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Amendment Of Road Traffic Act 1972

Volume 77: debated on Friday 26 April 1985

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

9.35 am

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 10, leave out from 'law' to end of line 14 and insert—

"no person who drives a motor cycle shall be guilty of an offence if carrying a passenger who is committing a contravention, if it can be shown that a suitable crash helmet was made available for the passenger to wear at the time.".
The amendment would make regulations affecting motor cycles much more comparable to those affecting motor car seats belts. The necessary safety equipment is made available in a car and a passenger can be regarded as criminally responsible if he does not use it. Such responsibility should not devolve to a motor cyclist. The amendment would be a considerable improvement of the law. One of its advantages is that it would leave out the vexed issue of what should be the age of responsibility —14, 16 or 21—as the age of the passenger does not arise.

The amendment obliges the owner of a motor cycle who is in the habit of giving a lift to carry with him a spare crash helmet. If a helmet is attached to the pillion seat, for example, the driver will have discharged his responsibilities. We shall then have provided as we have with motor cars, and it will be up to the passenger to make use of the safety equipment—in this case a crash helmet.

Most passengers who use the front seat of a motor car do up their seat belts. A driver's duty is discharged when the passenger's attention is drawn to the existence of the seat belt, irrespective of whether it is used. Car passengers often do not wear seat belts on medical grounds or because of claustrophobia, for example. However, the driver of a car does not break the law if he carries a passenger who is not wearing a seat belt if one is provided. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and the House will accept the amendment.

I oppose the amendment, which purports to amend clause 1 so as to make relief from criminal liability dependent upon the availability at the time of a suitable crash helmet. However, as drafted, it would relieve the rider of liability for not using a crash helmet himself if a suitable one was available to his passenger. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) seems to have drafted an extraordinary new escape to meet a mischief that is not even found in the original law. That suggests that my hon. Friend does not understand the purpose of the Bill.

The purpose of the Bill is to exempt the rider from prosecution as an aider and abetter if his passenger is not wearing a crash helmet, unless that passenger happens to be a child. It does not exempt the rider or passenger from prosecution if he is not wearing a crash helmet. The amendment would relieve the rider of liability for not wearing a crash helmet himself and is thus, in my respectful submission, misconceived and plain bad.

If my hon. Friend wants to exempt anyone from liability for not wearing a crash helmet or for the passenger not wearing one, where a suitable crash helmet has been provided—I understand that that is what he is saying—it would be better to amend the principal Act and to specify that the regulations allow for the availability of a suitable helmet in every case. But, with respect, it is neither appropriate nor logical to amend the Bill in this way, as it would defeat the whole purpose of the principal Act, which is to make it a criminal offence to ride a motor cycle when not wearing a crash helmet, whether or not a passenger is carried. If the amendment was accepted, it would make nonsense of the Act, and I therefore ask the House to reject it.

Crash helmets are vital for both riders and pillion passengers, but they have to be the right crash helmets. I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Fan) has tabled this amendment, but I also understand only too well why my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), whose Bill this is, has spoken against it. I do not wish to take up the time of the House with drafting objections to the amendment, but hon. Members should note in passing that, as drafted, the amendment says nothing about what is meant by a "suitable" helmet or about by whom the helmet is to be made available. Thus there are two gaps in the information supplied by it.

However, I shall leave those issues aside, as I do not want to be nit-picking. There are more fundamental objections to the amendment, which my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington has outlined. As he has said, the aim of the Bill is to restrict liability to the person actually committing the offence of not wearing a helmet while riding or driving a motor cycle. The amendment would thwart that aim completely by protecting the rider from aiding and abetting charges only where it could be shown that a helmet was available for the passenger to wear.

I am also concerned that the amendment seems to imply an obligation on the rider to provide a helmet for the passenger. That would be of very doubtful road safety value. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough tried to make an analogy with seat belts, the situation is entirely different. Seat belts are permanently fixed in a car. It is true that they are adjustable. Their length is adjustable, and sometimes the angle over the shoulder can be changed according to whether there is a special purpose-made clip.

However, crash helmets are not fixed. There are many different types of crash helmet, and, as my hon. Friends will know, we have sought to improve their standard so that only suitable ones are worn. The only adjustment that an occasional passenger could make to a helmet that had not been bought to fit his head would be to alter the chin strap or occasionally to make alterations inside. But that is not enough. It is perhaps a truism to say that heads vary in size, but I wager that at least five or six different sizes of crash helmet would be needed for those of us in the Chamber today. That means that there would always be a risk —

9.45 am

Small helmets on this side and big ones on the other side.

