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16 July 2008 : Column 78WH—continued

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on securing this debate. It is the second time that we
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have debated this particular issue in Westminster Hall this year, which indicates the importance that our constituents attach to it.

I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the Minister and the Government on the part that they have played in reducing the grim statistics on road deaths. We have come a long way, but there is still further distance to go, as I am sure we all agree. Furthermore, people expect us to work together as Members of Parliament to try to address this particular problem; it is not an issue for party political bickering.

Last Tuesday, the sixth form of Malton comprehensive school in Scarborough closed for the day. The reason was that all the sixth formers were attending the funeral of Tom Warrington, who was 18 and had been a pupil at the school. At 7.40 am on Sunday 29 June, on the road between Goathland and Beck Hole in my constituency, his red Renault Clio left the road and hit a tree. He was killed and his passenger, another young man, was airlifted to James Cook university hospital in Teesside after sustaining serious injuries.

Tom used to live in my village. He was always known as a daredevil on his bicycle. My wife told me this morning that she could remember him cycling off the roof of the village hall in our village. He knew no fear. He was just starting out on life’s big adventure, only to have his young life snuffed out. My son attended Tom’s funeral, along with many friends, and I think it brought home to them in a unique way just what the risks are of driving when speed is perhaps excessive or perhaps the road conditions are unexpected, or when something else has gone wrong.

Only the other month, my next door neighbour’s daughter wrote off her car; she is a young driver learning to drive. Another friend of Tom’s who attended the funeral, and had previously bragged about rolling his Vauxhall Corsa, suddenly realised that it could have been him in the coffin. When we educate our children about the dangers on the road, we need to bring home to them this message—they need to be aware that a car is a very dangerous piece of equipment.

Tom Warrington was just one statistic among many. We have heard other statistics from east Lancashire. We have heard about the accident near Melton Mowbray, on the A607, when six young people were killed at 2 o’clock in the morning. After that accident, the father of the driver was quoted on the BBC as saying:

Fun and excitement can often turn to tragedy.

It is no consolation to know that we have some of the safest roads in Europe and that several factors have contributed to reducing the death toll on our roads. For example, car design is better, but of course young people tend to be in older cars that may not have air bags, or in smaller cars. I would certainly be reluctant to limit the size of car that young people can drive. I did not have my own car until I was 21. I drove our family car, a Land Rover, which had an engine larger than the size proposed by the hon. Member for Pendle as a limit for young people. If I could not have driven our Land Rover, I would have needed a car of my own and I would have done a lot more driving, including a lot more driving at night. We need to be careful in that regard. Furthermore, we need to bear in mind that there are many people whose work requires the use of a car,
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and if it is agricultural work, the vehicle needs to be a 4x4 and not a Ford Fiesta, which might have some trouble getting to the ewe lambing at the far end of the field.

We have done a lot in terms of road design and road improvements, and I know that the Government are tackling both congestion and accident black spots. We are also looking at how driver training can be improved. I welcome the Government’s consultation on that matter.

Paul Flynn: The hon. Gentleman would probably agree that the two great improvements in road safety in recent years have been the courageous introduction of compulsory seat belts and the introduction of the breathalyser, both in the teeth of public opposition. What bold plans on road safety does his party have?

Mr. Goodwill: Those initiatives may have been seen as bold plans when they were introduced, but they are seen as plain common sense nowadays. The use of motorcycle helmets is another example; that is something else that people see as just plain common sense.

We certainly want to address the issue of driver safety and to look at how we can change the attitudes of drivers, because driver safety is not just about drivers’ skills. In fact, some of the evidence that I have seen shows that the young men who fly through their driving test with flying colours are the drivers killed in accidents, not the drivers who have difficulty passing their tests, possibly including the nervous girls who fail their test because they are an absolute bundle of nerves. If we make the test harder, we need to be very careful that we do not prevent those types of people from passing it; they may ultimately be the girlfriend driving the car rather than the boyfriend who has passed his test with flying colours and who, judging by the statistics that I have seen, would be more likely to be a dangerous driver.

We also need to address the drink-drive limit, and my party is looking closely at the evidence on that issue. I certainly do not support those who advocate a zero alcohol limit; there are all sorts of issues about that proposal, particularly in respect of people driving the morning after they have been drinking. Certainly, people should be aware that if they have had a drink the night before they may be over the limit the morning after, but there needs to be some degree of balance in setting the alcohol limit.

It is also very important indeed that, unlike other European Union countries that have lower alcohol limits, we do not have a lower penalty. In many EU countries, getting caught at the lower alcohol limit is equivalent to being caught speeding in the UK; drivers get points on their licence and are fined. The evidence from our country shows that the threat of points and a fine does not stop people speeding; record numbers of people are being caught speeding. We need to look at whether we can fine-tune the drink-drive limit to target people who are not only learning to drive and getting experience of driving but also learning to use alcohol responsibly.

