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Volume 517: debated on Wednesday 3 November 2010

I am grateful to have been allowed this time to debate this issue, which is crucial to my constituency. The A614 is a rural single carriageway road that runs down the spine of Sherwood and is a key stage of many commutes in my constituency, providing essential access to the city of Nottingham. The A614 is, however, an historically dangerous stretch of road. It is the site of frequent incidents. In the past 18 months alone, two horrendous fatal accidents have claimed eight lives.

The people of Sherwood have been lobbying hard for improvements to the road, and I am today calling both for better funding for the local county council to make the necessary improvements and for a look at the wider lessons that can be learned from roads such as the A614.

Let us consider rural roads in general. The Institute of Advanced Motorists states:

“On an average day, nine people die on Britain’s roads; six of them are killed on rural roads.”

It also states:

“Two-thirds of fatal and serious casualties on rural roads happen on 60 or 70 mph speed limit…roads.”

It is also relevant to note that half the casualties in rural Great Britain are injured on dry roads in dry weather and that more are injured in daylight than in the dark. Those figures show that rural road safety as a whole needs to be considered when the House can commit more time to the subject than this debate allows, but the A614 is of particular relevance to Sherwood and its people.

I would like to acknowledge for the record that the county council has done excellent work in bringing down the numbers of accidents and particularly fatalities on the A614, but there are a number of areas in which I believe that the Government could support the county to make further improvements in the A614’s safety record. I shall specify where improvements are necessary.

The A614 attracts the vast majority of its accidents in dry, light conditions, with no other hazards detailed on the accident reports. That begs the question, why is the A614 a consistent source of road incidents? There are several hot spots along the route that warrant improvement. Between 2004 and 2009, there were 11 accidents at the junction with the B6030, locally known as the Rose Cottage junction. The installation of traffic signals at the junction was investigated but not proceeded with, as the necessary funding was not available. Any resident of the village of Edwinstowe who tries to gain access on to that busy road will know the dangers of pulling out. When that is combined with the Center Parcs traffic coming in and out of the same junction, there are enormous delays, which lead people to take risks that they should not. An improved road junction at that site would really assist and lower the number of accidents.

Mickledale lane is a little further south. There have been three accidents there since 2004. Residents of Bilsthorpe, a local village, use the junction to gain access to this busy road. It is an horrendous pull-out. Anyone who has used the junction will know the dangers of pulling out into high-speed traffic.

A little further north is Ollerton roundabout—a source of much congestion and debate in the past. The county council has worked long and hard to try to improve that roundabout. There have been 16 accidents along that stretch of road since 2004, and 13 of the 16 involved vehicles turning into or out of a junction. One occurred at a private driveway near the railway bridge, four occurred on Station road—a rat run for people avoiding the congestion at Ollerton roundabout—and eight were associated with the two service stations south of Ollerton.

Although safety is the clear priority at all times, there are major issues with traffic flow, resulting in major tailbacks. Heavy and slow traffic has its own safety consequence, with several bumps occurring in slow-moving traffic. I must, however, give credit where it is due. After years of inaction, the Conservative county council has finally taken action with a small improvement scheme and is delivering that as we speak. However, I expect that the hold-ups will remain. The issue needs solving.

Gravelly Hollow is the junction by which the residents of Calverton gain access not only to the A614, but to the M1 motorway. Due to lack of funds some time ago, the county council decided to close that road junction completely. Funding was not available to improve it, and it had such an horrendous safety record that it was closed to the residents of Calverton. They are now pushed south to an equally dangerous junction at Ramsdale and turn at an acute angle northbound, taking a great risk.

Inevitably, money must raise its ugly head, but I think that investment from Government through the LTP3—local transport plan—settlement would offer a number of clear benefits. Sherwood has had no firm commitments to transport infrastructure improvements, but an increase in the LTP3 settlement would allow the county council to make the vital improvements that Sherwood needs to improve road safety and traffic flows. As improvements have been made to the road over a number of years, accidents have reduced slightly. If the county can commit to improving the remaining sites, the numbers will inevitably fall further. Investment is a prime means by which the Government can support the localism agenda. With relatively modest investment, the Government could support local improvements and ensure that the county can invest in the right places to save lives.

