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17 Oct 2007 : Column 288WH—continued

The next question that always has to be addressed is what we do to tackle those who drive under the influence of drink and drugs. It is a reality, even leaving aside the influence of drink and drugs, that young drivers are more likely to seek thrills from driving fast and cornering at high speed than older drivers. That is not true of all young drivers by any means or even the majority of young drivers, but there is well founded
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research carried out for the Department for Transport emphasising that it is a problem in the case of some young drivers.

Unfortunately, young drivers aged 17 to 19 are six times as likely to have a drink-drive crash, and young drivers aged 20 to 24 are four times as likely to have a drink-drive crash, as drivers in the general driving population. Unfortunately also, young drivers under 25 who are involved in a crash in which someone is killed or injured are twice as likely to fail a breath test as drivers in the general driving population. Only 4 per cent. fail a breath test, so 96 per cent. do not, but it is still twice as many as in the general driving population.

That is another reason why, as part of the effort to tackle death and serious injury among young drivers, we must return to the question of a reduction in the drink-drive limit. Clearly, that would be for all drivers and would be of benefit generally in reducing death and injury rates on the roads, but because of the significance that it would have for young drivers, it would surely reduce the death and injury rate among young drivers in particular.

Brake, the road safety organisation, is calling in its latest statements for a reduction in the limit from 80 mg per 100 ml to 20 mg. If the Government think that that is too drastic, I would say that the case for reduction to the general rate throughout most of Europe of 50 mg per 100 ml is now overwhelming.

This year, road safety week runs from 5 to 11 November. Coincidentally, or perhaps deliberately, Brake is launching new research on the morning of 6 November, just before the Queen’s Speech. The Minister is one of the speakers at the press launch. It would be a major step forward if the Government could make cutting the death toll among young drivers and passengers in particular a major theme of their programme this year. I am sure that those who are responsible for advising Her Majesty on the contents of her speech are already well advanced in the writing of that important announcement, but I hope that what I have described will be reflected at some stage in the Government’s programme in the coming year, because, to conclude where I started, the death toll of more than 3,000 people on our roads every year, a disproportionately large number of whom are young drivers and young passengers, is unacceptable.

Much has been done, but much more needs to be done, and I hope that the Government will give serious and favourable consideration to the measures that I propose and that have been proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway and by the various organisations, campaign groups and pressure groups that seek to address what is a scandal for our society.

2.59 pm

Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown). The debate is long overdue, and to bring it to the table on the day of the Government’s response to the Transport Committee is very apt. I also add my thanks to Brake. We have had tragedy in our constituency over the past couple of months, and it has been a source of comfort in some
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respects to know that there is a group out there fighting for the health and safety of young drivers.

We have had two significant incidents in my constituency in the past six months. The first killed four young girls under 16, who were passengers. The driver, who was 17, had passed his test only three days before. If that does not bring home how serious the driving test and driving ability are, nothing will. Within months of that, a 15-year-old passenger was killed. The driver, again, was only 17. Age is a significant factor, although I understand that driving is a necessity in this day and age.

The important thing is education, which has been mentioned a number of times—education in accident statistics, how to drive and what can happen. At the end of the day, a car is a deadly weapon; it can cause huge damage to those inside and out. That should be part of the citizenship agenda in schools. At 14 or 15, young people look forward to driving lessons and learning to drive, and it should be part of the curriculum.

My other worry concerns intensive driving courses—in which someone can supposedly learn to drive in a fortnight, three weeks or even days in some cases—especially at an age when the individual’s maturity must be questioned. Intensive courses can be very dangerous.

Although I have not read it completely, it is interesting to note from the Government’s response that although the number of accidents and serious injuries has fallen, the number of deaths has risen since 2000. That must be of concern to us.

I do not wish to throw a hospital pass at parents, because we as a society are quick enough to blame them, but there is a parental responsibility involved in driving. When people under 18—or 20, or 21—apply for a driving licence, perhaps we should consider showing the parents themselves what can happen to young people in road accidents. It was wondered earlier whether we would have had the kind of cars that are on the road today, and I often wonder how young people of 17 and 18 can afford to drive some of those cars—we heard about engine sizes—with such significant power under their foot. I wonder also whether parents should think twice about what type of car they buy for their children. An educational programme on that would be worth while.

The tragedy that hits a constituency after such an accident—I know that it has happened in probably every constituency in the country at one time or another—cannot be underestimated. The effect of losing four lives, as we did in my constituency, is unbelievable, but still we see young people speeding in the streets. Having seen the press coverage at the time, we still see speeding vehicles driven by young people. It worries me, and that is why I think that education before young people learn to drive is important.

