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A1(M) (Safety)

Volume 129: debated on Wednesday 9 March 1988

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Maclean.]

3.38 am

It has been a long night—or should I say morning—but I appreciate the opportunity to raise a case which, both in itself and in its wider implications, causes me great concern. I hope that, by the end of the debate, my feelings will find sufficient echo with the Minister to persuade him to act, If so, it will have all been worthwhile.

In August 1985, a young constituent of mine, Emma Bowring, boarded a National Express coach at Durham bus station for the journey to London. Although she had qualified as a nurse in Durham the year before, she had been forced out of the area by the scarcity of jobs. So, each month, after a short visit to her family and friends in Durham, she would get on to her coach to return to her work in Kent. A significant part of her leisure was spent in trying to keep up her links with home, and she was familiar to the point of tedium with the coach journey. Doubtless she was also aware—as is anyone who travels to the north-east—of the diabolical traffic levels on the A1 road, especially north of Ferrybridge. It is always groaning with heavy vehicles negotiating the two-lane carriageway. In only a few places is the A1 up to motorway standards.

Something else that Miss Bowring might have noticed on her monthly journeys was the swarms of passenger-carrying coaches that our trunk roads seem to attract so freely. As a regular passenger, she could not have missed the experience of her coach charging at 80 mph plus, past somebody doing perhaps a couple of miles an hour above the speed limit. We have all seen it happen. Just in case the Minister has not seen it happen, I have here a set of photographs taken only last month by Today newspaper, each of which shows a coach exceeding the speed limit on the motorway.

I should like to quote from Today newspaper which says:
"The perils of high-speed coaches have become a daily fact of life on Britain's motorways as drivers battle to keep to timetables. In recent years these have led to a spate of fatal crashes."
The article goes on to say:
"Using a Porsche sports car—widely accepted in the motor industry as having the most accurate speedometer—the speeds of passing vehicles were monitored. Within minutes, as the Porsche kept to 70 mph, the first offender roared past. The single-decker owned by the Berks/Bucks Bus Company was travelling at between 75 mph and 80 mph as it carried passengers into London. Shortly after, the British Airways coach, driving even faster, powered past…During a similar check on the M1 between Leeds and Manchester, almost all the long-distance coaches were driving to the maximum speed limit. At one stage a coach operated by Fastway, part of the Wakefield-based West Riding Automobile Company, was seen travelling at 85 mph on the outside edge of the fast lane, spraying dust and dirt on to cars behind it."
The newspaper's evidence is consistently backed up by the results of more scientific studies, including those of the Minister's Department.

It is no use blaming coach drivers' self-indulgence for the problem. The real danger appears to arise from under-generous scheduling by companies anxious to make the most use of their vehicles and to present the most competitive journey times, however nominal. The five hour 15 minute scheduled journey from Newcastle to London preserves a legal average speed of about 60 miles an hour. However, it fails to take account of the time needed for intermediate stops, roadworks and the congested approaches to London. It can mean drivers rushing to make up time to meet advertised connections or to prevent inroads into their rest time before they must start on their return journey. Keeping up with the timetable can mean speeds of well over 80 mph.

Miss Bowring's journey on 3 August did not last long. Shortly after leaving Durham, just north of the Bradbury interchange on the A1, her coach swerved to miss a sheep which had been allowed to wander on to the carriageway. The coach overturned. The passengers were thrown across the vehicle and a number of them who were trapped inside were dragged along the road on a bed of broken glass and oil. Emma Bowring was killed and her 13-year-old sister, travelling with her, suffered serious spinal injuries. She was in hospital for two years and still needs regular medical attention. The disaster could have been worse than that of King's Cross and it was only a miracle that it was not.

It was said at the inquest that the driver, who was 64, lost control, swerving his vehicle through a 180 degree turn. Tachograph records showed that the bus had been travelling at speeds in excess of 80 mph shortly before the accident. The double-decker vehicle contained 48 passengers, 42 of whom were on the top deck.

Since Miss Bowring's death, her parents have been engaged in an exhausting battle for some sort of recompense. Money is important—no one can pretend that it is not — to ensure the future of their maimed young daughter. Even more than that, there is a wish for the bus company to pay some sort of attention to them and the wider circle of victims after the disaster for which it was responsible. So far, the company has consciously failed to do that. The company, United Motor Services, can legally refuse to offer anything in respect of Emma, and I am sure that hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that that is what it has done. Appalled by the meanness and irresponsibility of United Motor Services, the girl's parents came to see me recently and started off the process that has led to this debate. The girl's father wrote to me and said:
"The bereaved families, in addition to the problems they have to cope with, are forced to face the harrowing experience of carrying their argument into the glare of publicity to get any sort of result. Our experience gives us no other hope that the Company will reveal its concern or its conscience."
United Motor Services looks to me, and to everyone else whom I have asked, as being outstandingly arrogant and uncaring. It is quite happy to take people's money but when the debt is the other way around it is not interested.

