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Motorway Signs

Volume 894: debated on Thursday 26 June 1975

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1.45 a.m.

I wish to call attention to what I believe to be a gross misuse of public funds in an important area of public activity, since it has a bearing upon the life and safety of everyone who uses our public roads—that is to say, everyone in the country. I refer to the Transport and Road Research Laboratory at Crowthorne, and its work on road signs and otherwise. I shall assert that many of the projects, on which are engaged the 1,000 people working there at an annual cost to the public of £10 million, are either useless or positively harmful and/or quite unreasonably expensive.

It may be noted, first, that an enormous amount of paper is churned out. No doubt with 1,000 people to be kept occupied that is inevitable, if expensive. But the paper reveals the sort of activity in which they are engaged.

I learn, for example, from TRRL pamphlet LF 483, of March of this year that
"Investigation has shown that the three environmental parameters which have the most influence on the temperature of a bridge are incoming solar radiation during the day, outgoing radiation during the night, and shade tern perature."
That is truly amazing, and I do not know how else I could have learned that.

From pamphlet 454 of February of this year, I learn that
"Air photographs give a bird's eye view of the site and the surrounding terrain, allowing a greater area to be examined visually than would be possible on the ground."
Well, well. Just think of that.

From pamphlet LF 3, also dated February 1975, I find that
"It has been found that the type of base material and the volume of heavy traffic (expressed in terms of cumulative standard axles) are the two most important factors in determining the size of maximum deflection, or deflection criterion associated with satisfactory long-term road performance."
That, being interpreted, means that what wears out roads is traffic.

What can one say about an institution which considers it necessary to spend time on such fatuous and jejune literature?

Some of the projects are merely silly, such as one which, I am informed, seeks to ascertain the effect of traffic noise on people's nerves by paying them to keep tape recorders of traffic noise in their bedrooms. I gather that the payment varies according to the social status of the person concerned. May I be told that this futile waste will be stopped at once, and how much it has cost so far? If the laboratory wants to know what people think of traffic noise, let its staff ask the first 10 people whom they meet in the street.

Some projects are, perhaps harmful. For example, laboratory staff have invented a collapsible lamp post. That is all very well for the motorist, but what of the pedestrian? A few years ago in my own town of Stroud, an old lady was shockingly killed. Her head was cut off by a falling road sign which had been knocked down by a motorist who was not himself hurt.

Harmful also would I judge the decision to reduce skid-resistance specifications, despite the development of a low cost infill material by Dunlop which has a skid resistance of more than twice the original specification and which hardly degrades at all.

Other experiments seem to me most certainly harmful. For example, work is going on on a radar device which would automatically apply the brakes of a vehicle if that vehicle were to get within a set distance of a reflection ahead. That seems to me like trying to drive a car with my wife grabbing at the handbrake at uncertain intervals. But what are the legal and insurance consequences of a car being suddenly taken out of the control of the driver? Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us. Why has this experiment been farmed out to Lucas. If Lucas had thought that it was any good it would have obtained enough money to do the job itself. I wonder what the cost has been.

Yellow lines are now painted across our roads in many places—I presume on the advice of the TRRL. It is known that the lines can trigger off an attack of epilepsy. What thought is being given to that?

I move now to the consideration of two vastly expensive projects. The first is RITA—or route information transmitted annually. That system requires an electronically-switched radio receiver to be fitted to every car, both domestic and foreign. The device receives messages about the route ahead, warning of hazards. These are transmitted by roadside installations and the cost is estimated at about £20 a car and at £192,000 a mile for roadside installations, or, in a few years' time about £400 million for the cars and many more millions to equip only the motorways.

I think that some questions arise. What about the Welsh? Am I to receive instructions in Welsh-speaking Wales? What about foreigners? What about other traffic noise if it drowns the signal? How shall I pick out the messages which concern me on my route and ignore those which refer to others, perhaps miles away? Electrical systems are prone to breakdown. What happens then? I gather that the TRRL thinks that this system would at first be voluntary, but it hopes that cars equipped with this device will display a sticker, which I suppose might read "This car is equipped with RITA, but if you can read this you are too close". How would we avoid all the cars, dutifully conforming to the RITA car, ending up in its garage? I gather that this system is designed to start in the mid- or late 1980s.

One of the arguments put forward by the TRRL in favour of RITA is that too much reliance must not be placed upon visual presentations, especially bearing in mind conditions of bad visibility. I do not suppose that anyone would differ from that opinion.

