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4 Jun 2009 : Column 141WH—continued

We also recently published the results of our learning to drive consultation, which was launched last year, and will now proceed with plans to strengthen the way in which people learn to drive and are tested, and subsequently encourage a culture of continued and lifelong learning for drivers. This long-term programme supports progressive improvements. The first phase, over the next two years,
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aims to deliver real changes to the learning process, with improved theory and more practical driving tests. This includes a new pre-driver qualification in safe road use for 14 to 16-year-olds. We have also recently launched the new Think! education programme, and are publishing the first in a range of resources and materials for three to 14-year-olds and their teachers and parents. Taken together, these materials will help us to provide a seamless and thorough system of road safety training and development for life, so that we can foster a new respect for the road in the minds of the next generation of drivers and non-drivers.

Throughout the consultation, which runs until mid-July, we will be genuinely interested to hear views from all quarters. It is especially important for all of us in positions of influence to raise awareness of road safety as a national issue. We can make our roads the safest in the world only through a shared aspiration to reduce death and injury rates and by persuading everyone to contribute. Our consultation proposes the publication of an annual road safety report and an independent advisory body. That will ensure that we have a discussion that involves government, local authorities, police, schools and universities, car manufacturers and transport groups. It will also involve parliamentarians, and I look forward to hearing hon. Members’ views.

2.58 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate. It is a pity that more people are not here—but I think we all know the reasons for that.

I would like to reiterate some of the Minister’s comments. We have made many improvements in road safety in recent years, and our track record compares extremely favourably with other EU countries with similar circumstances to ours. When I entered Parliament, I was very aware of the many pressures facing local government in prioritising funding, and yet I was extremely surprised by the number constituency groups campaigning for traffic-calming measures in their areas. My county council identified about 200 sites where residents had requested measures to curtail speeding. The problem is that, while walking around our communities, we want cars to go much slower. When we see people who are slow to cross the road being taken by surprise by a speeding car, or children suddenly running out inadvertently into the road, we can all appreciate why we do not want drivers racing through built-up areas.

Technology has advanced so much that sometimes the very same people who worry about speed in front of their own front doors inadvertently go above 20, 30 and even 40 mph when they get behind the wheel in a built-up area. That is because driving is now so smooth. In my childhood, when we used to bounce up and down in the back of a very uncomfortable car—it was a bit like being on the Back Benches at Prime Minister’s Question Time with one’s colleagues jumping up and down on very uncomfortable seats—a little bit of speed was very noticeable. Now, of course, a person can drive at considerable speed without even noticing.

I welcome the Minister’s references to changing behaviour. Essentially, we have three options. We can put in more and more traffic-calming measures, such as islands in the middle of roads, speed cameras and all sorts of markings and bumps; consider using snooper technology that tells off drivers every time they go too
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fast, which I find offensive; or change our behaviour. Those who talk about changing behaviour are often accused of being idealistic. However, our attitude to drink-driving has changed noticeably over the years. Similarly, the once much-ridiculed smoking ban is very much welcomed and accepted now. The same is true of seat belts. Child seat belts were unheard of when I was a child, but no parent now would think of going out without having the car properly prepared for young children.

There are three categories of road to consider. First, there is the urban road. In Wales, we have Assembly-funded programmes for calming the traffic in the immediate vicinity of schools. I have to congratulate my own county council—Carmarthenshire—on having drawn down considerable sums of funding to implement such schemes. However, the urban area is very much wider than just the areas in front of schools and often includes parts of trunk roads, which run through very built-up areas. We must think carefully about how else we can calm down traffic.

The second type of road—the rural road—is common in my county. There is a very high number of deaths on rural roads. People think, “Oh, this is a lovely country road, let’s put our foot down and enjoy it.” Even people who are familiar with such roads can suddenly be surprised by something coming out of a gateway. It could be an animal, a child or a farm vehicle. It could be an obstacle of some description or something that has happened that they did not expect. Unfortunately, because drivers are going at speed, such accidents can be much more gruesome, with consequences that are considerably more serious than those we see in accidents on other types of road.