The other thing with which we are struggling in my area is the implementation of speeding fines. We do not have enough hand-held speed cameras to catch young people and others who speed or drive erratically in our streets. I am sure that we have all seen it in main streets, not just bystreets or side streets. It is very dangerous, not just for drivers but for passers-by and passengers.

I thank you, Sir Nicholas, for the opportunity to express the feelings of Blaenau Gwent today. It is a subject that we need to discuss thoroughly. Some issues
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have come out of the Select Committee that we might discuss seriously, one of which is an age limit of 18. Initially, I supported it fully, but then I had phone calls from young people saying, “How will I get to work?” or “How will I get to college?” It is not as easy as saying, “Put the age up to 18;” there are lots of other issues to be discussed, but I urge the Government, as have other hon. Members here today, to take preventive and not remedial action.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I call Mr. Andrew Turner. May I say before he starts that we are delighted to see him back in the House after his ill health?

3.4 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am concerned about a threat to the island. It affects those who learn to drive on motorcycles. The test centre will be closed and motorcycle tests will instead be provided on the mainland—not even close to ferries. That is wholly unsuitable for motorcyclists, as tests will be 20 or 30 miles from where they live, and I fear that they will drive without a licence. I ask the Minister to look at that again.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I call the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Susan Kramer.

3.5 pm

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): You have a disadvantage, Sir Nicholas—we are not labelled—but thank you for getting there in the end.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on bringing up an issue that, as the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) said, affects every constituency. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent on his contribution, which touched the emotional core of the thoughts of everybody here—the tragedy of the loss of young life, or indeed any life, in a car accident.

I shall try to keep my comments brief, as so much has been said and we are all eager to hear from the Minister on the Government’s reply to the Committee’s report. Like many others, I support the idea of a minimum learning period before achieving a driver’s licence. When I first got my licence, back in the mists of time, I was, frankly, dangerous. Like many of us, I came from a family that had never had a car and in which nobody else was a driver. My ability to deal with anything other than the most predictable events on the road was minimal. How we got through that without a crash is beyond me.

My children learned to drive in the United States and they learned much younger. Their provisional training began at age 15, and they had their licences on their 16th birthdays. The whole approach to training was entirely different and gave me enormous comfort. I hope that the Government will consider that range of possibilities. My children’s school took on the responsibility of ensuring that they received driver training. It was a year-long programme. The children could get behind the wheel earlier by signing up than
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they would have otherwise and it was cheaper than traditional driving lessons. It was a great incentive to the youngsters. The training was far more comprehensive and they learned with their peers, so it was not just one child learning to be responsible but probably all the children with whom they spent their free time.

As a result of the programme and how it was packaged, I felt entirely comfortable getting into a car with my youngsters, whereas, looking back, I would have been terrified to get into a car with myself. There is a great deal that we can do, and we can learn a great deal from other countries if we make it a priority.

The idea of a graduated licence and some sort of provisional period seems to make sense. We must question whether some adults might earn only a provisional licence. Maturity and judgment create a different environment. Some adults have many years’ experience driving in another country and are thus earning only what they see as a British licence, but we should probably consider that provision for all new drivers without significant experience.

During this debate, we have focused almost exclusively on drivers themselves and the rules governing licences, but the number of accidents raises questions about issues such as road design. When we design our roads, is safety as high a priority as necessary? In my constituency, we have struggled endlessly for funding for some particularly difficult roads about which everybody agrees that action must be taken, but for which money is not easily available.

Mark Lazarowicz: Does the hon. Lady think that there is a case for re-examining the national speed limit? It may be suitable for some roads, but it is too high for many in most people’s observation. Is that something that should be reconsidered?

Susan Kramer: I was about to come to that. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) tabled a ten-minute Bill suggesting that the default speed limit in urban areas should be 20 mph rather than 30 mph. We need to examine such issues, and local councils certainly need much greater flexibility to set appropriate speed limits. There are quite a number of issues around speed, which we need to examine so that we can at least ensure that local conditions are appropriately managed. We will probably need to return to that issue in a different debate and for longer.

Others have mentioned enforcement, and it is one of the most significant issues. I have been trying to have conversations with various chief constables, and many of them, as they have come under financial pressure, have essentially decided that they can make cuts in road traffic policing. That should be of general concern to us. As hon. Members will know, the British crime survey does not give a line item to road traffic accidents. In a sense, that pulls it off the list of matters that gain forces brownie points and which affect how forces are measured and how chief constables are rewarded. We need to re-examine those issues and to give much higher priority to a problem that causes so many deaths, especially among young people.

