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Road Safety

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 5 November 1997

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

9.34 am

It is 10 years since the committee chaired by Dr. Peter North prepared its report on our road traffic laws. Since then, most of the changes in the laws affecting road traffic have been based on its recommendations. Ten years on, I believe that it is time to take a fresh look at road safety, for two reasons.

First, the committee did not directly consider the issue of road safety; it was not within its terms of reference, a fact acknowledged in the report by its author. Secondly, many changes have taken place in the past 10 years. The volume of traffic has increased enormously and road safety technology has made huge advances. There is also the recent phenomenon of road rage, most graphically brought to our attention recently by the tragic deaths of Toby Exley and Karen Martin in an incident west of London.

Another factor is the strength of feeling of bereaved families that suffer the loss of loved ones in killings on our roads. They see that the law is not effective enough to prevent those deaths or to punish those who cause them. That view was prevalent at the time of the North committee report, which mentioned that bereaved families felt that the criminal law was too lenient to those who caused deaths on our roads. That that strength of feeling has continued—and hardened—over the past 10 years, despite changes in the law as recommended by the committee, is testament enough that something more needs to be done.

I do not claim that this debate alone constitutes a thoroughgoing investigation of road safety, but I hope that it contributes to a continuing interest in road safety during this Parliament. In my contribution to the debate, I wish to concentrate on two road safety issues: drinking and driving, and speeding.

The scale of the problem of drinking and driving is all too apparent from the figures. Every year, more than 500 deaths on our roads are due to illegal levels of alcohol consumption by one or other of those involved. A quarter of those deaths are children. More than 10 people die every week. Another 40 people per week avoid death but suffer serious injury. In fairness, those figures were worse at the time of the North committee's deliberations by a factor of two, but since 1993, the reductions obtained following the committee's report have come to an end. Many people speak of our having reached a plateau. A plateau where 500 people die each year because of drink driving is not an acceptable point to stop. We must seek new measures to reduce deaths.

Every death on the road involves personal tragedy for many people. I should like to give one example from my constituency, to illustrate how far and wide the effects can run. The family of Mrs. Ingram in Penkridge included a brother, Gordon Husselbee, who emigrated with his wife to Australia. Last year, Mr. and Mrs. Husselbee returned for a once-in-a-lifetime reunion with their family in Penkridge. During the trip, they went out for a day to Ashbourne with two other family members, another couple. As they returned from a lovely day out, their car was struck by a lorry, killing the two men in the car and seriously injuring both women. The driver of the lorry was found to be three times over the legal limit for alcohol, even though he was working at the time.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who is not in his place, has particularly asked me to make it known that he, too, wishes to join me in extending sympathy and condolences to the family on their tragic double loss in 1996. He also shares my determination that changes should be made to prevent similar deaths in the future. The hon. Gentleman represented Penkridge until the general election, when boundary changes removed it from his seat.

Alcohol impairs a driver's capability, and the more alcohol that is consumed, the greater the impairment. I believe that the legal limit should be reduced from 80 mg in 100 ml of blood to 50 mg. That would save lives year in, year out. There is public support for such a change, and it is also supported by the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety and the British Medical Association. I also believe that there is a proposal to harmonise the level at 50 mg across the European Union, but that is not why I believe that such a change should be made. I have made that suggestion because I believe that it is right for the roads of Britain. What is the Government's view?

After Mrs. Ingram and her family recovered from the natural grief that they felt at the loss of two members of their family, they suffered frustration and anger at the way in which the criminal system dealt with the driver who caused those deaths. They therefore determined to make a difference themselves, and from the market towns of Staffordshire they have collected a petition of more than 10,000 signatures calling for changes to the way in which the legal process deals with drivers who cause deaths through drink-driving. The Minister has kindly agreed to meet the family after the debate to receive their petition.

That petition calls for the immediate suspension of a driver's licence when he or she has caused death through drink-driving. It also advocates more use of the charge of manslaughter and greater opportunities for medical advisers to deny a driving licence on medical grounds.

A principled approach to reducing the number of deaths through drink-driving requires punishment that reflects the seriousness of the offence; an effective deterrent and consistent education. The punishment should reflect the revulsion felt by decent people when an innocent life is taken because of the irresponsibility of someone who drinks and drives. In 1994, 18 charges for manslaughter were brought, but not a single conviction was achieved. In 1995, there were just four convictions. In appropriate cases, manslaughter should be the appropriate charge. It is also wrong that drivers who cause death because of their excessive consumption of alcohol should continue to be at liberty to drive their vehicles between the time of the death and their eventual appearance before the court for sentence—often many months later. At the moment, the only possible restriction available is when a court imposes a bail condition that a person should not drive, but sometimes even the appearance at court is delayed for many weeks if the police bail a person from the police station.

A driver's licence should be suspended immediately if he is charged with a drink-driving offence. It is up to him to apply to a court before his trial if he considers that there is a reason why he should be entitled to keep his licence. Prison sentences should also be longer in appropriate cases when irresponsible drink-driving has led to death on the roads.

The best deterrent is when drivers know that there is a high risk of detection. That has led some to call for random breath testing by the police. Police powers to administer roadside breath tests are already quite wide. They can test after a road accident; after observing moving traffic offences; and if they suspect that a driver has consumed alcohol. The Government could help to strengthen the current law if they established uniform practice by all police forces. For example, Staffordshire police policy is to administer roadside breath tests after all road accidents, and all year round.

Effective education about the dangers of drink-driving should also be given all year round. In recent years, we have become accustomed to hard-hitting advertisements on our television screens just before Christmas and sometimes at the height of summer. All-year-round education would make a difference.

