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Westminster Hall

Volume 493: debated on Thursday 4 June 2009

Westminster Hall

Thursday 4 June 2009

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Road Safety

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Ian Lucas.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to open the debate. It is a pleasure to see you presiding over it, Mr. Benton. The subject of road safety has always attracted a good degree of cross-party consensus and I do not expect participants in this debate to divide on party political lines, even though this is an election day.

I begin by paying tribute to the hard work of the dedicated professionals in local and national Government, the emergency services and the private sector who have reduced the number of serious crashes and mitigated their consequences. They have done that by improving road design, enhancing vehicle safety and improving road-user behaviour. I also pay tribute to campaign organisations such as the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, led by Rob Gifford, and to bereaved families, who keep us focused on the key issues. However, although it is important to record our appreciation for the work that all those good people do, I do not want to dwell on past achievements. Today I want to talk about our long-term vision for road safety in Great Britain.

We all have an interest in reducing the number of casualties on Britain’s roads and tackling the root causes of a menace that still accounts for nearly 3,000 deaths a year throughout the country. That figure has been coming down steadily in recent years. Indeed, the total number of deaths and serious injuries is down by 36 per cent. in the past decade and the number of fatalities in 2007 and 2008, for example, was lower than at any time for 80 years.

At the end of April, we launched a consultation on our new long-term road safety strategy, which will come into force in 2010. Although it draws on many important lessons that we have learned from the current strategy, it also sets out a fresh range of initiatives and ideas to meet our future objectives. The proposed strategy starts from the clear premise that despite recent successes, current casualty rates and particularly death rates are still far too high. Although we have reduced the number of serious injuries on our roads by 37 per cent. in the period covered by the current strategy, deaths have come down by only 18 per cent. If the next decade’s strategy is to be successful, we need to be bold. That is why the consultation sets out a long-term vision not only to improve road safety, but to make Britain’s roads the safest in the world.

I appreciate that I have stopped the Minister in his prime, only two minutes into his speech, but he has said that the number of deaths is still far too high. Surely he would agree that motoring, like many other activities in life, can never be entirely risk free. He makes great play of the fact that there have been significant reductions in the past year and that fatalities are at their lowest level for many decades. Does he have a figure in mind for an acceptable number of deaths, given that inevitably a balance must be struck between addressing what is obviously a risky undertaking and ensuring that there is relatively swift movement on the roads for the many millions of our fellow countrymen who wish to go from A to B?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point. We have been having a discussion in the Department, pressed on us by outside campaign groups, about redefining what is happening on our roads by saying that people are not having accidents; they are having incidents, crashes and collisions. That is because analysing the incidents and the causes of deaths shows that the vast majority are caused by human decisions: people not wearing seat belts, people speeding or people drinking or taking drugs. Those are conscious decisions that people are making, which are putting their own lives and other people’s at risk. That is not to say that accidents do not happen. A tyre can blow out. Something unexpected can happen, such as trees falling. We recognise that there is an element of danger in any activity, and driving is no different. However, we can affect human behaviour and introduce technology, which I shall go on to describe—I am thinking of road engineering and car safety features—to bring down the number of deaths and injuries.

Eight people a day are still killed on our roads. Tens of thousands in the course of a year are seriously injured. Their lives are ruined and their families have to pick up the pieces. That is a social disaster, but we can improve the situation a great deal if we take the appropriate steps, and we have been doing that for many years and particularly for the past 10 to 20 years.

As I said, I genuinely do not see this as a party political issue. On one or two elements of the strategy—for example, speed cameras—there are disagreements between colleagues on Government policy. However, I think that those on the Front Benches are relatively well disposed towards the use of speed cameras. There is cross-party consensus on many of the issues. If we change the language so that instead of talking about accidents that happen to people, we say that they are incidents that are caused in the main by human behaviour, we shift the responsibility from society having accidents to individuals causing crashes, collisions and incidents that kill either themselves or other people. That switch of language is important. That is not to say that accidents cannot happen, but the vast majority can be prevented because they are caused by human behaviour.

Implicitly, the Minister understands that driving is inherently a hazardous activity and therefore, to a large extent, some accidents will genuinely be accidents. He is right to refer to the lack of a seat belt, drunken-driving and massively excessive speeding. All of those are factors in some accidents, but does he not agree that we will reach a level that might be regarded, although we do not want anyone to die on our roads, as acceptable? I am talking about a point at which a lot has already been done in all the areas that we are discussing, but there are still a number of deaths because of the intrinsic hazard that comes with driving. One of the dangers, whether this is in relation to individual freedoms that are being upset or the concern that I have often expressed on speed cameras, is that too much is driven by money raising, rather than simply safety aspects.

I am content to agree that we shall never be able completely to eliminate deaths and serious injuries on the roads. However, we do collectively agree that the majority of deaths and serious injuries on the roads—we can statistically demonstrate this—are caused deliberately, by people flouting the rules of the road or doing something that endangers themselves or others. Given that, there is an awfully long way to go before we reach a point at which we might start thinking that we cannot go much further. At the moment, we know that we can go further, because we can see the progress in other European countries.

However, having made the reasonable progress that we have in the past 10 to 20 years, each year it becomes harder to improve because, as we reduce the element of risk—having improved our performance, whether by enforcement, road engineering, legislating or changing human behaviour—we reduce the space in which improvement can be made. We shall never completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries, but at the moment we are nowhere near the position that the hon. Gentleman describes.

The Minister is right to say that this is not a matter for party political bickering. Does he agree, though, that unlike cases of aeroplane crashes, in which the air accident investigation is aimed at finding the cause of the accident, in some cases the police may be a little preoccupied with finding a person to prosecute, rather than looking at some of the wider issues that may have contributed to the accident?

I am not sure that I agree entirely. It may well be that different investigations lead to different outcomes and are driven by different emotions at the time or professional stimuli. However, a thorough and investigative procedure for each incident is needed to determine whether it was an accident or caused by something that could be eliminated by Government action or changes that car manufacturers could be asked to make.

There has been a strong push from some road safety campaign groups for road crashes to be taken out of police jurisdiction and handed to the Health and Safety Executive. They take that view because a big factor in causing deaths on the road is fatigue among people whose work is driving. It can often be demonstrated that they have been driving for too long and should have taken a break or been able to rely on a reserve driver. The Department has resisted that call. Notwithstanding the fact that they are accidents at work, we support the Home Office because we believe that the police are better equipped more thoroughly to investigate road crashes and have greater expertise to identify the causes. We can learn strong lessons from police reports to coroners courts, for instance.

I do not fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. It may be the case in some investigations, but I have not seen evidence of it. We will obviously do all that we can to ensure that police investigate the causes of accidents and are not simply looking to prosecute people—a tick-box conclusion to the fact that somebody has died.

In the long term, we are trying to make Britain’s roads the safest in the world. Our primary target for 2020 is therefore to reduce deaths by a further third. We realise that such a target is ambitious, but we believe that it is grounded in reality—and, most important, is achievable. We also propose reducing serious injuries by 33 per cent. over the same time frame.

We acknowledge our moral responsibility to protect children and young people, so we propose reducing annual road deaths and serious injuries among that group by at least half by 2020. Our progress on reducing child casualties since 2000 was an improvement: we reduced child deaths and serious injuries by 55 per cent. from the previous baseline. However, that was for the nought-to-16 age group. Progress has been much less marked for the slightly older age groups, and we therefore propose extending the target to cover 16 and 17-year-olds.

