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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 16 July 2008

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Road Safety

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Alison Seabeck.]

9.30 am

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to debate road safety and young drivers. My friends the Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) are expected to attend the debate, and I am sure that we shall be joined later by other colleagues from east Lancashire.

I congratulate the Minister, and the Government, on their record on road safety. We learn from the latest statistics that road deaths have fallen below 3,000 a year for the first time since records began in 1926. What an astonishing achievement. The figures published a few weeks ago show that the number of people killed in road accidents fell by 7 per cent. between 2006 and 2007. The long-term trend shows steadily reducing numbers of people being killed or seriously injured on our roads. Our roads, amazingly, are now eight times safer than in 1966. Road design plays its part, although we all know of killer stretches in our constituencies. Cars are designed much better than they were; universally, they have air bags. We have had Government initiatives over the years on drink-driving and “Clunk-click every trip”.

Those campaigns have made a real difference. They have made us all more safety-conscious. However, one group stands out as an exception: young drivers. A fifth of all new drivers have an accident within six months of passing their test, and a staggering 70 per cent. report near misses in the same period. I am stating the obvious, but most new drivers are young. About three quarters of all new drivers are under 25. Young drivers are rarely out of the news. Only last week we saw on television the news of the tragic deaths of six young people in Leicestershire after their car ploughed into a 38-tonne lorry on a notoriously dangerous stretch of road near Melton Mowbray.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The accident was in north-east Leicestershire, and I represent North-West Leicestershire, not far away. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be careful to say that we do not yet know, in relation to the inquest, whether the lorry ploughed into the car or the car ploughed into the lorry. It is an indicative circumstance that the accident happened in the small hours of the morning. A factor that we need to take into account, whether or not it was relevant to the accident in question, or whether there were other factors, is that although only 6 per cent. of licence-holders are under the age of 25, they account for almost a third of relevant deaths and serious injuries—albeit that the figure for those has now fallen below 3,000 a year. We need to do something. The Government have a good track record and the Minister has an
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excellent one, but more is needed, urgently. The carnage among young people, particularly young male drivers, is appalling.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): That was very close to a speech, Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Prentice: It was a good speech; I was very ready to listen to it.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): It certainly was.

Mr. Prentice: I do not know the circumstances and will not venture into speculation about what happened in Leicestershire. All I will say is that I grieve, and we all grieve, for those young people who lost their lives. Of course, that accident made national news, but every week—week in, week out—there is carnage on our roads.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that tragically, about 14 young people are killed on our roads every week, and that young people between 17 and 20 years old are 10 times more likely to have a serious injury or be involved in an accident that results in death than him or me. Does he think that the Government should now act, in the way the Select Committee on Transport suggested, to restrict the ability of young drivers in that age group to carry other young passengers at certain times of day? Would not that save many lives each year?

Mr. Prentice: Yes; I am coming on to that. It is true that young people feature disproportionately in accidents. The Transport Committee got it right when it recommended in July last year that there should be a graduated licence scheme. I am pleased to see in the Chamber the new Chair of the Transport Committee, my friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), who succeeded our illustrious friend the late Gwyneth Dunwoody.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that for the period 1981 to 2004, the most common cause of death in Britain for people aged between five and 35 was motor vehicle accidents, whereas for people dying after the age of 35 it was heart attack and chronic heart disease? Does he agree that road safety should be treated as a health issue as well as a transport issue?

Mr. Prentice: Mr. Hancock, my script has been stolen—I must not give way again—but I am coming to that point.

I have mentioned the accidents that happen in our constituencies, and it certainly has a resonance for me when I drive around my constituency of Pendle—a large one as constituencies go—and pass roadside shrines with flowers and cards, or sometimes a football strip pinned to a tree. Even when the flowers have gone and the cards have blown away I still remember what happened. The stories that appeared in local papers are fixed in my head when I drive past the tree stump or the fence that is leaning at an angle of 30°. I remember what happened there in the place where young people died.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree with the general conclusions of the Transport Committee on this matter: we are dealing with unnecessary carnage and tragedy, and the solution
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is a combination of methods, including attitude changing, skills acquisition and possible restrictions on where and how young new drivers can drive their vehicles?