Those who drive under the influence of drugs represent a growing problem, but the technology for the detection of such drivers lags behind that aimed at discovering those who drink and drive. The dangers posed by that practice are increasing.

Speed is a bigger killer than drink-driving. In 1996, the then Minister estimated that 1,200 lives had been lost in the previous year because of excessive speed, including 160 children. Given that that is equivalent to more than 20 lives lost every week, urgent action is required.

A partnership has been established between the Staffordshire police force and the county council, which has led to a big investment in speed cameras and radar for the detection of drivers over the speed limit. The county town of Stafford is a speed enforcement zone. There are warning signs on every road entering the town and an abundance of speed cameras. They are sited according to laid-down criteria relating to fatal or serious accidents in a set period. That programme has dramatically reduced speed and injuries. Average speeds have dropped by 6.5 mph and the injury/accident rate has fallen by 29 per cent. That mirrors the evidence of the first pilot scheme that was conducted in west London in 1993, which led to average speed reductions of 10 per cent. and a fall in the injury/accident rate of 21 per cent.

The availability of resources for such a high-profile, consistent campaign against speeding is a problem. The Staffordshire police could not have afforded to buy all the necessary cameras for that strategy without the support of the county council. That reflects the strength of the partnership between the two organisations. The administration of speed camera detection involves the installation and maintenance of cameras, and the imposition of fixed fines. All those processes cost money. Will the Government consider adding an amount to the fixed fine to be paid to the police to cover that administration? That the speeding motorist should pay a slightly higher fine is in keeping with the notion that the punishment should fit the crime. The use of more cameras adds to the deterrent.

We should also educate drivers to understand not just that it is wrong to break the law, but that inappropriate speed causes accidents, injuries and deaths. Sometimes, drivers fail to see the need for particular speed limits—more needs to be done to establish in their minds the link between particular speed limits and the requirement for them to observe them. I commend such developments as local speed plans, safe routes to school and highlighting the special need for caution on rural roads.

Each year, an unacceptably high number of adults and children die on our roads. Responsible drivers want to drive in ways that minimise the risk of death and injury to other road users. A responsible Parliament will want to encourage and guide improved road safety through road layout designs and signs, vehicle specifications, driver training and testing, public education and the enforcement of our criminal laws, including effective punishment that commands widespread public support.

Parliament is not alone in seeking to achieve those ends—many organisations are willing to help. They include the police, local government, PACTS, which I mentioned earlier, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and even, I am pleased to learn, Vauxhall, which recently launched a campaign for children to be seen and to be safe on their way to and from school each day under the title, "Glow power—It's cool to be seen."

Today's debate comes early in the new Parliament. Perhaps we should look on our mission of improving road safety as a journey—naturally, a road journey. We sit in the driving seat, barely having switched on the engine and checked the rear-view mirror. I hope that today we shall signal our intention to move forward. From today, we must travel—wisely and safely, of course—towards our journey's end, where we shall want to look back with satisfaction on the fact that fewer people have been injured on our roads and fewer killed.

9.49 am

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) for raising this subject and for the way in which he introduced the debate. I suspect that there will be both all-party agreement and Government action on the two specific points that he made, which I shall rehearse and emphasise.

The first is that if someone has been caught above the legal limit for alcohol when driving, it is clearly right that their licence should be suspended—whether or not there has been an injury—until the case has come to court, with the sole exception of the accused person going to court and asking the court for special permission to have the licence back until the case is heard. That should be the way forward. It is wrong and anomalous that someone who has committed an offence—in all senses, an absolute offence—should be able to delay the beginning of part of the punishment by the arbitrary factor of when the case comes to court.

If I were apprehended in Victoria street with a dangerous weapon, I would not be given the weapon back until the case involving the charge of carrying an offensive weapon was heard. I hope that what the hon. Member for Stafford has said will help the Minister for Transport in London to negotiate with other members of the Government—the Law Officers and the Home Office—to ensure that it becomes mandatory or, if not mandatory, conventional that a licence is suspended until a case comes to court. Clearly, if there are exceptional circumstances, those can be heard by the court, but it should be an exception that a driver carries on driving until the case is heard after having been apprehended and arrested for being above the legal limit for alcohol or for refusing to take a blood or breath test.

The second point raised by the hon. Member for Stafford that I want to reinforce strongly is that the costs of speed cameras and red light cameras should be recycled through charges. 1 do not want to delve into ancient history, but we had the same sort of argument over the enforcement of the parking meter system that the Ministers of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will be having with Ministers from other Departments about this issue. The central Exchequer got the benefit of the penalties for overstaying at a parking meter, but the local authority had to find the costs of enforcement. That was changed and led to the City of Westminster, for example, receiving an immediate increase in income of £3 million a year; more important, however, was that the change made the parking meter system effective.

The task facing us is to make camera enforcement effective—not because we want to catch more people, but because we want more drivers to behave in the way that they would if they saw a liveried police car behind them or at their side. Only if enforcement works can the deterrent effect be achieved and that simply requires agreement on the recycling of all or part of the penalty, so that it becomes a charge and the system becomes a net cost regime.

I should declare, as is stated in the Register of Members' Interests, that I give evidence on occasion to lawyers in America on a civil liability case relating to small four-by-four vehicles. It is not relevant to the debate except that, as a result, I might be called an expert on road casualty reduction.

In general, we should try to move our debates away from road safety to the specific expression, casualty reduction. We could achieve a great increase in road safety without affecting the decisions that drivers like me make, which lead to the deaths of about 3,500 people a year. The reason for concentrating on casualty reduction is that that is what has been happening since the number of road deaths peaked at between 8,000 and 9,000 a year. The hon. Member for Stafford rightly referred to the increase in traffic and, in another debate, I would say how we can help to improve the position of those who walk and those who cycle, but today we are concentrating on motorised vehicle casualties.