To meet those goals, however, we cannot rely on making lots of new laws, piling legislation upon legislation. Instead, our philosophy must be to concentrate on improving the delivery of road safety, in particular homing in on those roads, people and behaviours most associated with casualties.

We need to tackle the hard cases. For example, to improve safety on rural roads, which carry only 42 per cent. of all traffic but which see 60 per cent. of all road deaths, we propose to publish maps every year highlighting the main roads with the poorest safety records, so that highway authorities can take action with their partners to tackle those routes.

We will also encourage the authorities to reduce speed limits on rural single carriageways, on a targeted basis—I repeat that it will be on a targeted basis; I tended to get into some difficulty with certain parliamentary colleagues who thought that we were proposing a blanket approach, but that was never the case—and we would be looking to reduce speed limits from the current 60 mph national limit.

The level of danger on those roads varies widely, and we want the authorities to reduce speed limits on those roads that have the most crashes. We will continue to encourage investment in improved highway engineering, as it is clear that such schemes are continuing to reduce casualties at relatively low cost. We also want local authorities to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists by establishing 20 mph zones and limits in streets of a primarily residential nature. Let me make this clear: they will not be major through routes that happen to have a few houses on them, but streets with the primary purpose of allowing access to our homes. These streets are for living in, not dying in. Over time, we expect the shift to 20 mph limits in those streets to make walking and cycling demonstrably safer, and to encourage people to do more of both.

We will not only continue to work in partnership with the motor industry to boost vehicle safety, but seek to raise awareness of driver and passenger safety. We expect crash protection improvements to focus on particular problems or types of accidents, and we believe that advanced vehicle safety systems that help drivers and motorcyclists to avoid crashes will have the potential to reduce casualties significantly over the next decade. We recognise that people make mistakes in all walks of life, including on the roads, so we need to create a system where errors on the road are less likely to lead to death or serious injury, and more sophisticated vehicle safety technology and safer road engineering will help us to meet the challenge.

Alongside these technological advances, improving behaviour will continue to be at the heart of our road safety strategy up to 2020; we will support more responsible road use and tackle those who behave irresponsibly. Our consultation late last year on road safety compliance set out a number of proposals to crack down on those motorists who endanger not only their own lives but the lives of others by failing to adhere to the laws of the road. The proposals include higher penalty points for reckless speeding and strong measures to discourage the utterly irresponsible minority who drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

No one would want to defend the so-called rights of irresponsible or dangerous drivers. As the Minister rightly points out, the Government propose additional points for reckless or excessive speeding—perhaps as many as six for each such incident.

Would it not be sensible, in conjunction with that, to recognise that for certain technical speeding offences—such as driving only a few miles per hour over the limit, perhaps in the middle of the night, when there is not really any danger to other road users, and particularly in relation to speed cameras—there should be something less than the standard three-point tariff? In other words, we should have a slightly more flexible tariff system, as regular drivers committing four relatively small technical offences within a three-year period would, as the Minister said, automatically get a six-month ban. Surely Parliament’s intention was to have bans for the most reckless drivers.

The hon. Gentleman again makes a fair point. We considered the matter carefully. It was suggested last year, before we published our consultation document, that we might give licence for reducing penalty points for those people who slip over 30 mph into an excess speed.

Given that there are not many of us in the Chamber, may I say privately that we recognised when considering the matter that flexibility was already built into the system to allow for people who just slip over the limit? In addition, camera use is flexible and drivers can slip over a bit more. That is not the case everywhere, as some cameras are set to a rigid limit, but in a number of areas people would have to be doing more than 34 mph or 35 mph before being taken to task.

If we were to allow drivers to slip over the limit, they could be going at 38 mph or 39 mph—almost 40 mph—and still receive only two penalty points. “Think 30 for a reason”, a slogan that we all recognise and which is promoted in our communities, would therefore be undermined. The campaign says that there is a far greater chance of a child living if hit at 30 mph rather than 40 mph.

The police are introducing speeding courses for drivers as an alternative to penalty points. The courses have been successfully trialled and will be rolled out across the country. That will allow drivers to take some refresher training rather than receiving penalty points. They will therefore be able to avoid topping up points on their licence. If double penalty points are introduced—we have not yet come forward with our conclusions on that—they will apply only to those who are recklessly speeding, which would be 20 mph over the limit. That would mean their driving at 55 mph or 60 mph in a 30 mph area.

We held discussions internally and with other groups when carrying out our informal consultation, and we found that it does not seem unreasonable for someone who is doing 36 mph, 37 mph or even 38 mph to be given a different penalty from someone who is doing 60 mph or 65 mph. The public are aware of that. The only thing that seems to bring speeders to book is the risk of losing their licence. We concluded, therefore, that accelerating that risk might also accelerate their move to more responsible behaviour. That is why we put that in the public domain.

The police speeding awareness courses have been successful. I was a bit sceptical myself when I heard about them, but I have since read some comments from participants who went along thinking, “This is great. I’ve avoided a penalty. All I have to do is sit through this for a day or two,” but who came out saying, “It’s changed my attitude to driving. It has really opened my eyes to the risk that I was putting myself and others through.” So the courses appear to be very effective. And they tie in with our attempt to create lifelong learning procedures for drivers. At the moment, if a 17, 18 or 19-year-old passes their test, that is it for life. Fifty years later they might still be driving without having thought about the deterioration of their driving procedures. We want to change that philosophy, culture and behaviour. Our approach, which we have considered very seriously, fits in tidily with that. Those were our reasons for not introducing such a points system.

We will publish our conclusions to the consultation in the final version of the new road safety strategy. Tougher penalties and better enforcement are potent weapons in the battle against speeding—a battle that will be stepped up with the next 10-year strategy as we seek to make speeding as unacceptable to mainstream society as drink-driving has become. We have made good progress in recent years, but far too many drivers still regularly break the limits. Illegal and inappropriate speed was recorded as a contributory factor in 26 per cent. of road fatalities in 2007.

Some self-styled “petrol heads”—there are none here, of course—argue that we are obsessed by speed and that safety cameras are merely revenue-raisers. However, the independent evaluation of the national safety camera programme found a 42 per cent. reduction in the number of people killed or seriously injured at camera sites. That means that about 1,745 fewer people are being killed or seriously injured per annum.

Presumably, therefore, the Minister accepts that 74 per cent. of accidents have nothing to do with speed. No one wants to encourage the most reckless speeders, but speed cameras do not stop some of the worst offenders—the unlicensed and uninsured drivers—who can be a much bigger hazard. One of the problems surely is that the erection of a speed camera often comes cheek by jowl with a policy of the local authority to reduce the number of police in an area. That makes road conditions ever more hazardous. Presumably, among many of those 74 per cent. of accidents not related to speed, there are unlicensed and uninsured drivers, who should not be on the road at all. They might keep within limits, but none the less will be a hazard to themselves and other road users.

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes some interesting and good points. We are making good progress on uninsured and unlicensed drivers and those whose vehicles are untaxed. That is owing to automatic number plate recognition cameras and the ability to cross-reference between the Motor Insurance Bureau’s database and that of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. The police can catch these people without having to be on the roads themselves. In recent years, the proportion of people in the categories that he mentioned has fallen from several per cent. to about 1 per cent. We are making very good progress and will continue to bear down on that.