From what Mr. Draper, the girl's father, tells me, United Motor Services has not contacted him to apologise yet. Apparently, for United Motor Services, under our law, it is cheaper for Emma Bowring to die than for her to be injured, and surely that cannot be just.

From the outset I have been conscious that Miss Bowring's case is a matter for the courts and not for the Minister. The mammoth task of tackling the compensation laws is not yet one for which I feel properly equipped. As I looked deeper into the messy issue of coach safety I became more certain that too many people were going through the circus of injuries, bereavements and compensation fights. The rate of death and injury is still too high, despite recent improvements, and there are proven safety measures that could surely reduce it, given the will of the Government and the strength of regulation.

I am aware of the measures that the Government have adopted in certain regards, and some are very encouraging. Speed governors are an important improvement, even if they are rather overdue, and I welcome the new regulations. I ask the Minister to monitor coach schedules and speeds in the three years until installation is universal to counter the dangerous practices to which I referred earlier.

Other measures will be less useful. I am particularly concerned about the narrow scope of the new seat belt regulations, which as the Minister will know apply only to the few exposed seats on a coach and will not apply retrospectively. As the coach fleet that is already in service is quite new and will not need replacing for many years, very few vehicles will have seat belts fitted in the near future. I feel that the question of whether seat belts should be fitted to all seats deserves closer examination.

As the Minister will know, compulsory seat belt wearing in the front seats of cars has led to an appreciable drop in the casualty rate. No doubt the same will happen when rear seat occupants are brought under the scope of the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Rear Seat Belts by Children) Bill. The principles involved in passenger coaches are not exactly the same, but the results should be fairly similar. If anything, the seats of a coach carry more people than the rear seats of a car, although they are comparable.

In a collision, seat belts prevent people being thrown around inside the vehicle or being thrown outside it, which is the cause of the most serious injuries. Seat belts would save coach passengers from a host of minor and extremely common injuries, such as when someone's head is knocked against the seat in front.

To be worth while, seat belts would have to be compulsory. That might lead to some aggravation at first, but passengers would surely get used to them, particularly as there is little need for movement on a coach.

Last year the Consumers Association had a meeting with the Minister and pressed
"that fitted seatbelts should be mandatory on all coach seats—they are technically necessary, low cost, available and wanted by consumers.
The outcome was disappointing … the Minister's argument was that compulsory seatbelts would not be effective.
Rather than waiting for the ECE Regulation we would like to see the UK setting the pace on this, and encouraging Europe to join in." I ask the Minister what chance there is of a satisfactory ECE regulation in the near future. I question his judgment of cost-effectiveness, because surely anything that will save hundreds of deaths and injuries for an outlay of about £7 per seat is automatically cost-effective.

The other proposal that would cut down on the future numbers of Bowring cases is to reform the speed limits. Britain has arguably the most crowded roads in Europe. If I were a regular coach user, I would be frightened by the fact that Europe's most crowded roads also have Europe's highest coach speed limits. Seventy mph is a reasonable speed for cars, but for a six-wheeled 20-tonne, 15-ft tall monster with 60 people and their luggage on board, it is a disaster. Other countries seem to understand that. Nowhere else does the motorway coach limit come closer than 62 mph. Even Britain recognises that heavy goods vehicles should not exceed 60 mph or enter the third lane on motorways. With all the double-decker coaches nowadays, the only difference between them that matters is that heavy goods vehicles carry far fewer people.

Indications are that impact strength in a collision at 60 mph is 44 per cent. less than in the same collision at 70 mph, and that a speed limit of 60 mph would reduce the gravity of injuiries and the number of accidents.

To ban coaches from the third lane of three-lane motorways is the final major measure that I consider would improve standards. It complements a lower speed limit well. Indeed, it is probably wrong to have one without the other. Speed limits without lane restrictions would mean that coaches hampered cars in the fastest lane and lane restrictions without speed limits could mean that coaches were travelling too fast for the traffic in the two lanes to which they had access. Removing coaches from the third lane would keep them out of the fastest traffic and oblige them to slow down. It would also reduce the need for lane changes and overtaking, the most dangerous parts of motorway driving.

No doubt the Minister will be thankful to hear that I am nearing the end of the things that I think that his Department should be doing. As I do so, I would just like to touch on a few other matters—briefly, I promise.

The first is driver training. I am not happy that the public service vehicle test does all that it can to help drivers cope with motorway conditions. Nor am I satisfied with the frequency and rigour of the medical and other checks carried out during a driver's career. Will the Minister give me some assurances on that in his reply?