I am not sure about that. I think that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington might go for small helmets—(Interruption.] However, I shall not be tempted down a path which has nothing to do with the Bill.

A crash helmet that is provided by someone else for the occasional use of any passenger could be very dangerous. If it was too loose it might slip on impact, and if it was too tight it might make problems for the wearer's head. An ill-fitting helmet gives the wearer very little protection, and the rider could scarcely be expected to provide his passenger with a helmet that fitted exactly. Often it is neither practical nor safe for motor-cyclists to travel with a selection of spare helmets.

Perhaps the Minister will emphasise that the change in the design of crash helmets has made an enormous difference to head injuries, and that most accident departments are not having to deal with so many frightening head injuries. An increasing number of deaths occur as a result of necks being broken, but that is a different problem. It is important to stress that as helmets are now much better designed, lives are being saved.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. The change in helmet design over the past 10 years is a tribute to the manufacturers and to all those who have worked on the problem. Nowadays, helmets are significantly better. However, anyone who uses a very old helmet may be running a severe risk, because those improvements have now been made. We now know that better protection is afforded by helmets that have been approved, although not by those that have the awful stickers on them which can sometimes make the helmets weaker than they were on manufacture.

Quite apart from the fact that the helmet may not fit, it would be wrong to expect the rider of a motor cycle to have to carry a selection of spare helmets of various sizes. That is why I cannot commend the amendment to the House. Although I have tried to explain what a suitable helmet is, as there is no clear definition of that in the amendment and no clear drafting of by whom the helmet has to be made available, it does not make sense—despite the good intentions of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough—to include it in a fairly straightforward and sensible Bill.

I therefore-ask the House not to accept the amendment, because I think that it would nullify much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington is seeking to do.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and my hon. Friend the Minister for their carefully reasoned arguments against my amendment. Of course, their arguments are convincing, especially the important point made by my hon. Friend the Minister about the condition of crash helmets. My hon. Friend said that not every helmet would fit every passenger. However, there are hon. Members who could not get into a standard seat belt because of their physical proportions. Therefore, that is not a parallel that she can pursue with great success.

More important was my hon. Friend's point about the condition of crash helmets. I tabled a couple of amendments relating to that point and also one on the vital need to wear a chin strap. The latter was prompted by a fatal accident in Loughborough only last week. A girl pillion rider was wearing a crash helmet but the strap was not fastened. When there was an accident she was thrown off the motor cycle, the helmet came off and she was killed.

Although I appreciate that the Bill is not necessarily the vehicle to use, I hope that the important points that have been raised will not escape the attention of the Minister when an appropriate vehicle occurs, perhaps in a road traffic Bill.

In view of that, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 14, leave out

'a child under the age of fourteen years'
and insert
'under the age of 21 years'.

With this we may discuss the following amendments:

No. 3, in page 1, line 14, leave out 'child' and insert 'person'.

No. 4, in page 1, line 15, leave out 'fourteen' and insert 'sixteen'

The three amendments relate to the age of the passenger. Amendment No. 2 would raise the age from 14 to 21. Amendment No. 3 is consequential on amendment No. 2, because a person of 21 is no longer a child. Amendment No. 4 would raise the age from 14 to 16.

If amendment No. 1 had been accepted, these amendments would have fallen. I wish to concentrate mainly on amendment No. 2. I do not believe that it is proper to provide only for
"a child under the age of fourteen years".
I should like "fourteen" to be replaced by "21". I understand that prior to the Committee proceedings last month the Royal Automobile Club suggested a similar amendment, but specified the age as 16 rather than 21, and that that suggestion was raised indirectly with my hon. Friend's Department.

As my hon. Friend said in her forthright speech in Committee, it would be wrong to change the age of criminal liability for this offence. She explained that the cut-off age of 14 had been chosen because it was the legal age of criminal liability, below which the driver of the motor cycle was responsible for the pillion passenger if he allowed that passenger to ride without a helmet.

That misses the point. The criminal liability of a pillion passenger is not in question. It is the criminal liability of the driver as the aider and abetter that we wish to alter. I am trying to establish not whether the pillion passenger is criminally liable, but whether he or she should be regarded as responsible for his or her actions. The driver of the motor cycle can justifiably be assumed to be responsible.