There has been continuous progress and, speaking as a former Minister, I do not want to sound as if I am saying that my period as a Minister was when the process started. I see the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) in his place: he was one of the founders of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day), who worked as the co-chairman of that body for a long time. It is also right to acknowledge the effective work of Jeanne Breene, who was the director before Robert Gifford of PACTS, and who now leads the European Transport Safety Council.

To pick up the position in 1986, which was about the time of the North report on road traffic law, I support the hon. Member for Stafford in saying that it is time to have another review of the law. I do not believe, however, that the North process was the particular factor that led to the drop in casualties.

In 1987, we set the target of cutting casualties by a third by 2000, regardless of the increase in traffic. We made a mistake—I made a mistake—because it was not possible to achieve that for slight injuries and we should have said so at the time; but we were right to set targets for death and serious injury resulting from accidents, which create gaps in families and cause as much pain as terrorism or homicide.

We hope that the Government will continue to make progress towards setting new targets, by category and with some idea of how those targets will be achieved. We need to consider pedestrians and the two-wheelers, both pedal powered and motorised. We need to consider passengers and drivers. We need to understand what has happened in the past.

I want to make a criticism of our media and then praise them. The criticism is that, since the world's most famous car crash happened in Paris two or three months ago, I have not spotted in the British or continental press any comparison, over time and by country, of seat belt-wearing rates, of the incidence of drink-driving or of the changes in the casualty rate in various countries. That is not the only thing that matters—there were other aspects to the death of the princess and her companions—but had they died because they had trodden on a land mine or been assaulted with a machete, people would have started to ask, "What about land mines?" or, "What about machetes?" It is no good covering such a crash, which gets almost the whole world paying attention for a week or longer, while ignoring the question of what can be done about rates of drink-driving, which might have dropped in some countries more than in others.

My praise for the media is that the fact that drink-driving became unfashionable, against the culture of young people in the late 1980s, was in large part because of the then sole national pop music station, Radio 1. When the controller, Johnny Beerling, approved of Radio 1 treating drink-driving as a news and current affairs issue for young people, he and the disc jockeys made a big difference to the outcome. I shall quote the figures, and I hope that anyone in the media who reads our debate will pay attention to them and start asking how we can transfer that success to the middle-aged, which is the age of most Members of Parliament. The number of people dying in drink-drive crashes fell from 1,800 18 years ago, to 1,200 in 1986, to less than 600 now. Those figures are dramatic.

The same rate of improvement is possible for older people. but only if we do not rely on hard-hitting advertisements or a hard-hitting judicial approach. I shall not argue against sentencing solutions, but it is the culture that makes the biggest difference. If, when I am out of an evening—at a pub, club, party or someone else's home—people expect me not to drink alcohol before driving, that is more powerful than the legal limit. If, as a host, I feel an obligation to have alcohol-free drink within reach of those who are driving, that is more powerful than changing the legal limit. If, when people such as me are charged with driving with excess alcohol in their blood, magistrates ask with whom I was drinking and where I had been—not to charge the other people, but to make them feel part of that social culture—we shall get the same improvement among older people that we got among younger people.

It has become fashionable to say that we do not need to spend money on new roads. That is wrong. In far too many communities, shopping centres, residential streets and school precincts are dominated by passing traffic. Whatever impact we can make with traffic management arrangements, we still need to remove traffic, wherever possible, from where people are.

The A27 bypass in west Worthing may not go ahead, but we need to ensure that the county council and national Government have the necessary resources to build the roads that reduce casualties.

Part of the reason for the reduction in the number of deaths has been the money spent on new through roads—not just on road traffic management schemes, although they are vital.

If, in five or 10 years' time, we can say that the number of deaths has fallen from 3,500 to 2,500, or to below 2,000, that will show that we have continued with measures that work. The very worst approach is to do things just because they sound good.

We must continue with the things that work best; very often they are also the cheapest option. In that way, we can fulfil our responsibility to cut the number of casualties effectively.

10 am

I want to echo the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), and to concentrate on one aspect of road safety—safe routes to schools—with illustrations from my constituency.

It is deeply ironic that some of the most dangerous parts of our roads at crucial times of the day—very early in the morning and the middle of the afternoon—are near our primary and secondary schools. It is even more ironic, perhaps, that because parents have become increasingly worried about their children's safety on the way to and from school, they have begun to take their children there by car—thus compounding the problem and making the roads busier and more dangerous.

In my constituency, several schools are on dangerous roads, and, like many hon. Members, I receive a great deal of correspondence and a great many telephone calls—not to mention representations at my surgeries—from constituents who are concerned about the problem.

Most recently, in the town of Poulton Le Fylde only a few weeks ago, a young person was seriously injured when she was knocked down near her former primary school on the way to her high school. The incident took place in the area of Carr Head lane and Hardhorn road, both of which are near the two schools concerned, Baines high school and Carr Head primary. Fortunately, although she was seriously injured, she is making a good recovery. As often happens after such accidents, a massive campaign to make the roads safer around those two schools has been launched, led by that redoubtable campaigner, Mrs. Hughes, of Poulton Le Fylde. A petition has been got up, there have been interviews on the local radio and press, and local politicians have been lobbied.

Two weeks from now, I shall chair a meeting that will bring together huge numbers of parents, the police, the county council highways department and the borough council. In our well-meaning way, we shall all desperately try to find a solution that will make the roads safer. Some of those roads are winding roads; one of them has a particularly dangerous bend in it. None of them was built to carry the amount of traffic that now uses them, or to accommodate the amount of traffic that routinely parks along them at the very time when children are going into or coming out of school.