We have always said—I shall return to this later—that speed cameras are a tool and ought not to be permanent, and that their performance ought to be reviewed by local authorities. There is no use in erecting a camera and just leaving it. If behaviour in that area improves, the cost of running the cameras might be better used by moving them to a different site. We have also made the point strongly that road policing is not stand-alone policing. If somebody is insured or unlicensed, if their car is not taxed, or if they are not obeying other road laws, they are much more likely not to be obeying the rest of society’s laws.

Police forces are now telling us that examinations of cars and individuals whom they stop for a road traffic offence are leading to arrests for very serious offences, including drugs trafficking, money laundering and gun possession—they might be found in the back of their car. That is a good way to bear down on the criminal fraternity, because if people are not obeying road traffic laws, they might well not be obeying other rules. Using the national police statistics—I cannot remember the acronym of the relevant body—the police are tracking the types of road traffic offence for which they are issuing penalty notices. In recent years, therefore, the Department for Transport and the Home Office have been working together very closely.

Our evidence suggests that, in addition to motorists slowing down in the immediate vicinity of cameras, they have been slowing down in the wider area. As for revenue-raising, as far as we are concerned, the best camera is the one that takes no pictures because motorists are sticking to the limits, improving the safety of the whole community. We will support responsible road use by channelling our road safety messages through the successful Think! brand, and by improving education and driver training and testing.

We also recently published the results of our learning to drive consultation, which was launched last year, and will now proceed with plans to strengthen the way in which people learn to drive and are tested, and subsequently encourage a culture of continued and lifelong learning for drivers. This long-term programme supports progressive improvements. The first phase, over the next two years, aims to deliver real changes to the learning process, with improved theory and more practical driving tests. This includes a new pre-driver qualification in safe road use for 14 to 16-year-olds. We have also recently launched the new Think! education programme, and are publishing the first in a range of resources and materials for three to 14-year-olds and their teachers and parents. Taken together, these materials will help us to provide a seamless and thorough system of road safety training and development for life, so that we can foster a new respect for the road in the minds of the next generation of drivers and non-drivers.

Throughout the consultation, which runs until mid-July, we will be genuinely interested to hear views from all quarters. It is especially important for all of us in positions of influence to raise awareness of road safety as a national issue. We can make our roads the safest in the world only through a shared aspiration to reduce death and injury rates and by persuading everyone to contribute. Our consultation proposes the publication of an annual road safety report and an independent advisory body. That will ensure that we have a discussion that involves government, local authorities, police, schools and universities, car manufacturers and transport groups. It will also involve parliamentarians, and I look forward to hearing hon. Members’ views.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate. It is a pity that more people are not here—but I think we all know the reasons for that.

I would like to reiterate some of the Minister’s comments. We have made many improvements in road safety in recent years, and our track record compares extremely favourably with other EU countries with similar circumstances to ours. When I entered Parliament, I was very aware of the many pressures facing local government in prioritising funding, and yet I was extremely surprised by the number constituency groups campaigning for traffic-calming measures in their areas. My county council identified about 200 sites where residents had requested measures to curtail speeding. The problem is that, while walking around our communities, we want cars to go much slower. When we see people who are slow to cross the road being taken by surprise by a speeding car, or children suddenly running out inadvertently into the road, we can all appreciate why we do not want drivers racing through built-up areas.

Technology has advanced so much that sometimes the very same people who worry about speed in front of their own front doors inadvertently go above 20, 30 and even 40 mph when they get behind the wheel in a built-up area. That is because driving is now so smooth. In my childhood, when we used to bounce up and down in the back of a very uncomfortable car—it was a bit like being on the Back Benches at Prime Minister’s Question Time with one’s colleagues jumping up and down on very uncomfortable seats—a little bit of speed was very noticeable. Now, of course, a person can drive at considerable speed without even noticing.

I welcome the Minister’s references to changing behaviour. Essentially, we have three options. We can put in more and more traffic-calming measures, such as islands in the middle of roads, speed cameras and all sorts of markings and bumps; consider using snooper technology that tells off drivers every time they go too fast, which I find offensive; or change our behaviour. Those who talk about changing behaviour are often accused of being idealistic. However, our attitude to drink-driving has changed noticeably over the years. Similarly, the once much-ridiculed smoking ban is very much welcomed and accepted now. The same is true of seat belts. Child seat belts were unheard of when I was a child, but no parent now would think of going out without having the car properly prepared for young children.

There are three categories of road to consider. First, there is the urban road. In Wales, we have Assembly-funded programmes for calming the traffic in the immediate vicinity of schools. I have to congratulate my own county council—Carmarthenshire—on having drawn down considerable sums of funding to implement such schemes. However, the urban area is very much wider than just the areas in front of schools and often includes parts of trunk roads, which run through very built-up areas. We must think carefully about how else we can calm down traffic.

The second type of road—the rural road—is common in my county. There is a very high number of deaths on rural roads. People think, “Oh, this is a lovely country road, let’s put our foot down and enjoy it.” Even people who are familiar with such roads can suddenly be surprised by something coming out of a gateway. It could be an animal, a child or a farm vehicle. It could be an obstacle of some description or something that has happened that they did not expect. Unfortunately, because drivers are going at speed, such accidents can be much more gruesome, with consequences that are considerably more serious than those we see in accidents on other types of road.

The third type of road is the national motorway or dual carriageway. I have long advocated trying to get a culture in which we genuinely reduce speed. In the past, fast food was all the rage, but now we want to go for slow cooking. It is a mentality or an idea. For example, people think that it takes one hour to drive from Llanelli to Cardiff, but they should think that it will take an hour and a half. We should adjust our mentality to accept a more sensible speed. That is not easy. A couple of years ago, I suggested, to much hilarity, that one way of changing our speed limits in this country would be to interpret all our speed signs that are currently interpreted as meaning miles per hour as meaning kilometres per hour. In other words, when a driver sees a sign saying 30, it would mean not 30 mph but 30 kph, which is just under 20 mph. At the time, people thought I was mad. Now we are hearing many more people saying, “20 is plenty” in our urban areas and particularly around our schools. It is certainly a measure that we could consider both in our urban areas and on our country roads. I very much welcome the mapping system that the Minister referred to for country roads. As for motorways, different issues are involved, and I am not the expert to say what a good speed limit would be. None the less, when we travel at high speeds we must be aware of unexpected events such as a tyre blow-out. By travelling at lower speeds, we can considerably reduce the number of accidents.

The psychology of using a human image is very effective. It affects people’s mentality when they are shown that a child is far more likely to be injured by a car that is speeding, or when motorway roadworks have a sign saying, “Do not kill our work force”. Such images are much more effective than a sign warning drivers to slow down at 40 mph when they cannot see a roadwork in sight. It is important to get that message across. We should not be waiting for people to break speed limits and offend before we put them on training courses. The psychology must be there. We should start at school level by talking to pupils about road safety and showing graphic images, and continue that through the process of taking a driving test. We need to keep up that knowledge throughout life. All advertisers will say how the effects of any campaign fade and people go back to their old habits. We must look at ways in which we can develop a society that says, “Although we have the technological power to go at the most fantastic speeds, that is not the best thing to do in most circumstances.” We need to persist with this campaign and work hard. We can put in a number of concrete measures, such as islands, stripes, bumps and speed cameras—if we can afford them, because the budget is sometimes limited—but we need to change our mentality.