However, although certain physical improvements to the A614 would benefit Sherwood enormously, it cannot be overlooked that the road attracts the vast majority of its accidents in light, dry conditions in which no other hazards seem relevant. I am haunted by the statistic I read that the biggest killer of teenage girls is their male drivers; they are killed as passengers in those cars.

The accident investigation department at Nottinghamshire county council has looked at the accidents caused on one of the worst stretches of the A614—Lockwell Hill roundabout to Ollerton roundabout. Almost 20% of the accidents there were caused by drivers aged 16 to 25, despite that age group constituting only 12% of licence holders. Indeed, more than half the single vehicle accidents on that stretch of road involved under-25s.

It is not my intention to penalise young drivers, but it is an unavoidable truth that at some level our driver education system is failing and that we are still producing, though clearly by no means exclusively, drivers who pose a risk to themselves, their passengers and other motorists. In recent years, there have been a number of changes in the driving test procedure, including the six penalty point limit on all new drivers, but there are other measures that, rather than punishing new drivers, could support better learning and long-term motoring skills.

The AA has said:

“Learner drivers should be encouraged to gain as much practice as possible before taking their tests.”

It has also said:

“Newly qualified drivers need to gain more experience as learners, particularly to build better hazard perception.”

I share its belief that the best way to facilitate that is to support the addition of learners to the policies of qualified drivers—it is usually a parent—to allow them to learn over a longer and more extensive period of time than is allowed by expensive weekly driving lessons. As things stand, such an arrangement is often prohibitively expensive. The cost of adding a 17-year-old learner driver to the policy for a 1.1-litre Renault Clio ranges from the fairly high figure of £2,500 a year to an incredible £20,500. That was the most expensive quote that we could find on the internet. That is a major financial commitment for any family.

I and various motoring organisations believe that such a premium does not reflect proportionately the risk posed by a supervised learner. Insurance companies must distinguish between the 17-year-old who has just passed his test and is inclined to show off to his friends and the one whose mum is sitting in the passenger seat with a firm eye on the speedometer. The AA has said:

“Government should work with the insurance industry to review the premiums charged to parents wishing to include their learner driver children on their policies so that premiums follow actuarial risk.”

I fully agree.

In one of the grimmest accidents on the A614, the coroner observed that

“it was dark, however the visibility was very good, aided by street lighting…All the road markings were in good condition and clearly visible”,

but the driver was a young man.

The reality is that, while we must ensure that all road safety tools are physically in place—bright lines, proper lighting, adequate junctions—such measures will never completely exclude the occurrence of accidents. Drivers who lack the experience to use the roads will always cause problems.

Furthermore, the key point is that young drivers are not trained on the roads and the conditions most challenging to inexperienced drivers—rural single carriageways, often travelled at night or in the wet. I would like to discuss the idea that such roads and conditions should appear in the driving test or in a reformed approach to driver training that encourages young drivers to get as much experience on as wide a range of roads as possible. Such young drivers have a lower risk of crash involvement in the key early months, as found in Sweden. Advanced driver training has also been suggested by the IAM, as a key component of any approach to reducing crashes—positive encouragement and awareness raising of how extra training can save the driver’s life on a rural road.

For those concerned about learners in an urban context, for whom the countryside is half a lesson away, the reality is that inner-London drivers are less likely to come a cropper on rural roads than are Northampton or Nottingham drivers, and yet it is perfectly possible to get out of those towns for a rural experience. The test could reflect local driving environments and casualty reasons, rather than being a national exam in which instructors all focus on low-speed urban driving, such as reversing around a corner, to pass the test. It is worth noting that hardly any casualties result from anything currently tested by the DSA. While that could be a testament to the success of the test, that is unlikely.

