Road Safety Bill

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8 Mar 2005

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am trying to follow the gist of the hon. Gentleman's argument, but is he not effectively advocating having more speed cameras? He acknowledges that speed cameras stop accidents, so why should we not logically deduce that we need more speed cameras further to reduce them?

Mr. Chope: Bad driving is responsible for many accidents, and that is why I have argued robustly in favour of having more traffic police. As the hon. Gentleman knows from earlier debates, we have drawn the public's attention to the fact that the number of traffic police has declined by almost 3,000 - about a third - under the present Government.


Mr. Martlew : I want to speak to new clause 15. Hon. Members might realise that it is similar to a private Member's Bill that I introduced last year, which unfortunately did not get a Second Reading. I have tabled the new clause to try to find out whether the Government have changed their policy on the measure.

We still have the problem that more than 500 children suffer serious head injuries and more than 36 are killed due to incidents involving cycles each year, but about a third could be saved if they wore helmets. The new clause would require children under the age of 16 who were cycling on a public road or in a public place to wear helmets. Things have changed, however, since I introduced my Bill. Much was made by its opponents, some of whom are here today, of the fact that the British Medical Association did not support it. Since the Second Reading of the Road Safety Bill, the BMA have looked at the issue again, and they support making the wearing of a helmet compulsory for both children and adults. I do not believe that we can make helmet wearing compulsory for adults, because once they are 16 people can make up their own mind. However, it is the responsibility of the Government and the public to protect children.

4 p.m.

When I introduced my Bill, I encountered a great deal of opposition from organisations that sell bicycles. I received many letters, especially from small cycle shops, which have been given misinformation by the Cyclists Touring Club. Since then, Halfords, the largest retailer of cycles in the country, held a board meeting, at which it concluded that, even though the measure could affect its business, it would be unethical not to support the Bill. It therefore supports making the wearing of helmets compulsory for children. Hon. Members will remember receiving little cards from the CTC giving seven reasons for opposing the Bill. A complaint was made to the Advertising Standards Authority, which found that many of the CTC's claims were spurious and ruled against the organisation.

The last time that we debated this issue, therefore, the House and hon. Members were misled. The position has changed, but what we really want is a change in the Government's view. Before I introduced my Bill, there was a great deal of debate about the issue in Cabinet. Some Cabinet Ministers supported the proposals, some opposed them, and they decided that they could not agree. That was a great pity. However, the problem remains. The number of youngsters who are being injured is probably increasing.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree with the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, which is based in my constituency, that between 70 and 80 per cent. of head injuries affecting child cyclists take place off road? If the provision were accepted, we would prevent only a very small proportion of injuries to children.

Mr. Martlew: I agree with the trust more than my hon. Friend, who is one of the measure's main opponents. The new clause makes provision for helmet wearing on roads and other public places, because it is difficult to legislate for behaviour off road or on private property, as she knows. That is one reason why we find it difficult to enforce seat belt legislation in such areas. Every year, we allow the equivalent of a primary class of young children to die, because we will not introduce legislation. I am afraid that the Government's policy of trying to persuade the target group of teenaged boys between 12 and 16 to wear helmets is failing. The Minister might be able to give us some figures showing that the number of youngsters in that age group who wear helmets has gone down, despite the fact that a considerable amount of money has been spent on advertising.

The Government's policy is failing because of peer pressure. Youngsters are saying, "Look at mushroom-head over there". They do not think that it is cool to wear a helmet, even though some of them are extremely well designed. They are pressured into thinking that if they wear one they are a coward. They would therefore like legislation to be passed, because then they could say, "I have to wear a helmet, because it is the law." There is a similar problem with school uniforms. If children are told that wearing school uniform is optional, of course they will not wear it. They will wear trainers and so on. But if it is compulsory to wear school uniform, all the youngsters do.

I hope that when the Minister responds, she will take into consideration the facts that I have highlighted - that the BMA now supports the compulsory wearing of helmets; that Halfords, the largest cycle retailer in the country, says that wearing helmets is ethically right; that the CTC's propaganda has been discredited; and finally, that the Government's policy of trying to persuade youngsters to wear helmets has failed. Sooner or later, the Government will have to legislate on the matter.

Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington) (Lab): As the House knows, I am a member of the Select Committee on Health. We recently produced a report on obesity, and childhood obesity in particular. One of the reasons that we identified for that was lack of exercise. The number of children who walk or cycle to school has fallen because of dangers on the road. Is it not incumbent on all of us to try to increase children's level of activity, and to make children as safe as possible by promoting safer routes to school and the wearing of appropriate equipment, such as helmets, to encourage that activity?

Mr. Martlew: My right hon. Friend is right. I was pleased to see that the Select Committee did not fall into the trap of saying, "We know it is unsafe, but if we want fitter children, we should allow this practice to continue." What the Committee wants and what I want is for more children to cycle, but to cycle safely.

In conclusion, the Minister must realise that the slaughter of youngsters - I do not use emotive language - must stop. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) scoffs. I find that quite distasteful. We must stop the slaughter. The Government have it in their power to stop it, and sooner or later they will do so. Obviously, that will not be part of the Bill, but I hope legislation will soon be introduced to do it.


Mr. Martlew: I am grateful for the way in which the hon. Gentleman is addressing new clause 15, but I shall be churlish. On Second Reading, he wrote me a nice letter saying that he had not made up his mind on which way to vote. However, somebody slipped me a copy of a letter that he sent to Liberal Democrat Members, which stated that although the Liberal Democrats oppose the Bill, responses should be couched in personal terms to avoid their looking like part of a campaign. He has now seen sense, for which I am grateful.

John Thurso: That point is not churlish; it is an accurate reflection of the truth. When I wrote to the hon. Gentleman, I had not made up my mind, but I would have opposed the private Member's Bill, had it come to a vote. I gave that advice to my hon. Friends, but I added that they should make up their own minds, because I should not dictate what they should do on such an issue. I also said that my hon. Friends should couch their responses in suitable terms.


Mr. Martlew: Would the Minister make representations to manufacturers that such equipment should be included in the boot of new cars when they are sold?

Charlotte Atkins: Certainly, we can consider that. Whether one is carrying the red triangle or appropriate reflective clothing, anything that helps the motorist and their passengers to remain safer after an accident or when they have had to stop for whatever reason is worth considering. Obviously, we are keen to bear down on unnecessary accidents, and on unnecessary injuries, which happen frequently, after an accident has occurred. Our leaflet, "A guide to safer motorway driving", contains advice on what to do when vehicles break down on motorways. We believe that drivers and their occupants are not at great risk when they follow that advice. Basically, the advice to them is to wait on a nearby bank, if they are on a motorway, not on the hard shoulder. We have all heard of awful incidents in which people who thought that they were safe on the hard shoulder were not. I was involved in an accident in which I managed to get my car half on to the hard shoulder, and was then able to get away from the car to safety, having called the police.

It is important for people to understand what they should do in such circumstances. Others who had been involved in the accident sat in their car, which was very unsafe. If a car had collided with my car, there could have been a huge pile-up.


Mr. Martlew: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the time that she has given to the matter and to the thought that she has given to her reply. Unfortunately, not everyone has a mother like my hon. Friend. As she has said, usage among the most vulnerable groups is decreasing, despite the fact that we are spending a lot of money on it. Surely, sooner or later, we will have to say that the policy is not working and we will have to legislate. Other parts of the world have done so and the results are encouraging. The Government have to stop being too timid on the matter. I do not think that it will lose or win us votes at the election. We have to say that this is an issue, this is how we deal with it and this is how we save lives.

Charlotte Atkins: I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. The issue is not just about having a law, but about ensuring that we can enforce it. Our position on compulsion is to review the matter and I promise my hon. Friend that I shall take the matter seriously. We must ensure that provisions are workable and that there is no problem with enforcement.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. Martlew: I received a letter from the previous Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who said that it would not be a problem for the police to enforce such a provision. Surely it is a matter for the Home Office and not the Department for Transport.

Charlotte Atkins: There is still a problem. If a youngster borrowed a bike and rode it on the road without wearing a helmet, who would be responsible? Would it be the parents of the child who lent the bike? Would schools and teachers be responsible for enforcing the provision, and if they did not, would they be responsible if someone rode a bike on the road without wearing a helmet?

We are trying to promote cycling to school along cycle routes and along roads, but we want to ensure that people cycle safely. I appreciate the point about helmets. We promote the use of helmets and I am surprised that, given their excellent new design - to my eyes, they look extremely attractive - young adolescents do not think that they are cool. The idea that someone having their head smashed open is cool is ridiculous.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB