Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]
Part of my political credo is that technology should be man’s slave, and not his master. Therefore, I welcome the introduction of satellite navigation in principle, even though I have not yet got it and have never used it. Four million drivers in this country use it already and satellite navigation is fitted as standard in one in every five cars. Half of all motorists have planned routes using internet mapping, which is a closely associated technology. We have seen a commodity grow from an expensive gimmick for the few to a more affordable must-have for the many in little more than a few months—high street stores have already noticed that Christmas is coming.
The aims of satellite navigation are worthy: simple navigation with updated mapping information; onscreen mapping that is not too intrusive or dangerous; avoiding hazards or congestion, thus saving time and fuel; and even, perhaps, someone to talk with on long journeys. If only it were that simple.
Millers Dale is a quiet village on the southern border of my constituency. Through it runs a narrow road in a steep-sided valley under a tall bridge carrying a former railway line. It is a poorly lit stretch of road, with no pavement underneath the bridge. It is bad enough for children to navigate that road on foot in the dark after the school bus has dropped them off, but the situation has got more frightening than ever recently and has become more dangerous since the number of HGVs using the road—the A6049—has increased considerably.
Why has that happened? Long-distance lorry drivers, perhaps from eastern Europe, who are not familiar with the geography of Britain might find themselves making a delivery in Liverpool or Manchester. If they seek the quickest route back to the southbound M1, the satellite navigation system will direct them through Millers Dale. That does not make any sense, but someone who does not know any better than to follow its advice will take that route.
In Brookbottom, on the western border of High Peak, a coach load of 40 tourists from London spent more time than they had planned enjoying the Peak district after their coach became wedged on a tight bend. A tanker lorry did something similar a week earlier. Typical of satellite navigation’s idiosyncrasies is to take people down short cuts that turn out to be anything but. Coming west on the A624 from Chesterfield, heading for Stockport or Manchester via the A6, one reaches the picturesque village of Sparrowpit, where a pub called the “Wanted Inn” perches on a hairpin bend. Satellite navigation tells drivers that if they turn right immediately behind the pub and then first left, there is a straight road over to the A6, which cuts off a corner and saves 3 or 4 miles. It is up a short hill and then down a very long one. There is a great view of Manchester from the top, for those who like that sort of thing. At the bottom of the hill, however, around Blackbrook, there are a couple of hairpin bends that can only be described as mean. Woe betide the articulated lorry that tries to take those blind bends at any speed—as some have, aided and abetted, no doubt, by the helpful person who removed the weight restrictions signs from the Sparrowpit end of the road.
Once drivers have navigated that road, they have another problem, according to my constituent, Guy Martin. His TomTom satellite navigation system apparently shows the A6 as a single carriageway—in effect directing drivers the wrong way up a lane of a dual carriageway. Mr. Martin complained to TomTom when his device told him that its memory was full and he could not upgrade the information that it carried. He wrote to the local press about it. His letter in the local paper said:
“I complained to Tom but after several weeks had no reply.”
Now, being slagged off in the local press is nothing new to me, except that I had seen Mr. Martin’s original e-mail, which he kindly copied me into. He actually wrote:
“I complained to Tom Tom”,
but a helpful sub-editor removed the duplicated word and thus committed a calumny against me. I am delighted to report that the following week’s letters page contained both a correction from Mr. Martin and grovelling apology from the paper’s editor for criticising my status as a Member of the House so unjustly. I hope that TomTom replied in due course.
No discussion of satellite navigation would be complete without a reference to Swansea City’s football ground, the Liberty stadium. Apparently, satellite navigation systems still direct people to the club’s former ground, the Vetch, which it has not used since the end of last season. A visiting team from Bradford nearly missed a game recently due to delays caused by incorrect data on the satellite navigation system. It is said that the police trawl Swansea every Saturday lunchtime looking for lost and literally misguided motorists in search of a football ground.
