Skip to main content

Road Safety (Wiltshire)

Volume 397: debated on Tuesday 14 January 2003

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

11 am

BBC Wiltshire put it to me this morning that a senior Minister's being clocked doing 99 mph along a stretch of the M4 in Wiltshire might have been the inspiration behind today's debate. That is not so, but traffic speed will feature largely in what I have to say.

Shortly after I was elected, the Wiltshire policeman who took me around pockets of petty lawlessness in my constituency was called to a traffic accident on the A36 north of Warminster. As we approached the scene, it was clear that it was a major incident, and it subsequently became apparent that a family of four had been killed when a lorry crossed to the wrong side of the road. That truly harrowing introduction left me with enormous respect for the emergency services and what they do and focused my interest in road safety. I am grateful for the opportunity to indulge that interest today.

In 1997, the Government set up the post of Minister for Public Health, and I have questioned elsewhere whether that was helpful in reducing mortality and morbidity in transportation. It was spectacularly unsuccessful in the context of road traffic accidents. After dramatic falls in road mortality in the 1980s and 1990s, progress has stalled. The Times reported only last Friday that the number killed and injured fell by less than 1 per cent. last year, which is short of the Government's 10-year plan to cut the numbers by 40 per cent. by 2010. There is a faint whiff of complacency about that and, indeed, a Department for Transport spokesman has been quoted as saying:
"Ministers are content with the progress we are making."
I invite the Minister to correct that impression—I am sure that he will do that.

Most deaths of car occupants occur on rural roads and the downward trend in total deaths since the 1980s continues at a slower rate in the countryside. Traffic is expected to increase more rapidly on rural roads than in urban areas, so it will be difficult to close the gap. I am happy to say that Wiltshire appears to be bucking the trend and, despite its rural nature, the county enjoys an enviable safety record. Against the background of the target set by the Government for the years to 2002, which was itself set against the 1981 to 1985 baseline, Wiltshire achieved a reduction of 54 per cent. in those killed or seriously injured, compared with the national average of 47 per cent. That trend was mirrored in total accidents and we appear to be doing better than Somerset, our next door neighbour, which is in many respects a similar county. It is difficult to work out the secret of Wiltshire's relative success, but one factor may be the willingness of the county to impose speed limits. In Wiltshire, less evidence has been demanded than would be required under Government guidance. For example, an accident record is not necessarily required in order for a speed limit to be imposed.

Wiltshire has been trialling vehicle-activated road signs. The success of that study should surely warrant the inclusion of such signs in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 1994, which would allow local authorities to introduce them without prior reference to the Secretary of State. I would appreciate it if the Minister would tell us when such an inclusion will be made, because my highways authority is keen to know.

Wiltshire has been anxious to ensure that its interventions are firmly rooted in available evidence. That is especially important in respect of road safety, because that subject is emotive and there is a tendency for politicians to want to be seen to be doing something, even if that may be neutral or worse. The use of 20 mph restrictions in the immediate vicinity of schools is one such example. Intuitively, one would think that such a measure is bound to help, but as the Government have pointed out, the evidence is less than clear cut. Children, especially young ones, are fairly well marshalled in the immediate vicinity of schools. They play close to their homes. The difficulty arises some distance away from schools, in the exact spots at which traffic speeds rise after leaving a 20 mph zone. We should not be tempted into tokenism and must look at wider areas.

Furthermore, evidence suggests that, to be respected, a 20 mph zone must be complemented by physical cues and attention to the general roadscape. Nowhere is that more true than in the linear villages of Wiltshire, where long, straight main streets encourage speed. A short while ago, the children of Dilton Marsh primary school wrote to me with their thoughts about how to improve road safety in their village, especially close to their school. The head teacher, Mrs. Judith Finney, invited me to visit and talk their thoughts through with the children.

I am sure that many hon. Members are humbled, as I am, by the sound good sense of young constituents. This occasion was no exception. The children pointed out that their main street was long and straight which encouraged people to drive fast. They said that the speed limit could be reduced, a pelican crossing could take them from school to the other side of the road where there was a post office and sweet shop and that general traffic-calming measures could be introduced. However, their most sophisticated observation was that it was difficult for children and their parents to walk to school because of the layout of the village and its pavements. The children said that it would be helpful if there were continuous pavement that did not end in a grass verge or hedge because they could then walk to school.

The children actually suggested what clever officials at the Department for Transport had come up with after months of careful consideration—so-called safe routes to school and school travel plans. In many areas, especially rural ones, there are no pavements and, where they do exist, they often end abruptly, forcing pedestrians into traffic. My young constituents rightly pointed to that as a hazard as well as an incentive for parents to take them to school by car.