At the meeting, we shall discuss crossing patrols. Indeed, Mrs. Hughes and her friends have already secured a new school crossing patrol for the area. We shall talk about a new zebra crossing, about traffic-calming measures and about reducing speeds to 20 mph. At some point, we shall have to discuss the understandable but unacceptable methods used to allocate priority as between road safety measures. We shall have to examine the number of serious accidents—fortunately, no deaths yet—that have occurred in the area. In short, the whole point of the meeting will be to prevent such tragedies in future.

The point will be made that by taking preventive action and recognising the dangers, local people may be able to alleviate the problem, but, at the same time, they may undermine their case for road safety improvements. No doubt our discussions will be quite heated at times, but I hope that we shall be able to make real progress and to improve safety on the roads near those two schools for the children who use them.

We need a fundamental reordering of priorities; more attention must be paid to the needs of vulnerable pedestrians—children and older people. The Government need to get to grips with the problem, perhaps in the transport White Paper. Local authorities need more support in the work of creating safe routes to schools. The reordering of priorities to which I referred must result in road safety for vulnerable people not being tacked on to the end of debates but being kept at the forefront of everyone's mind.

10.7 am

I thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) for initiating this morning's debate. Britain's road safety record is good, but there is no doubt that it can be improved on. We often hear the past 18 years mentioned in derogatory terms; in this case, we can congratulate the previous Administration on what they achieved in that time.

The hon. Member for Stafford outlined certain measures which he believes will help. I agree with increasing the number of speed cameras and reviewing the drink-driving laws. As he dealt with that in some detail, I shall touch on it only briefly.

The transport priorities that my party supports will contribute, directly or indirectly, to improving road safety. I refer to maximising the potential of rail for the carriage of freight and passengers; to reducing traffic totals; to a shift from private to public transport; and crucially, to reducing the need to travel. We must implement planning measures and initiatives such as teleworking to good effect, so that people do not have to get in their cars at all. Local authorities have a key role in dealing with road safety and I shall outline some of the measures that my local authority, the London borough of Sutton, of which I am still a councillor, has introduced in the past two years.

The first measure that I commend to the House is STEPs—the strategic traffic and environment projects—which is a traffic-calming initiative. We have worked out criteria on which to introduce traffic-calming measures based on, for instance, the number of schools, rat runs, and accidents in a given area, and whether cycle paths exist there. We then identified the top priorities for traffic-calming measures within the borough. Rather than address each road piecemeal, we have dealt with all the traffic-calming measures in a particular square to ensure that traffic-calming measures do not simply shift traffic to a parallel road with no speed humps or other such measure. That has been successful and we have been gradually—regrettably, all too gradually—working our way round the borough introducing traffic-calming measures.

We are working hard on a network of safe cycle paths, which I occasionally use, and we want to introduce cycling in parks. May I take this opportunity to ask the Home Office to respond as quickly as possible to our request for a change in the byelaws? The council has introduced a mileage allowance for council employees using their bicycles to get to work or to council business. It introduced a "leave your car at home" day, which was supported by the health authority and many large businesses locally. I participated in that interesting exercise on a day when I had three or four constituency visits to make and it was pouring with rain. I concluded that it was achievable but not very easy.

Like many other authorities throughout the country, the council has introduced small-scale measures such as flashing lights to warn motorists when they are approaching a school. Those operate when children travel to, or return from, school. However, we want local authorities to have greater powers in respect of road safety. Speed cameras have already been mentioned. Local authorities, in consultation with the police, should be able to install those and use the revenues generated by them to improve traffic safety in their boroughs. Traffic wardens, who are now the responsibility of local authorities, need further powers to take action against non-moving traffic. We also want more 20 mph limits in appropriate places.

Those are some of the specific proposals that have been made. Another key measure that would directly or indirectly improve road safety is our pledge to increase the number of police by 3,000. People are deterred by the chance of being caught, whether for speeding or for drink-drive offences. Driving tests or probationary periods also need to be reviewed because there are far too many boy racers dashing around. At the risk of stereotyping, I shall describe them to the House: they wear their baseball caps the wrong way round and one can hear their loud sound systems blaring at traffic lights. They have only just passed their test, and believe that they are the local Schumacher and know everything that they need to know about driving. Unfortunately, they have learned the mechanical skills of driving rather than how to anticipate problems.

Further significant improvements in road safety could be achieved by introducing the full range of measures that I have outlined. Had those measures been in place, I may not have had the visitor that I had to my advice centre a couple of weeks ago. He was a postman who had been in a hit-and-run accident and has since been trying to get back his job with the Post Office. We want to reduce those tragedies still further. Should the Government decide to legislate on any of those measures or review the law, the Liberal Democrats would support them.

10.14 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on introducing this debate. I also congratulate the Minister for Transport in London on her new post. I have not had a chance to do so since she took over, and I hope that we can all work carefully and well together on the important issue of road safety.

May I issue a warning to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford? If he gets involved in road safety, he will get rather a reputation. Those of us who have been interested in the subject for many years have become known as eccentric. It is strange that the core of us who have, over the years, tried to maintain the House's interest in road safety are regarded as slightly odd, but it is also the most satisfying part of one's work. I spent many years in opposition—from 1979 until six months ago—and one of the few achievements in my career has been to make a difference in the number of people who have died or been seriously injured on our roads.

