Road Safety (HC 460-iii)
Transport Committee 14 May 2008
Evidence given by
2.45 Professor Phil Goodwin Professor of Transport Policy, University of the West of England; Professor John Whitelegg; Professor of sustainable Development, University of York; Fred Wegman, Managing Director, SWOV (Netherlands Institute for Road Safety Research)
3.45 Automobile Association Andrew Howard, Head of Road Safety Motorcycle Action Group; Nicholas Brown, General Secretary Association of British Drivers Malcolm Heymer, Traffic Management Advisor Road Haulage Association Jack Semple, Director of Policy Unite the Union (Transport & General) Roger Sealey, Researcher - Transport.
Q204 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): On the priority that the various countries give to road safety - for example, if we look at the audience today it is quite sparse but when we were looking at the fiasco in Terminal 5 we were packed out and the cameras were there, although nobody was killed - do the public and the media take a more enlightened view with regard to road safety, say, in Sweden and in the Netherlands? Is it more important than it is to us?
Professor Whitelegg: I was a German civil servant for three years - which I have still not recovered from!
Q205 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Neither have they, I daresay!
Professor Whitelegg: No, they have not! It was the Ministry of Transport in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, in Düsseldorf, a state of 16 million people. I have worked in Denmark and in other European countries, and there is an enormous difference between Britain and these other countries. It is simply one of boldness versus nervousness. Britain is a very, very nervous country - incredibly nervous. We have the best transport analysis and policy, in terms of documents and research, of any European country I know - and I defer to the Dutch, whose work is excellent - but we do not translate it into policy, namely to things that happen on the ground. What I mean by that is that is this. At the time I worked in Düsseldorf, we had a street party to celebrate our 10,000th Home Zone. Ten thousand in one state of Germany. Britain now has 600 Home Zones. In 1991 we had 10,000 in one state in Germany. Graz in Austria made the whole city 20 mph in 1992. There is Freiburg in southern Germany - and the list goes on and on. The debate that we have constantly is, "Oh, dear, what shall we do? We know about speed; we know about the probability of crashes and injuries" and so on. We go round and round, and we have lots of interesting investigations and reports; then we say, "That was nice, wasn't it? But we won't do it". We are not bold. That sort of national governmental culture, wherever it comes from - I do not have an explanation of where it comes from - I think gets translated into a degree of frustration and almost disengagement on the part of the public, which goes back to your point. There is not so much interest in Britain because, again in our focus groups, the thing that came through repeatedly was, "There's no point in saying anything because nothing useful ever happens". Nothing will happen. We do not get the 20 mph; we still do not get the Home Zones; we do not get the speed enforcement. We just do not get it. The big difference between us and other countries, therefore, is simply one of boldness. The Swedish Vision Zero, as Phil said, is not unique. The Danes do not have a Vision Zero, but they have a policy that says, "One death is one death too many". Norway has a similar policy, and so it goes on. They implement it and have clear, budgeted, targeted interventions that deliver that result. We do not. We are very nervous, very complacent, and we behave more like rabbits in the headlights of an oncoming car. We go round in circles, back to where we started, and we do not do the job - that is the problem.
Mr Wegman: Until 2000 we were always looking to the United Kingdom when it came to road safety. You were the inventors of many good activities and policies. All of a sudden, somewhere in 2000, you stopped doing things and we continued with our efforts. A simple figure to illustrate that is that, compared to 2000, in 2006 you had 7% fewer fatalities in this country. We have one-third fewer. In six or seven years you managed to do something, but that was the pace of improvement that you also showed in the past. I do not have an explanation for that, but the real question is why you have not continued with your efforts. As to this item, it is right that we are doing things. Is the public waiting for it and asking for it? In a way, they are. For example, we have quite a lot of public support for the implementation of 30 kph zones - 20 mph zones. Potentially, we have 50,000 km of street lengths in which to implement it. In the last ten years, we have managed to implement 30 kph zones in 60% of those streets. Not because it was a wish on the part of the government but because the citizens asked for it. It is very important indeed that you market a solution to the public and that you are asking for those sorts of solutions. Instead of bringing the good measures to them, they ask for it. We are now running out of budget and we are looking for additional budget to continue with these efforts. Nevertheless, it is an example of the implementation of these different measures. That is not new or unknown to you. You know everything. I fully agree that you have the best experts in this country. The question is why you do not do it. I do not have an explanation for that. The problem is very similar. We are facing a new area, where we cannot simply apply the same recipes as we did in the past. We have to develop that. We need the public on our side. It is not their top priority and never has been; nevertheless, you can make progress step by step. The big question for you is "Where can we find our opportunities here?"