Various post-training schemes exist, including the IAM’s of course, but young drivers have little incentive to partake. I am not proposing graduated licensing, but anything that the Government can do to introduce and encourage continuous development will deliver reduced casualties.

Pass Plus was a start for the UK, but the Austrian system whereby new drivers have to undergo three training events in the first year seems more likely to deliver results—it also appears to go down well with the drivers. The training is not seen as an onerous task but as a normal part of building someone’s skill as a driver—it is certainly worth studying for lessons that we could learn.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister again to look at the A614 and its accident record, but also at the role that young people play when driving on our roads. Anything we can do to encourage those young people to keep themselves, and ourselves, safe would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for the time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on his tenacity in standing up for his constituents, in particular those concerned with safety on the A614, and, more openly, for the whole issue of driving with safety on our roads. We have answered my hon. Friend’s parliamentary questions and he has already met the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), the Minister responsible for local roads. I am answering the debate today purely because of the road safety remit of my ministerial role.

I would like to touch on two aspects of the debate this afternoon: the problems of the A614, and what can be done with the limited funds available. I also pay tribute to the work of the local authority, the police and the other agencies in Nottinghamshire, which have done remarkably well on this stretch of road, in particular along the length of the road, taking 102 deaths in 2005 down to 24 in the first half of this year—24 too many, I fully accept. However, things are difficult in rural areas and, even when conditions are dry, bright and safe, and things are done with the road markings, as the coroner indicated, deaths still, sadly, occur.

In my previous incarnation as a rescue tender driver in the fire and rescue service in Essex, I attended all too many road traffic accidents. They involved young drivers in particular—something I shall come on to again in a moment—and people could suffer serious injuries, on roads that gave no explanation as to why the accident had happened.

The other day I experienced a horrendous accident—on the M62, I believe—in which someone was changing the wheel on their car. For no reason at all, a lorry swerved from the inside lane and completely wiped them out—very sadly, they were both killed. There was no reason. The driver was not drunk or under the influence of drugs and was certainly not exceeding his tacho hours limit, but for some unknown reason we sometimes have such accidents.

We can do a lot with education, in particular on this stretch of the road, perhaps, and not only is work being done as we speak on the Ollerton roundabout, but the local authority is now looking at whether average-speed cameras could be funded along that stretch of the road. I want to reiterate some guidance to do with speed cameras which I will be sending to all local authorities in the UK that come under my remit—there is, of course, a difference between speed cameras and average-speed cameras.

One of the things that the new Government have done in the past six months, with our restricted funding, is to say to the local authorities that, instead of hypothecating money specifically for speed cameras, we will let them make local decisions on local areas. They do not have to use some of the money specifically for speed cameras—they can if they wish—but they can spread the money across myriad road safety features. The old system meant that some of the money had to be spent on speed cameras no matter what, which skewed a lot of decisions.

What will happen now is that, if speed cameras are wanted, the local authorities can use the funding in that way, but we are saying, “Please, look at whether speed cameras are the only option, whether there are better options and whether, in particular places—this road might well be one—average-speed cameras could be used,” if the authorities wish to reduce the speed limit from 60 to 50 mph. They would have to apply to me, as the Minister, to reduce the limit to 50, but if they did I would be minded to do so. However, if we do that, the indication must be that it is enforceable. With the limited resources that the police have—the police are very involved with accidents along the road, there is no point putting in a speed limit that we cannot enforce one way or another.

My theory is that if we had single speed cameras just staggered along a road, on a long stretch of undulating road such as this, if we were not careful, we would have people braking for the speed camera—everyone knows where they are—then speeding up and being away again. That adds to the problem. However, in certain circumstances, in particular on motorways, interestingly enough, but also on dual carriageways, we know that average-speed cameras have worked very well. Putting in average-speed cameras would be a new approach for such a road. There is an expense, of course, but the money is available in the existing budgets for local authorities, if they wish to use it in that way. It is very much their choice.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, when he met my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, indicated that it is not for central Government to tell local authorities the best way to address the situation. We can help; we can give guidance, but it is very much their decision.