Having said that, some concrete changes can be considered. A short while ago in my constituency, we experienced two deaths on a dual carriageway that comes immediately off the M4. People can drive for three and a half hours down from London with not a single obstacle, and suddenly they go round a roundabout and find themselves on a dual carriageway where cars can come in and out from small side roads. That is an extremely dangerous situation. I am referring to the M4 at the point where it reaches Pont Abraham and becomes the A48. The A48 goes on to Cross Hands through Cwmgwili, which is where the two accidents took place, and on to Carmarthen and St. Clears.

Ever since a very serious accident some 20 years ago, a number of us have been calling for the road to be made into an express road with exits and entries similar to those on a motorway. Then we would not have people crossing the carriageway. I am sure that hon. Members can think of similar roads near to them. We must consider improving road safety on dual carriageways and main trunk roads that form part of a network, because the people on them are likely to be travelling at some speed. We also need to make people aware of the types of junctions they will encounter coming in and out of those roads. That is a particular problem in areas such as the rural parts of Wales and England.

We must also consider how we treat cyclists. We all know the benefits of cycling—how healthy it can be and how it can reduce pollution. I recently had the tremendous pleasure of cycling with my young nieces along the millennium coastal path in Llanelli, where there are no cars. I quite understand that we cannot have such a cycle path on every route because obviously, there is not the space, and we want to be able to encourage people to cycle on ordinary roads as well; but we need to consider a number of measures if we are to do that.

I welcome the commitment in the draft road safety strategy to trying to reduce the risks for cyclists, possibly halving the risks involved within 10 years. We need to look at how we encourage people to cycle, as well as at ways of improving junctions and space for cyclists, because of the issue of “critical mass”; it is much safer for cyclists when people are used to seeing them and expect them to be there. Again, it is a matter of attitude. France is a great country for cycling, and there is a strict understanding there that drivers leave a metre between their vehicle and a cyclist. We need to work with our drivers on the idea that overtaking a cyclist is like overtaking a motorbike: often, drivers need as much space as they would to overtake a car, and they should not expect to be able to scrape past a cyclist when a car is coming in the opposite direction, unless the road is sufficiently wide. The measures that we take to reduce dangers to cyclists should include ways of encouraging cyclists.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way—which will perhaps let her pause for breath and allow me to say that I fully support the points she has been making. She will know that the Department for Transport has committed £140 million over the next three years to promote cycling. I did not mention that because it is a different initiative, but it will contribute to trying to create the numbers she has been talking about. Through cycle demonstration towns, pathways and the promotion of cycling we shall get critical mass at some time in the next decade, as cycling comes more popular; I am convinced of that. From the road safety point of view, a strategy focusing on ways of reducing incidents, collisions and dangers to cyclists goes hand in hand with the sort of cycling promotion that my hon. Friend is suggesting.

I welcome the Minister’s remarks and look forward to improvements for cyclists.

Out-of-town shopping centres sometimes consist of a group of shops with roads and roundabouts between them. Often, it appears that they are in private ownership and that little consideration has been given to how anyone can cross from one part of the shopping centre to another after getting out of their car—whether they are an ordinary pedestrian, someone with a pushchair or a disabled person. Sometimes, it is almost safer for them to jump back into their car and drive 50 yd to another part of the shopping park, so that they do not have to cross a busy road or roundabout where no provision has been made for pedestrians. Can any measures be taken to ensure that all private developers of such retail parks must undertake to provide appropriate safety?

Anyone who has walked into Westminster underground station recently will have seen the poster campaign on shared space—those areas where people do not know whether cars are allowed, and where cyclists certainly do not know what they are allowed to do. For those pedestrians who may be vulnerable, perhaps because of poor sight or hearing, shared space can be extremely confusing. That also applies to retail parks. Sometimes it is not at all clear where the trolleys, people, pushchairs and wheelchairs are supposed to move in and out between the moving cars. One of the problems for motorists is that they are sometimes not sure which way they should be driving—all the way down one column and all the way back up another, or in a two-way system. The situation is often not as clear as it should be, and such confusion can make things hazardous for pedestrians. What steps can be taken on that issue?

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to today’s debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I am also pleased that the Government have chosen to request a debate on road safety. It is always timely to discuss issues of such importance.

I acknowledge, as other hon. Members have done, that there has been considerable progress, but road accidents are still responsible for hundreds of thousands of injuries each year. It is also pertinent to mention that they are the biggest killer of people in the five to 35 age group, despite that progress. Those injured, and the families of those killed or injured, have to face great emotional and financial suffering. It is also significant, in the current economic climate, that we recognise that road accidents cost our economy 1.5 per cent. of our annual gross domestic product. That is the equivalent of what the Government spent in total on transport in 2006-07, so we are not talking about small sums of money. It therefore follows—I am sure we all agree on this—that we should do as much as possible to reduce the number of deaths and accidents on our roads. As we have heard from other hon. Members, roads should be safe for everyone—pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers, motorcyclists and HGV drivers.

There has been some positive news about road safety, not least of which is the fact that roads deaths fell below 3,000 in 2007 for the first time since 1926. That is certainly good progress. The Government’s new consultation on road safety, “A Safer Way”, is also to be welcomed. However, as I think we would all agree, there is no room for complacency. There are still nearly 250,000 casualties on our roads each year, including some 3,000 children who were killed or seriously injured in 2007 alone. To make our roads safer we first need to know why accidents occur, as well as where, when and how, and who is involved. We need to know those things to enable us to develop better policies that get to the heart of the problem and help to reduce road accidents, injuries and deaths. We also need urgently to review how we collect information about road accidents. The current system for reporting them relies not only on accidents being reported in the first place—we all know that that does not always happen—but on the police accurately assessing the level of injury sustained. A comparison with hospital data suggests that too many accidents go unreported or underestimated. There has been much criticism of the STATS—road accident statistics—system, not least by the Select Committee on Transport, and the review of the system mentioned in the Government’s consultation document gives us an opportunity to change how we record accidents.

Licensing and seatbelt information, for example, should be recorded as standard so that we can understand all the factors that contribute to road accidents and injuries. Until we know how many road accidents there are, who is involved in them and what caused them, we cannot adequately plan road safety policy. That is why—this was touched on in an intervention—we, along with organisations such as the RAC, are calling for the creation of a road accidents investigation branch similar to the rail, maritime and air accidents investigation branches. It would gather accurate data about road accidents, analyse the data and make recommendations to Government on road safety. The Government consultation states that they do not think that that is necessary because the police already investigate accidents, but does the Minister agree that there is a difference between the role and work of the police in deciding who is responsible for accidents and the work that needs to be done to establish in a broader sense why accidents happen? The expert panel that the Government have suggested is in our view simply not enough. A national authority, with the same powers and responsibilities as the rail, maritime and aviation bodies is necessary. Why does the Minister think that it is appropriate to have an investigation branch for rail, maritime and aviation incidents, but not one for road incidents?

