Road Safety Debate

Commons Hansard
2 Jul 2009

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): 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 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.


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.


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 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 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 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 the 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.


Mr. Martlew: I looked into this [reducing the legal blood alcohol level], too, and the hon. Gentleman is right, but does he realise that in a lot of the countries he mentioned there is no driving ban? Instead there is a fine, or perhaps a few points. Is it not better to have a higher level and a draconian punishment than to go the French way of reducing the level but only giving a fine?

Norman Baker: I do not advocate the view that people should face only a fine for what is a serious offence, but I think the 0.8 limit is too high, as some individuals can be within the limit yet their driving capacity is still impaired. I also do not think it is sensible policy that if someone is marginally above 0.8 they will face what the hon. Gentleman calls a draconian ban, whereas if they are just below that 0.8 limit they will not face any penalty whatever. That seems to me to be a rather extreme situation. I think there is a case for looking at this again, therefore, and I believe that 0.5 would be a sensible limit. That would allow someone who is going to drive to have one drink; after all, people who are driving should not have any more than that.


Mr. Martlew: I think that the hon. Gentleman might be looking at the past with rose-tinted glasses. As a child, I used to play out on the street but I was badly injured in a road accident. It was probably more dangerous then than it is now.

Norman Baker: I am sorry about that particular accident, but I do not think I am looking at this with rose-tinted spectacles; there were fewer vehicles then for one thing. Irrespective of whether the past was better, however, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we need to do better in residential areas and a 20 mph limit may be one way forward.


Mr. Martlew: To clarify, the Opposition's position is to do nothing. Is that correct?

Mr. Goodwill: The Opposition's position is to look at how the driving test can be made more appropriate and to make the driving test better but not necessarily harder. I have discussed with the Minister's predecessor the young men who pass their tests with flying colours, but the rather nervous drivers who perhaps scrape through the test are often the ones who are killed in accidents or incidents. So we need to make the test more appropriate to the conditions that young drivers face.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): We have had an interesting, if short, debate on a fundamentally important issue, and I am delighted to respond to it. At the outset, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) for her work in chairing the Select Committee, and for presenting us with an important report on an issue that affects so many of us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), among others, has often said that the deaths and serious injuries on our roads, compared to those involving other modes of transport, is appalling. Before I turn to the clearly heartening statistics that were released last week, let me say that I agree that even one death is one too many. Members from all parts of the House strive to reduce the numbers, and although there should never be any cosy relationship between the Government and the Select Committee - or, indeed, the Opposition - we share that goal of reducing road casualties. Collaborative work and ideas will help us to achieve what many of us want, which is zero deaths.


Mr. Martlew: I heard what the Minister said about the possibility that last year might have been exceptional. However, deaths are down to about 2,500 and he is talking about bringing them down to 2,000 in 12 years' time. That does not seem too ambitious to me.

Paul Clark: I said that I would talk later about whether the targets were stretching. When we compiled and presented the report and the strategy, we did not have the benefit of the 2008 casualty figures, which are recognised across the Chamber as an extremely welcome and substantial reduction. We are carrying out a consultation and we will reflect on the targets in the light of the figures that we published last week, and of the consultation and the responses to it. We will certainly take those issues on board.

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