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4.25 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to have the opportunity today to debate the important topic of road safety. This debate is taking place on estimates day, and it is very important indeed that essential spending on road safety measures be maintained.

Road safety is about the lives of individuals and their families, but it is even more than that: it is a major issue that affects all our society. The Transport Committee’s report “Ending the Scandal of Complacency: Road Safety Beyond 2010” sees road safety as a public health issue, looks at a way forward and how the situation can be improved and makes important recommendations to the Government.

The road safety debate is ongoing. The Government produced an interim response followed by a fuller response, and that was linked to the Government’s road safety strategy consultation called “A Safer Way: Consultation on Making Britain’s Roads the Safest in the World”. The Committee’s report commends the Government on reaching their targets on road safety, and the most recent figures record, for 2008, the lowest number of road casualties yet. However, if we look at the cold facts, we find that 2,538 people still died on our roads in 2008; that 26,029 were recorded as having been seriously injured; and that there were total casualties of 230,884. That means thousands of blighted lives, and it is worth noting that road accidents are the largest single cause of death in people aged between five and 35 years old. They are tragedies for the individuals and their families, but it is a national scandal that so many people die.

It is self-evident—indeed, it should make us think a little—that the scale of the carnage on our roads is not acceptable in any other mode of transport. We are talking about 2,500 people dead and more than 230,000 casualties, and, if those figures related to rail, sea or aviation, there would be national uproar. However, there is no uproar about them.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I remind my hon. Friend that last year or perhaps the year before, there was a rail crash in Cumbria at Grayrigg, and unfortunately an elderly lady was killed. There were then cries from many people for a public inquiry, but I suspect that on
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the motorway running parallel to the west coast main line, up to 10 people are killed every year, and nobody calls for a public inquiry.

Mrs. Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and agree with his sentiments. I hope that the Transport Committee’s report will help focus public attention on what is indeed a national scandal.

I should like to highlight some of the key issues in our report and the Government’s response. The report links road safety with wider policies to do with improving the environment and health. It also focuses on a stark fact that has little recognition: the close link between death on the roads and deprivation. Every death or injury on the roads is a great blow for anybody, whatever their background. However, child pedestrians from the lowest socio-economic group are 21 times more likely to be killed in traffic accidents than those in the higher groups. That chilling fact is not known widely enough and does not arouse as much consternation and uproar as it should.

The report also looks at road safety as part of a system. It does not prescribe one single measure for dealing with the issue; it considers the design of roads and vehicles, enforcement, training and attitudes. It is pleasing to note that the Government are also starting to adopt that systems approach, in which it is recognised that there are many aspects to consider in addressing the critical issue of road safety and that a lot of different Departments need to be involved.

The Committee was extremely concerned about the lack of reliability in the data on road injuries, particularly those in relation to serious injuries. Deaths on the roads declined by 18 per cent. during the period that we were considering; serious injuries declined by twice as much. We questioned the accuracy of the recording of serious injuries on the road, and specifically that of the STATS19 system. We were disappointed that although the Government’s response acknowledged that there might be a problem, they did not propose any steps that we thought would deal with it. I am thinking particularly of the discrepancies between some of the reporting of serious accidents and data received by hospitals. We want the Government to do more on that issue, as we are not satisfied that the information that we are getting is accurate.

The Committee was particularly concerned about the increase in deaths among certain groups of people. Although the overall number of casualties is coming down, there are areas of great concern; there has been, for example, an increase in deaths among motorcyclists and there is the situation in rural areas. The Committee focused on an aspect that it has considered before: that of novice drivers—young, male novice drivers in particular. Some 27 per cent. of 17 to 19-year-old male drivers have accidents during their first year of driving. One in every eight licence holders is under 25, yet one in three who die in collisions on the roads is in that age bracket.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I have seen some of those figures myself. Does the hon. Lady believe that they are a reflection of the age of the drivers involved, and that there is therefore a case for raising the age at which a full licence can be obtained? Alternatively, does she think it inevitable that there will be such figures for males who are in their first year of holding a licence? In other words, would the 17-to-19 problem that she identified be the same if the driving age were raised to 18?

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Mrs. Ellman: Owing to the way in which statistics are collected, we were focusing on novice young drivers; there are no comparable data on novice older drivers. However, it appears that the tragic facts that I am reporting relate to young people. The Committee feels that the issue is indeed related to age; it could be to do with attitude and experience of driving. Another chilling statistic is that one in two of those who die in accidents at night are under 25. Our recommendations on how to address this issue are wide-ranging.

The Government acknowledged the severity of this problem, but we were disappointed that they did not feel able to accept some of our recommendations. We thought there should be tougher drinking and driving rules, particularly in relation to young drivers, although that is an issue for all drivers. We also advocated graduated licensing and a wider experience of driving before a test could be passed.