The age of 21 is still widely regarded as coinciding with adulthood, but I choose that age mainly because it will cover the most vulnerable age groups, as shown in the accident statistics. I shall give the House details of accident statistics later, and at this point I shall refer only briefly to the road accident statistics for Great Britain for 1983, which are the latest available figures. In that year, 75 pillion passengers were killed, more than 1,000 were seriously injured and more than 3,000 reported injuries of varying severity. The majority of those accident victims were in the age groups up to 19, with the highest number in the group 16 to 19.

If I favour one of the three amendments, it is amendment No. 2, which raises the age to 21. I hope that it will find favour with my hon. Friend the Minister and with my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook).

I support the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir. J. Farr) and wish to go one stage further in looking at the reason why we both feel that the age of 14 is inadequate to protect pillion passengers.

We are concerned not with the criminal liability of the pillion passenger, but with whether the rider of the motor cycle should have some responsibility towards that passenger if he or she is aged 14 or over. The most susceptible age for young people to be taken for a ride on a motor cycle for the sheer thrill of it—without duly considering the consequences—is 14 to 19. It is not right to suggest that the rider of a motor cycle should not have responsibility for ensuring that his passenger is properly equipped.

I do not see any logical reason for distinguishing between 13 and 14 years of age. Why should the responsibility for ensuring the safety of a passenger be removed at the age of 14? With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend the Minister, I do not believe that because the pillion passenger has criminal responsibility at the age of 14, which he did not have at the age of 13, it is adequate reason for taking away from the driver the responsibility that he would have for a younger passenger.

I would not necessarily wish to pin my entire case on 21 being the right age. It is possible that 18 is more sensible. Indeed, I should even be happy with the age of 16, which would be an improvement on the present drafting. Fourteen and 15-year-olds suffer from a lesser degree of self-restraint and self-discipline than a 16-year old.

I am extremely unhappy with the legislation as drafted, for the simple reason that it offers inadequate protection to passengers in the age group mentioned.

10 am

I have some sympathy with the thought behind the amendment. While I suspect that the Minister will say that its drafting is defective, she will appreciate that behind it is the fact that motor cycles appeal greatly to youngsters.

I make no excuse for the fact that I went to extraordinary lengths to prevent my three children from riding motor cycles when they reached the age at which they could use them. I succeeded in doing so by a combination of political skills which have stood me in reasonable stead for most of my life.

In discussing the amendment, we are really talking about the danger that results from riding motor cycles. Certainly the age of 21, as proposed in the amendment, is unacceptable; it would have to be younger than that. It is nonsense to say that a person is an adult at 18 but that pillion riders up to the age of 21 should be protected.

The accident statistics are interesting. More youngsters are dying from fractures of the spine than from injuries to the head. Having spent many months being associated with a neurosurgical unit in Scotland, when my father had a stroke, I feel strongly about the need to do all we can to reduce the number of motor cycle accidents.

We should consider how to encourage people to find another form of transport. When one is hard up but must get about, a motor cycle seems not only pleasant but necessary. The amendment would not achieve what its proposers intend, and it might even distract from the real task of persuading people that motor cycles are lethal weapons and should be treated as such.

While I oppose amendment No. 2, I should be prepared to support amendment No. 4 if that were put separately. That would retain the liability for prosecution of the rider as an aider and abetter in respect of a passenger not wearing a helmet, that passenger being a child under 16.

I have always regarded that to be a fair point, one which I would have accepted prior to the Standing Committee stage had I been approached in that sense, but I was not, and therefore I left the Bill as drafted. Sixteen is the age at which, at common law, parental rights over children come to an end, and 16 would, therefore, be a more appropriate age in this respect.

It would be wrong if a stranger was responsible for a child of a greater age than the age at which a parent has responsibility. It would be contrary to common sense, therefore, if the age were set at over 16. Thus I reject amendment No. 2, for not only would it be inappropriate, but when the age of majority is 18, it would be absurd to speak of legal responsibility for anyone over the age of majority right up to 21. Indeed, to do so would be offensive to the lobby that suggests that at 18 all persons are capable of taking their own decisions in life, and bearing responsibility for the decisions that they take and should be liable for their own mistakes and folly.

A child, for the purposes of the criminal law, takes us to the age of 14. A young person goes up to 17. Sixteen is, therefore, about right when we are talking of vicarious responsibility for that child on the part of a person who is a stranger in law and happens to be the rider of the motor cycle. A motor cycle rider should have responsibility not only for his wearing of a crash helmet but for his passenger also doing so, if that passenger is a child, and I suggest that 16 would be the correct age for that purpose.

I appreciate the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook). As I explained in Committee, the age of 14 was originally chosen because it was consistent with the provisions of the seat belt law and because it was in line with the legal age of criminal responsibility.