Mr. Prentice: Yes, I agree with the Chair of the Transport Committee. Unfortunately the Government are not prepared to countenance restrictions, and I think that that is a major problem. I am gratified that they have published what is in effect a consultation—and I hope that the contributions made in this debate will form part of the listening exercise that will inform their conclusions—but the decision was a big mistake. It is not as if the Government did not see it coming, because the Transport Committee made it very clear in its excellent report on novice drivers in July 2007 that that was what it wanted.

Road accidents, to deal with the point made a few moments ago, are, as we know, the biggest killer of 15 to 24-year-olds, and more than 14 drivers and their passengers are killed on our roads every week. The Transport Committee put it starkly:

Young men—I should say “some young men”—behind the wheel are a menace to themselves and others.

I congratulate the Library on the excellent paper that it produced for this debate, but that paper told us only what we already suspected: young drivers have a high number of crashes when driving at night and on weekends, and when carrying young passengers. We know that as a fact. The early hours of the morning are the worst. I am sorry to bombard colleagues with statistics, but the statistics make the case. Male drivers aged between 17 and 20 have 17 times more risk of having an accident between 2 o’clock and 5 o’clock in the morning than all male drivers. Half of all accidents involving young people happen at night. I am listening to myself speak, and it sounds as though I am demonising young people. I am not; I am drawing attention to the facts of driving life as they affect young people.

Young people aged between 17 and 20 are more likely to be in a crash where only their vehicle is involved. Here is a fascinating statistic: the probability that a young driver will have an accident is 39 per cent. higher if there is another young person in the car with them. The probability is 85 per cent. higher if there are two or more young passengers, and 182 per cent. higher if there are three or more, geeing on the driver. I do not know what it is—a rush of adrenalin or a macho thing—but the drivers lose control.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): It is not demons; it is adolescence and testosterone that lead to accidents. Thirty years ago, when I became the chairman of the Transport Committee, I discovered to my astonishment that there were more fatal accidents on one relatively quiet road between Newport and Usk than on all the other roads in the county, because of a popular club on that road. The combination of Saturday night, young men and alcohol has been killing our young people for a long time. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate about the most obvious cause of avoidable road accidents. We need radical reforms.

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Mr. Prentice: I am in total agreement with my friend. Road safety is rarely out of the news, as he will know. Only yesterday, the chief medical officer said, acknowledging that it was controversial, that there should effectively be a zero drink limit for young drivers. We know that 35 per cent. of drink-drivers involved in accidents in 2005 were aged between 17 and 25. That is more than a third of all those involved in drink-drive accidents.

Bob Spink: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Prentice: Yes, for the second time, but then I really must make some progress.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman is being generous. Does he acknowledge that there may also be a risk that those young people are under the influence of drugs as well as drink?

Mr. Prentice: I do not want to demonise young people, but I dare say that it is a question not just of drink but of drugs as well.

Material published recently by Brake, the road safety charity, tells me that one in three young drivers admits to overtaking when they cannot see what is coming. That slapped me in the face and made me think. I thought about what Gwyneth Dunwoody said in this very place in February this year. She said that young drivers—she meant young male drivers—think that they are invincible. They may think that they are invincible, but they are not.

The Government produced a consultation paper in 2001 that discussed driver attitudes, to which my friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside alluded. The consultation paper said:

That is the mindset: “It’s not going to happen to me, and if it does, it’ll just be a little scrape.”

There is a problem. The question is: what are we going to do about it? The Government have published a consultation paper, “Learning to Drive”, which I have in front of me. It was published in May, and it is out for consultation until 8 September. When it was published, the Minister told me of the Government’s general line. He said that the Government’s

I am not entirely sure that it does. I reread the Transport Committee’s report on novice drivers. The evidence submitted by the Department for Transport to the Committee said:

Obviously, formal training makes a difference—I am not suggesting that it does not—but it must be part of a basket of measures if we are to bring down the terrible toll of carnage on our roads.

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Mrs. Ellman: My hon. Friend is correct in pointing to a section of the Committee’s report that referred to a particular type of training, but the Committee also recommended that there should be a change in how the driving test is conducted, and that it should be possible to pass the test only if the driver has experience of driving in a wide range of conditions. That was an important part of our report.