In many areas, parents on the school run effectively use their cars as armoured vehicles to protect their children. We know that that sets in train bad habits that will probably stay with children for ever at great cost to public health and their health as individuals. By paying attention to how children get to school, we can demilitarise the school run.

Road safety is full of paradoxes. Until recently, I owned an elderly Nissan 1 litre car as well as an equally ancient Volvo estate. Apparently, I was more likely to injure and be injured while driving the latter than the former because, although Volvo has an enviable and well-publicised safety record, it encourages a tank mentality. Although my Nissan was a wonderful car, it did not encourage the same sense of immortality, which made for much better driving.

Many people were initially taken aback when Wiltshire county council decided to dispense with white central markings along some stretches of road. Research and experience from abroad suggests that doing that reduces the biggest killer on our roads—speed. It removes any sense of comfort that road users may have and engenders caution. Unfortunately, that well-meant and evidence-based intervention produced some of the most craven, ill-informed opportunism that I have ever seen from the Liberal Democrats. It was shameful and I am sure that the Minister and I will find common ground about that.

Frankly, I am sure that the Minister will agree that what the Liberal Democrats say and do in Parliament does not matter much, but it does matter locally where they are often in positions of responsibility. In the context of the problem that we are discussing, they seem to be offering only a simplistic diet of speed restrictions. The evidence tells us that lower speed is necessary but by no means sufficient. Indeed, research suggests that the environmental context is the most important influence on driver's behaviour. At this point, the problem becomes a lot more difficult to solve than is implied by the Liberal Democrats' easy solution of sticking up speed signs so that they can tick the box marked road safety and consider that the job is done.

Evidence from Europe suggests that we need to improve the ability of drivers to read the road; we need legible roads. That suggests—almost counterintuitively—that the intelligent use of speed restrictions must be supported not only with physical barriers but with the absence of comfort cues that separate road users. In effect, that extends the home zone concept and the quiet lanes initiative that has had some success in Kent and Norfolk.

We learned from the Government's response to the Select Committee on Transport's report on road safety in October that demonstration projects are planned to trial suggestions for good practice in rural areas. They will be in line with the highly successful Gloucester safer city project. I think that all of us could welcome that, and I want the Minister to say how much progress has been made.

In October 2001, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions published a progress report that it had commissioned from the consultants Babtie Ross Silcock, which was entitled "Development of a Rural Road Hierarchy for Speed Management". The following month, it appeared on the Department's website. It recognised that the main killer was speed and that a blanket 60 mph limit on rural roads was inappropriate. The idea that it came up with was a reclassification of roads with easily understandable speed limits and corresponding traffic-calming measures where appropriate. It was quite far reaching and we understand from the Government's response to the Transport Committee's report of June 2002 that a working group was set up to carry the recommendations forward. Since then, we have not heard anything further, and I want the Minister to say where he has got to with this.

At the end of 2001, the Government put on ice a number of important road building and improvement projects that would undoubtedly have saved lives. Those included the A36 improvements to the road from Codford to Heytesbury; that is a notorious stretch of trunk road, which is known colloquially as "Death Valley." That project—like the Westbury bypass—was a stand-alone local project that should not have been dependent on the outcome of the south coast to Bristol and Bath superhighway consultation exercise, which, we understand, is due to report in the summer. Nevertheless, it was put on ice pending the outcome of that investigation. Such delaying tactics are transparent, and they do not help to improve our road safety record.

Public health policy is meant to focus on where the greatest potential benefit lies. Every year, about 3,500 people are killed on Britain's roads, 40,000 are seriously injured and there 300,000 casualties in total. Each year, about a fifth of all deaths of those aged between five and 19 are due to road traffic accidents. In public health terms, that is quite a lot—and things are particularly bad if the age distribution of casualties is taken into account, because that considerably magnifies the significance of road accidents in terms of quality-adjusted life years lost.

The toll from road traffic accidents vastly exceeds that from air, sea or rail travel. The tragedy at Potters Bar in May 2002 killed seven people, and all of us can recall the furore that appropriately and understandably surrounded that sad event. However, 10 people die on our roads every day, but in spite of the public health challenge that road accidents present, road safety appears to be the poor relation when one considers the effort that we put into safety elsewhere in our transport network. In The Guardian two years ago, Rob Gifford of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety was reported to have said:
"Someone needs to do some hard thinking and ask why we are prepared to invest so heavily in rail safety and so little in road safety which offers much better value for money per life saved."
As a result of the Potters Bar tragedy, we are likely to get a specialist rail investigation branch from the forthcoming Railways and Transport Safety Bill—which, I understand, we will hear more about this afternoon. That is good; it will add to similar outfits that exist for air and sea transport, and it is broadly to be welcomed. However, on road transport, policy makers are strangely silent. That is especially odd, given that there has been a Minister with responsibility for public health since 1997 and we might therefore expect a sense of proportion in policy making. If we are serious in our cross-cutting attempts to improve public health, the Government need to concentrate on where the toll is greatest. Of course, they must deal with the all-too frequent tragedies on rail, sea and air that fascinate the media, but in addressing death and serious injury from accidents, they must be less willing to be reactive. They must look first at where their capacity to do good is greatest and that is on our roads.