Q218 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I think it was said earlier that it is becoming more and more difficult to reduce the number of casualties. The easy bit has been done. To listen to the professor, you would think that we were one of the worst countries in the world. In fact, we are still one of the best countries in the world. Would it not be easier, if we wished to make progress fairly quickly, to have two pieces of legislation? One would be - and personally I am ambiguous about this - to reduce the alcohol limit at which people could drive; secondly, to change the novice driver system, so that people can start to learn to drive at 17 but cannot pass until 18. That would very quickly have a fairly dramatic effect, would it not, on the number of fatalities and would not cost a lot of money?
Mr Wegman: Coming to drinking and driving, in many parts of Europe - I do not exactly know the situation in your country - the public no longer accept drinking and driving. There is only 1% of all motorised transport in my country where there is drinking and driving. It means that the overwhelming majority of the population are no longer drinking and driving. However, we need to send police officers to make it clear to the public that we do not accept that. Our major problem now is that this 1% represents perhaps 20 or 25% of our fatalities. The big problem these days is how to find those who are not obeying the law.
Q219 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): We have a higher blood level, but we are talking about reducing it.
Mr Wegman: When we talk about making it more comprehensive, broader, my opinion is that we have to treat that as a problem of alcoholism that is manifesting itself in road traffic. Then you have a far broader perspective than just sending more police officers and bringing more police pressure on these people. The problem is that you simply do not find them. You can post a police officer on the roadside; he will wait and wait, and will see no one. Police officers do not like that. That is the reason why we have to do something different in the future than we have done in the past, in order to bring the overwhelming majority below the legal level. In your case, and the point about the legal limit, I do not believe there is a good reason to have it at that level; there is a good reason to lower it. There is one problem that you will have to face, however. Assuming that you are lowering the legal limit and at the same time you have more people above the legal limit, it means that you have to send more police officers for more people above the legal limit. That is a major problem. If you are going to change the law, you have to pay a lot of attention to the pressure by the police on those who are above the legal limit. That is not an easy problem to solve at all, assuming that there are not a lot of additional police officers to be sent onto the streets.
Professor Goodwin: Although I would add one point to that. There are cases when it can actually be easier to enforce a zero legal limit than an 80 mg legal limit. The problem with our current situation is the uncertainty. People think, "Well, I'm allowed to drink a bit", and nobody knows exactly how much that bit is or what it really means in terms of their own body physiology, or even what it means in terms of the size of the measures that are offered in homes or in pubs. The advantage of an effectively zero limit is that there is no doubt any more. People know. It is a simple decision, "I'm going to drive; therefore I won't drink". That is a question of public acceptability but, once it is gained - and I think that it is possible to gain it - you have a smaller enforcement problem with the amount of policing you need, not a larger one. I do think that it is one of the biggest examples of success, when you think that, when I was young, "one for the road" was a statement of hospitality. Now, "one for the road" is an incitement to get into trouble. It is a phrase that has simply disappeared from civilised discourse now. You do not hear people saying, "I really must have one for the road" and it was a completely normal expression of everyday life. In one generation, that is a very big effect on social norms, which I think would translate itself with a clearer decision, that drinking and driving are two things which simply do not match together, and if you are doing one you do not do the other.
Q220 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The Government has just come out with a consultative document on training drivers. Have you had time to look at that? Do you have any opinions on it?
Professor Whitelegg: I have not looked at it. I intend to do so. However, going back to your original question, I think there is little doubt that we should just say yes to your suggestions. I will read what the document says and there may be an analysis.
Q221 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Unfortunately, the Government have not said yes!