I became involved in this issue because my first private Member's Bill was the Children in Cars Bill, which was accepted by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). We moved on to a wonderful fight to achieve seat belt legislation, which was a Back-Bench success against the leaders of both main parties in the House. I mark that up to show that Back Benchers can make achievements over Ministers, if Ministers do not always go along with us. The reduction in the number of casualties shows the importance of seat belt legislation.

When I first came to the House, 1,000 young men a year were being killed on motorcycles. If 1,000 young men had been killed in a foreign war, one could imagine the debate in this House. One of the proudest achievements that our little group can boast is that we took on the motorcycle lobby and the Japanese manufacturers, and came up with proposals, which were eventually accepted by Ministers, for training motorcyclists and making large motorcycles less available less quickly. We have seen the results.

In that struggle, we formed the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, of which we are extremely proud. We learned early on that, if we wanted to make changes in respect of road safety, we would have to build a partnership between politicians, Ministers, police, road safety organisations outside this place and every concerned citizen. The best way to form partnerships is not to have "hearts and flowers" campaigns. I have seen those come and go and they do not work. The campaigns that work are those based on good science, good technological information and best practice world wide. Adopting or adapting best practice in a society like ours, whether it is in Australia, Canada, the United States or elsewhere, can often be valuable, but applying good methods and involving the best brains in the business is also important. We made sure that we brought together the academics, medics and other experts.

Increasingly, responsibility for the legislation that we used to pass has moved to Europe. I do not regret that, but many of the changes that we need to make—construction, use and much else—depend on achieving a Europe-wide, positive move. We set up the European Transport Safety Council, which is now one of the most respected transport safety lobbies in Europe. We must not forget that we must work with our European partners to bring the standards across Europe up to our standards, and then all improve together. Many of our people increasingly drive not just on United Kingdom roads, but on European Union roads, and some of those roads are extremely dangerous. We must broaden our horizons to protect our constituents' interests.

We are on a plateau, and more changes are needed. Too many people are losing their lives or suffering dreadful physical damage that affects their entire lives. We must continue to reduce casualty figures. One of the most important measures is speed control. That must be done intelligently, and the Government will have to provide more money for speed cameras and enforcement.

If we are interested in safety on the roads, we must not be seen as ghastly people who want to hang, draw and quarter offenders or lock them up for a long time. I do not want to do that to any of my fellow citizens; I want to prevent them committing the crime in the first place. Deterrence works, and the most effective deterrent is if people know that, if they go on the road and speed, or go on the road having drunk, there is a high chance that they will be caught. I want to save their lives, as well as those of their victims on the roads. A drink-driving accident destroys at least two families.

We need enforcement in relation to drink-driving and speeding. I do not know the Minister's mind on that, and sometimes, even within this exclusive company, we disagree. I have always been a champion of random breath testing. It must be introduced, as it is effective in cutting down the number of people who drink and drive.

I agree with the former Minister, the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), who said that it is imperative to change the culture, so that it becomes unacceptable to drink and drive or to speed. When that happens, we shall know that we have succeeded.

All the statistics show that children—and, to a lesser extent, old people—as pedestrians, and as cyclists, are especially vulnerable. The number of children involved in accidents is extremely worrying. Why, in particular parts of our towns and cities, are there more incidents in which children are killed or seriously injured? The picture is complicated, but we must confront it.

As someone who still has a couple of children at school, I notice as I drive around at school time that there is a relaxation in seat belt wearing among children, which concerns me greatly. One sees very few convictions for not having a child sitting safely in a car. The worst thing is for a small child to sit on an adult's lap in the front seat. I thought that that had been pushed out of our culture. I hope that my hon. Friend will speak to her colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment about renewing awareness that it is unacceptable behaviour to carry children in cars if they are not secured safely.

Enforcement is the key. We must maintain a cross-party approach. Sometimes there is a little party political argy-bargy, but not much. By and large, people of good will have worked extremely hard to make road safety a success. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford will not get any medals; he will get a reputation for slight eccentricity, but I welcome him aboard.

10.23 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing the opportunity for a debate of such importance.

Four years ago, I introduced the "Health of the Nation" strategy, which looked for key areas in which we could reduce ill health, disability and death. One of those was accidents, in which road safety is a critical element. That was certainly an area in which the strategy of cross-party alliances was welcomed by the then Opposition.

I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). I have been pleased to see the way in which the present Government have built on the focus of prevention in health. 1 am confident that the introduction of collaboration between the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of Health and other arms of government will be maintained. I used to say that any number of ambulances or health services could to little in the face of the deaths and injuries on the roads.

I pay tribute to my close and hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley). It is true, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, that those who become preoccupied with road safety tend to have a sharp concentration on the subject. Attitudes have changed, and my hon. Friend is entitled to a considerable degree of credit for that.

I shall speak about a constituency issue. Road safety—the well-being of people passing through my constituency—is an ever-greater problem. In a debate yesterday, the Minister for Transport in London said that, in the face of growing congestion, there were three options:
"first, to make better use of existing infrastructure; secondly, to manage demand; and thirdly, to provide new infrastructure."—[Official Report, 4 November 1997; Vol. 300. c. 225.]

Hindhead on the A3 is at the centre of a major strategic route between London and Portsmouth. The entire road is now dualled, except for the 4.1 miles in my constituency. The hon. Lady and the House will realise that, with Portsmouth being the second busiest international passenger port in the country, and with the efforts to regenerate Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight and the consequent economic pressures, there is growing anxiety about the danger in the Hindhead area.

