graduated licences would be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. As I have said several times, the vast majority of young drivers are responsible and considerate to other road users, and are safe drivers.
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However, consideration ought to be given to the question of limiting the engine size in cars driven by new drivers; reducing the speed limit to 50 mph; and introducing driving restrictions such as limiting the number of passengers during certain hours of the evening and night—some of the worst tragedies on our roads have involved four or five youngsters in a car driven by someone who has recently passed their test.

I hope that the Minister will give careful consideration to my arguments and those that we are about to hear from other hon. Members. We have a duty to reduce the carnage on our roads. Over the years, I have spoken with a number of people who have been faced with that fateful knock on the door and police officers standing before them to break the bad news. It has been a haunting experience for those individuals and their families. Let us move forward in the coming years and ensure that there is a rapid reduction in such visits to people’s homes.

2.45 pm

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on the timeliness of the debate? The issue is serious and affects many people around the country in all constituencies. For too long, modern-day young people have found the use of a motor car to be far more accessible than perhaps we did when we were younger. Consideration must be given to car use and the dangers it might cause.

The rural roads in south-west Norfolk in my constituency are long and winding and they are far too often the scene of tragic road accidents in which, on occasion, innocent passers-by are involved and killed.

I shall speak briefly as I wish to make a few specific points to the Minister that I hope he will take on board—I know him well and he has dealt with me courteously in the past. Does he agree that the current legislation might encourage young drivers, particularly those under the influence of drink or drugs, to flee the scene of road traffic accidents? Motorists who kill on the road while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs face a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. Failing to stop at the scene carries a maximum sentence of only six months, which effectively encourages those over the legal limit to leave the scene and to leave their victims injured or dying on the road.

I believe that such drivers hope that by the time the police catch up with them, they will have sobered up sufficiently to pass any tests. Does the Minister agree that due consideration ought to be given to reforming the current guidelines and to remove what is an unnecessary incentive to young drivers? That would send a message to every young person who passes their test that they have full responsibility and that the rule of law will come down on them extremely heavily at every opportunity, because we must not fail to remember the victims of accidents and those who must live with the death of a family member for the rest of their lives.

2.47 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on
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securing this debate. It is allowing us to highlight the pressing need for urgent action to tackle the toll of death and injury of young people on our roads.

Of course, any death or injury on our roads is a tragedy for the individuals involved, their families and the wider community, but the loss of a young person’s life is particularly tragic because it means that their potential is destroyed. It is sadly true that young drivers and passengers are so much more likely to be involved in a serious incident or accident on our roads. My hon. Friend gave us some of the statistics, but the fact that the death rate of young drivers—under-25s—is more than double that of the general driving population particularly highlights the situation for me. One more statistic that underlines my point is that the peak age group for passenger fatalities is 16 to 19. So many lives are taken at an early age in such tragic circumstances.

The figures for Great Britain are seen at both national and regional level. In Scotland in the first half of this year, the number of under-25s killed on the roads was up by 30 per cent. compared with the same period last year and compared with a 10 per cent. increase in road deaths in the first half of this year for the general driving population. Of course, that is a very worrying trend for the general population as well as for young drivers, given the long-term trend of road deaths and injuries going down in the UK over more than 30 years, but it emphasises how young drivers and passengers are over-represented in the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads.

Having taken an interest in this subject ever since I was elected as an MP, I have studied the way in which the Government have taken measures over a number of years to try to tackle the situation. I certainly recognise that they have done a lot, but we always need to do more because, ultimately, any death on our roads is a tragedy and a death toll of more than 3,000 every year, with young drivers and passengers particularly highly represented in that toll, is just not acceptable. We must always try to do more to bring down the figure for deaths and injuries.

I endorse the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway and outside organisations and I urge the Government to introduce new measures and initiatives to try to cut the death and injury rates on our roads for all drivers and road users, but for young drivers in particular. The Government have certainly been given many suggestions of what to do, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows. Organisations such as Brake—the road safety charity—other road safety bodies, the Select Committee on Transport and many others have made recommendations. I have recognised what the Government have done, but they still need to move more urgently to take up some of the suggestions that have been made, which have been around now for a considerable time.

It always depresses me that it takes so much lobbying, campaigning and pressure to get changes in road safety law or in road safety measures and to get introduced measures that on the face of it are obvious steps to cut death and injury on the roads. Why that is the case, I do not know. Perhaps there are bureaucratic problems somewhere in the system. Perhaps someone somewhere is always nervous of offending motorists. If
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that is the case, I hope that the Government will recognise that all motorists and road users will be safer if something is done about the minority of young drivers who drive in such a way that they are a menace not only to themselves and their passengers, but to the general road user. I certainly endorse, therefore, the calls made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway for some of the measures that he has outlined to be considered.

I want to emphasise the measures that I believe should be considered urgently. First, we need to provide more education in schools and among our young people. The Driving Standards Agency has done and is doing good work. It has a programme to give road safety presentations to teenagers in schools and colleges, but at the moment that is still reaching less than 1 per cent. of 15 to 25-year-olds in the UK, which is clearly not enough. There are advertising campaigns but, again, the proportion of the budget specifically targeting young drivers last year was under £400,000, which may buy some time on YouTube, but buys only about seven minutes of prime-time TV advertising, so more needs to be done in that regard.

I am very interested in the proposals for a graduated licensing scheme, to which my hon. Friend referred. Such schemes have been implemented in New Zealand, the USA and Canada, and there is certainly a growing body of support for the introduction of such a scheme in the UK. My hon. Friend referred to Transport Committee recommendations for a graduated driving licence scheme. He and the Minister will be aware that just a few weeks ago a broad-ranging coalition of interest groups, including the Association of British Insurers, the RAC Foundation, PACTS—the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety—and road safety groups, made proposals for a scheme to require young drivers to have a minimum learning period and a structured learning programme to encourage less driving at night, and measures to reduce the number of passengers carried by young drivers. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway that the current situation, in which someone can have only eight, nine or 10 hours of lessons and, the day after their 17th birthday, drive almost but not quite any vehicle will clearly not encourage, in some circumstances, safe driving by some individuals.

Continued action is also needed on uninsured and unlicensed drivers, because unfortunately the reality is that many uninsured and unlicensed drivers who kill themselves, their passengers or other road users are also young drivers. Measures are needed to take further action to deal with those drivers. I would be interested if the Minister could update me on the implementation of the offence of causing death while driving unlicensed or uninsured.

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