Professor Whitelegg: The whole thing about the Swedish Vision Zero road safety policy is that you have the kind of discussion that we are now having; you make a list of all the measures that you can possibly imagine; you do something approaching what we would call benefit cost analysis; you have a fairly integrated set of ideas about what you do first - which you do in what order - but, fundamentally, unless something fails the test of common sense, you do it all. The thing about road safety is that you just do the lot. For example, one of the 11 major policy areas of the Swedish Vision Zero road safety policy is alcohol interlock technology. Because I am from Oldham - which Mr Stringer will know quite well - I have a healthy disrespect for technology, in that I think I can find a way round it but, putting aside my origins, the alcohol interlock technology is getting a good press in Sweden. Basically, the vehicle is equipped with a sensing device and, if it senses alcohol, you cannot start the car. The Swedish Vision Zero uses technology, uses common sense, uses intelligence, and throws the lot in. All the stuff on speed, all the stuff on urban design, all the alcohol stuff, the driver training is there as well, and everything is in there. If I can be a bit rude for a moment, the point that you made at the start about Britain being the best in the world is not true.
Q222 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): No, I said "one of the best in the world".
Professor Whitelegg: No, it is not one of the best. What we do in Britain - and government refuses to investigate this properly - is achieve road safety improvements by terrorising people so that they do not use the road. We have the highest rate of schoolchildren being taken to school by car and the lowest rate of walking and cycling. An epidemiologist or a public health specialist will explain this better than I can, but if you remove people from the group at risk - so the population at risk goes down and down - you do not get much of the disease. If we locked up every child in a bedroom with five television sets and never let the kid out, there would be no deaths and serious injuries on the part of kids on the roads - because they would be in their room and not out on the street. We terrorise people so that they are afraid to use the streets. The safest streets in Britain are the most dangerous streets - the busy, busy streets - because nobody in their right mind lets a kid walk or cycle or cross. Elderly people stay at home, worried, upset and ill, because they cannot cross to the post office, which does not exist any more but the street is too busy anyway. We have the lowest levels of use of public space in walking and cycling of most European cities and we claim that is a road safety gain, but it is not.
Q223 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Just on that point, when you and I were growing up in much less busy times of traffic, there were a lot more children killed.
Professor Whitelegg: Yes.
Mr Wegman: But at the same time you have the busiest roads of Europe. You have the highest volumes in Europe on your roads.
Mr Howard: I would not agree that they feel absolved but I would agree that they feel concerned that they are being overly restricted, overly looked at, and at times this leads them to question actually why the law was being passed, even if it was passed for the best reasons. We have all seen and we have all read of the various suggestions that various measures are much more about money than they are about promoting road safety, and maybe a lot of drivers believe that and a lot of drivers therefore believe that the measures that they have been given are not actually measures about road safety at all, they are for other motives and therefore why obey them.
Q244 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): You do not believe that.
Mr Howard: I think I have to say that I do not believe that, no, but certainly in day to day contact with the people I do it is a question I am commonly asked.
Q250 Mrs Ellman: How can bringing down speed increase casualties?
Mr Heymer: It is not bringing down speed, it is giving people the impression that obeying the speed limit is the be all and end all so that as long as they see the sign at the side of the road and match the needle on the speedometer to the figure there, then that is it, that is the end of their involvement, and of course that is not correct at all.
Q251 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am fascinated by your argument there. Are you saying that if people drove faster there would be less fatal accidents?
Mr Heymer: No.
Q252 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): That seems to be what you are saying; can you clarify it, please?
Mr Heymer: Inappropriate speed is certainly an issue but that is not necessarily the same as exceeding the speed limit. People need to adjust their speed according to the conditions and in order to do that they need to realise that they have responsibility for adjusting their speed. If they are told time and time again that speed limits are the be all and end all they will adjust their speed to the speed limit and at times they will be going too fast, even tough they are within the speed limit.
Q253 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So you are not advocating increasing speed limits, are you?
Mr Heymer: Certainly we are advocating a return to the 85th percentile rule which was in force up to 2006 which means that the speed limits are set as close as possible to the speed that 85% of drivers would not exceed anyway. This is a process which has been found in other countries, especially the United States, to be the most effective in getting maximum compliance and minimum casualties.
Q254 Mrs Ellman: What does that mean then?
Mr Heymer: It means that if you set the speed limits according to the 85th percentile you would get a good level of compliance, very few people would exceed it, because the majority will obey it anyway which means that it gives a strong message to the remainder that they should obey it; therefore you get less spread of speed and it is spread of speed rather than speed per se which has been shown time and time again to be a major contributor to accidents.