Legislation, speed cameras, road humps and all the other measures that make such a difference in many situations will have no impact at Hindhead. The Government are conducting a review of trunk roads. They also have a consultation exercise on integrated transport strategies. I hope that those reviews will consider the interests of road safety and economic regeneration in constituencies that are not my own, but are part of the region. It is a cross-party issue, and I am confident that, had we alerted them, the Liberal and Labour Members representing Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight would have been with me today, because they feel as strongly on the matter. I hope that the Minister will add her contribution from the road safety perspective to the arguments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) kindly visited my constituency recently. He was inundated by individuals who were complaining about the danger to passengers, pedestrians and road users in all the associated villages—in Milford, Witley, Grayswood, Thursley, Tilford, Shottermill and Beacon Hill. Throughout my constituency, there is deep alarm that the rural areas are being used as rat runs, with growing numbers of incidents.

When I met representatives of the National Farmers Union recently, the crucial issue that they raised was the danger to their members from the growing volume and speed of traffic on the A3, and the lack of alternatives.

I congratulate the Government on articulating their commitment to economic opportunities, prosperity and the gateway to Europe. However, if that results in ever-larger lorries, greater congestion and more traffic of all sorts using our roads, it will be a tragedy if, on every occasion that the Minister is asked to comment on the A3 at Hindhead, it is in relation to another death or serious injury. The area has critical landscape value of international significance, and there are also economic arguments in favour of the scheme. I am waiting for an opportunity to meet the Deputy Prime Minister with an all-party delegation in order to spell out those arguments.

My constituency has traditionally been a resting place between London and Portsmouth. Horses and carriages used to stop at various inns in the area. As a result, there are many extremely good pubs which are—thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West—also selling alcohol-free beer. I would hate my constituency to become known as people's final resting place between London and Portsmouth. Unless there is an announcement about the A3 tunnel at Hindhead, I fear that that may happen.

10.30 am

I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on introducing the debate. He made some pertinent points. If I were to make any adverse comment about his speech, it would be that he stopped short of developing his argument about the growing concern about those who drive while under the influence of drugs. There must be scope for making a breakthrough in that area similar to that made previously in relation to those who drive under the influence of alcohol. I hope that the Government will respond to the increasing pleas from all quarters for action on that front.

In fairness to me, I think that I am correct in saying that the Department is funding a three-year study into the effects of the consumption of illegal drugs on road deaths. That study has been under way for only one year. What I said about the consumption of drugs was based on the first year's figures. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, we must move forward on the basis of scientific evidence and research, but the relevant research is not yet complete. If I stopped short in advancing my argument, I did so because we are short on evidence.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but we must increase public awareness of the dangers associated with driving while under the influence of drugs. Many people do not seem to be too worried about it.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) for his typically sage comments. He and the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) pleaded for the Government to concentrate on practical measures that work, which I am sure strikes a chord with everyone concerned about the issue. The Road Traffic Act 1991—my hon. Friend did much work preparing for it—has been the backbone of many changes that have given new powers to the police and local authorities to improve road safety. My hon. Friend reminded the House of the difficulty involved in persuading the Home Office to give local authorities the power to enforce and recover fines for illegal parking. That great battle in Whitehall was eventually won and we are now seeing the benefits of that victory.

There is a plea coming through today's debate for the same sort of imagination to be applied to the conflict between the local desire for more speed cameras and the standard response that the police cannot afford them and that more speed cameras will result in additional costs that must be borne by local people. If the revenue from penalties imposed for speed infringements went to local authorities rather than into the Consolidated Fund, authorities could make progress and invest in more road speed cameras just as they are investing in improved parking enforcement arrangements in London and other towns and cities.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South—West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), whose constituency I took great pleasure in visiting again recently, pleaded for action regarding the A3 Hindhead bypass. I hope that the Government will listen to her pleas. There is no point in having trunk roads with bottlenecks, such as occur at Hindhead. Bottlenecks affect the operation of the whole route and cause people to divert onto other routes. Action must be taken in that regard.

The Government have inherited a fine legacy of sustained road casualty reduction. This country has the safest roads in Europe. There were fewer road deaths in the United Kingdom in 1996 than in any year since records began in 1926. The number of drink-related road deaths has more than halved in 18 years and there has been a substantial reduction in both deaths and serious injuries. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) for paying tribute to the success of the previous Government in that area.

Despite that success, there is still much to do. I shall concentrate on what must be done at a local level, because that is where the biggest impact can be made. Local road safety schemes were encouraged by the previous Government. It is estimated that 1,500 casualties and 200 deaths have been saved each year since 1991 as a result of the investment of £170 million in local safety schemes.

With local safety improvements, good road maintenance is also important for road safety and casualty reduction. It is estimated that between 100 and 200 accidents every week are related to road surface defects. It also appears that the number of such defects is increasing rather reducing. Between 100 and 200 road accidents a week are caused by defective road signs and traffic signals. Again, the number of defective road signs and signals is increasing. More than 1,000 accidents a week involve skidding. The Transport Research Laboratory estimates that well-maintained, high-skid-resistant surfaces can halve the number of wet-weather accidents. Speed often contributes to such accidents, but let us not ignore the fact that the road surface can also play a significant part.

The message is that good road safety and casualty reduction cost money. I have one question for the Minister, which I hope she will answer today: will she guarantee that local authorities will receive no less money for highway maintenance and road safety schemes next year than they are receiving this year? That is not a very strong demand; we are not asking for more funds—although obviously every hon. Member in the Chamber would like more expenditure in that area. Local authorities and those concerned about road safety locally fear that there will be a significant cut in the resources available for highway maintenance and road safety schemes next year. I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to allay their concerns.

