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Traffic Lights (Left Turns)

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 12 November 1997

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12.30 pm

Turning right on red with caution is a practice that has been successfully adopted in the United States for about 15 years; so successfully that its application has spread from state to state, and, I believe, now applies in every state in the Union. That is in a country that has the best traffic accident record in the world.

Allowing right turns on red in the United States has greatly increased traffic flows, not least for road-based public transport. Why not try it here, in the form of a "turning left on red with caution" policy? As in the United States, the responsibility for making the manoeuvre safely would rest with the driver, who would often face an identical situation to the one in which he has to turn left at a T-junction with no lights. I see no reason why the British motorist should be less able to cope than his American or Canadian counterpart, or, for that matter, the driver in New Zealand, where the introduction of the practice is being considered.

The practice would not be universal, as there would be intersections at which it would be inappropriate; those would be clearly marked, as they are in the United States. Traffic at certain times of the day, in some of our big towns and cities, has reached near-crisis proportions; there are times when it comes to a complete standstill. That hits public road transport especially hard.

A recent survey by the Department of Transport in central London showed that, in 1996, an average journey of 1.7 miles took 18 minutes by bicycle, but 38 minutes by bus—more than twice as long. The time spent on the bus had increased by three minutes since 1993. I know that bicycling to work is considered green and therefore the height of fashion, but bicycling in big cities, with all its attendant safety risks, as against using public road transport, cannot sensibly be the Government's preferred option—unless they want our cities to become like Chinese cities.

In his interesting dissertation on traffic conditions in cities, my hon. Friend may care to consider the propensity, indeed the habitual practice, of some cyclists of using the pavement, which is the proper precinct for pedestrians.

That is an interesting thought.

One of the objectives of transport policy, even though it may not be totally fashionable with the Government at the moment, must be to speed up traffic flows. My suggestion is modest, and cannot compare in importance to measures that might be introduced for road pricing, for instance. Because it works elsewhere, turning left on red merits the Minister's attention. I ask her not for a definitive answer, but to agree to a study, preferably by the Road Transport Laboratory at Crowthorne, and to report back to the House on it.

There are clearly problems with the idea, especially where pedestrians are concerned, but they have not proved insurmountable in America, which has higher road safety standards than any comparable country. In this context, America includes Canada, with the exception of Quebec. It cannot be right for the present congestion, especially in our cities and towns, to continue. The clogging of inner-city roads has reached the point at which it is bad for safety, bad for health and bad for the economy.

My suggestion is offered modestly and undogmatically. If, after studying the matter, the Minister does not like it, she will have to come up with something better—something that I sincerely trust will not involve a dictatorial ban on the private motorist.

12.36 pm

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) on raising a particularly interesting question. Making the best use of the road network will be an important part of our integrated transport policy, but best does not necessarily mean maximising capacity for cars and lorries. We must take account of the needs of all road users, as well as our environmental and safety objectives.

Managing traffic at road junctions, which are often the main constraints and conflict points, especially in towns and cities, will be one of the key elements in any local transport strategy, and traffic signals are one of a range of tools available to do that. Each junction needs to be carefully considered; that is particularly important in areas where there is usually a wide range of competing demands from pedestrians, cyclists, motor cyclists, buses, taxis, vans, lorries and cars.

The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) talked about cycling on pavements. I am sure that the hon. Member for West Worcestershire is aware that such a practice is illegal unless local authorities have designated specific cycle routes on especially wide pavements.

My Department publishes advice on highway and junction design that includes the geometric design of junctions and the design of traffic signals and pedestrian crossings. Traffic signals are an effective means of helping to ration road space. As we try to do more, and particularly when local highway authorities are aiming to provide better facilities for pedestrians, signal control strategies and the equipment that goes with them will become more complex.

I speak only in general terms; what is right for an individual site will be a matter for the highway authority concerned, which will need to consider all the characteristics of the site and the traffic demands.

Authorities will increasingly consider how to meet the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, who do not always receive a good, or indeed fair, deal in the allocation of time or space at junctions and on the highway generally. Initiatives are under way to improve conditions for cycling and walking, both of which have a part to play in helping to reduce car dependency. I chair the national cycling forum and the walking steering group, both of which are addressing these issues.

If the Minister's Department is to consider the possibility of cars turning left at traffic lights, could it also consider the possibility of cyclists doing the same?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I have as yet given no indication as to the Government's response to the proposals made by the hon. Member for West Worcestershire. I shall come to that later.