That is the point that I am making. If we can find a facility to give Nottinghamshire county council an improved LTP3 settlement, it can find a means by which to solve its local problems at a local level.

While I am on my feet, I am grateful that the Minister has taken the time to come here today, but could he find time in his busy diary to come and have a look at the road? I would be delighted to show him the issues and for him to meet some of the residents who live near those junctions, so that he can experience the dangers that they face.

I would be delighted to respond to that kind invitation. I love that part of the world—I know the Center Parcs to which he referred earlier very well indeed, from when my children were much younger. If it is not me, it will certainly be the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, depending on our programme.

When we come to funding, things are difficult—improved funding means more funding, and my county would like that, the same as Nottinghamshire, but we have to look directly at what can be given and what can be spent. That is where the pressure of hon. Members and their councillors can ensure that the money is spent in the right, most feasible way.

I shall spend a little time on the serious subject of young drivers, particularly boys between the ages of 17 and 25—and in some parts of the country up to the age of 30. I was heavily involved in this matter not only as a Back-Bench Member when I first came to the House but in my previous occupation in Essex fire and rescue service.

It is the most horrendous thing for policemen, ambulance paramedics or firemen to see young lives being wiped out. There are times when there seems to be no logic to such incidents. I have been to many incidents that, to our knowledge, did not involve drink or drugs, and where the road conditions were fine and the vehicles were of a low horsepower.

The vehicle of choice for the young and particularly for boys is the Saxo or the Corsa. Such cars are not built for speed, although attempts may be made to change the baffles in the exhaust pipe to make it sound like a grand prix racing car. Nevertheless, those cars can speed quite well and with the wrong road conditions speed is one of the biggest problems.

We have been in government for only a short time but we are giving careful consideration to the driving test—I shall return to that subject in a moment—and to projects to educate young people so that they understand that they are not immortal. What fascinates me is that many young people who get into such difficulties when driving are intelligent.

I am sure that his family will not mind my mentioning this, because it adds to the debate, but a wonderful young man came to do some work experience for me when I was newly elected to the House in 2005. He had worked hard to become the head boy at the local comprehensive school and was going to one of the top universities, and I hope that his work experience with me added to his curriculum. After taking a morning exam, he drove down one of the country roads in my constituency. The end result was that he put the car into an oak tree. That happened for no apparent reason—apart from adrenalin, excitement, the thrill of driving and, not least perhaps, peer pressure from some of the others in the car. The old-fashioned phrase for that is showing off, but it puts other people’s lives at risk as well as that of the driver.

I passionately believe that we can work with some of the measures introduced by the previous Government, including the six points rule, which is good. However, we must be careful. My hon. Friend touched on insurance, and I note that the fine for not insuring a young person to drive is vastly less than paying the insurance. I assure my hon. Friend that we are working with the Ministry of Justice to ensure that fines act as a deterrent rather than an incentive to remain uninsured.

We are working closely with the insurance companies to make it mandatory for vehicles to be insured. There are millions of vehicles on our roads that are not insured. People say, “Well, it’s sitting outside on the road outside my house. I’m not using it. It’s taxed but doesn’t need to be insured.” It has to be insured, because if someone decides to use it even for an emergency they will not be covered. We are moving fast on that.

I am very keen to have a national framework for educating young drivers on the dangers of driving. When I was on the Back Benches, I went to see a scheme in Cheshire called Drive to Survive. It is an excellent scheme. If my hon. Friend wants, I shall drop him a line telling him about other schemes around the country. The schemes are a bit of shock but have a little compassion; they shock young people, and not only those who have been breaking the law by showing them what they could have done to themselves and to those whom they love dearly. At the end of most courses, someone is there to tell how they lost a loved one, and to talk about sons or daughters who had been maimed or killed at the same age. I pay tribute to Mr Beatty in Scotland and Mr Kerr in England; both are to advise me from personal experience how that campaign works. We may have wonderful, big organisations, but I want people from the grass roots to work with me on how to skill up our young people.