Privately financed local schemes are related to that issue. Essex and Dorset county councils, to name but two, have invested substantial resources in developing imaginative and innovative private finance initiative schemes for roads for which they are responsible. Essex county council has been promoting the Southend-Chelmsford road scheme. Six fatal accidents have been suffered on that road during the past 18 months. Tremendous road safety benefits will result from road improvements, but I am concerned that the Department—perhaps at the behest of the hon. Lady or of her noble Friend the Minister for Roads—has sent back those schemes. I hope that the hon. Lady will assure the House today that they have not been sent back in order to delay Government expenditure on roads, which seems to be part of Labour policy. Delaying decisions saves money, but it is done at the expense of casualty reduction.

I know that there is a parliamentary briefing today on the completion of the A66 in North Yorkshire. A county councillor, Michael Heseltine—no relation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—is leading a deputation seeking a commitment from the Government on further action on and investment in the A66, again making the point that the dualling of that road would enhance and improve road safety and ensure casualty reduction.

There is plenty for the Minister to get to grips with, but if she gives resources to local authorities they can continue to make important safety improvements such as those that have played a critical part in the overall success of this country, which is the envy of road safety experts throughout the world.

10.40 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing this Adjournment debate and affording the House the opportunity to discuss the important issue of road safety.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House made interesting and informed speeches. The only slightly sour note came from the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), who made a somewhat half-hearted attempt to make a party political point on local authority funding. He asked questions that he knows I am in no position to answer at this stage, and which are bitterly ironic given that, year on year, the previous Administration cut local authority funding for the very issues that he now deems essential.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) for his kind welcome. I must tell him that hon. Members who express concerns on road safety are not deemed odd by me, my Department or the Government, and his informed and detailed contribution to the debate confirms us in our judgment.

The United Kingdom has one of the best road safety records in the world. We have not reached this position by accident or as a result of some special trait in the British character but by hard work and careful planning over several decades. Thirty years ago, almost 8,000 people were killed on our roads each year. The death toll has now fallen to less than half that number—around 3,600. I pay tribute to my noble Friend Baroness Castle who, as Minister of Transport, laid the foundations for so much that has followed. It was she who in 1967 introduced the 80 mg drink-drive limit and the breathalyser—an act of great political courage at the time—the 70 mph speed limit on motorways, the goods vehicle operator licensing system and many other vital reforms.

However, it is unacceptable that we still have around 10 road deaths a day—a toll which would rightly be deemed scandalous if it occurred in almost any other transport mode. We are determined to bring down the number of these avoidable deaths and are working on a long-term target for 2010 and a strategy to achieve it.

In 1987, a target was set: to reduce by a third road traffic casualties by the year 2000 compared with the average for 1981 to 1985. Progress has been good. In 1996, deaths on the road had reduced by 36 per cent. to 3,598, and serious casualties by 40 per cent. to 44,473. The total number of casualties, however, has remained the same—about 320,000—but traffic volumes have risen by 50 per cent. since 1981 to 1985. The chance of being slightly injured in a road accident has gone down by a quarter and of being killed or seriously injured by nearly two thirds, but we cannot be complacent.

It was therefore announced on 15 October that the Government will set a new road safety target for beyond the turn of the century. Work is in hand to consider what new measures might be productive in terms of casualty reduction and to recommend a target figure and a coherent road safety strategy within which that reduction can be achieved. An announcement is planned for the latter half of 1998. Progress towards the new target will be monitored every three years so that the assumptions made when the target was set can be re-examined. The process will take full account of our policies on walking, cycling and public transport, reflecting the Government's work on an integrated transport policy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford clearly stated his concerns about drink-driving when he highlighted its tragic consequences in the case of his constituent, whom I will have the pleasure and privilege of meeting later today. The campaign against drink-driving, sustained since the mid-1970s, has reduced the number of deaths in which illegal alcohol levels were a factor to around a third of the level when the campaign started. I can assure the House that we shall launch another hard-hitting Christmas campaign on 2 December. However, about three years ago, the steady improvement in the drink-drive figures seemed to bottom out and we are actively looking at ways to give it a further push. We have been listening carefully to road safety organisations and looking at research on measures taken in other parts of the world.

Among the issues is whether the 80 mg limit, set in 1967, is still appropriate. The basic evidence of risk has been refined by later research, but not fundamentally changed. Public opinion towards the drink-driver has changed a great deal and much of that change is due to the very successful campaigning by my Department and its predecessors. Most heartening is the attitude of teenage drivers, who take a far more responsible view than I recall from those of my generation. Unfortunately, however, that sense of responsibility is not reflected by drivers in their 20s, who are disproportionately involved in drink-drive accidents. It is at that group that most recent Government campaigns have been targeted.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) referred to boy racers. The Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act 1995 provides that should a new driver amass six points on their licence they will lose it and will have to pass the test again.

We must not deceive ourselves that a lower limit would solve all the problems. Half of those convicted by the courts were driving at levels at least twice the current limit, so there are several issues to address, besides the limit itself.

I noted carefully what my hon. Friend said about random breath testing and see the attractions of it, but I am not sure that there is any persuasive evidence that powers to test randomly would mean better enforcement. The Association of Chief Police Officers is not seeking a power to conduct breath tests at random. That, it argues, would be a waste of resources. It does, however, recommend breath testing after all injury accidents, and all forces now do that. Roadside tests now number 780,000 a year. The Association of Chief Police Officers has for many years sought a general power to conduct breath tests that would target the hard core of persistent drink-drivers. It is clear, therefore, that we must look carefully at whether we can improve the effectiveness of police powers.