At the same time the TRRL is nevertheless developing another in-car system, called advance warning equipment, or AWARE. That is a visual system. It has the same kind of expensive roadside installations as RITA, but instead of using the voice it depends upon lighting up panels in a black box carried in the car, which, when illuminated, show "30 mph", "Caution", "Slow Down", and so on. It would be necessary to take our eyes off the road to consult it. I, for one, would have to put on my reading glasses to see it. When I recently inspected it I noticed that there were no fewer than 27 panels on the box which could light up, but that none of them showed the words "danger" or "stop", presumably on the supposition that by the time we had read it, it would be too late.

Both those systems are a gigantic waste of money. Even if I am wrong, they will not be with us for 10 years. In the meantime, not enough is being done to mitigate the danger and slaughter on our roads.

I make no apology for insisting that a trial should be made of a device called Rolines, invented not in TRRL but by a private person. The details are well-known to the Minister. The device consists of steel bars inserted across the carriageway which can be rotated by remote control and which can, by visual means and by contact such as one has by passing over cat's eyes in the road, give warning of hazards ahead, channel traffic to different lanes and regulate speed. It is a signalling system such as the railways have had for 130 years.

Rolines are far cheaper than the systems I have just discussed, they apply to all vehicles and not merely to those fitted, do not depend upon language, do not distract the driver from the road ahead and can easily be tested on a short stretch of road without immense expense. But the Rolines device has one great defect. It was not invented at TRRL—it is NIH, not invented here. When first submitted to TRRL it was rejected by return of post, perhaps rightly, but who knows if it is not tested?

When I contemplate the slovenly standard of much of TRRL's work, when I see what vast sums are being planned to be spent on systems of which I have grave doubts, I think that the Minister should cause an inquiry to be set up into the value which we are getting for our £10 million a year, and that he should consider whether Rolines ought to be tested.

1.56 a.m.

I apologise to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) for being a few minutes late. I was taken unawares by the abrupt finish of the previous debate. I have listened with close interest and attention to the arguments the hon. Gentleman has put forward on this intricate subject. What strikes me most is how important it is not to blind ourselves with science as we consider the relative merits of the various systems now open to pursuit.

First, therefore, I should like to make some simple points. We have about 1,000 miles of motorway, which are being progressively equipped with a system of signals giving a limited range of advice and instruction. This system is already installed on just under half of the present motorway network. The signs provide advice on safe speeds, give information on lane closures, point in advance to the need to change lanes, warn of need to leave the motorway where necessary, and on occasion direct vehicles to stop. On sections where traffic is heavy, the signals are on gantries, with one sign over each lane, and at intervals of 0·5 to 1 km. Where traffic is lighter, they are at 3 km intervals, mounted on posts in the central reservation.

This is a valuable "first generation" system, but it could probably be developed further. Lying behind what the motorist sees is a system for acquiring detailed information about accidents, incidents and changes in driving conditions, such as reduced visibility or the presence of ice. Decisions have then to be taken about what advice or directions to give in the light of this information; and the effectiveness of the system is also governed by the speed and accuracy with which the advice or directions can be transmitted.

Current research is directed towards establishing what room for improvement there is in all these aspects of the system, how this might best be achieved, and whether it would make sense to try to communicate more than we do now. If we could say more—for example, by indicating the reasons for any advice, or by adding advice on routeing to avoid delay—we believe that motorists would respond better, and comply more often with the advice offered. This could be expected to raise the general standard of driver behaviour on high-speed roads.

There are various possibilities open for achieving these ends. The hon. Member believes that the Rolines system is a highly promising solution, which ought to be actively pursued. He has little sympathy for the two in-vehicle systems which the Department is currently exploring, and thinks that we are wasting public money by working on these. He invites us instead to spend money—a considerable amount of it—on installing and testing Rolines on a trial length of road.

Let me look, first, at our own work. A considerable proportion of this is directed towards the possibilities for a more effective system through studies of the frequency and character of motorway incidents, the type of data needed for control and information, methods for rapid detection of incidents and accidents, and control strategies. We are also currently working towards demonstrating the technical feasibility of three specific types of communication systems.

One of these is an improvement of the present type of variable external sign, which would provide additional information, particularly by supplying reasons for any advice or direction given. This improved system would, for example, indicate that fog or ice was the reason for advising slower speeds, and would show the distance ahead of the hazard in question. In short, this system could impart a wider range and combination of messages. We estimate that this would add about £5,500 per mile to the cost of installing the system to which are already committed. The latter is about £14,500 per mile, so that the additional expense needed to secure the improvements described is of the order of one quarter.

The second system is AWARE—Advanced Warning Equipment—to which the hon. Gentleman referred. This in-vehicle visual system would consist of a dashboard-mounted panel in each vehicle, which would be illuminated to show one of a variety of messages. The activating signal would be received via a wire loop embedded in the road surface. This system could provide a wider variety of messages than would be feasible with external signs and, if adopted internationally, would provide display in the driver's language with no additional cost. It is seen to have potential for the routeing of vehicles as well as for motorway control systems. The cost to the vehicle owners would be about £15, and the costs of such electronic devices are tending to decrease in real terms. The road installation costs would be about £3,000 per mile as an addition to the present motorway signalling system.

