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by collisions and other incidents
In introducing the Bill, my hon. Friend mentioned in answer to an intervention from mehe was quite right that I was aware of the point when I made it, but I wanted him to confirm it for the benefit of other hon. Membersthat the Bill would place a statutory duty on the police and highway authorities. Therefore, if the Bill became law and those authorities failed to take action to reduce congestion, they could well be the subject of claims from motorists. Although one does not want a highway authority to have most of its resources dissipated by paying fines, congestion on our roads currently costs British industry billions of pounds. If a haulier or other business man loses a contract because he is delayed by sitting in a congested area of highway, when that could be easily avoided, it seems not particularly unfair that someone else should pay the bill, especially if they have neglected to discharge their statutory duty.
My hon. Friend did not mention this, but another reason for minimising congestion is pollution. Vehicles sitting on a congested stretch of road with their engines running do nothing to enhance air quality. Heathrows problem with air pollution at some times of day is largely due to congestion on the M4 rather than flights taking off or landing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has done the House a service. I hope that, on reflection, the Minister will support the Bill, and that if he does not support it, he will announce other congestion-busting measures in the light of the concern that has been expressed.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): This is a good opportunity to explore some of the issues surrounding the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who, as a former Transport Minister, possibly knows more about the subject than I do. It is a subject that cuts across Departments, including the Home Office. Matters such as policing, justice, and prosecution will need to be discussed in a cross-departmental way if we are to find a solution to the problem of congestion.
The United Kingdom is in the premier league when it comes to motor accidents; we have one of the best records in the European Union. Nevertheless, more than 3,000 people are killed on our roads each yearseven or eight a day. The problem is caused by three specific groups: those who persistently drink and drive, the young, and those who continually speed.
The motorways are our safest roads. According to figures adjusted for traffic volume, 13 of the 20 safest roads in the UK are motorways, despite the speeds at which people travel on them. Some of our rural A roads are dozens of times more dangerous, particularly single-carriageway roads on which motorists are often tempted to overtake slow-moving lorries and, as a result, are involved in one of the worst types of accident: head-on collisions.
As I am sure the Minister knows, my partys policy is to increase the speed limit for large goods vehicles on some A roads from 40 to 50 mph, in an attempt to avoid the frustration that sometimes causes motorists to overtake in dangerous places. I have yet to meet a police officer who does not agree with me that that would be a major step towards improving safety on our roads. In fact, many lorries on A roadsI saw one the other day, a Sainsburys lorrycarry apologies on the back, explaining to motorists that they must travel at 40 mph because of the national speed limit.
The worst road in the United Kingdom is the A889, which wends its way through the Scottish highlands. It has 14 times the average accident rate of other roads in the country. We must bear in mindthis is particularly relevant to the Billthat when we close a motorway or major route because of what has to be called an incident, we are diverting traffic on to more dangerous roads. When there are accidents on those other roads it is less of a problem, because vast volumes of traffic are not diverted.
When accidents occur on roads, particularly fatal accidents, the emergency services have three vital roles. First, they must clear away debris and the vehicles involved in the accident. A major problem is fuel spillage. My hon. Friend mentioned a Land Rover Discovery. It is particularly difficult to remove diesel from the carriageway, and anyone who has ridden a motorcycleas I used to in my younger dayswill know that diesel and water on a road constitute probably the most dangerous cocktail that can be encountered.
Secondly, the emergency services need to carry out barrier repairs if the central reservation has been damaged. I know that the Government are convinced of the argument for replacing steel barriers with concrete barriers. They are not only much more effective at preventing crossover accidents, but do not need the repairs that one reads aboutsometimes 200 m or 300 m of central barrier has been damaged by a crossover accident. Does the Minister have any plans to step up the speed at which those steel barriers can be replaced with concrete? The case is compelling, and the only restraint is financial.
The third role of the emergency services is the police investigation, which is where the greatest streamlining potential exists. Yesterday evening I had the opportunity to read the Association of Chief Police Officers road deaths investigation manual. I was going to print it off and bring it with me, but it extends to 110 pages, so I thought it would be environmentally unfriendly to do so. In effect, the manual likens the investigation following an accident to a murder investigation. It says that one should never assume that it is just an accident and that it could be a case of motor manslaughter or even of suicide. That is why we see fingertip searches of motorways, the collection of statements and all the technical work
that must be done following an accident, meaning that the motorways are often closed for a protracted period.