Drink-driving continues to be one of the biggest problems on our roads. As the Minister will be aware, there may be a difference of opinion between the parties on this issue. The number of road deaths involving drink-drivers has remained the same over the past decade, while the total number of deaths has fallen considerably. In 2007 alone—the last full year for which figures are available—16 per cent. of road deaths involved a drink-driver. The Liberal Democrats have for some time been calling for the drink-drive limit in the UK to be brought in line with that in most of the rest of Europe, from 80 mg to 50 mg per 100 ml of blood.

As the Minister knows, that has the support of many industry experts, including the British Medical Association, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, and Brake. Reducing the drink-drive limit would save lives by sending a clear message that “just another drink” will put people over the limit. As he may also be aware, University college London has estimated that such a measure could prevent some 65 deaths and 230 injuries a year. In the light of that, will he assure us that he at least retains an open mind on the issue, and that if he is not yet convinced, he will continue to consider the evidence that many of us believe is already compelling?

I was pleased to hear the Government announcement on roadside drugs testing, but I remain sceptical that the specification for a device will be approved, despite the fact that the technology is available. A reply to a parliamentary question I asked in 2008 assured me that departmental advisers were continuing their work to produce such a specification and that they hoped to reach a conclusion soon. What assurance can the Minister give the House today that the announcement earlier this month will actually end in a device specification being agreed and the device being used on the roadside?

Thirty per cent. of car accidents involve at least one car driver under 25 years old, so young and novice drivers are much more likely to be involved in accidents than other groups of drivers. To be clear, it is not that all young drivers drive dangerously—most do not—but many do not get adequate training or experience of driving in adverse conditions.

The current driving test focuses heavily on controlling and manoeuvring the car, not on driving independently and in hazardous situations. I therefore welcome the Government’s response to the “Learning to Drive” consultation and the inclusion of a section on independent driving in the practical test. I was disappointed, however, that the response did not include the suggestion made by many of the consultation respondents that certain types of driving should be a compulsory part of the learning and assessment process, including driving on urban roads in busy traffic, on quiet rural and one-track roads and motorways, and in bad weather and at night. Does the Minister agree that those skills should be part of the process and that they should not be learned on the hoof by novice drivers once they have passed their test?

The Conservatives considered that proposal. However, one problem is that it would be difficult to require learner drivers, for example, to participate in motorway driving in all parts of the country—my constituents are 60 miles away from the nearest motorway.

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Of course there are different circumstances in individual areas. I am articulating the case that we have not gone far enough. The Government might consider ways in which to introduce a different kind of test and ensure that those areas of expertise are covered before people pass the test, and that they are not an afterthought or something that people learn on the hoof afterwards.

Also on learner drivers, in the current economic climate I am concerned that many young people could be tempted to cut corners when it comes to learning to drive because of the cost of the process. Recent estimates suggest that people on average are spending £1,500 on lessons before they become holders of a full driving licence—[Interruption.] I may have misread the Minister’s expression, but he appears to be surprised at that figure. I can tell him that it is from the “Learning to Drive” consultation paper.

There is no doubt that £1,500 is a lot of money to a lot of people. The danger is that in this economic climate, when times are tough and when pennies are being counted in most households around the country, people might be tempted to take fewer formal lessons and perhaps take more assistance and advice from friends and relatives, and cut back on the necessary expert tuition in which I am sure we all believe. Has the Minister had any recent meetings with insurance companies to discuss incentivised lower premiums for young drivers who take more training and driver development?

My strongest criticism is of the lack of progress on the problem of uninsured drivers. An estimated 5 per cent. of all drivers in this country—about 1.5 million drivers—are driving without insurance. Those people add about £30 to the cost of each driver’s insurance policy because they choose to opt out. We know from evidence that those drivers will kill four people each week on our roads. In 2006, they were directly responsible for 36,000 crashes and 27,000 injuries.

Meanwhile, incredibly, the average fine for uninsured drivers has dropped by 13 per cent. since 1997, from £224 to £194—those figures were given to me in a recent parliamentary answer—which is lower than the fine many people get for failing to buy a TV licence. That is a sad indictment of the priorities that are recognised by the courts these days. Will the Minister undertake to lobby his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice so that they can change the advice given to courts on the level of fines for driving without insurance and so avoid the crazy situation of the cost of the fine being far less than the cost of the insurance, which happens in many cases? That provides no incentive whatever for those who are minded, wrongly, to do without insurance.

The final issue that I should like to address is speeding, which others have mentioned. I have long been a supporter of the campaign to change the default speed limit in residential areas from 30 mph to 20 mph. The importance of the issue was brought home to me just last week when I was going from door to door in the Stepping Hill ward in my constituency. Time and again, residents of Lyndhurst avenue, which has already been designated a 20 mph zone by Stockport council, told me of the problem that they face on a daily basis of boy racers and others rat-running at excessive speed through what should be quiet residential areas. The same applies to the Arundel avenue area of Hazel Grove, and I am sure such problems are not uncommon. The danger to pedestrians, particularly children and the elderly, is obvious, but this is also a basic quality of life issue for people who live in such areas, who are fed up because of the behaviour of a minority of inconsiderate car drivers.

The consultation sets out clearly the danger caused by speeding and accepts that 20 mph zones not only reduce the severity of injuries, but reduce by some 70 per cent. the number of accidents involving pedestrian injuries, as we have heard. It also states that the Government will encourage local authorities to introduce 20 mph zones. That is good news, but I am concerned that because the current systems and protocols require local authorities to obtain police evaluations or consent from the Government, they are too unwieldy and difficult to allow 20 mph zones to be introduced swiftly where they are needed. Will the Minister commit to a review of the way in which local authorities apply for 20 mph zones and try to make it easier for speed limits to be based on local circumstances?

Finally, we are all aware that without enforcement, many of these policies are toothless. Quite simply, drivers must know that they will be caught if they break the rules. We need more police officers on the roads to spot dangerous drivers. People who use mobile phones while driving, drink and drug drivers and those who speed need to know that they can and will be caught. Too many drivers feel that they are beyond the long arm of the law. That must change sooner rather than later.

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. This debate is particularly timely as my second son passed his driving test yesterday. We now have two to worry about.

When a train or an aeroplane crashes, as happened this week, it dominates the headlines for days. However, every day of the week, death on our roads goes unnoticed by the national media. The number of people killed on our railways in the 36 years between 1967 and 2002 was 2,903. As hon. Members are aware, that is lower than the number of motoring-related fatalities in the single year of 2007, which saw 2,943 men, women and children die on Britain’s roads. The death toll on our roads is a continuing tragedy about which none of us—whether in government or in opposition—should ever be complacent. Whether as road safety officers, car manufacturers or motorists behind the wheel, everybody has a part to play in addressing this tragedy.

I welcome the extent of the cross-party consensus. There is tripartite consensus in this important area. Whenever we feel that the Government do the right thing or come up with the right answer, we will not hesitate to give them our full backing. The Minister has not been tempted into gimmicky suggestions that do not have the support of scientific research, which some politicians might have been tempted to introduce.

Much of the progress over recent years is due to major improvements in car design and safety features. We must congratulate car manufacturers on their important achievements in that area. However, it would be unwise to over-rely on advances in car safety technology and expect it to provide all the answers. Since 2004, the annual decrease in the number of people killed has averaged only 3 per cent. No one should be comfortable with that plateau. We have slipped down the international league. We used to lead Europe, but the Swedes have passed us.