Third, there is RITA—Road Information Transmitted Aurally—to which the hon. Gentleman also referred. This in-vehicle aural system would require vehicles to be fitted with a device similar to a car radio. This would pick up messages from a roadside transmitter consisting of either a wire loop in the road surface, a cable, or a single roadside transmitter. The cost of the receiver would be less than £10, and the cost of the road installation over and above the systems of signals already being installed on United Kingdom motorways would be about £5,000 per mile.

In recent years we have been spending at a limited rate on all this research work, involving nine research staff on the three systems already described, six more on the broader aspects of system problems to which I have also referred and, last year, £20,000 of external contract work. All three communications systems have been successfully taken to the stage of laboratory demonstration, and their operational feasibility and value could now be put to the test if we were prepared to move into the development stage.

The degree of effort and expense we have incurred so far seems to me entirely appropriate. We have also been in close touch with European effort in these areas, in an organisational framework which embraces both the European Economic Community and other European States. This is known as COST. The group in which we are working is concerned with evaluating the need for improved communications systems, sees considerable advantage in establishing European standards, and has identified the three types of systems I have already described as being those which merit further study. There is already close contact at technical level, and consideration is also being given to proceeding to a jointly financed public demonstration of developed examples. No decisions on this have, however, as yet been taken, and the Department's policy on the extent of the development work we shall pursue in this context has still to be settled. The research we have done so far will enable us to decide which of these systems should be pursued to the point where they could be operationally tested. We are currently think- ing carefully, in consultation with our European partners, about all these problems.

Against this background, I now turn to Rolines. The hon. Member has argued that the Department has dismissed this too lightly. He has also been critical of the way in which Mr. Fitton-Kearns' ideas were received and considered. Let me take the second question first. The hon. Gentleman has been in touch with successive Ministers on the subject since June 1972 and I have twice written to him explaining why the Department has not been prepared to take further action on this system. I think it will suffice if I now make two points only.

First, in reaching their decision previous Ministers—Ministers in more than one administration—were advised not only by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory but also by officials concerned with road safety and highways policy. Secondly, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration investigated a complaint about the Department's handling of the Rolines system and concluded that the Department had given the complainant's proposals full and fair consideration, and Ministers took the decision not to authorise further allocation of resources to its study or development after carefully examining the results.

The other question is whether we dismissed the system too lightly. The hon. Member has already described its working, and I need do no more than remind the House that it consists of rollers set into the road at regular intervals, which can be rotated to provide humps of varying height and hardness, in order to encourage reduction of speed.

The technical reservations the Department has about this system are substantial. First, it is true that in some circumstances the Department supports the use of artificial humps to limit speed: but these are thought appropriate only on low-speed roads, and their profile needs to be very much longer than is possible in the Rolines system. The Department's experiments with humps of comparable dimensions to Rolines showed that these produced widely different effects and reactions from different vehicles. Such humps also tend to affect the driver less as speed increases; and I must also strongly stress the Department's view that there is a risk that the Rolines system might even cause accidents in some circumstances. It has also been suggested that Rolines would serve as an advisory system. It will, however, be clearly apparent to the House that Rolines could not provide as much readily understandable information as the existing external visual system—let alone as much as could any of the possible new systems which are being studied by the Department.

There must also be doubts about the reliability of a moving device such as Rolines, which has to withstand the pounding of heavy motorway traffic, and must not become inoperable, or jammed in the raised position. The servicing of such a device on a motorway would also cause very serious problems.

The hon. Gentleman said that electrical failures were possible. Here we have a combination of electrical remote control based on mechanical apparatus operating in all conditions and in all weathers, and frequently on busy motorways reaching capacities of about 100,000 vehicles per day. The question of repairs in such a situation has only to be imagined to make the difficulties obvious. Above all, there is the question of costs. A recent Press article quotes Mr. Fitton-Kearns as saying that the installation of Rolines would cost about £100,000 per mile. The House will recognise that this is greater by a factor of five than the costs to the public purse of any of the other three options I have described—none of which is at present estimated to be greater than about £20,000 per mile. This former figure is far more than we could justify by any net benefits from accident prevention, or in any other terms, which it could conceivably provide.

I have considered all these factors carefully. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not merely accepting the views of the Road Research Laboratory or even the views of the administrators in the Department. I have considered these matters extremely carefully. I can see no case for reopening the matter of Government support.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Two o'clock.