Stories about satellite navigation have acquired the status of urban myths, but it is difficult to believe that they are not all true—after all, they have been in the newspapers. There have been stories about vehicles being directed down steps at Sheppards Barton, or the wrong way down one-way streets in Glasgow. Thirty pensioners were stuck for four hours when their coach became caught between the grassy banks of a lane in Forest of Dean. Signs showing weight restrictions, and even no-through roads, are being flouted by the score in Somerset, Cornwall and Devon more often than ever. Cars have courted disaster when attempting to ford the River Avon at Luckington, or when being directed to the edge of a 100 ft cliff in north Yorkshire. All those stories have appeared in the national or regional press in the past two weeks.
It is easy to blame satellite navigation for the problem, but weight restriction signs exist to guide motorists, and being in possession of satellite navigation gives them no excuse to ignore such a sign. No one tells a motorist to ford a stream that is too deep, or to risk driving a car off a cliff edge. Most pedestrianised streets are pretty well marked. As the Royal Automobile Club said in the 15 October edition of Scotland on Sunday:
“Just because a computer tells you to drive into a ditch or whatever, it doesn’t mean you have to do it”.
So, what is all the fuss about? Frankly, I am not too worried about what happens to cars, even though research shows that a fifth of all young drivers no longer carry a road atlas and that two thirds of them do not know the significance of a road being marked in red—it is an A-road—on a map. However, lorries can do an awful lot of damage even at slow speeds, whether that is to a bridge in Bodmin, or to garden walls in Shaftsbury. Such damage is also testified by the experience of Mr. Isherwood of Chapel Milton, which is in my constituency.
Mr. Isherwood’s case relates to lorries travelling along the A624 from Glossop without realising that there is a height limit under the railway bridge outside his house. Rather than getting stuck under the bridge, the lorries try to turn round and go back to the previous junction at Hayfield, which is some three miles back, but there is simply no room on the road for them to do so. Cars in the car park of the Crown and Mitre pub and Mr. Isherwood’s garden wall have thus been the frequent victims of lorries that have tried to carry out multi-point turns. “Ah, but,” the industry will say, “height limits are not our responsibility.” That is my point.
I wrote to the Department for Transport some weeks ago to ask what it was going to do about misleading, out-of-date and unhelpful data being incorporated into, or downloaded on to, satellite navigation systems in vehicles. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), who will reply to the debate, acknowledged that there was a problem, but said at that time that voluntary regulation by the industry was the answer. That was at a time when even the AA and the RAC—those champions of the deregulation of driving—were calling for the recognition of possible hazards caused by satellite navigation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend, however, because I read in the 15 October edition of Scotland on Sunday that the Department has set up a review because:
“As the use of satellite navigation becomes more common, there is a need to ensure that devices do not pose a safety risk through driver distraction. It is also necessary to ensure that their routing strategies do not encourage the use of ‘rat-runs’ or give ill-advised or illegal instructions to the user.”
I hope that that will be achieved by licensing the production and sale of satellite navigation equipment.
Several satellite navigation systems offer the driver the option of telling him or her—I suspect that it is mostly him—the location of speed cameras, and we can debate whether that is a justifiable purpose of satellite navigation. In the future, we might expect satellite navigation to tell us where congestion can be found and how to avoid it, where roadworks are to be found, and where congestion charging is in place. In the more distant future, it might tell us the different rates of road pricing that will apply in any given area. Yet I think I am right in saying that at present no publicly available satellite navigation system can tell us what weight, height and width limits apply to any particular road. Even the Ordnance Survey, whose data are the source of much satellite navigation information, has only just started to collate information about the width, weight and height restrictions on 110,000 of our bridges—there are probably more. The Ordnance Survey spokesman said very sensibly in the Birmingham Mail just two weeks ago:
“A single bridge strike can lead to a loss of business and higher insurance premiums as well as the costs of the repair. Other drivers can also be affected if surrounding roads have to be closed.”
Height and width restrictions on roads are intended to protect structures, vehicles, drivers and passengers. Only a fool would not heed the advice that is given on these matters. Weight limits exist, by and large, for the same reason, but they are also used as a tool for traffic management by local authorities to improve the quality of life in certain communities.