I am also concerned that a situation can arise—this refers specifically to the Bowring case — when a local authority is never able to guarantee that its fencing will prevent animals from wandering on to a high-speed road. Should not councils keep records of inspection? When confronted with the fatal gap, through which Miss Bowring's sheep passed, the authority blamed land subsidence at some date in the past for the fact that it was 5 ins wider than it should have been, despite clear evidence of the regular passage of animals through it. Miss Bowring's father is also of the opinion that there must be prosecutions against landowners whose sheep or other animals frequently stray on to motorways, and I certainly agree with that.

Loading of the double-deckers is another factor. Although I have been unable to discover much about the importance or otherwise of coach loading, perhaps the Minister can help me. To have 42 out of the total load of 48 people on the top deck does not seem to be the safest arrangement that can be obtained. Surely a top-heavy bus must be unstable. Instructions on the safest principles of passenger loading should be given to staff and be displayed. Perhaps that would help to reduce overturning or cartwheeling.

Lastly, I accept that double-deckers are here to stay, but is it altogether too optimistic to ask for an end to or a restriction of new production? I ask more in hope than expectation.

This, then, amounts to a programme for reform in coach safety. It is curious that our overloaded roads are constantly packed with coachloads of people whose dearest wish is, reportedly, to be, able to afford the price of a rail ticket, and yet the trains run half empty. I can think of no other country outside the Third world of America where buses are a serious mode of long distance volume public transport. It seems unfair that the railway should bear its infrastructure costs, but the coaches pay only the £100 road fund, and the Government pay the rest.

We live in hope of an increase in British Rail's PSO grant, but we must accept that coaches are the here and now and they need to be safer. We must also acknowledge that coaches, traditionally the transport of the poor, have often been the Cinderalla of safety regulations and that, with increased business deregulation and competition and commercial developments in the industry, are sometimes in danger of outpacing safety developments.

I strongly believe that good public services are crucial to a civilised way of life, especially in a country as crowded as Britain. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be a belief shared by many of the Minister's colleagues. King's Cross showed what can happen when carelessness or hostility is allowed to weaken necessary public services. The Government must learn that there are some areas, although perhaps fewer than we thought in 1979, into which commercialism cannot intrude. I am genuinely worried that they may learn their lesson the hard way, after repeated lapses of safety standards, followed by a series of calamities.

I am sure that the Minister has come across cases like Emma Bowring's. I am sure that he, like me, wants to come across as few of them as possible in future. Accordingly, I appeal to him to think about the measures I have mentioned and to respond generously to them. He must be an old hand at these late-night debates, and I, as one of the newest hands al them, thank him for his consideration and patience, even when he thought I would never finish.

3.57 am

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) has done the House and country a service by raising a road casualty reduction issue — even at this time of day. I should welcome more debates on the subject.

Between 16 and 18 people have died on the roads in the past 24 hours, 12 of them in built-up areas. Taking 1984, 1985 and 1986 together, 18 people died in long-distance coaches on motorways and on A roads. In 1984, five passengers died in public service vehicles on those roads; in 1985, 12 died; and in 1986, only one. The number of fatalities obviously fluctuates, but it is low. However, any unnecessary deaths should be avoided whenever possible, even deaths that can be described as accidents. I remind the House that the coroner's verdict was that the tragic death of Miss Emma Bowring was acccidental. Any death, whether accidental or due to an obvious cause, is to be regretted. That is why the Secretary of State has set out a target of cutting road casualties in the United Kingdom by a third by the year 2000.

I should welcome much more interest in drink-driving, which is the largest single cause of deaths on our roads, and in motor cycle safety. The motor cycling world thinks that I have a bee in my bonnet about motor bikes, but 700 people die on them each year and 52,000 are injured.

Compared with other forms of road passenger transport, coach travel remains by far the safest. Given the choice between driving myself up the A1(M) to Durham or going by coach, I should be far safer travelling by coach.

The hon. Member for City of Durham raised the issue of compensation. I do not think that he wants me to go into too much detail on that now, but there are no plans to change the existing basis for liability for road accident injuries, which is based on the principles of negligence. The civil justice review, set up in 1985, is examining ways of reducing cost, delays and the complexity of litigation. The review is expected to report to the Lord Chancellor shortly. As the hon. Gentleman said, that will not affect the claim in the case that he mentioned, but it is information that people will want to have.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the standard of training of public service vehicle drivers. We constantly monitor the tests, but there are no plans to revise them at present. My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport has endorsed the Bus and Coach Council's code on driving standards and restraint on coach speeds.