The third type of road is the national motorway or dual carriageway. I have long advocated trying to get a culture in which we genuinely reduce speed. In the past, fast food was all the rage, but now we want to go for slow cooking. It is a mentality or an idea. For example, people think that it takes one hour to drive from Llanelli to Cardiff, but they should think that it will take an hour and a half. We should adjust our mentality to accept a more sensible speed. That is not easy. A couple of years ago, I suggested, to much hilarity, that one way of changing our speed limits in this country would be to interpret all our speed signs that are currently interpreted as meaning miles per hour as meaning kilometres per hour. In other words, when a driver sees a sign saying 30, it would mean not 30 mph but 30 kph, which is just under 20 mph. At the time, people thought I was mad. Now we are hearing many more people saying, “20 is plenty” in our urban areas and particularly around our schools. It is certainly a measure that we could consider both in our urban areas and on our country roads. I very much welcome the mapping system that the Minister referred to for country roads. As for motorways, different issues are involved, and I am not the expert to say what a good speed limit would be. None the less, when we travel at high speeds we must be aware of unexpected events such as a tyre blow-out. By travelling at lower speeds, we can considerably reduce the number of accidents.

The psychology of using a human image is very effective. It affects people’s mentality when they are shown that a child is far more likely to be injured by a car that is speeding, or when motorway roadworks have
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a sign saying, “Do not kill our work force”. Such images are much more effective than a sign warning drivers to slow down at 40 mph when they cannot see a roadwork in sight. It is important to get that message across. We should not be waiting for people to break speed limits and offend before we put them on training courses. The psychology must be there. We should start at school level by talking to pupils about road safety and showing graphic images, and continue that through the process of taking a driving test. We need to keep up that knowledge throughout life. All advertisers will say how the effects of any campaign fade and people go back to their old habits. We must look at ways in which we can develop a society that says, “Although we have the technological power to go at the most fantastic speeds, that is not the best thing to do in most circumstances.” We need to persist with this campaign and work hard. We can put in a number of concrete measures, such as islands, stripes, bumps and speed cameras—if we can afford them, because the budget is sometimes limited—but we need to change our mentality.

Having said that, some concrete changes can be considered. A short while ago in my constituency, we experienced two deaths on a dual carriageway that comes immediately off the M4. People can drive for three and a half hours down from London with not a single obstacle, and suddenly they go round a roundabout and find themselves on a dual carriageway where cars can come in and out from small side roads. That is an extremely dangerous situation. I am referring to the M4 at the point where it reaches Pont Abraham and becomes the A48. The A48 goes on to Cross Hands through Cwmgwili, which is where the two accidents took place, and on to Carmarthen and St. Clears.

Ever since a very serious accident some 20 years ago, a number of us have been calling for the road to be made into an express road with exits and entries similar to those on a motorway. Then we would not have people crossing the carriageway. I am sure that hon. Members can think of similar roads near to them. We must consider improving road safety on dual carriageways and main trunk roads that form part of a network, because the people on them are likely to be travelling at some speed. We also need to make people aware of the types of junctions they will encounter coming in and out of those roads. That is a particular problem in areas such as the rural parts of Wales and England.

We must also consider how we treat cyclists. We all know the benefits of cycling—how healthy it can be and how it can reduce pollution. I recently had the tremendous pleasure of cycling with my young nieces along the millennium coastal path in Llanelli, where there are no cars. I quite understand that we cannot have such a cycle path on every route because obviously, there is not the space, and we want to be able to encourage people to cycle on ordinary roads as well; but we need to consider a number of measures if we are to do that.

I welcome the commitment in the draft road safety strategy to trying to reduce the risks for cyclists, possibly halving the risks involved within 10 years. We need to look at how we encourage people to cycle, as well as at ways of improving junctions and space for cyclists, because of the issue of “critical mass”; it is much safer for cyclists when people are used to seeing them and expect them to be there. Again, it is a matter of attitude. France is a great country for cycling, and there is a strict understanding there that drivers leave a metre between
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their vehicle and a cyclist. We need to work with our drivers on the idea that overtaking a cyclist is like overtaking a motorbike: often, drivers need as much space as they would to overtake a car, and they should not expect to be able to scrape past a cyclist when a car is coming in the opposite direction, unless the road is sufficiently wide. The measures that we take to reduce dangers to cyclists should include ways of encouraging cyclists.

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way—which will perhaps let her pause for breath and allow me to say that I fully support the points she has been making. She will know that the Department for Transport has committed £140 million over the next three years to promote cycling. I did not mention that because it is a different initiative, but it will contribute to trying to create the numbers she has been talking about. Through cycle demonstration towns, pathways and the promotion of cycling we shall get critical mass at some time in the next decade, as cycling comes more popular; I am convinced of that. From the road safety point of view, a strategy focusing on ways of reducing incidents, collisions and dangers to cyclists goes hand in hand with the sort of cycling promotion that my hon. Friend is suggesting.

