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Road Casualties

Volume 264: debated on Monday 23 October 1995

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To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what new proposals he has to reduce road casualties. [36464]

The Department is currently considering, with other representative organisations, the next casualty reduction target and the measures needed to achieve it. The trend in fatalities and serious injuries is that they continue to fall. A package of measures is being introduced to improve the safety of newly qualified drivers and we have invited bids to participate in the safe town initiative.

Will the Minister congratulate DHL, which recently removed all bull bars from its 300 vehicles? What assessment has he made of the Australian evidence that proves that bull bars represent an increased risk not only to pedestrians and cyclists but to those who are driving, and to passengers in vehicles with bull bars? Why does he not take action on the three practical steps outlined by Commissioner Kinnock from Europe, who said that the British Government could take steps to banish them? Why does he hesitate to remove these fatal fashion accessories?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to express his interest in the subject of bull bars in the way that he has, because not only is his interest entirely appropriate but I join him in congratulating a major company that has decided that an unnecessary fashion accessory that can also be dangerous is inappropriate in a responsible company. It is ludicrous of the hon. Gentleman, frankly, to describe the Government's attitude as being prepared to delay while Commissioner Kinnock rushes to the fore. All the proposals that the Commissioner has made rely on precisely the evidence of the survey, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are conducting into the incidence of bull bar-related accidents. He will appreciate that, to invoke any of the three measures that Commissioner Kinnock outlined in his letter to me, there is a precondition that we should have that evidence. I believe that bull bars, which make the fronts of vehicles less safe than they would otherwise be, should be removed without delay.

Has my hon. Friend carried out an examination of the possible impact on the number of road casualties in London of a strike on the London underground? Would he like to draw a contrast between his policy of upgrading the Northern line with that of certain trade unionists of disrupting traffic in London?

Sadly, my hon. Friend is entirely right. One of the many sad consequences for Londoners of disrupting underground services is that there will indeed be more congestion on London's roads and, indeed, inevitably more accidents. This underlines the futility of this kind of neanderthal action. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers is the only union not to have accepted London Transport's package. I hope that, even at this stage, it will see the wisdom of getting on with the job and keeping London moving in the way that any responsible trade union ought to be prepared to do.

What progress is the Minister making on the vexed issue of cut and shut vehicles? He will recall that I brought a delegation to see him some months ago on that matter. It is extremely serious; vehicles that have been involved in accidents and should not be on the road are stitched together without any controlling mechanism. What progress does he expect to be made to control those very dangerous vehicles?

I wrote to the hon. Gentleman a couple of days ago and asked him to pass on a copy of my letter to Mr. George Austin, whom he brought to see me on this subject. It is indeed a serious matter. As the hon. Gentleman understood when we discussed it, there are some practical difficulties in implementing a system that identifies vehicles that have previously been involved in serious accidents, particularly when, for example, they may be insured only for third party and therefore the insurance company concerned is not notified when the vehicle is effectively written off.

Sadly, some of the initiatives suggested to us earlier have not proved effective, and the Association of Chief Police Officers, responding to some of our inquiries, has said that it is unhappy with some of our proposals. As I said in my letter to the hon. Gentleman, I therefore propose to continue to explore other ways in which we can deal with this serious problem.

Is my hon. Friend familiar with research that suggests that, if we adopted double summer time, we could save more than 140 lives a year on the roads? Does he agree that the putting back of our clocks only yesterday ought to remind us that that opportunity is within our grasp?

The issue of summer time and double summer time interests a number of Departments. I speak only for the Department of Transport when I say that it is a simple matter of fact that allowing for more daylight in the way that my hon. Friend suggests has a demonstrable impact on accident statistics. For that reason, certainly, such action is to be encouraged.

No doubt the Minister, like other drivers, has felt a frisson of fear when overtaking or being overtaken by a heavy goods vehicle on the motorway lest its driver has put in far too many hours on the road. Did he read yesterday's article in The Observer which claimed that 200 deaths a year could be prevented if that danger were eliminated from our roads? Will he now end the Department's complacent attitude, and present proposals to ensure that tachographs cannot be tampered with? Will he also undertake some serious research into the effect of over-long hours on drivers who are forced to work those hours by bullying employers?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the transport team as one who has managed to survive as a Front Bencher for longer than almost any other Member on either side of the House. It is a pleasure to see him join the ranks of the instant transport experts, one of whom he clearly considers himself to be.

The United Kingdom inspects more than twice the European average number of tachographs, because we are pre-eminent in the Community in recognising the problem of overtired drivers as extremely serious. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify it as a major source of accidents. Indeed, simply listing the number of fatal accidents that may have involved tachograph offences probably underestimates the true figure.

The hon. Gentleman should understand two points, however. First, the practice is much more widespread in all the other European countries, in which the issue prompts very much less interest. Secondly, only the very worst operator would recognise the description of the robber barons of the transport industry grinding drivers' faces into the dust. As the hon. Gentleman will come to recognise, being the fair man that he is, the standard of operators in this country is excellent.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the serious concern in my constituency about the safety record of the Birmingham A456 road from Kidderminster to Blakedown? There have been two fatalities on the road in the past 12 months, and the average speed at Blakedown—in a 30 mph area—was recently gauged at some 50 mph.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the problem would be alleviated by the construction of a Kidderminster-Blakedown-Hagley bypass? Does he realise that we have now been waiting for no less than 12 months for the Government to publish the inspector's report, and will he ensure that progress is speeded up?

I note my hon. Friend's observations, and acknowledge his consistent concern about the scheme on behalf of his constituents. I hope that he will appreciate that I can make no firm announcement today.