The Department of Transport's survey, conducted in July and August last year, showed that 9 per cent. of buses and coaches exceeded the 70 mph limit on stretches of roads where it was easy for them to do so. That is a substantial reduction on the 1983 figures, when nearly a third of coaches exceeded the maximum speed limit. Even 9 per cent. exceeding the speed limit is not satisfactory, but it is a remarkable improvement, and it is better than for other vehicles on motorways.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the introduction of speed limiters. They are coming in. The House has had the relevant information. They will physically prevent coaches exceeding 70 mph.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be appropriate to reduce the motorway speed limit for coaches from 70 mph to 60 mph, and whether we should consider banning coaches from the third lane. We have the safest roads in the European Community, because we base our decisions and regulations on monitoring and seeing whether there will be benefit. People may say that I am being too hard-hearted in rigidly sticking to what produces the best benefit. But the reason the death rates on our roads are significantly better than the West Germans', who have 50 per cent. more deaths for the same population, or the French who have twice as many deaths for the same population, is that we do not just work on what the Minister might see as common sense. It is subject mainly to the work of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, to which I pay public tribute.

The problem with restricting coaches, apart from seeing what benefit there would be, is that they would be confined to bunching with heavy goods vehicles, which are heavier than coaches and have thicker skins—if I may put it that way—than coaches, I suspect that we would not end up with significant benefit. I hope that people will realise that the various requirements that we have been putting on coaches, in addition to speed limits that are coming, will also have the effect of increasing the safety of coaches. From 1 October, we shall have seat belts fitted to all exposed forward coach seats. I am looking at the possible extension of the requirements to exposed seats on existing coaches.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be appropriate to have seat belts on all seats. I feel strongly about that issue. The evidence is that passengers in exposed seats are at most risk. I refer to the tragedy of the coaches involved in the crash on the M4 at Heston a few months back. Passengers in exposed seats suffered the greatest injury and died. Coaches met head-on at speed, because of the inexplicably dangerous behaviour of a lorry driver. Nearly all passengers were either not significantly hurt or survived. That shows the integral strength of coaches when one is not sitting in an exposed seat.

Anti-lock brakes will be required on coaches from 1 April 1990. They will also help drivers to maintain stability on braking suddenly or in adverse conditions. There will be improvements to coach roof strength. Ordinary coaches will become safer in roll-over accidents. A stronger roof built to a new international standard will he required on new coaches from 1 April 1990.

On fire safety, we have recently tightened up the requirements on emergency exits from the top deck of double-deck coaches. The European standard for flammability of upholstery materials, now agreed, will be implemented as soon as possible.

There is no reason to ban double-deckers from motorways. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about whether it is sensible to have 42 out of 48 passengers on the top deck. I shall make inquiries and write to the hon. Gentleman. The vehicles which are banned from motorways are those considered to be of particular hazard to other traffic such as slow-moving agricultural vehicles. Double deckers do not constitute a particular hazard.

The hon. Member for City of Durham raised some other points to which I shall reply in more detail. I want to emphasise that we want to avoid all unnecessary crashes and collisions. According to our information, at present 75 per cent. of the death and injury on our roads is unnecessary. We are continuing research to find out what more could be avoided.

Last year, 5,382 people died on our roads. Of that number, 248 died on the motorways. Motorways carry 14 per cent. of all traffic and have only 2 per cent. of the injury accidents. None of that is any consolation to any family caught up in the casualty toll, especially to the family of Miss Emma Bowring. However, it is worth recognising that motorways are the safest roads and that coaches are the safest vehicles on those roads.

I share with the hon. Gentleman the intention of making coach travel on and off the motorways as safe as it reasonably can be. I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that the greatest returns will come by dealing with drink-driving and by dealing with motor cycles so that we can preserve what is good about motor cycling and cut out what is bad about it—although there has been remarkable distortion in the motor cycle press—and if we pay more attention to safety in built-up areas, as 40 per cent. of our vehicle traffic is in built-up areas and 80 per cent. of injuries occur in built-up areas.

We should take a balanced approach that deals with every issue that arises. The hon. Gentleman has raised a particular issue tonight. If we take a broad approach to the other issues that are killing a large number of people, we shall be able to deliver the Secretary of State's target. That is not to make the Secretary of State happy, but to make sure that police officers will knock on the doors of fewer homes to tell people that their son or daughter, their husband or wife or one of their parents will not be coming home.

It is also worth recognising that we must involve young people in road casualty reduction from an early age. I should like to pay a public tribute to class 9 of the Wharton primary school in Salford where I was this morning where children between the ages of eight and a half and 10 were looking at road casualty reductions, some of which applied to collisions on motorways.

If we can all take our responsibilities seriously, whether it is the people maintaining the fences which led to the sheep coming onto the A1(M) or whether it is people's own road use behaviour, we shall be serving the people of this country and helping to make the roads as safe as they reasonably can be.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Four o'clock.