Many young men see themselves as good drivers, and it is difficult for various reasons to get it through to them that, in fact, nobody is a perfect driver—that anyone could be a statistic. I am rather nervous about saying this, but I am critical of some of the media; for example, people such as Jeremy Clarkson, who glorify
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speed and danger. Many of his road tests take place on airfields and off the public roads, but there is no doubt that many young men see him as a role model and may indulge in reckless behaviour that they would not otherwise indulge in. In many cases, those young men’s perception of their abilities exceeds their abilities.

Another way to move forward is to improve people’s awareness of hazards. I have accepted an invitation from the British School of Motoring to try one of its hazard awareness simulators next week. In many cases, such training tends to involve town driving, but we must not forget that many fatal accidents do not happen in towns, on roads with speed cameras or on motorways, which are our safest roads; they happen on country roads where a tree on a corner can cause disaster.

Should we make the driving test harder? We need to be careful about that. We must ensure that we test not just basic skills but the attitudes that often lead to disaster. I hope that the consultation comes up with suggestions that we can support. We are dubious about the 12-month learning period, which, in effect, would make the driving age 18. Many young people—certainly those in rural areas—rely on a car to get to school or work. Any policies that the Government introduce must be rural-proofed, because not everybody lives on a bus route. Not everybody can access their work or education using public transport.

It is important that people have experience of various driving conditions, but we must bear in mind that while some young learners will have access to a family car and will be able to get experience in that way, others get driving experience only with a qualified driving instructor. We must ensure that the cost of getting experience is not so prohibitive that it prevents them from learning to drive.

We can learn lessons from other countries. Sweden, for example, has an enviable road safety record. It uses a matrix to outline driving tasks and correlate them with driving skills and competencies. The aim is to

Those are all important matters to bear in mind.

An issue that has not been raised today is motorcycling, which comes under driving. If we make it harder for people to learn to drive and make it more expensive to use cars, people will often revert to using motorcycles or mopeds to get to work. As we all know, motorcyclists make up 1 per cent. of road traffic but 19 per cent. of fatalities. Motorcyclists are vulnerable, so I would be concerned if anything that we did forced more young people to use motorcycles rather than cars for journeys that may be dangerous.

It is not just the born-again bikers we read about in the papers—the 40 and 50-year-olds who buy a 750 cc bike and go back to motorcycling—but the many young people who rely on motorcycles to get to work. If I have one criticism of the Government, it is the way that the new motorcycle driving test will be administered after 28 September, and the long distances that people will be expected to travel to take the test—and not only to take
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the test: it is human nature to want to practise in the town where they will take the test and to get used to the routes, particularly if, as the Minister has suggested, they will be told to “Go to the station” rather than simply “Turn left at the next junction”. If I had never been to Hull before, I would be petrified if the examiner said, “Go to the station,” because I would not have a clue where it was. I have heard what the Minister has said on previous occasions about not testing people’s ability to drive around a driving course, but people will want to take their lessons in the place where the test will be given. In my constituency, for example, a 50-mile trip to Hull—or even farther to Darlington—may discourage many young people from taking the test and lessons, particularly in bad weather conditions and they are on a small moped and do not fancy driving along a main road with lorries thundering past.

I hope that such things will not be borne out by the statistics in the autumn, but I predict that many young people will not take the driving test or the instruction that they need. They will take the compulsory basic training and drive on L-plates for two years. At the end of that time, if they still want to ride a motorcycle, they will take the compulsory basic training again. I hope that I am wrong, but I expect that after September there will be a dramatic decline in the number of young people taking driving tests, and thus fewer well-qualified and well-trained people on our roads.

We are told that because the Department missed the fact that 50 kph is over 30 mph, the driving test could no longer be carried out on public roads. The majority of roads around driving test centres are in built-up areas with a speed limit. It is unrealistic to expect people to make long journeys to the new test centres. For example, there will not be a test centre on the Isle of Wight, which means that a ferry journey will be required.

As I said before, we are considering whether there is a case for lower alcohol limits for young drivers, and we are determined that the punishment for drink driving should continue to be a ban. We should not water down the approach to drink driving—drivers might think that it had been demoted to speeding.

I hope that we will be able to engage constructively with the Government. We welcome the consultation, and we think that there are some good ideas; for example, the driver’s logbook, and allowing drivers to experience night driving and driving in the rain and so on. However, we should be aware of the risk of taking a something-must-be-done attitude and doing something that looks as though it should work but may not work in practice. That has happened too often. I hope that the consultation will not fall into that trap, and that the Government will introduce evidence-based proposals.