There are three groups of drivers that we are concerned about and must address: drink-drivers, young drivers and motorcyclists. One of the most worrying dangers on our roads today is drink-driving. In 2007, drunk drivers caused 460 fatal accidents. Over half the drivers killed at night were over the limit. There have been welcome advances over the last 30 years to crack down on drink-driving. A key factor in that success is the UK’s tough approach to punishment, in particular the 12-month ban.

The importance I attribute to that gold standard of punishment is one reason I am yet to be convinced that an across-the-board reduction to 50 mg is the right way to tackle drink-driving. European countries with lower limits tend to have a range of penalties for different alcohol levels. In Portugal, the minimum ban for drink-driving is 15 days. In Austria, the maximum is one month. A blanket reduction in the blood alcohol limit in the UK would inevitably give rise to pressure to introduce graduated penalties. Reducing or diluting the penalties for drink-driving would be deeply unwise and would send completely the wrong signal. Anybody who thinks that fines and points will be effective should look at the hundreds of thousands of people who are caught speeding every year, for which those are the penalties.

As well as the obvious deterrent value, the signal sent by the UK’s tough approach to punishing drink-driving has played an important role in the cultural shift during the latter years of the 20th century. It has become steadily more socially unacceptable to drink and drive. That cannot be said of every country in the world and it is a behavioural change that we jeopardise at our peril. It is a precious advantage that we should not undervalue.

The UK seems to be lagging behind a number of countries on the issue of drug-driving. We still rely on the field impairment test, or FIT, which is the test that was used prior to the introduction of breathalysers by Barbara Castle. It involves the person suspected of being under the influence walking along the white line on the road. The authorities in France, Germany, Belgium, Romania, Croatia, Italy, Australia, Spain, Switzerland, Finland, Iceland, the Czech Republic and Luxemburg have authorised roadside drug-testing equipment, which is deployed and in use. Why is the UK falling behind?

When choosing which drug to take, people might decide that alcohol is more likely to land them with a ban than other drugs. As well as roadside drug-testing equipment, we should look at the offence. At the moment, the offence is driving while impaired. If we had accurate blood or saliva testing, the offence would have to be reviewed and become an offence of having drugs in one’s system. A consequent problem is that although a level could be set above which driving is likely to be impaired, the drugs being dealt with are illegal, unlike alcohol. One solution would be the Director of Public Prosecutions judging at what level prosecutions should be brought, even though having any drug in one’s system would be an offence. The shadow Home Office and justice teams are at an early stage in negotiations on this difficult issue. I am sure that the Minister has had similar discussions.

Young men are a major source of problems on our roads. A toxic combination of inexperience, overconfidence and an inappropriate attitude to risk means that young men sadly often fill the pages of local newspapers following nasty accidents. Achieving attitudinal change must be a crucial goal in tackling the problem effectively. A number of ideas in the Government’s consultation paper on improving education on road safety are attractive. In particular, I welcome the emphasis on viewing learning to drive as a long-term ongoing process, rather than as a one-off test. That point was made by my predecessors in the Conservative transport team during the passage of the Road Safety Act 2006.

I hope that the Government consultation will result in an improved driving test. Some suggestions made by the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) are worthy of consideration. The Conservative party has suggested that the manoeuvres—the three-point turn, reversing round a corner and parallel parking—could be taken out of the test and instead be signed off by an instructor. That would buy valuable time in the test, so that there would not have to be a more expensive driving test, which could have the effect of deterring young people from taking the test.

Motorcyclists make up only 1 per cent. of road traffic but account for 19 per cent. of casualties. I have great concerns about the way in which the new motorcycle driving test was introduced. It was delayed. The answer to a parliamentary question by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) revealed that within the first three weeks of the test being in operation, there were 14 incidents involving the 50 mph swerve and break aspect. Ten of those incidents resulted in injury and three people were taken to hospital, two of whom were blue-lighted by ambulance. What is the Minister’s view on the risks related to that aspect of the test? It is very daunting for a driver to be faced with the examiner checking with a radar gun that he is travelling at 50 mph, and then to have to do a particular manoeuvre. We want to make sure that the risks involved in that aspect of the test are not such that the Department could be held liable for some serious injury. We are also concerned about the distance that people still have to travel for their test. Young riders could conclude that they might as well keep riding with L-plates rather than make a long journey of up to 30 or 40 miles each way to take the test.

I am interested in some of the new Mayor of London’s suggestions, which could be adopted around the country. Research on motorcycles using bus lanes, which the previous Mayor tried to suppress, has shown the advantages of that practice, so I hope that it can be extended around the country. Boris has also suggested that cyclists should be allowed to turn left when lights are red so that they can get out of the way before the lights change and heavy lorries turn, as they often use their rear wheels to cut the corner and can get the cyclists. Some people say that cyclists go anyway in London, but that seems to be a London phenomenon, as other cyclists around the country seem to be much more law-abiding. Certainly, as long as there is no risk to pedestrians, I hope that the Mayor will be allowed to progress with that idea when the full risk assessment has been done.

The Minister might know that the Opposition have suggested changing the speed limit for large goods vehicles on single carriageway trunk roads. Currently, the speed limit for lorries on trunk roads is 40 mph, which we believe to be unacceptably low because it leads to accidents being caused by frustrated drivers overtaking in dangerous places. The head-on accidents that often follow from that dangerous manoeuvre are some of the worst accidents on our roads. Some supermarket lorries even have an apology on the back to explain to following motorists that they are travelling so slowly—unreasonably slowly, in some people’s view—because of the law. Has the Minister looked into that? I think that an increase in the speed limit would, unusually, improve road safety. Indeed, as many people who use the trunk roads know, many lorries already ignore that law.

I know that the Department has looked at some research on intelligent speed adaptation, where cars are fitted with a device that will, unless overridden, limit the car’s speed to the speed limit. My car has a speed limiter, which I can set manually—it is always a good idea for a shadow Transport Minister to try to drive within the speed limit. It would be sensible for satellite navigation systems that flash up the speed limit to be linked to that adaptation, not with any compulsion, but for people who do not want to pick up any points. I suspect that people who have nine points on their licence would be very attracted by the idea of a car in which it would be impossible to break the speed limit. When driving around a town where one does not know all the roads, it is often quite difficult to be sure what the speed limit is on any part of the road. I know that a trial has been done in Leeds with eight Skodas that were fitted with that mechanism, and the majority of the drivers who used it thought it was good. We do not want to impose that mechanism on people against their will, but I would like to hear the Minister’s view on whether the industry would be keen to make it an option in cars.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) talked about shared space, which I am not a great fan of, although my predecessor, the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), was more of a fan. I thought that she missed the whole point of shared space, which is that motorists are not sure where they should drive and so they drive very cautiously. The problem is when a motorist is on a piece of road and there is a green light in front of him, particularly if the road has fencing along each side, and he knows that the limit is 30 and goes for it. In a shared space system, which might be appropriate in some town centres, there is no certainty on anyone’s part, be they a cyclist, pedestrian or car driver, as to where people have a right of way, so motorists proceed very cautiously. The evidence from the Netherlands, where that system has been adopted more widely, is that it results in better road safety. I know that there are concerns about how it would work with blind and partially sighted persons, but it would be useful to have some pilot projects in the UK to see how it would work out. I am not altogether sold on the idea, but seeing is believing.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on some of the questions I have raised, and I assure him, as I am sure that the Liberal Democrats would also do, that when he makes sensible proposals that will result in less carnage on our roads, we will be more than happy to try to support him however we can.