Norman Baker: I am genuinely interested in what the Committee has concluded given the evidence that the hon. Lady has collated from witnesses. Perhaps I can put my question in this way: does she believe that the problem of deaths involving novice drivers would be lessened if the age at which a full licence could be obtained were 18 rather than 17?

Mrs. Ellman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The key aspect is having sufficient experience of different types of driving before a licence can be obtained. Looking again at attitudes, people sometimes associate driving with bravado. In taking a decision about raising the age at which a licence can be granted, we would have to consider other aspects to do with young people’s mobility: their need to be able to move around for work and leisure purposes. I acknowledge that a balance is needed, but saving life has to be an integral part of this.

Mr. Martlew: Was not one of our other concerns that if we raised the age to 18, young people would drive without a licence—they would not bother going through the training system but simply get frustrated with not being able to drive, which could itself create some problems?

Mrs. Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for his observation. Yes, indeed, that was one of the reasons the Committee did not make a recommendation in relation to age, although we did so in relation to experience required to pass the test. We also found a close relationship between uninsured, unlicensed driving and accidents, which was another matter of great concern.

I wish to refer to a few of our recommendations. We thought it very important to make it easier for local authorities to have 20 mph zones in areas where they thought that appropriate. We are pleased that the Government seem to support that and hope that that will be followed up with guidance and help with the financial aspects of designating those zones. We wanted to have a separate target for reducing deaths rather than deaths aligned with serious injury, and that too has been accepted.

We wanted a road accident investigation board to be set up, in the same way as there are such boards for other modes of transport—rail, aviation and in the maritime sector. As I said earlier, the scale of carnage
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on our roads would not be tolerated or accepted on any other mode of transport. There should be a road accident investigation board to emphasise that point and to try to improve the situation. We also thought that there should be an independent road safety commission that would continually assess what was happening and make recommendations.

We wanted to establish a British road safety survey to produce more accurate statistics and perhaps to measure changes in attitude to different aspects of driving. Although the Government agreed that more questions could be incorporated into existing surveys such as the national travel survey, they did not accept our recommendation. They accepted that there should be a commission of experts to look at driving, but it was not entirely clear how it would be designated or what remit it would have; that seemed to fall rather short of our proposal for an independent road safety commission. We emphasised that there should be strong cross-departmental working, involving the Department for Transport, fire and rescue services, the Home Office and education and health services. That approach is extremely important.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Does the hon. Lady agree that one problem may be that when the police arrive at the scene of an accident, they are more interested in finding somebody to prosecute than necessarily determining the cause of the accident?

Mrs. Ellman: There are certainly difficulties with assessing the causes of accidents, and perhaps decisions are taken very quickly when a rather longer period of assessment is required.

It is pleasing that the Government have reiterated their wish to become a world leader in road safety again. I was pleased to participate recently in the launch here in the House of a report on global road safety aimed at saving 5 million lives and preventing 50 million serious injuries worldwide. It was encouraging for the people promoting the report to have both Lewis Hamilton and Rory Bremner on the platform.

The Government have taken steps to improve road safety in the UK, and they have to be commended for their achievements. At the same time, we have to accept that it is never right, acceptable or tolerable for there to be more than 2,500 people dying on our roads every year and more than 230,000 injured. That is carnage, and it is why we called our report “Ending the Scandal of Complacency”.

4.41 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): If I wanted to be glib, I would say that it is slightly ironic that we are talking about ending the scandal of complacency to an almost empty Chamber. The reality is that since the day we were born, we have got used to the idea that people get killed in road accidents. Also, we accept that things are getting better. I believe that in 1958, 6,000 people were killed on the roads, with a fraction of the traffic that we have today. At the end of last month it was announced that about 2,500 people had died on the roads in the previous year, so there has been a massive reduction.

People are complacent, and they believe—this is not a party political matter—that the Government are doing a good job and that accident and death figures are going in the right direction. I suspect that if we were
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having a debate about knife crime, there would be many more Members in the Chamber, even though the number of people killed by knife crime is fraction of the number killed on the roads.

There are some disturbing points in the report, however, and one that I want to touch on is the deaths of motorcyclists. I know that the number went down slightly in 2008, but there was a large increase before that. I suspect that the Transport Committee and the Government do not really know what is happening; we know that there is a problem, but we do not know what the solution is.

Over the years, I think that two people have come to see me about deaths of motorcyclists. Both mentioned cases that were not the fault of the motorcyclist but that of a motorist or somebody driving a farm vehicle. The Government should aim their measures at drivers of other vehicles—people such as myself—who somehow do not seem to notice motorcyclists. I suspect that another problem is the middle-aged man who used to drive a bike when he was 21, who comes down from Alston moor on a beautiful day such as today and perhaps does not have the experience that he used to have when he was riding every day as a necessity rather than just at the weekend. We need to consider carefully how we can reduce deaths among motorcyclists, because motorcycling is an environmentally friendly way to travel and we should encourage people to do it. When statistics show that a person is 40 times more likely to be killed on a motorcycle than in a car, it is off-putting.