Nia Griffith: I welcome the Minister’s remarks and look forward to improvements for cyclists.

Out-of-town shopping centres sometimes consist of a group of shops with roads and roundabouts between them. Often, it appears that they are in private ownership and that little consideration has been given to how anyone can cross from one part of the shopping centre to another after getting out of their car—whether they are an ordinary pedestrian, someone with a pushchair or a disabled person. Sometimes, it is almost safer for them to jump back into their car and drive 50 yd to another part of the shopping park, so that they do not have to cross a busy road or roundabout where no provision has been made for pedestrians. Can any measures be taken to ensure that all private developers of such retail parks must undertake to provide appropriate safety?

Anyone who has walked into Westminster underground station recently will have seen the poster campaign on shared space—those areas where people do not know whether cars are allowed, and where cyclists certainly do not know what they are allowed to do. For those pedestrians who may be vulnerable, perhaps because of poor sight or hearing, shared space can be extremely confusing. That also applies to retail parks. Sometimes it is not at all clear where the trolleys, people, pushchairs and wheelchairs are supposed to move in and out between the moving cars. One of the problems for motorists is that they are sometimes not sure which way they should be driving—all the way down one column and all the way back up another, or in a two-way system. The situation is often not as clear as it should be, and such confusion can make things hazardous for pedestrians. What steps can be taken on that issue?

3.15 pm

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I am also pleased that
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the Government have chosen to request a debate on road safety. It is always timely to discuss issues of such importance.

I acknowledge, as other hon. Members have done, that there has been considerable progress, but road accidents are still responsible for hundreds of thousands of injuries each year. It is also pertinent to mention that they are the biggest killer of people in the five to 35 age group, despite that progress. Those injured, and the families of those killed or injured, have to face great emotional and financial suffering. It is also significant, in the current economic climate, that we recognise that road accidents cost our economy 1.5 per cent. of our annual gross domestic product. That is the equivalent of what the Government spent in total on transport in 2006-07, so we are not talking about small sums of money. It therefore follows—I am sure we all agree on this—that we should do as much as possible to reduce the number of deaths and accidents on our roads. As we have heard from other hon. Members, roads should be safe for everyone—pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers, motorcyclists and HGV drivers.

There has been some positive news about road safety, not least of which is the fact that roads deaths fell below 3,000 in 2007 for the first time since 1926. That is certainly good progress. The Government’s new consultation on road safety, “A Safer Way”, is also to be welcomed. However, as I think we would all agree, there is no room for complacency. There are still nearly 250,000 casualties on our roads each year, including some 3,000 children who were killed or seriously injured in 2007 alone. To make our roads safer we first need to know why accidents occur, as well as where, when and how, and who is involved. We need to know those things to enable us to develop better policies that get to the heart of the problem and help to reduce road accidents, injuries and deaths. We also need urgently to review how we collect information about road accidents. The current system for reporting them relies not only on accidents being reported in the first place—we all know that that does not always happen—but on the police accurately assessing the level of injury sustained. A comparison with hospital data suggests that too many accidents go unreported or underestimated. There has been much criticism of the STATS—road accident statistics—system, not least by the Select Committee on Transport, and the review of the system mentioned in the Government’s consultation document gives us an opportunity to change how we record accidents.

Licensing and seatbelt information, for example, should be recorded as standard so that we can understand all the factors that contribute to road accidents and injuries. Until we know how many road accidents there are, who is involved in them and what caused them, we cannot adequately plan road safety policy. That is why—this was touched on in an intervention—we, along with organisations such as the RAC, are calling for the creation of a road accidents investigation branch similar to the rail, maritime and air accidents investigation branches. It would gather accurate data about road accidents, analyse the data and make recommendations to Government on road safety. The Government consultation states that they do not think that that is necessary because the police already investigate accidents, but does the Minister agree that there is a difference between the role and work of the police in deciding who
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is responsible for accidents and the work that needs to be done to establish in a broader sense why accidents happen? The expert panel that the Government have suggested is in our view simply not enough. A national authority, with the same powers and responsibilities as the rail, maritime and aviation bodies is necessary. Why does the Minister think that it is appropriate to have an investigation branch for rail, maritime and aviation incidents, but not one for road incidents?