I am pleased to respond—briefly, I anticipate—to some of the points that have been raised. In my introductory comments, I omitted to pay tribute to the hon. Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) for their contributions to policy development and to raising the profile of road safety. As I said, the issue is not party political. It is a genuine cross-party, cross-House campaigning issue on which there is much common ground and on which we can benefit from each party’s assessment of proposed policies.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) for being here and contributing to the debate, because we all know of the pressures on colleagues, particularly today—indeed, we can see that from looking around the Chamber. She made one comment about child seat belts, which we all know about, and most of us would not think of going out with kids in the car without belting them into the back. I was at Bromley-by-Bow tube station at half-past 6 this morning, waiting for colleagues to turn up to engage in some activities—she will probably understand why I was there at that time in the morning—and a car pulled up by the station. A chap was driving it with his wife in the passenger seat and two kids in the back who were not belted in. I could not believe it. I saw that there were belts, even though it was a relatively old car, so I knocked on his window, which is a bit of a risk in London at that time. The guy rolled his window down and I said, “Excuse me, sir, I’m terribly sorry, but you’ll get a fine if you don’t put seat belts on your kids in the back of the car, and, besides, it’s very dangerous. If you have a crash, they’ll go straight through the windscreen.” I was surprised that his reaction was one of total politeness. He said, “Thank you very much. You’re a really decent chap, and I’m very grateful that you pointed this out to me,” and then strapped his kids in. I am not recommending that everybody should do that at any time in London, but I was pleased by that gentleman’s reaction, and his kids are safer as a result of his attention.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s comments about rural roads and their dangers, particularly for people who are not used to driving on them and do not know about the risks of going around blind bends, or of something being in the road or coming out of a hedge. We hope that the mapping we propose to do will help to some extent, because it will flag up the most dangerous roads, so that when people plot their route or use their satnav, we might be able to give them some technological advice, in the years ahead, and tell them about those roads and the dangers they present.

We are collecting better information on 20 mph limits and zones. As we have all said, the policies that we propose to improve road safety should be evidence-based. A number of towns and cities have extensive knowledge and information about 20 mph limits and zones, which we are gathering within the Department so that we can share it with other local authorities and see what worked where, what did not work and why. We want to roll out better guidance so that we can promote 20 mph zones and limits.

I am grateful to the Minister for his thoughtful responses to our questions. One concern about the limits is enforcement—I hope he will forgive me if he was about to come to that. In my constituency and the Greater Manchester conurbation, local police divisions no longer have their own separate traffic police as they have all been centralised in Manchester, which means that we see far less of them. It is generally understood that the police, certainly in our neck of the woods, are giving less priority to traffic offences than they were previously, although not everything can be a priority at the same time.

Does the Minister agree that the police need to be reminded about the importance of these issues and that they need to allocate reasonable resources towards trying to ensure that all these good schemes are enforced? We all support 20 mph zones. I implemented such zones outside schools when I was the leader of the council many years ago. They work, but they need to be enforced, and the police have a crucial role in that. Does he have any thoughts as to how the police might be reminded that this is a fairly important issue to them as well?

This is clearly an important issue; I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman about its significance. Given that the Home Office does not have a Secretary of State at present, perhaps I could make a comment under the radar.

My Department engages with the Home Office on a regular basis to ensure that we both share the best information and evidence. I have regular meetings with Chief Constable Giannasi who now leads for the Association of Chief Police Officers on road safety issues. The association is doing all that it can to ensure that the police in all the constabularies are giving enough attention to road safety. The pressures on the police mean that they are constantly moving their forces around to deal with priorities as they see them in different areas.

As the road safety Minister, I do all that I can to ensure that road safety is maintained as a high-profile issue for all local authorities and for all constabularies, and I know that ACPO does the same.

Has the Minister ever looked at the New Zealand experience of using school control zones, where 20 mph limits are advised by electronic signs which are activated only at times of the day that the head teacher determines? That means, for example, that the motorist does not have to comply with the limit at 3 o’clock in the morning or during school holidays, which means that they are more likely to comply when the lights are flashing.

At the risk of making this sound less exciting, I believe that Scotland has some of those signs as well. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that we should make a cross-party trip to New Zealand to have a look at them, someone might suggest that we should just go to Scotland. The Daily Telegraph might want to run a line on that, but perhaps we should not go there.

We are looking at that experience. Clearly, such signs make sense. However, as more and more community schools are being used during extended hours, a variable speed limit may be appropriate only from midnight until 7 in the morning. Those matters are under review. Clearly, common sense ought to prevail and we should ensure that we do not cause unnecessary congestion.

My hon. Friend asked about car park layouts and out-of-town shopping centres. Forgive me, I do not mean to absolve myself of responsibility, but it occurs to me that that is a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government. It is a planning issue, and, as a planning matter, it ought to be, and I am sure is, taken into account during the planning process. Out-of-town centres should be required to have appropriate transport infrastructure to ensure that people using all modes of transport, including pedestrians and the vulnerable, can get around safely without resorting to using a car. That is apparently covered in guidance from DCLG about out-of-town centres. The Department for Transport contributes to and collaborates in its preparation.

I recognise the picture that my hon. Friend paints, because I have had the same experience myself. Perhaps she might want to take the issue up with DCLG and copy me into the correspondence. Again, as we have discussions with DCLG, it may be appropriate to look at what the latest information was, how recently it was refreshed, and whether it needs to be reviewed.

The hon. Member for Cheadle raised an interesting point about data. As he suggested, we are always keen to ensure that our information is as accurate as possible. I hear what he says about an accident investigation branch. However, the number of road casualties is completely different from the number of accidents dealt with by the marine, air and rail accident investigation branches.

We are proposing in our consultation document that a new independent panel should focus on the data that emerge on fatal accidents from expert police accident investigation, and, through that, give us a steer as to where we might want to be. As has been said, the marine accident investigation branch, air accident investigation branch and rail accident investigation branch have so few accidents to investigate that they can deal with them all. They do not have eight every day. We would have to create a whole new constabulary to investigate that many accidents.

We are proposing that an independent panel looks at the data—I can tell from the hon. Gentleman’s body language that he is not entirely convinced. Neither am I. I do not think that we necessarily have this absolutely right, but we are proposing a national body to advise on make-up, what should be done and so on. We will also still have an advisory board. I am not sure that we will need that as well as an independent panel. Combining the two might create something more elaborate.

An annual report will be produced that we can debate, probably in this Chamber. Given the number of our constituents who are involved—we are talking about 3,000 people killed and 30,000 seriously injured each year—perhaps we should say that the debate is a more important issue for Parliament, and therefore make a bid for a full debate on the Floor of the main Chamber. I do not wish to detract from the importance of Westminster Hall in any way, Mr. Benton, but perhaps we should collectively lobby our parties for such a debate. It would raise the profile of road safety, and I am sure that more colleagues would be interested in contributing if we got time in the Chamber.

The annual report would at least give us a document. The independent panel would give us advice and recommendations on what we are doing right, what we are not doing right and where we should go, and then we could debate independent advice, Government policies and suggestions from outside and from campaign groups. We are moving into a different era. There will be a different dimension and different analysis in the years after 2010, which will be useful in promoting road safety and helping us to get casualty numbers down even further.