Hon. Members have pointed out that it is in the age group 16 to 19 that we have the awful peak—it is a truly awful peak — of motor cycle accidents. They happen for a wide variety of reasons. They sometimes happen because of the daredevil nature of those in that age group. Sometimes they happen when they could be avoided, and that is the saddest thing of all.

Part of that avoidance relates to the proper wearing of helmets, the proper maintenance of bikes and the proper actions of motor cyclists and all other road users. Whatever the age cut-off point, until we achieve a better level of behaviour on the roads on the part of all road users —pedestrians, cyclists, motor cyclists, and car and lorry drivers—we shall not achieve a decrease in the number of motor cycle accidents.

Because the accidents peak between the ages of 16 and 19, amendment No. 2—which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) said, would give a cut-off point at the age of 21 — would not be appropriate. As hon. Members have said, 14 is the legal age of criminal liability; 16 is the age at which one may start to ride a moped; 17 is the age at which one may start to ride a motor cycle; and 18 is when one may vote. Therefore, to put it as high as 21, three years after the age at which voting is permitted, would go against the excellent intentions of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington in the Bill. It would deny the benefits of the Bill to those riders who feel most strongly about the aiding and abetting issue, which is the kernel of the Bill. For that reason I could not accept the amendment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) said that there was not much difference whether a child was 13 or 14. I am not a parent, but I have two nieces who are dear to me and I should have been horrified at their using motor cycles, however well protected they may have been, at such young ages. I may have adopted a similar attitude to their riding motor cycles as that adopted by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) to her children riding motor cycles.

Judgment comes with age. At least, that is what I am frequently advised. These young and intense years for young people often lead them to be tempted into doing things which, with a little more sense, they would not do at a somewhat older age.

That is why I now refer to amendments Nos. 3 and 4 and to amendment No. 4 with some welcome. Amendment No. 3 simply seeks to raise the age from 14. Therefore, it is very much within amendment No. 2. It is not quite right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough does not propose to move it formally, I shall concentrate on amendments Nos. 2 and 4.

Amendment No. 4 interests me greatly. I have had brief discussions with the Royal Automobile Club, which would like a change from the age of 14. I mentioned that we chose the age of 14 because we were seeking to be consistent with other legislation and also the legal age of criminal liability. However, it seems to me that 16 being the age at which one can be responsible enough to learn to ride and take a test for a moped, that is the age when we should most sensibly have a change in the legal age of criminal liability in this case. Therefore, if the House shares my view that 16 is a more appropriate age, it would not be reasonable for me to offer any further objections to amendment No. 4.

However, in the House it behoves us always to remember that at whatever age the responsibility is, it must be enforceable. There is a great problem with that, the point being that under the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) the police would stop any biker anyway who had a pillion passenger who was not wearing a helmet. The question of the chin strap is difficult, and some have said that we should make a provision referring to people not properly wearing the helmet. That would be difficult to enforce.

Nevertheless, I believe that we could change to the age of 16 without losing any of the intention in my hon. Friend's Bill. Therefore, I hope that that outcome satisfies those who were not happy with 14, those who would not be happy with 21, and those who feel that there should be some movement in the legal age of criminal liability for not wearing a crash helmet when sitting on the pillion seat of a motor cycle or moped.

Once again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for her convincing arguments.

I should like to correct the record that I placed before the House. The figure for those killed and seriously injured that I gave to the House a moment ago referred only to males. If the total of females is added, instead of the figure of 75 motor cycle pillion passengers killed in 1983, the total becomes 119. Instead of over 1,000 pillion passengers on motor cycles seriously injured in 1983, the figure becomes 1,984. The total for all severe injuries in 1983 of all motor cycle pillion passengers is not the figure that I gave, which was for males only, but 6,473.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State is acutely aware of the problem. The House must keep those statistics constantly before it. I have every confidence in her and her Department monitoring them as closely as possible so that as soon as a change in the age from 16 in an upward direction is justified, she will not hesitate to introduce the relevant legislation to the House. I hope that my hon. Friend will keep an open mind, bearing in mind those horrifying statistics. After what she has said, I have pleasure to beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 4, in page 1, line 15, leave out 'fourteen' and insert 'sixteen'.— [Sir J. Farr.]

10.15 am

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for her kindness and co-operation in assisting me with the passage of the Bill to this stage. It removes some of the burden of criminal liability from a small, usually young and not well-off section of our population. For that reason, I believe that it is a good Bill, and I am happy to commend it to the House.