I also hope that the insurance industry will play its part. Many young people take the pass plus test not because they want to be better drivers but because they want lower premiums, and pay-as-you-drive schemes make it prohibitively expensive for young people to drive at night.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the issue, and I hope that the proposals that emerge from the consultation on driver testing will be constructive and that we will be able to support many of them.

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10.37 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): It is a pleasure to see you presiding over this debate, Mr. Hancock.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on raising this important issue. I wish to join him in congratulating all those associated with the falling casualty figures on their hard work: officials in the Department, the police and other emergency services, the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, local authorities, the drivers themselves, and others, including the Transport Committee, several of whose distinguished members have contributed to this debate . The Transport Committee has kindly invited me to its meeting this afternoon to discuss the new statistics, and I am looking forward to doing so.

I endorse the comment by the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) that this issue is, and should be, above party politics. I am reassured that hon. Members from all parties are exercised by the dreadful statistics and are interested in improving road safety. We have had two debates on this important subject in this Session. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) raised it last October, and the late Gwyneth Dunwoody prompted a further debate in March. The Government share the concerns expressed in this and earlier debates, and by the Select Committee.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle said, we announced last month that provisional figures show that road fatalities fell below 3,000 for the first time last year. That is progress, but it is still a terrible toll. We are working on a new strategy designed to drive fatalities down much further in the coming years, and it must include new measures for young people. Provisional 2007 casualty figures are the best for young drivers in at least 10 years. Fatalities in accidents involving at least one driver aged 17 to 24 are down by 8 per cent. in 2007, and fatalities for drivers in that age group are down by 12 per cent. The figures are still dreadful, but I hope that we can build on that welcome improvement. We commonly speak about accidents—I used to do so before becoming road safety Minister—but, personally, I talk about crashes now.

Paul Flynn: In her final remarks to the Transport Committee, Gwyneth Dunwoody mentioned the urgency of the matter to the Minister. I still say we are asking for urgency, a timetable, a result and a response. Will he tell us today—I am sure he will repeat many of the things said in previous debates about current plans—that the Government will take a bold decision on this matter and, taking on the possible outcry, introduce reforms that will, for the first time ever, reduce the entirely avoidable scourge of young deaths on the road?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I hope that we will be able to achieve the objective that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) mentions of saving more young lives. The previous Chair of the Transport Committee exhorted us to take into account the urgency of the situation. The proposals we published in our “Learning to Drive” document were awaited by people for some time, which held up progress to this kind of discussion. However, we published that document within weeks of the debate in the Transport Committee. It is in the
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public domain and it will clearly allow us to arrive at conclusions. Whether we grasp the nettle to which my hon. Friend alluded—I shall come to some of the points he made in a moment—the objective is to improve the situation still further.

As I said, before becoming Minister for road safety I used to talk about accidents, but now I talk about crashes. Too many people who become casualties have not followed basic rules. For example, my hon. Friends the Members for Pendle and for Newport, West, mentioned seat belts. Research suggests that road fatalities have been cut by about 1,000 every year by the requirement for wearing a seat belt, but a quarter of vehicle occupants involved in fatalities did not use seat belts. Research demonstrates that up to two-thirds of those people might otherwise survive. Car loads of young people are among those with especially low belt-wearing rates: too many pay a tragic price for neglecting to do so, and we plan a new campaign in October to address that challenge.

Turning to our reforms, there is a strong case for overhauling the way in which people learn to drive and the way in which we test their skills. We must ensure that new drivers can deal with the challenge of driving alone. We know, from talking to young people, that the vast majority want to be safe and responsible, but we do not give them the tools to do so. Too many of them overestimate their abilities. They are impatient to strike out on their own, but that does not mean that they intend to be reckless or unsafe—far from it; the vast majority of young drivers are safe and responsible.

The present driving test is too narrowly focused: the fundamentals go back to the 1930s. The mechanics of manoeuvring a car are important, but there is a lot more to driving on crowded modern roads. We plan a new approach based on improved education, better testing and real incentives to continue learning after the test. We want to change the driving test to base it on a new, comprehensive guide to what makes drivers safe. We want to update the theory test and the hazard perception test to encourage broader learning and test understanding of safe driving. We want the practical test to be better at assessing whether people are ready to drive unsupervised. We are considering splitting the theory and practical tests into modules, to enable learners to pass elements of the test as they learn. We want to provide people with better feedback throughout the testing process. Young people have told us that they want to learn about driving and using the road before they get behind the wheel, so we are developing a foundation course in safe road use, aimed at young people still in school.

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