Q257 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Just on that point, you say that the majority of cases are basically people in cars or vehicles not seeing the motorcyclist; do you think that the courts are dealing severely with this issue? I hear of cases of people who are involved in a fatal accident with a motorcycle and the punishments are very light; is that your opinion?
Mr Brown: It is certainly something that worries our members a great deal and it does tie in to a general feeling that motorcyclists are valued less than other people. Whether that is a fair analysis or not, I think the law is a very complicated thing and the rules of evidence and the ability to get over people's stereotypes in giving their witness statements makes it difficult, if you like, for a rider to get a good deal sometimes. A lot of those stereotypes about motorcycling of course and motorcycle accidents just do not get borne out by successive years of accident data and analysis.
Q278 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): It is a fact of course that the faster a car is going when it hits a pedestrian the more likely it is to kill the pedestrian.
Mr Heymer: Yes.
Q279 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): If we talk in particular about children who are uncertain in how they will behave, how does your driver when there is no speed limit compensate for that, for the child who runs out from behind the car and he hits them at 40 miles an hour instead of 20?
Mr Heymer: For a start I am not suggesting there should not be any speed limits, but the speed limits have to reinforce the driver's appreciation of the road environment. If we want to change that then you need to change the road environment to agree with the speed limit. Coming back to the impact speed, obviously the laws of physics say that the faster you hit something the more damage it is going to cause, but when you actually look at the statistics only about 2% of pedestrians who are hit or involved in collisions are killed, which according to the graph of impact speed versus fatality proportion means that the average impact speeds must be well below 20 miles an hour. You do not want people hitting pedestrians at 20 miles per hour or any other speed, you want them not to hit pedestrians at all.
Q289 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can I just come on to young drivers which have been identified as an area where there is a particular risk. In your opinion, why have we not made progress with this particular group, what is the problem?
Mr Howard: I am always tempted to go back to the fact that what we need to do is tackle attitude. All the time we have looked at ways of tackling skill so far but it is attitude that makes these young drivers choose to drive badly. The research always suggests that it is not that they do not know how to drive properly, it is that they choose not to drive properly. That is an attitude thing and the key has really lain for years and years now in getting it into the school curriculum somehow, and what I hope is that the various attempts which will come up following the consultation which was published last week may serve to get it into schools and I hope that they can look at things like whether the theoretical test can be used as an additional lever to get it into schools because perhaps even pupils will stay after school if they can do something which will get them through the theoretical test at the end of their course.
Mr Brown: We also have a difficulty with the cost of accessing rider and driver training. With riders, if I can just focus on that in particular, as of October of this year the number of centres run by the Driving Standards Agency where you can take your motorcycle test will drop from 220 to less than 50, so people will be having to travel very often a couple of hours at a time in more remote areas just to get to the test and then regardless of whether they have passed or failed they will then have to travel back for an equal amount of time. We do not think that is terrible good, we do not think it is good that changes to the riding test that come in from October have forced a situation where the DSA's response is to not allow people the opportunity to take the test. The fear is that much as I suspect is happening amongst young people in some communities with car driving is that people simply will not take their test, take any training, take the compulsory basic training before they even start and we could see a rise in unlicensed, uninsured riding and driving as time goes on.
Q294 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can I ask about the issue of tackling fatigue in bus drivers and lorry drivers? Is that a major problem?
Mr Sealey: Listening to your previous experts, they said that impairment was the big issue and they mentioned two specific things, drugs and alcohol, but the third impairment is fatigue, and we actually see that as a bigger problem. Certainly, some of the experts that we have spoken to from the Sleep Research Laboratory and that sort of thing say that in actual fact driving if you are fatigued is actually more dangerous than if you are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Q295 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Do you think it is a problem?
Mr Sealey: We are convinced it is a major problem.
Q296 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Mr Semple, what is the Road Haulage Association doing about it?
Mr Semple: In terms of fatigue I think drivers would tell you that there is as much of a problem around the first hour to hour and a half where there is a fatigue issue rather than towards the end of the day. I think that is a pretty clear understanding on drivers that is borne out by research where there is very clear understanding that if you are too tired to drive you should not drive. That said, in terms of government responsibility we are very concerned about the lack of places to stop a truck, particularly secure truck stops, and there is a growing shortage of facilities in some urban areas - London is an absolutely classic - both to take your statutory four and a half hour driving break and also your overnight rest, so there is a problem there. I think also in some sectors of the industry it may be where you are starting at varying hours in the middle of the night, but that is perhaps on the wane in terms of how common that is, where you have can inconsistent start time.