Existing legislation provides the courts with a comprehensive set of measures and penalties to deal with drink-drivers. A drink-drive conviction almost invariably results in automatic disqualification for a minimum of 12 months. For a second conviction within 10 years, the minimum period of disqualification is increased to three years. Those who are convicted with alcohol levels of at least two and a half times the legal limit must present themselves for medical assessment before being pronounced fit to hold a driving licence again. The courts have powers to require convicted drink-drivers to become "learners" again for a period following the end of the disqualification and to order interim disqualification where there is an adjournment before sentencing.

I know that these issues go beyond the Minister's Department, but will the Government be open about the debate between Departments on the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Stafford, which is supported on both sides of the House, that when someone has been arrested for being over the limit or for refusing to take a test they should automatically lose their licence unless they get a positive approval from a court that they should not until the case is heard? Open government would help the rest of us to know the debates within government.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I can assure him that one of the benchmarks of this Government is the drive that Departments should communicate with each other. I shall certainly raise the point that he has made. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that someone who has been charged with an offence is not a convicted person. I understand, of course, the hon. Gentleman's concern that a driver who has been charged may continue to drive until his or her case is heard. The answer is to ensure that cases come before the courts speedily. The Government are working on proposals to reduce delays throughout the criminal justice system.

Hon. Members have taken up the issue of driving under the influence of drugs. It is correct that the Government are funding an inquiry that will examine the matter.

Speed is of particular concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and other hon. Members. We have made enormous progress on drink-driving; combating excessive and inappropriate speed is now the major challenge. Last year, about 3,600 people were killed and 320,000 injured in road accidents. Speed is a major factor in an estimated one third of all road accidents. But for people driving too fast for the conditions, more than 1,000 people might still be alive and 100,000 might not be suffering injuries, many of which are serious and permanent.

This is not exclusively a matter of reducing speed limits; we must get drivers to obey existing limits. There exists a wide variety of measures to persuade or prevent drivers from exceeding speed limits. They all help to reduce accidents and casualties. The long-term solution, however, must be to change our attitude to speed. Speed is not glamorous, not desirable and not sensible. It can kill and maim. That is why my noble Friend Baroness Hayman recently launched our kill your speed campaign—to make us aware of the potential consequences of exceeding speed limits.

I welcome the kill your speed initiative, but, at the same time, there is a great accent on speed in the advertising, especially on television, of new cars. We must do everything that we can, including approaching the Advertising Standards Authority, to reduce the impact of such advertising. We constantly read or hear of cars accelerating from standstill to 100 mph in a few seconds and being great performers at 120 mph. It is essential that we tackle the advertisers.

My hon. Friend makes a valid point and it is one which I have had occasion to raise with car manufacturers in the past. Their consideration of the points that I was making was quite marked. I can make no promises, but the manufacturers are listening.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned the effectiveness of speed enforcement cameras. Experience shows that they are most effective at sites with a history of speed-related accidents. Drivers tend to slow down for the cameras and speed up again once past them. Where it is necessary to reduce traffic speeds along a series of roads, cameras are less likely to succeed than, for example, traffic-calming measures.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of the ability of highway authorities and enforcement agencies to place more cameras. There is a long-standing principle that money from court fines goes to the Consolidated Fund, from which it is not generally possible to divert money to fund enforcement costs.

A simple solution that is often suggested is to decriminalise speeding. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford presented other ideas for raising additional funds. At a time when we are highlighting the dangers and terrible consequences of speed, we believe that decriminalisation would send out the wrong message. I can assure my hon. Friend that, with Home Office colleagues, we are examining the funding arrangements for cameras to ascertain whether there is a way to make better use of existing cameras and increase their use where needed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) expressed concern about the speeds at which vehicles are driven near schools, a concern which the Government and, I am sure, all hon. Members share. Finding ways to reduce speeds and accidents around our schools is vital in taking forward the Labour party's manifesto commitment to improve road safety for school children. It is an increasingly common view that roads adjacent to schools should have 20 mph speed limits. The view is promoted for the best of all possible reasons, but drivers, as I have had occasion to observe, do not always respect speed limits. To be successful, therefore, 20 mph limits should be supported by traffic calming, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said.

It makes sense to adopt a local zoning approach. A proper 20 mph zone with supporting traffic-calming features is much more likely to be effective in reducing speeds and, therefore, accidents.

One of our concerns is that an increasing number of parents are driving their children to and from school. The results of surveys tell us that the number of children being driven to school has doubled in the past 20 years and that journeys to school now account for one in six cars. We understand why parents want to drive their children to school. They think that children will be safer in the car than on the pavement, and our record on child pedestrian casualties adds weight to that argument. It is, however, a vicious circle; the more children are driven to school, the more traffic there is on the roads and the higher is the risk to child pedestrians. We must find a way to make routes to school safe for children so that they can walk and cycle and to encourage parents to allow them to do so.

Many schools and local authorities throughout the country already have school travel plans in place. Many more are working with parents, governors and children to find a solution that is safe and works for the school. The charity SUSTRANS designs and builds routes for cyclists, walkers and people with disabilities. It has set up a safe routes to school demonstration project with 10 schools in various parts of the country. It is essential that child safety is always a priority. It is not only walking and cycling which we wish to encourage. When children live too far away from school to walk, there may be suitable bus services that will avoid the need to drive.

My Department has provided research funds for two projects that involve examining how to reduce the number of children being driven to school. We shall embark on further research in this area. We shall also examine journey types as part of the fundamental review of transport to consider how we can make walking and cycling to school realistic and safe options for our children. These are serious and complex, but vital, issues.

I assure the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) that road safety is central to our White Paper on integrated transport. The concerns of her constituents are replicated throughout the country. That is why the Government are determined to put in place measures that will continue to decrease the number of people who suffer death or injury on our roads.