It is clear from the copious material that I have ploughed through over the past few days that the evidence base available to Ministers for policy making is finite. In observing the investigation held by the police following the accident that I attended on the A36, I was able better to understand the role of the police in such matters. It is clear that, appropriately, their first consideration is law enforcement and not accident investigation. Indeed, they have neither the numbers nor the tools, given the skills that they are provided with to act as specialist accident investigators, to conduct investigations in the way that, for example, air, sea and rail investigators may.

Now is the time to set up a road casualty investigation branch to hold thematic inquiries into why certain types of accident happen. It could be located in the Department for Transport and funded through existing resources. It is worth noting that the total cost of road accidents in the United Kingdom in 1998—the latest year for which the figures are available—was £11.5 billion.

11.16 am

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) on securing the debate and on the exemplary manner in which he has presented his case today. Notwithstanding that, I am sure that he will not mind my chiding him gently on the matters on which I disagree. I share his distress at seeing major incidents such as the one that he described on the M4 in which people were killed and seriously injured. I assure him that every time such accidents happen—in my own constituency or anywhere else—they have an impact, not only on people like myself but on those in the Department. That is partly what drives us forward to do the things that we are doing.

I will chide the hon. Gentleman gently on the importance of such events to Government policy. I assure him that road safety is very prominent in the Department's thinking. It permeates our road transport policy. There is no complacency. We have a 10-year target to reduce the number of those killed and seriously injured. However, my reading of those figures is that we are now just ahead of the target. It is encouraging that we compare very well internationally—we are probably the best in terms of overall road safety—but our record on accidents involving children has not been as good as that of other countries in the European Union. It is encouraging to see that we are now making an impact on the number of accidents involving children.

I share the hon. Member's interest in the west Wiltshire "People's Voice", which sounds like the Liberal Democrat's version of "Focus". I have a saying, "In politics, there are lies, damned lies, statistics and Liberal Democrat focuses", in that order. I agree with him that there is "craven, ill-informed opportunism" in the document. It is nonsense to suggest that the whole road safety problem could be solved by spending £150,000 on 20 mph zones around schools—and that the policy was cruelly voted down by Tories and Labour councils. As the hon. Member for Westbury pointed out, our experience is that reducing speed limits and putting up signs in the road has little impact on the speed of vehicles. Such actions must be associated with other measures, such as engineering changes or speed cameras. There are many possible changes that could reduce speeds. As has rightly been pointed out, different measures can be combined. We should not detain ourselves for too long on the simplicity of the Liberal Democrats' so-called solutions.

Before I move on to some general points, I want to deal with a couple of questions that were raised. The hon. Gentleman spoke about talking to children at primary schools in his area. I have consulted widely with children in my area on what policies they think important. Interestingly, road safety features highly—children are the ones who experience the problems day by day when going to and from school and when playing. We should never ignore the sound good sense of children. We are considering ways of interacting with children in our consultations, so that we can hear some of that good sense and condense it into our thinking and our policies.

The hon. Gentleman asked about vehicle-activated signs. In some areas, they can certainly be very effective. Revised guidance will include approved legends for those signs, and the Highways Agency will soon provide guidance on approved types of equipment.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Gloucester safer city project, which I had the pleasure of visiting just under two years ago. The project has been extremely successful in involving local people and finding out the issues that they consider must be dealt with. Finding local solutions to local problems is very important. The full report on the project will be published some time in the spring of this year. It has taken time to discover what we have learned, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will learn important lessons from the experience in Gloucester, where the measures taken have led to a huge improvement in road safety and general quality of life.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's impatience about the Codford to Heytesbury section of the A36. However, the roads programme that we are undertaking, and the amount of money that we are spending both through the Highways Agency and through local transport plans, is unprecedented in the past 50 years. Although it has made good sense to defer this particular project while the south coast to Bristol and Bath study was carried out, recommendations will be made again in the spring. It would not be sensible for me to comment further before then.