There have been some technological advances. We now have laser theodolites, which means that the investigating officers can use remote control to take the necessary measurements following an accident and that the information can be downloaded to a computer when they get back to the office. The manual makes it very clear that once traffic starts using the road again, the scene is compromised. The police, when carrying out any investigation, whether criminal or following a road incident, must bear in mind three important points. First, is their action illegal? Secondly, is it proportionate? And thirdly, is it necessary? On the second point, the police are sometimes a little disproportionate because of the pressure brought to bear on them from other directions, such as the legal side rather than the traffic management side. Of course, the police will always err on the side of caution, given that defence barristersshould a prosecution ensuemay try to make out that the police were incompetent or lazy in not carrying out the fullest of investigations.
One problem is that the decision to open the road is made by the senior investigating officer on the ground, and he is not always aware of the wider picture, such as the congestion further afield. The police also do not look at the likelihood of securing a prosecution; in every case, the evidence is collected in a detailed way no matter what.
A while ago, there was an incident in my constituency during the Olivers mount road races, which take place on what is normally a public road. Following an unfortunate fatal accident, the police officer in charge intended to close the entire race meeting for the day. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and the argument was made that, because the competitors were racing under Auto-Cycle Union rules, such action was unnecessary. Unfortunately, when there is a fatality, all too often the default position is to close the roadand to do so for a long time. There is a knock-on effect: if the A1 is closed in Lincolnshire, for example, a lot of traffic goes on to the A15 through Lincoln; and if the A1 is closed in north Yorkshire, the traffic all goes through Selby. They are dangerous roads with many pedestrians, and the knock-on effects and potential hazards to people are not borne in mind.
There may be a case for looking at whether the decision should be removed to one stage higher, so that the duty superintendent or chief superintendent with force command considers when to open the road. The Northern Echo, reporting a case in October 2005, said:
A fatal road accident closed a motorway for 16 hours yesterday causing chaos for motorists.
One man was
declared dead at the scene of the multi-vehicle pile-up on the A1(M) northbound, just north of Wetherby, in West Yorkshire.
the spokesman for North Yorkshire police, said: Pictures, measurements and large amounts of technical detail have been taken down. Statements will be taken from witnesses and all this information will be pulled together to make a picture of what happened. Its going to be a very hard jobmade all the more difficult because this is one of the regions main highways.
The northbound carriageway remained closed until about 2.40pm yesterday.
It noted that many serious tailbacks occurred for many miles and that motorists were criticised for ignoring diversions and finding other routes around the accident through villages and small roads. I guess that with the advent of satellite navigation motorists are keener to try to explore alternative routes. It went on to say that there were reports of delays and congestion on the A64 and the A59 and heavy traffic around Thirsk and Northallerton. The knock-on effects of closing a motorway are very serious and have an impact on road safety in local communities.
I should like to pull out a couple of points from the ACPO manual, which sometimes puts the police in a straitjacket and does not allow them any real degree of discretion in the way that they investigate such crimesif they are crimes. It says:
Managing the potential for contamination should be a priority for all fatal collision investigations.
Although the closure of roads is likely to cause disruption the Senior Investigating Officer should withstand pressure from others to release the scene (eg reopen roads) prematurely. The investigation should in all cases take precedence over the need to reopen roads.
In every case where there is fatality or serious injury, the police go to the extent of investigating and collecting evidence as prescribed in the manual. Can the Minister tell us in what proportion of fatal accidents the motorist is deemed to be at fault, resulting in a prosecution?
What analysis has been made of the risk involved in closing motorways for protracted periods? Following the Hatfield rail disaster, where cracked rails caused a serious rail crash, as a precaution the railway authoritiesI am sure that the Department for Transport was involvedclosed down most of the inter-city rail network for a period and then reopened certain sections, as they could, and imposed speed limits. A risk assessment would have been made of the likelihood of another rail crash, but none was made of the tens of thousands of additional car journeys that occurred because of the closure of the rail network. The problem, from a purely political point of view, was that if another rail crash had occurred the Minister or his Secretary of State would have been blamed, but there was no one to blame for the dozens of road accidents that were a direct result of that closure.