Drink-driving continues to be one of the biggest problems on our roads. As the Minister will be aware, there may be a difference of opinion between the parties on this issue. The number of road deaths involving drink-drivers has remained the same over the past decade, while the total number of deaths has fallen considerably. In 2007 alone—the last full year for which figures are available—16 per cent. of road deaths involved a drink-driver. The Liberal Democrats have for some time been calling for the drink-drive limit in the UK to be brought in line with that in most of the rest of Europe, from 80 mg to 50 mg per 100 ml of blood.

As the Minister knows, that has the support of many industry experts, including the British Medical Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and Brake. Reducing the drink-drive limit would save lives by sending a clear message that “just another drink” will put people over the limit. As he may also be aware, University college London has estimated that such a measure could prevent some 65 deaths and 230 injuries a year. In the light of that, will he assure us that he at least retains an open mind on the issue, and that if he is not yet convinced, he will continue to consider the evidence that many of us believe is already compelling?

I was pleased to hear the Government announcement on roadside drugs testing, but I remain sceptical that the specification for a device will be approved, despite the fact that the technology is available. A reply to a parliamentary question I asked in 2008 assured me that departmental advisers were continuing their work to produce such a specification and that they hoped to reach a conclusion soon. What assurance can the Minister give the House today that the announcement earlier this month will actually end in a device specification being agreed and the device being used on the roadside?

Thirty per cent. of car accidents involve at least one car driver under 25 years old, so young and novice drivers are much more likely to be involved in accidents than other groups of drivers. To be clear, it is not that all young drivers drive dangerously—most do not—but many do not get adequate training or experience of driving in adverse conditions.

The current driving test focuses heavily on controlling and manoeuvring the car, not on driving independently and in hazardous situations. I therefore welcome the Government’s response to the “Learning to Drive” consultation and the inclusion of a section on independent driving in the practical test. I was disappointed, however, that the response did not include the suggestion made by many of the consultation respondents that certain types of driving should be a compulsory part of the learning and assessment process, including driving on urban roads in busy traffic, on quiet rural and one-track roads and motorways, and in bad weather and at night. Does the Minister agree that those skills should be
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part of the process and that they should not be learned on the hoof by novice drivers once they have passed their test?

Mr. Goodwill: The Conservatives considered that proposal. However, one problem is that it would be difficult to require learner drivers, for example, to participate in motorway driving in all parts of the country—my constituents are 60 miles away from the nearest motorway.

Mark Hunter: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Of course there are different circumstances in individual areas. I am articulating the case that we have not gone far enough. The Government might consider ways in which to introduce a different kind of test and ensure that those areas of expertise are covered before people pass the test, and that they are not an afterthought or something that people learn on the hoof afterwards.

Also on learner drivers, in the current economic climate I am concerned that many young people could be tempted to cut corners when it comes to learning to drive because of the cost of the process. Recent estimates suggest that people on average are spending £1,500 on lessons before they become holders of a full driving licence—[Interruption.] I may have misread the Minister’s expression, but he appears to be surprised at that figure. I can tell him that it is from the “Learning to Drive” consultation paper.

There is no doubt that £1,500 is a lot of money to a lot of people. The danger is that in this economic climate, when times are tough and when pennies are being counted in most households around the country, people might be tempted to take fewer formal lessons and perhaps take more assistance and advice from friends and relatives, and cut back on the necessary expert tuition in which I am sure we all believe. Has the Minister had any recent meetings with insurance companies to discuss incentivised lower premiums for young drivers who take more training and driver development?

My strongest criticism is of the lack of progress on the problem of uninsured drivers. An estimated 5 per cent. of all drivers in this country—about 1.5 million drivers—are driving without insurance. Those people add about £30 to the cost of each driver’s insurance policy because they choose to opt out. We know from evidence that those drivers will kill four people each week on our roads. In 2006, they were directly responsible for 36,000 crashes and 27,000 injuries.

Meanwhile, incredibly, the average fine for uninsured drivers has dropped by 13 per cent. since 1997, from £224 to £194—those figures were given to me in a recent parliamentary answer—which is lower than the fine many people get for failing to buy a TV licence. That is a sad indictment of the priorities that are recognised by the courts these days. Will the Minister undertake to lobby his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice so that they can change the advice given to courts on the level of fines for driving without insurance and so avoid the crazy situation of the cost of the fine being far less than the cost of the insurance, which happens in many cases? That provides no incentive whatever for those who are minded, wrongly, to do without insurance.

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