I am sure that hon. Members are aware that the Government produced in October last year a response to the report by the Select Committee on Transport on road traffic speed, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That response included mention of work that my Department is doing and will be doing to combat the effects of not only excessive but inappropriate speed. That work will help us to achieve our casualty reduction targets—a reduction of 40 per cent. in the overall figures for those killed or seriously injured, and a reduction of 50 per cent. in the figures for children, by 2010. We are aware of the problem of inappropriate and excessive speeds, especially in rural areas. We acknowledge that many of the measures that we have developed to improve safety in urban areas are not always appropriate for rural communities. We are working hard to address that imbalance.

It may be of interest to hon. Members that work is in progress or is planned for the near future. We have already begun to consider the merits and the practical implications of introducing a rural road hierarchy—which, of course, will be important in a largely rural county such as Wiltshire. We are also considering village entry signing and are simplifying the procedures for introducing 30 mph village speed limits. In addition, I am sure that the hon. Member for Westbury will be interested to know that work has already started on the development of a framework for assessing which speeds are appropriate and comparing them with the speeds that are actually being driven on our rural roads. We expect the first results of that work to be available in the early part of this year. They will feed into our plans to revise the guidance on setting local speed limits more appropriately. We plan to publish the advice on village entry signing later this year, to assist authorities in introducing more 30 mph speed limits in rural villages.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that responsibility for safety on local roads rests largely with the local highways authority. However, the system of local transport plans requires local authorities to include separate road safety strategies for achieving the new reduction targets in their bids for capital funding for local transport measures. Wiltshire's funding for integrated transport measures, which includes measures to promote road safety, has increased from just over £350,000 in 1998–99 to almost £4 million in the current financial year. The hon. Gentleman will agree that that is a substantial and welcome increase in local authority funding for transport purposes.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Wiltshire has made real improvements in road safety. They are largely consistent with the national trend and have generally exceeded the relevant targets. It is a tribute to local highways authorities and the police that they have promoted better road safety education, engineered solutions and introduced better enforcement where appropriate.

As the hon. Gentleman said, however, that is just the start, and we have no reason to be complacent. In 2002, Wiltshire county council signed a public service agreement with the Government, which included a more challenging casualty reduction target than that which applies nationally. We welcome that. The public service agreement sets a target of reducing the number of those killed or seriously injured on Wiltshire county and trunk roads to 288 by 2005. Without the public service agreement, the national target for Wiltshire would be 311. The county is half way towards achieving the national target for 2010, and I congratulate it.

The hon. Gentleman could not resist making some comparisons within Wiltshire and with the neighbouring county of Somerset. It is difficult to compare one county with another. Counties have their own problems and needs, and they must develop an appropriate road safety strategy. I have looked at Somerset's figures, however, and they show the same downward trend as those for Wiltshire. That is welcome.

We want to encourage the introduction of 20 mph speed limits outside schools, and we will do so where appropriate. As the hon. Gentleman said, however, such speed limits will often have to be associated with other measures, and I am sure that Wiltshire is considering that.

Speed limit enforcement will remain an important part of our road safety strategy. One of the most effective road safety tools that we have introduced to combat excessive speed is the netting-off scheme, which allows some fixed-penalty speeding fine revenue to be reinvested in safety cameras. The scheme has been enormously effective. Wiltshire joined in 2002 and mainly operates mobile camera units, which specifically target speed-related casualties on rural roads.

The safety camera scheme has been so successful that we expect nearly all police force areas to have joined by spring this year. Wiltshire is relatively new to the scheme, but the hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that there was, on average, a massive 47 per cent. reduction in the number of those killed or seriously injured at camera sites in the pilot schemes. In real terms, more than 100 people are alive and well who would have been killed or seriously injured this year. That is a considerable success on the part of the schemes, and we should flag it up.

As has been highlighted, cameras are an excellent tool in helping to reduce excessive speed, but they cannot effectively combat inappropriate speeds below the speed limit. In our recent television advertising, we sought to encourage people to travel at speeds appropriate to the road conditions and the time of day—it may be raining or children may be coming out of school. Even 30 mph in a 30 mph zone may be inappropriate at certain times of day, although it will be wholly appropriate at others.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we announced SWARMMS—the south-west area multi-modal study—before Christmas. It will dual much of the A303, which passes through the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Indeed, I sometimes pass along it on the way to my constituency. The study will introduce many road safety improvements, including on the stretch at Stonehenge, where tunnelling is being carried out. It is, indeed, a black spot.

Again, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising these issues. I may not have covered them all in the time at my disposal, and I will be delighted to correspond with him.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended till Two o'clock.