I am envious of the hon. Gentleman for getting the debate, as I was trying for one on the same subject. May I vouch for one of his examples? Sheppards Barton is a mediaeval cobbled street ending in a flight of steps next to my office in Frome, and a very surprised driver found himself delivering coffee down there the other day. The hon. Gentleman is right. One of the problems that we see in my constituency involves heavy lorries, often with overseas drivers. They unload at Poole and look for a north-south route, but one is not obviously available. They rely on satnav, which takes them along a road such as the A357 through Blackmoor Vale and through delightful villages such as Henstridge and Templecombe, which cannot take heavy vehicles. Do we not need a route hierarchy built into the geography of the satnav system, so that drivers are advised of sensible routes and communities are relieved of heavy traffic?
When I reach the end of my speech, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased with the conclusions that I reach and the questions that I put directly to the Minister. I had not appreciated that Sheppards Barton was in his constituency. I thank him for that intervention.
More and more often, drivers ignore weight limits, particularly those that are used for traffic management purposes rather than to protect vulnerable bridges. That is being exacerbated by the use of satellite navigation. Bearing in mind that those weight limits in particular are not usually targeted at cars but at heavy goods vehicles, I shall ask my hon. Friend the Minister a number of questions, and I promise to leave him plenty of time to answer them.
Will my hon. Friend introduce a system of licensing for satellite navigation service providers? Will he ensure that weight, height and width limits on bridges are incorporated into satellite navigation data as soon as possible? Will he ensure that local authority weight limits imposed on roads as part of a traffic management strategy—the anti-rat run strategy that his Department has mentioned—are also included? Will he ensure that statutory speed limits are included in satellite navigation within a few years? Will he ensure that after a certain date new satellite navigation systems will be required to issue audible warnings when speed limits are exceeded by a certain amount, and where weight, height and width limits are in danger of being exceeded at all?
Will my hon. Friend work towards a common European standard for satellite navigation systems to ensure that commercial traffic entering the UK complies with our regulations? Will he give local authorities the power to designate roads as not recommended for heavy commercial vehicles and oblige satellite navigation systems to take note of such recommendations? Will he make it obligatory for all satellite navigation systems to be capable of being updated automatically, easily and preferably free?
As I said earlier, satellite navigation systems have become a new generation of urban myths, but they are founded in truth. That truth has led to unnecessary discomfort, distress and damage. One day it may lead to a death. If we are to make the most of the technology, we must be clear what we want it to do for us. We must also be clear that it does what we want it to do, and that the obvious benefits of satellite navigation are socially useful and not limited by what the market wishes to provide.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) on securing the debate, and on beating the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to it. The debate follows on from my exchange of correspondence with my hon. Friend in August, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak, because it gives me the opportunity to inform the House about the public consultation that we recently initiated and is now under way.
My hon. Friend is right that satellite navigation is a controversial subject. Many people consider it to be a blessing and would not leave home without it, while others—including both contributors to the debate—fear that it is responsible for leading people and their vehicles astray. However, I should say to both of them that a lot of the information that my hon. Friend has asked me to force the inclusion of in satellite navigation systems would not be available on maps either. Some of it would be available on Ordnance Survey maps, but most people do not use Ordnance Survey maps when they are planning a route. They tend to use other sorts of motoring atlases that do not usually include information such as height and weight restrictions. So even if people use the old-fashioned way of navigating, they can end up with the same problems. Therefore, we need to be a bit careful not to blame satellite navigation for all the ills of road traffic.
I understand that; the Minister has made a good point. But 10—or certainly 20—years ago, most driving was done locally, and certainly most journeys were within Britain. Now, however, people drive many more road miles, and their journeys increasingly take them across the country to areas that they do not know—and into countries that they do not know, too. So perhaps there is more reason than ever for putting such information into the public domain.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend in that respect. The point that I am making is simply that satellite navigation might give us an opportunity to improve people’s routing, and to do things that we might not have been able to do in the past when we had the old, paper-based sort of routing.
I must confess that I have no sense of direction, so the satellite navigation system in my car is invaluable, and it also steers me past traffic jams, which often saves me a great deal of time when I am travelling to Parliament on Monday mornings. On the other hand, it recently sent me down a road that turned into a cart track, where I was up to my wheel arches in mud. So, like many people, I see both the strengths and the weaknesses of satellite navigation systems.