The hon. Members for Scarborough and Whitby and for Cheadle raised the issue of drink-driving. They perfectly and eloquently explained different views as to whether we should maintain or reduce the level. Our position is that we are genuinely open. We are looking at the submissions that we receive. We have alluded to the fact that we do not think that the evidence is there yet, but if we get evidence during the consultation period, obviously we would need to publish it and say whether we support a change.

However, as colleagues will know, we have already taken action. We have spent £4 million equipping all the police forces in England and Wales with the new digital breathalysers, which are evidentially approved. That means that we can cut out a loophole. When somebody is stopped and a blood or urine test is demanded, they are taken back to a police station. At the moment, if things are delayed for as long as possible—two or three hours—the person comes in under the radar when the test is finally done. The new digital breathalysers will close that loophole.

Currently, the evidence is that the number of people killed or seriously injured by people who have been drinking and who test between 50 to 80 mg is only 2 per cent. Should we change the law for 2 per cent., with all that that would involve in terms of calibration, legislation, police forces, social and cultural attitudes, the impact on rural communities and the licensed trade and so on, even though we are talking lives, which are absolutely important? Perhaps we should be going after those who kill or seriously injure the other 98 per cent.—the people who are over 80, 100, 150 mg—with better enforcement.

The new breathalysers will at least give us better data, and will do so in a short period of time. We do not have the data at present, but we will have better scientific evidence soon, and we will keep the matter under review. I am not saying that we will not change the level. Drink-driving and the level of alcohol in the system is never a closed issue. It is constantly under review. We are constantly under pressure from ACPO and from campaign groups, and I know that the issue will not go away in Parliament either. As I said, our minds are open on the matter, and we will look at the evidence that comes in.

The hon. Member for Cheadle mentioned the cost of driving lessons, which was certainly an issue for us when we looked at driving training and testing and how to improve the situation. That it cost so much was a bit of a surprise at the time, but when we looked into the matter further and at the fact that only 44 per cent. of people pass their test each year—fewer pass their test first time—we found that it is the additional lessons that people have to take continuously that create the average fee of £1,500. It is our strongly held view that if we improve training to an appropriate level, more people will pass more quickly, which ought to save money in the long term; but again, the matter will continue to be examined.

The hon. Gentleman will know that measures have been introduced to tackle uninsured driving, including police powers to seize vehicles used on the road by uninsured drivers. Police powers have been improved to access information contained on the Motor Insurers Bureau database. In 2008, police seized about 185,000 vehicles. The seizure programme has contributed to improved compliance. From 2006 to 2008, police forces carried out spot checks on vehicles and found that the level of uninsured drivers fell by half in two years. The proportion of uninsured drivers fell to 1.2 per cent. from 1.9 per cent. The number of vehicles stopped that were without a current MOT fell from 4.2 to 1.5 per cent.; the proportion of drivers stopped who did not have a valid vehicle tax licence fell from 2 to 1 per cent.; and the level of drivers committing a serious offence, such as having no insurance or driving while disqualified, fell to 3.4 per cent. from 7.5 per cent.

That there is a cut of almost 50 per cent. across the board is simply because of technology such as computers and automatic number plate recognition cameras. The police are using the technology far more effectively. When we have continuous insurance enforcement, as we will relatively soon, we will be able to use that information as we use the TV licence-checking system at the moment. We will not need to check people on the road, just as we do not need vans going around detecting whether people have a TV receiver in their home. We will know where they live. They can be written to and, if they cannot explain why the vehicle is not taxed or insured, or has no MOT, they will be open to penalties. We will be bearing down much more strongly on such matters. The hon. Gentleman asked about the level of fines. From memory, I think that I have written to the Ministry of Justice on the matter, but I shall check and let him know. If I have not, I shall do so because it is a fair point. However, I am pretty confident that I have.

The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby voiced concerns about the drink-driving level. As I said, that is a live issue and will continue to be so. He also raised the question, as did other colleagues, of the attitude of young men. The foundations of a pre-driving qualification course for 14 to 16-year-olds in schools and colleges are proving very popular, because people feel that they will get a credit towards their theory test and that that will make the driving test easier for them. The course also informs them about how to behave in the back of a car—about belting up and not winding up the driver, which is one of the things that motivates young drivers to go faster. All the evidence shows that if one person belts up in a car, everybody else does so automatically, but getting that one person to belt up is the focus.

Motorcycle testing is being monitored to ensure that the risk is appropriate, balanced against the need to show competence. The distance that has to be travelled is an issue, but we are getting that down because the number of testing venues is increasing all the time. I have had several meetings with parliamentary colleagues and their constituents, and we have been able to resolve some of these issues. That puts pressure on the DSA to do its best. It is doing its best, and it is still bearing down on the question of ensuring that as many centres are available as possible. It has also been changing how driving tests are booked, because that has been a factor in reducing the availability of some test centres. Professional instructors are block-booking and then cancelling within three days. They do not get a penalty because they are cancelling within the appropriate time, but no one else can take the bookings because their use has not been planned. We are looking at all such issues.

I have seen the suggestion for cyclists from the Mayor. As a cyclist, I am interested, and as a Minister, I and my colleagues look at all the submissions that come in during a consultation. We shall come forward with responses in due course. Transport for London is trialling motorcycles in bus lanes for 18 months, in line with what many other local authorities have done. We shall look at the evidence with interest in due course. I was comfortable with getting TfL into line—the Mayor made the right decision there—and that is the advice we have been giving London for some time.

Finally, I turn to intelligent speed adaptation—another issue on which we run a big risk of being attacked by the lobby that thinks the Government are anti-motoring. We are not, and the other main parties are not anti-motoring. We are pro-road safety, and if we can improve road safety through different initiatives, we would do that. If a tiny minority of people in the motoring community or fraternity—whom I would loosely call the “petrolheads”—accuse us of being anti-motoring, I would accuse them of being anti-road safety. Intelligent speed adaptation could be a powerful tool. I have been in a TfL car and seen ISA working, on a voluntary and on a compulsory basis. The voluntary ISA looks simple and useful as a tool for giving people information. It can use the global positioning system to determine the speed limit in a given area, and a warning device says whether people are going over the speed limit. It will be a tool that those who sell cars can use, just as they are starting to get to grips with other safety devices. They can use them to sell to car buyers, particularly parents buying a first car for a young son or daughter who has just passed their test. The latest technology such as stability control and ABS costs no more than £500. A parent will spend that in order to know that their child, who does not have a lot of experience behind the wheel, has all the technological advances to help keep that car on the road if they have to brake fiercely and need protection.

The technology is improving and motor manufacturers and traders are learning more and starting to promote safe cars, just as they are learning about environmental issues and promoting green cars. They will use ISA to sell vehicles, particularly to parents. The top end of the market now automatically carries such features, which will move down through the rest of the market. European legislation will force manufacturers and traders to do that by the middle of the next decade in any case, so why should they not jump ahead of the game and introduce them earlier?

As I said at the outset of the debate and in beginning my closing remarks, in my view the issue is not party political, but there are disagreements and differences of opinion about how we can improve the situation. We have all contributed, along with all the people on the front line out there, who are doing the real, hard work of making sure that people are protected as best as possible. We shall continue to debate the issues and to come up with the best possible solutions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.