Mr Sealey: On that one we believe in actual fact that the evidence is going the other way in regard to that. In our evidence we submitted we said that there is pressure on lorry bans in areas to reduce those lorry bans so that lorries can deliver into the night or early morning, and that is precisely the time that you are putting drivers into the period where their circadian rhythms are at their lowest.
Q297 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What you are saying is that there is a pressure to have lorry drivers driving when normally they would be asleep.
Mr Sealey: Yes.
Mr Semple: There is an issue of night driving which I think is not so much of an issue actually. There is a lot of driving at night, but the issue that I was referring to more was differing start times so that you start at one o'clock inn the morning one night and four o'clock in the morning the next day, so it is an inconsistent start time. The other huge issue which I will just mention very briefly is foreign lorry drivers who come into the UK, suddenly they are on the wrong side of the road, they are towards the end of a long journey, unfamiliar road conditions. If you were to say where is the issue in terms of fatigue in truck operations on UK roads it is very clearly in that area for existing lorry drivers.
Q298 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): More and more of us are seeing an increase in the number of vans delivering goods in actual fact; is that a problem for road safety?
Mr Sealey: Before I answer that one, we have mentioned lorries but what we have not done is really mention bus drivers as well which was part of your original question. In a sense the domestic hours rules mean they are in a worse position because they can go five and a half hours without a break rather than four and a half like a professional driver. It is interesting that the Government's own advice is that you should not drive for much more than two hours without taking a break, and I am not aware of any company that actually applies that standard. Going to the bus drivers, it is five and a half hours but in their case they are under the domestic hours rules and so they can actually get as little as an eight hour break between shifts. If you take it that they have to get home, undress and that sort of thing, they could get a very small amount of rest between shifts, and they are driving people. The increase in the number of vans is a concern and we see this as partly a result of the introduction of the Road Transport Working Time Directive where employers are going just under the weight limit with vans to avoid the road transport working time limit and they can go up to a maximum of 78 hours working without any regulation.
Q299 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): So there is a get-out clause.
Mr Sealey: Yes.
Mr Semple: On the two-hour guidance that is given, that is focused very much on motorists. The issue of vans - there is a proliferation of vans which has been driven to some degree by what my colleague was saying but to a much greater degree by the increase in home delivery. We are going to see a huge explosion in home delivery vans where there is going to be a requirement - I do not think fatigue is so much going to be an issue - for the people driving those vans to be familiar with driving vehicles that are much bigger than a car, in an urban area, around housing estates. Finally, on commercial vehicles, if I could just get back in terms of the road safety outcomes, the safety record of the industry - which is the acid test if you like - is good and getting better and I believe will get better.
Q300 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Can I come to something that you may all agree on, I do not know. Mobility scooters: are they an increasing road safety problem or is nobody bothered about it?
Mr Howard: It is basically unquantifiable and takes you back to all the older driver issues and how you equate the importance of someone's mobility against their safety and also of course poses the problem of whether people would not give up driving if they had problems going to a mobility scooter. I at the moment have no data at all about the extent of the problem.
Mr Sealey: I think there is a problem for both road users and also for pedestrians because mobility scooters can be on the path as well, so they are just as big a problem for pedestrians as they are for drivers. One of the problems we do get is especially with bus drivers and bus lanes, mobility scooters using bus lanes.
Q307 Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Just on that, do you believe that the penalties for drinking and driving are the right ones, the loss of licence?
Mr Heymer: They are probably right with the current limit, but if the limit were reduced you would need to look perhaps at a system such as that in some European countries where you do not have such a draconian penalty for being a small amount above the limit.
Mr Howard: I can safely say that with over two-thirds of our members saying we should reduce the legal limit, the time has come when we can no longer stand in the way of a reduction. At the same stage we would want to point out that we suspect that many of them think that reductions in deaths will come from the worst and most serious, top of the range drink drivers, not from the people at the bottom, and would be very concerned that when the limit changes it is enforced in such a way that we continue to concentrate resources on the people right at the top who are most likely to kill and are still doing the majority of the killing.
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
The full transcript may be read here.
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