There are different kinds of in-vehicle electronic routing systems. Some of them simply provide routing advice based on digitally mapped roads, and I suspect that many of the problems that my hon. Friend has detailed have come about as a result of those systems. Others, which are known as dynamic route guidance systems, provide routing instructions according to real-time prevailing traffic and road conditions. Those types of systems are automatically updated with the latest information available to the company that provides the service, including on roadworks and the location of traffic jams. Some systems are integral to vehicles; others are portable devices that can be moved from vehicle to vehicle. Well-designed route guidance systems have the potential to reduce congestion and improve safety on the road. For example, drivers can listen to guidance without taking their eyes off the road. There is no need for them to look at their maps while moving, or to cause congestion by stopping to study their maps.
The software used to determine a given route is based on a hierarchy of roads, with motorways and dual carriageways favoured over slower, smaller, and generally local and residential roads. The route selected should always use principal roads, except at the start and end of a journey, where that might not be an option. That approach would normally avoid unsuitable routing, for example along single-track roads. However, it is possible that dynamic route guidance systems would suggest such a route as a diversion, in the event of problems on motorways and A-roads. Non-dynamic systems would not normally suggest unsuitable roads, provided that the area required is served by motorways and A-roads.
However, we are aware of concerns about vehicles, especially large or heavy vehicles, being guided on to unsuitable roads—my hon. Friend has given many examples of why we should be so concerned—and about the safety and traffic problems that can arise. We have legislation on in-vehicle information systems, including a licensing regime for some devices, but it dates back to 1989 and 1990. Since then, technology has surged ahead at great speed and may well have overtaken that legislation. We have few hard statistics to illustrate the scale of the problems that might be arising, so the Department for Transport carried out a brief survey of local authorities earlier this year. Analysis of the responses showed that a majority of the authorities that replied had received no complaints about inappropriate routing within the last 12 months. However, all the complaints that had been received related to heavy vehicles, and the local authorities’ view was that the number of reported incidents is rising, which could lead to problems in future.
The survey highlighted examples of vehicles being directed to local roads with access restrictions of some kind—such as weight, height or width limits—and heavy vehicles, especially foreign vehicles, being diverted from motorways on to inappropriate local roads. Many of the reported problems arise from satellite navigation systems designed for cars being used in trucks. Clearly, this is unwise. Heavy vehicles might be directed along a route that, although entirely suitable for a car, is inappropriate for a lorry. Local highway and traffic authorities do of course have the ability to make traffic regulation orders and to place traffic signs to restrict access on the part of some or all types of vehicles. Orders can include limits on vehicle weights, widths and lengths. Unsuitable roads, bridges and tunnels can therefore be made “off limits” to inappropriate vehicles by means of orders and signs.
It is obviously essential for drivers of heavy vehicles always to act with common sense, and to look at, and take action on, all relevant road signs. But if truck drivers follow a guidance system designed for a car slavishly without paying proper attention, they might breach these orders. I am aware that satellite navigation systems are coming on to the market that are aimed specifically at heavy vehicles and trucks. Although they have yet to be tested by the Department, one would hope that they will avoid some of these errors. But such drivers are required to ensure that they are using a system that is designed for their vehicle, and not for a car.
While the map used by a navigation device should be up to date, whatever system is used—be it cutting-edge electronic gadgetry with all the bells and whistles of dynamic route guidance, or a simple paper road map—drivers are responsible for ensuring that their driving decisions are legal and appropriate. Drivers cannot blame their satellite navigation systems for their failure to drive lawfully. They certainly cannot blame their systems if they drive the wrong way down a one-way street, because there are clear signs at the entrances to all such streets showing that it is not appropriate to enter at that point.
The police and courts can take a range of appropriate enforcement actions. For example, the offence of failure to comply with a traffic sign can be punished with a fine, points on a driver’s licence, or even discretionary disqualification. Car drivers, too, could conceivably breach traffic regulation orders or other road traffic requirements, were they to follow route guidance without taking account of road signs and their own common sense. We have heard some anecdotal evidence of that happening, but it appears from the results of the local authority survey that problems with trucks are more common.