The Highways Agency traffic officer service has received a lot of investment, but, again, we have a significant body of uniformed officials who cannot
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enforce most aspects of the law. They cannot stop drivers for drink-driving and they are not equipped to test for drug-driving. Essentially, they can manage the scene of an accident and direct traffic around it, but their inability to enforce laws is now widely recognised among drivers, which is leading a fair number of drivers to abuse those laws. Having sailed past one of the service’s cars, young people will be more tempted to drive at totally inappropriate speeds on motorways in the future. We therefore have to look at the whole issue of enforcement.

I look forward to what others will say in the debate. I am glad that the issue is being given high priority. It may not be glamorous, and the only time that it hits the newspaper headlines is when there has been a terrible tragedy, but so many families have suffered in one way or another—perhaps they have not suffered a death, but an accident—and they deserve the protection of the House.

3.12 pm

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on choosing such an important subject for debate. We have all heard horror stories from around the country, and I am sure that the poignant one from Blaenau Gwent about the young people who tragically died just when they were beginning their adult lives hit home with us all. Thirty-two years ago, a school acquaintance of mine was killed in a road traffic accident during the summer holidays. He had been celebrating the end of his A-levels and was on the point of going to university, and his death brought the issue home to me.

It often seems sensible to see what people are doing abroad and what we can learn from them, and the story is actually very good from the United Kingdom’s point of view. England and Wales have about 62 fatalities per million of the population—that includes young and older drivers—while Scotland has 74. That compares with Portugal at 289, Greece at 225, France at 144, Germany at 104 and Italy at 117. In fact, only two European countries have a better record than us. That is no reason for us not to try to do better, but we can at least take pride from the fact that a lot has already been done. None the less, more needs to be done. Those statistics are particularly surprising, given the problems that we have with the way young people use alcohol in this country, compared with other EU countries.

I suppose that I should declare an interest because my eldest son is 18 and has passed his test, and he now drives to work every day at the bus factory in Scarborough. When he embarked on driving, it was interesting to see how difficult it was for him to get insurance. When I started driving, my father bought me a big, solid Volvo, but my son has had to get a Vauxhall Corsa with a very small engine, although it still cost him £1,700. I am sure that the engineering in it is as good as it was in Volvos 30 years ago, but just out of interest I rang my insurance agent to see what it would cost my son to drive a Volvo. A Volvo F40 with a 1600 engine is not a particularly large car, but it would cost my son £5,063 to insure for himself. So not only are our young drivers inexperienced and sometimes reckless, but they also have to drive around in much smaller vehicles than we did a generation ago.

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During my 18 months on the Select Committee on Transport, we were given evidence by groups such as Brake, which do wonderful work on behalf of young people, many of whom have had personal experiences that have caused them to become engaged with such groups. I have to say that if my son had been killed in an accident caused by a drink-driver, I would want to reduce the alcohol limit to zero. If he had been killed by a speeding motorist, I would want a 20 mph limit on all our urban roads and perhaps a 60 mph limit on all other roads. It is difficult for someone to take an objective view when such experiences have affected their lives so much.

Several measures are, of course, already in place. The Government have legislated to disqualify young drivers who get six points in the first two years after they have passed their test—other drivers require 12 points. There are several options that the Government could take, and we have heard them rehearsed this afternoon. I am sure that the Government are keeping them constantly under review. For example, we could make the test harder. That is an obvious step, because it would take people longer to learn. We know that male drivers between 17 and 20 are 10 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than men aged between 40 and 49, but they are precisely the people who pass the test with flying colours, and I am sure that the Department collects the figures. Making the test harder would not affect those young drivers, who are, by and large, the ones who easily pass the test. It would, however, affect people such as the lady in my village who took her test in her 70s after her husband—a former Desert Rat tank commander—died in his 70s. Sadly, she is the kind of person who would be affected by making the test harder, even though she is a careful driver, and it is wonderful that she has managed to learn to drive.

Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), have talked about a longer training period. We could perhaps have a six-month training period, but in a rural constituency such as mine that would cause particular problems for people who want to get to work or to enjoy a social life. It would also impinge greatly on young people’s freedom to do what they want, and they will have to impose on their parents, who will have to run them around and pick them up. In many cases, young people who cannot upgrade to cars will spend longer riding mopeds, which are more dangerous.

It has been suggested that we have a curfew from 11 pm to 6 am, and that is probably a good idea, but who will police it? How many police are on the roads of the Isle of Wight, rural Wales or Scotland at that time of night to enforce such a provision? It is always a problem to ensure that such matters are policed.

Another proposal is that we reduce to one the number of passengers in cars driven by young drivers. That is fine, but it may result in more people racing. When my son goes out with his friend and their girlfriends, I am sure that he would resist the temptation to race with the four of them in the car. However, if those four people were in two separate cars, there might be more incentive for them to race around the countryside.

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