The number of child deaths has fallen tremendously over the past 10 years, but every single death of a child is a tragedy, and I believe that the number increased slightly in the past year, from 121 to 124. We should be looking into how we can reduce that. Indeed, I know that the Government have a target to reduce child deaths by 50 per cent.; I will return to Government targets later.

However, one thing that worries me is that although we are achieving a reduction in the number of children killed, we are also preventing youngsters from going out. One of the reasons for the fall in deaths is not that the traffic has got better; it is that parents do not like children to go out. In a way, the motor vehicle is turning youngsters into captives. We also need to compare the statistics for children from deprived backgrounds with those for children from affluent backgrounds. The number of children from deprived backgrounds who are killed is considerably out of proportion to the number from affluent backgrounds killed. We have to find out how we can make the streets safe—but not by keeping our children indoors. The 20 mph speed limit is an excellent example. Indeed, some whole towns have a 20 mph limit. We should consider that idea.

There has been talk of international comparisons. I do not think that it matters whether we are top of the league or third or fourth, but we must continue to improve. We will be very near the top for 2008. Some countries, such as France and Spain, have improved greatly, but their numbers of deaths were much higher than ours. We have lessons to learn from the Netherlands and other areas. One part of the United Kingdom whose record bothers me is Northern Ireland, where
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people are three times more likely to die in a road accident than people on the mainland, and twice as likely to die in a road accident as people in the Republic. Perhaps the many years of the troubles made people in Northern Ireland concentrate on other priorities, but perhaps the new devolved Administration will try to find ways of putting that right.

Another issue that concerns me is deaths on rural roads. Mine is a mostly urban constituency, although it is surrounded by a rural area and parts of it are rural. All too often, my constituents or people from a neighbouring constituency have been killed on the roads outside the city, and we can all see why. We have single carriageways. People go on those roads, get frustrated—perhaps by a farm vehicle, a learner driver or an elderly driver—and there is dangerous overtaking. Most of the time people get away with it, but if they do not, they end up in a head-on collision. That is how most fatalities happen.

There is also a problem with the speed limit. Local authorities have some leeway on that, and the Government are encouraging them to do more. I am schizophrenic about the issue, in the sense that I like to be able to go quite fast—up to 60 mph—but if we reduce the limit to 50 mph, we will reduce deaths considerably, so our freedom in that respect should be curtailed. However, one of my concerns about the Government’s proposals is that if we create more and more 50 mph zones, we will have to put up more and more signs. Do we really want to clutter up the roads in the countryside—especially the Cumbrian countryside—with a sign every 100 yards saying that the speed limit is 50 mph? The Government should consider that.

I am pleased that the Government have taken on board a lot of our work in their draft consultation report. People say, “Select Committees don’t count,” but that is nonsense, because the Government have been able to pick our brains. The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) was a member of our Committee, and a valued one too. I accept that the Government have other responsibilities and that we are only there to make suggestions, but a lot of work has been done.

I am disappointed, however, by the Government’s response to the problem of novice drivers. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) has covered most of the points on that subject. I am worried about novice drivers going out late at night in their small Peugeots or Fords. There are often two lads and two girls in the car, and they fly around at 11 o’clock at night without having had any experience of driving in the dark. I am not suggesting that they have had too much to drink. The car comes off the road, hits a tree and young lives are destroyed. Some of the young people might not die but they will be badly injured. The Government copped out over the question of a curfew. I know that that would be difficult to enforce, but I believe that the parents would have enforced it. They would have said, “You know that this is your first year of driving. You have to be back by 11 o’clock.” I hope that the Government will look at that matter again.

I shall make my final point now. We had plenty of time for these debates, but the first one ran for quite a while. The Government have set a target of achieving a 50 per cent. reduction in child road deaths by 2020, and a 33 per cent. target for reducing adult deaths. That is
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welcome, but the Minister will be aware that we are starting from a level of 3,000 deaths a year, which means that our target is 2,000 by 2020. That is quite an easy target to reach. I think that 2,500 people died in the past year, so we are halfway towards achieving it already. We could easily get the figure down to 2,000 by 2010 if the advances of the past two years are repeated in the next two.

We do not really know why the reduction is taking place. It probably has something to do with the fact that new cars have better safety features, including air bags. It might also have something to do with Ministers in the OPEC countries putting up the price of fuel, which results in people reducing their speed. If we are to reduce the number of people being killed—and the number of lives devastated as a result—we have to reduce our speed. I know that some people do not like that idea, although as I get older I do not mind it so much. I would probably have objected to it more when I was 30 years younger.

The Government have done a good job, although they have missed some of the opportunities suggested in our report. I hope that they will look again at the proposal for a curfew, and I believe that their targets will be too easily achieved and should be revised downwards. Perhaps it is a bit daft to say that we are aiming for a target of only 2,000 people being killed, but targets work—and really, we should be aiming for a figure of 1,500, or even 1,000, by 2020. That would be better for everyone.

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