System and map providers are aware of the problem of heavy vehicles using car route guidance. Some heavy vehicle-specific systems, which include information such as bridge heights and width and weight restrictions, are now available on the continent. I believe that a system with some of these features has recently come on to the UK market; I have no doubt that others will follow.
I am sure that the market will deliver a solution to this problem in time, and I do not want to interfere in that market without good reason. But I do take very seriously the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, and the Department for Transport has just launched a full public consultation on route guidance systems. This is an initial consultation exercise and, depending on our findings, it might be followed by a full statutory consultation on possible changes to the current licensing regime.
The consultation has two aims. First, we want to ensure—by legislation, self-regulation or some other option—that satellite navigation and other route guidance systems are safe for drivers and other road users. For example, we need to ensure that these systems do not cause serious distraction to drivers. Secondly, we want to ensure that the guidance offered by such systems avoids the problems of inappropriate routing. Our wider approach to better regulation suggests that a deregulatory approach would be best, perhaps in association with a self-certification process, but I have an open mind and I want to hear all good ideas. I assure my hon. Friend that I am not in any way prejudging the outcome of the consultation.
Our consultation began on 9 October, to coincide with the opening of the intelligent transport systems world congress, which this year was hosted in London and at which I saw plenty of innovation. The consultation ends on 9 January. We have sent consultation papers to a large number of individuals and organisations, and they are available on the Department’s website. We are inviting all stakeholders’ views on the best way forward. I will ensure that the views that hon. Members expressed today are fed into the consultation process and that today’s Hansard is made available to the consultation team.
The Minister’s comments are very encouraging. Is the Department prepared to consider not simply directing people away from roads that are unsuitable because they have weight or height restrictions, or similar, but taking an active role in encouraging heavy goods vehicles on to roads that are better suited than a road such as the one that I mentioned, which does not have such restrictions placed on it? It is grossly unsuitable for very heavy lorries, but because it is an A-road people are entitled to use it.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is getting at. If we can come up with a way to designate such roads and provide that information to the makers of guidance systems, I am certainly prepared to consider it. The designation system is based on A, B and unclassified roads, so, given that the hon. Gentleman is talking about A-roads, one cannot blame a guidance system manufacturer for guiding vehicles down them. We would have to come up with a system that differentiates where it is appropriate and inappropriate. It is difficult to legislate in this area because lorries often have to make deliveries on roads that the hon. Gentleman and I would probably think inappropriate as a route because their destination means that they have no alternative.
We want to consider other concerns that have been expressed about such systems. For example, consumer groups have found widely differing results in performance tests. Other studies have suggested that many drivers, particularly young people, are becoming dependent on navigation systems because they are not confident in map reading. I also have to bear in mind our recent statistical analysis suggesting that 32 per cent. of accidents are caused by a failure to look properly. Systems that distract drivers are clearly to be avoided. We want to consider such issues carefully before making recommendations. If it is true that drivers are depending on such devices, that reinforces the need to do whatever is necessary to ensure the systems are safe and fit for purpose.
We have been working to get the best from these systems in other ways. For example, we have included simple and straightforward advice to drivers in the Highway Code. Rule 128 already warns of the risk of distractions from in-vehicle systems such as route guidance devices. The code explains that drivers must be in proper control of their vehicles at all times. They must not allow themselves to become distracted by such equipment while driving. If they need to adjust the equipment, or to study it closely, they should find a safe place to stop.
We are also working with industry interests. Some time ago, the Department developed guidelines for assessing route guidance systems against standards—known as human-machine interface, or HMI, standards—to reduce the potential for driver distraction. That work led to the creation of a European statement of principles on HMI that was issued by the European Commission and adopted by the major vehicle manufacturers. The Department also commissioned the Transport Research Laboratory to produce guidelines on assessing the routing strategy of systems. That provides manufacturers with an evaluation tool to reduce the possibility of inappropriate routing.
Meanwhile, all responses to our consultation will inform our development of proposals. I am looking forward to seeing those responses in due course. If hon. Members have any more examples that they want to bring to my attention or any further questions, I am happy to receive their representations. I look forward to debating the subject again, perhaps after the consultation as we decide the way forward.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Six o’clock.