I hope that the Minister will have time to answer those points and that the Bill will be allowed to proceed into Committee, where there would be a tremendous opportunity to improve it and to consider some of the wider aspects described by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on promoting the Bill. We do not often get to hear about Conservative transport policy, so it is great to see that it exists in some small measure, even if it deals only with what happens in respect of congestion caused by collisions.
I support the provisions in the Bill. I support the arrangements for which the two substantive clauses provide. Clause 1 makes it a local authoritys responsibility to have arrangements in place to minimise disruption when collisions occur. Clause 2 amends the Police Act 1996 so that police authorities include in their
policing plan a requirement that, when the police attend road accidents, they take action to minimise congestion and delay
so far as is reasonably practicable.
I want to highlight the difference between the arrangements for British Transport police when they deal with an incident on the railway and those for police who deal with road incidents. Unless the incident is major, British Transport police must clear the line in half an hour. If someone commits suicide by jumping on the rails, the police will do their work and, in half an hourassuming there is no further danger of an accidentthe body will be removed and the network will be up and running again. It is a stringent requirement, which means that British Transport police must get their act together to deal with the accident. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) read out extracts from the rule book for police, which needs reconsidering because it approaches matters from the opposite angle. Of course, accidents and collisions must be properly reported and tackled, but we also have a duty to ensure that the road network works and that people can go about their business expeditiously.
Paul Rowen: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond favourably to the Bill. Like the previous measure that we discussed, it does not require massive changes and investment. However, it could ensure that the road network moves more speedily.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on deciding to tackle the issue of traffic congestion. I congratulate the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) on his choice of tie today. It is one of those days when all Whips and former Whips are reaching for their comfort zonesand I do not think I need to say more than that.
I shall try to respond to the reasonable and good points that have been made, and I apologise if I do not deal with them all. I shall outline our principal objectionsI was open with the hon. Member for Christchurch in saying that we do not support the Bill. If I have time, I shall discuss some of the reasons behind our principal objections, but I suspect that we will not have time to go into detail about the fuller reasons for our objections.
Place a duty on highway authorities and police forces to minimise congestion and delays caused by collisions and other incidents on the highway; and for connected purposes.
The Government oppose it on the ground that, by and large, the arrangements are already in place. The Traffic Management Act 2004 already places a statutory dutythe network management dutyon local traffic authorities. It sets out the network management duty as follows:
It is the duty of a local traffic authority to manage their road network with a view to achieving, so far as may be reasonably practicable, having regard to their other obligations, policies and objectives, the following objectives:
a) securing the expeditious movement of traffic on the authoritys road network; and
b) facilitating the expeditious movement of traffic on road networks for which another authority is the traffic authority.
ensuring the expeditious movement of traffic
Secondly, the Bill would introduce a requirement for contingency planning. The network management duty already requires that action, among many others. Thirdly, the Bill would provide that local traffic authorities should be required to publish details of every full or partial road closure annually. The value of that retrospective information is not clear. For example, who would read it? In our view, that duty would place an unnecessary burden on authorities.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman proposes to place a duty on the police. It is the polices view that imposing such a duty on them would increase the danger to those affected by incidents and compromise both investigations and any later road safety gains made from identification of causes. The hon. Gentleman proposes to amend section 8 of the Police Act 1996. As far as I am aware, however, section 8 has been repealed by the Police and Justice Act 2006, with effect from 14 March. We issued guidance on the network management duty in November 2004, which came into force in January 2005.
Since 1980, vehicle use has risen by more than 86 per cent. Today, the UKs roads carry more than 28 million cars, 1 million motorcycles and 100,000 public transport vehicles. Inevitably, that places a burden on the road network that the Government have been diligent in addressing, with a great deal of investment and a host of creative ideas aimed at enhancing the efficiency of our road network. Of course there is always more that we can do. The Government are open to any initiatives that will enable us to deliver a better performing road network in the future. However, we must unfortunately oppose the hon. Gentlemans Bill, primarily because his suggested provisions are, by and large, already in effect, as I have said.
The Government have long recognised that minimising delays should be a priority, in order to encourage smoother traffic flows, more reliable journey times and greater competitiveness. Incidents such as collisions account for about 25 per cent. of all delays on our strategic roads and represent an obvious safety risk to road users, as well as causing congestion on the network.
Mr. Greg Knight: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In the small amount of time remaining, will he say something about conveying information to motorists sooner, so that those who have the opportunity to do so can avoid congested areas?
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