10.16 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) on getting as far as he has done with his important Bill on motor cycle crash helmets.

We have had a useful discussion on the various amendments that were selected. I am delighted that the Bill has made progress. It is now in a slightly improved form. It could have been improved still further, but unfortunately that was not possible. I wish the Bill a speedy passage to the statute book.

10.17 am

In joining my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) in welcoming the Bill, I should like to say that the underlying reason for it is extremely good and perhaps can be usefully applied in other spheres of the criminal law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and I practised together at the criminal Bar for about nine years, and we are both keenly conscious of the unfortunate effects that are often felt by young people who find themselves against the law, mostly without having had the slighest intention of being so and without having any real criminal intent. The Bill will lighten the burden on those who often come from deprived backgrounds or poor families, as my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington said, and get much of their enjoyment from riding their motor cycles, sometimes to the annoyance of other road users, but that is the nature of youth. When I was that age, I briefly had a motor cycle. It was only because I had a motor cycle briefly that I managed to persuade my father to buy me a car. My parents were anxious to get me off two wheels and into the slightly safer environment of four.

Therefore, the reasoning for the Bill is excellent. The improvement made today by raising the age from 14 to 16 will make a significant contribution in ensuring that we do not go too far in removing responsibility from those who have pillion passengers. I warmly welcome the Bill.

10.18 am

We have made it clear at all stages that this measure has the Government's fullest support. My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) has been right to say, as have others, that it is often young people and perhaps some less well-off people—but by no means all of them—who ride motor cycles. Motor cycling has an excitement and verve for those who become addicted to it. It is even greater than for those of us who have the four sides of a car safely around us. It has a thrill and special impact on its enthusiasts, whatever age they may be, especially young motor cyclists.

We are firmly and fully committed to the helmet law as an indispensable aid to road safety. As the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has said, the reduction in head injuries, which are those most likely to be fatal, has been dramatic since the law was improved in this respect. Nevertheless, awful injuries still occur, so if we can continue to safeguard at least one part of the body we shall be doing a better job in allowing people to go on enjoying their motor cycles, which is the object of the exercise.

The Transport and Road Research Laboratory continues to undertake research on this and other aspects of road safety and to seek further ways to make motor cycling safer so that other vulnerable parts of the body can also be properly protected. Nevertheless, we should not forget that two-wheeled motor vehicle casualties still include about 1,000 killed and 20,000 seriously injured every year, more than half of them still in their teens. Clearly, we cannot afford to do anything that might increase the risk to motor cyclists.

Helmets are one of the few forms of protection that have really minimised the vulnerability of motor cyclists and their pillion passengers, and I have no doubt that the vast majority of riders wear helmets as a matter of common sense. Inevitably, however, there are just a few who in the absence of legal compulsion or the sight of a bobby on the beat may forget how vulnerable they are and perhaps be tempted to ride with unprotected heads. That is what we seek to avoid and that is why successive Governments have taken the view that helmet wearing must be required by law. This Government in no way depart from that view or intend to do so

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington has argued that it is both unnecessary and undesirable, however, that the helmet law should include the facility to bring charges of aiding and abetting against a rider whose pillion passenger fails to wear a helmet, save in cases where the offender is a child, and the Bill now takes that into account. Indeed, the Bill is now more generous in that respect than it was when it left the Standing Committee.

I believe that people who ride motor cycles either as drivers or as pillion passengers without wearing helmets are plain crazy. At 16, they are old enough to know that that is asking for very bad trouble. That is why I believe that motor cyclists should seek to make their pillion passengers more responsible by putting the onus on them. That will be one of the consequences of the Bill, assuming that their Lordships support it as strongly as Members of this House support it. The position of drivers in relation to seat belt law is very similar and it has long been a sore point among members of the motor cycling fraternity that they have been treated differently from car drivers. We are now content that motor cyclists should not be in a different position in terms of the law on safety helmets. The Bill removes an unreasonable and anomalous feature of the law which would have continued to cause annoyance to many perfectly responsible motor cyclists.

It has been necessary to look afresh at the law on the responsibility of the individual, and I was interested to hear the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) on other adjustments in this respect. I must not, however, be tempted to stray outside my area of responsibility and away from the subject of motor cycling and crash helmets.

I give a clear assurance that the Bill will in no way impede the effective enforcement of the Bill on helmet law. That is most important. I hope that the House will therefore give the amended Bill a Third Reading today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington on piloting the Bill through the House and I congratulate all Members who have contributed on the part that they have played in ensuring that we have ended up with a sensible measure, however small, which improves the law of this country. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.