Mr. Prentice: Indeed. The Government have listened to much of what the Transport Committee said, and I do not want to suggest otherwise. What is my position? I want conditional or graduated driving licences that prohibit night-time driving, driving with passengers or driving on the motorway until competence is built up over time.

I am a bit of a hard-liner in my views on this issue, unlike other issues. I want the effective driving age to be raised to 18. I am not alone in thinking that. The British School of Motoring, which was very interested in speaking to me yesterday when it found out that I had secured this debate, calls for a graduated licensing scheme, with “P” licence plates displayed on the vehicle during the probationary period.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): If the Government are not keen on graduated driving licences, could the insurance industry take a lead? There was a pilot for “pay as you drive” insurance discouraging evening driving by young people and allowing them to have lower premiums. Young people are often discouraged from driving by high premiums because they are such a high risk. If the insurance companies were to introduce “pay as you drive” insurance to restrict evening and night driving, and driving with passengers at night, they could reduce premiums and the number of accidents.

Mr. Prentice: Indeed, but it raises the question: how would that be enforced to prevent people from driving without insurance and so on and so forth? The Government propose publishing another consultation document shortly on the enforcement of driving regulations. However, it is true that the industry is looking very closely at the hon. Gentleman’s main suggestion, and I think that it will tailor its premiums to advantage those categories of drivers less likely to have an accident. I think the consultation paper picks up on that, and I know the Government are working closely with the insurance industry.

I do not know how young people afford some of these premiums—of £1,000 and £1,200.

Mr. Leech: More than the cost of the car.

Mr. Prentice: Indeed. I just do not know how they afford it. But they do—they get the money from somewhere.

Before the Member intervened on me I was talking about graduated licensing, which is not unheard of. Some states in the US have such licences, as too do Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France and even Northern Ireland. There is a template, and we can see how it works overseas. It does not need to be piloted. We know that it works to bring down road deaths.

I mentioned Gwyneth Dunwoody earlier, who spoke in this Chamber on 7 February about her report on novice drivers. Her Committee called for some restrictions
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on new drivers, but unfortunately those recommendations were rejected by the Government. Her Committee also wanted restrictions on novice drivers carrying passengers aged between 10 and 20 between 11 o’clock at night and 5 o’clock in the morning, which sounds draconian, but as we know from the facts that is when many accidents take place.

Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important issue in our part of east Lancashire, as we know from the Lancashire Telegraph campaign. He is now moving on to other types of restrictions, but can he confirm that as well as the graduated licences, some of those restrictions are in place in other countries?

Mr. Prentice: Indeed. I was making the point that we can look to sister democracies—Canada is a very good example—to see what was advocated by the Transport Committee actually working.

The Committee called for the minimum age for holding a full driving licence to be raised to 18, with which I agree. When Gwyneth was here, she said that if people flouted the rules, which they do, there should be harsh penalties including forfeiture—the car being taken away. If I had my way, it would be squashed to the size of 1 sq m and handed back to the person. There must be a real deterrent.

I shall finish with a few words about what is happening in east Lancashire, where the Transport Committee’s recommendations were very widely welcomed, most notably by the major regional daily, the Lancashire Telegraph, which covers a sub-region of 500,000. When it speaks, people listen—I am not saying that because there is a reporter from the Telegraph behind me. Even the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor listens. The wasted lives campaign was launched in April 2007 and has been going ever since. I put a question to my Friend the Minister about fatalities in east Lancashire, the statistics for which are probably as bad as, and perhaps even worse than, elsewhere in the country. He told me that, between 2000 and 2006, there were 22 male fatalities and three female fatalities resulting from accidents involving a young male driver—21 years old or under. However, where the car was driven by a young woman, there were no male fatalities and only one female fatality. That underlines the difference that gender makes. The problem is not with young women, but almost exclusively with young men.

The Lancashire Telegraph called for a new approach, and its campaign was supported by all my colleagues from east Lancashire—the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who could not be here this morning, and my Friends the Members for Hyndburn, for Rossendale and Darwen, for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) and the Justice Secretary. I hope that I have not missed anyone out. The Justice Secretary is an influential man in the Government, and I want him to press the case with the Transport Secretary.

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