My Department has promoted the use of new signalling systems, and continues to sponsor research to see how they can be developed to deal with increasingly complicated traffic movements. Green arrow signals are widely used to control the movement of separate traffic streams, and they work well. For example, they allow left and right turns to be signalled to go at different times. The more efficient use of junctions and can sometimes be the key to providing protected crossings for pedestrians.

Where junctions become very complex, a multitude of traffic signal heads may become confusing. We are working with local authorities to evaluate whether amber arrows may be helpful to drivers. At sites with a number of different green arrow signalled movements, some drivers may wrongly anticipate the next signal in the sequence. Amber arrow signals may help. If the trials prove promising, we could prepare advice on when and where their wider use would be appropriate.

It is often suggested that we should adopt the practice of allowing drivers to make left turns at red traffic signals if their exit is clear—a practice often used, as the hon. Member for West Worcestershire stated, in the United States of America, although there, as he said, it is right turn on red. I believe that it was Woody Allen who said that the sole cultural contribution made by the state of California to the United States of America was the privilege of turning right on a red light.

There are significant differences between traffic signal operation here and in the USA. There, traffic signals tend to operate in a fixed-time manner, which can lead to traffic waiting at signals when there is no conflicting traffic movement. The majority of traffic signals in the United Kingdom are vehicle-actuated, where the green period is varied automatically with the traffic flow. This reduces unnecessary delays and the need to introduce uncontrolled turns.

One effect of vehicle-actuated signals and relatively short signal stages is that traffic moves through junctions in blocks. These blocks crossing the junction would prevent left-turning traffic from moving until given a green light in any case, and there would be only a small improvement, at best, in the efficiency of the junction.

Opportunities to turn left are further limited when, as in much of the United Kingdom, road widths preclude separate left-turn lanes, and left-turn traffic has to wait behind that going straight on. Another factor is visibility for turning traffic. Regrettably, many junctions here have poor visibility because of existing buildings and the junction geometry.

Safety must be a key consideration, so positive signalling is used. Vehicles may not proceed without a green light. This is vital where pedestrians may be crossing. Pedestrian facilities are often provided at signal-controlled junctions, and may include audible and tactile indicators for use by people with visual disabilities. Pedestrians are not given a signal to cross unless a red signal has been given to all vehicles that could pass or turn through that crossing point. This protection for pedestrians would be compromised by allowing left-turning vehicles to pass a red signal.

The Government have a clear commitment to promote the independent mobility of disabled people, including those who are blind or partially sighted. One of the key aspects of independence is giving blind people the confidence to move with safety within the urban environment.

There is a long tradition in the United Kingdom of audible and tactile signals at road crossings which tell a blind person when it is safe to cross. This is possible only when all traffic has been signalled to stop. It is out of the question to consider a situation in which the message to a blind person would have to be, "It's probably okay to cross, but there might be traffic turning across you as you do."

It is worth noting that, in the USA, where a right turn on red is a long-established custom, the needs of blind people have not been given the priority that they have in this country. Studies in the mid-1970s, in six states where turning right on red was introduced, showed, despite the comment of the hon. Member for West Worcestershire, increases in accidents ranging from 20 per cent. to 110 per cent. Vulnerable pedestrians and cyclists' groups showed the greatest increase.

We have a system of traffic control in this country that works well. It is consistent, well understood and obeyed. It is as good as or better than that in use anywhere else, and we want to keep it that way.

The Minister just said the system of traffic control worked well. By what criteria does she judge whether a traffic system works well? Clearly, if all the traffic has come to a stop in part of a big city, and part of that is caused by the traffic light system, it is not working well.

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two issues here. Traffic jams are not occasioned by poor signalling or a system of signalling. They are often caused because there are far too many cars on roads that were not built to accommodate them. That is why the Government intend to introduce an integrated transport strategy, whereby there will be alternatives to what is seen to be an over-dependence on the private car. I do not think that we would automatically reduce traffic jams by making major changes to signalling systems that meet the needs of a wide range of road users. As I say, the primary consideration must be safety.

Although we wish to make improvements to the efficiency and flexibility of traffic control, they must not be at the expense of safety, especially for the more vulnerable groups of road users. We should, of course, always be open to new ideas, and should look at what others do to see if we can learn from them, but it is important that we are careful to evaluate proposed changes to see that they do not compromise our objectives.

In the case of turning left through red traffic lights, we have looked at the proposal, but have concluded that the disbenefits to pedestrians, to blind and partially-sighted pedestrians especially, more than outweigh any gains that might be achieved for vehicles.

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot address the House again.