I turn to the changes to the test that were touched on earlier. They are being implemented as we speak. People, and not only young people—this is so true—are trained to pass a test and not to drive. One thing that I have asked during the six months during which I have had the honour of being a Minister is the question, “Is the test fit for purpose?” Are we training people to drive in a fit and safe way so that they can enjoy the road?

That applies not only to cars and HGVs but particularly to motorbikes. Even though we have some of the safest roads in the world, our motorbike death rate is going in the wrong direction. Although we had only a 2% increase last year in motorcycle use, the motorbike death rate has increased by 4%, which is going in exactly the opposite direction of all other motor and cycling deaths. I have therefore announced a review, which is ongoing, of the motorcycle test. As my hon. Friend is aware, our undulating roads are a big problem for motorcyclists as well as car drivers.

The previous Government introduced the two-part test. Part of it was to be taken off-road. That sounds eminently sensible—ish—until one realises that the only way to get to the test centre is for those learner drivers to drive on the road. It can take anything up to two or two and a half hours to reach the test centre. Then comes the off-road test, and we have had some nasty accidents there. Those who fail are sent off home to drive on the roads again. It seems to me that if we are training people to drive on the highways and byways of this country, testing them on the roads is the best way forward.

Other things concern me about the car driving test. My hon. Friend insinuated—it was right and proper for him to do so—that those teaching people to pass the test are doing so in order to get paid and move on to the next test. As a result, they have learned the test routes. I know that my young daughter will not mind me saying this—I know that because I am always doing it, and sometimes in front of her. She passed her test first time. We live in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, and the test centre is at St Albans. She took all her driving lessons in St Albans. On the day of her test the instructor said, “Turn left; then turn right,” and she smiled. She knew the route like the back of her hand. She will admit that that is not the best way to test people, and we are desperate to change that. I have therefore banned the routes being published. New routes will be worked in the test centre areas so that there will be no knowledge of the route; instead, there will be knowledge of how to drive.

Another change has been introduced. Once people have passed the test they are likely to drive on their own. My daughter came home after her test and parked the car. At about half-past 5 she went out of the front door, put the keys in the ignition and sat there for half an hour. Like a good parent, I was staring out of the window so that she could not see me, but eventually I went out to her and said, “What’s the matter, mate?” She was crying. She was petrified. She had never driven a car on her own, yet the law—and I as the Minister—had given her a piece of paper that said, “Off you go. You’re as good as everyone else on the road.” That is not the case. We need to work with the Institute of Advanced Motorists, the AA and other organisations on post-test training, and to ensure that the test itself is fit for purpose.

I thank my hon. Friend again for introducing a subject that I would like to debate more often. People take an interest in their local community and its roads, and are concerned about the deaths and accidents that take place there. It is something that every Back Bencher should do. It is a great honour to stand here as a Minister and listen to someone who understands his constituency so well, who understands its topography and layout and who knows where the problems are.

Of course it is my hon. Friend’s job to ask for more money, but with the limited funds that we have I must ensure that the money is spent on the right projects and that we do not pick on the same ideas each time but look outside the box. That is particularly so for rural roads, where white lining on the edge of the roads is so important. White lining has saved millions of lives—that is an overstatement, but it has certainly saved thousands of lives—since it was introduced in the 1960s. Some of those white lines are now wearing out, but white-lining technology has improved and we now have retro-reflective white lining that absorbs light and throws it straight back at the source rather than onwards. That sort of technology should be used, as it is very cheap. When we go to look at the roads in my hon. Friend’s constituency—I do not know whether it will be me or my colleague—it will be interesting to see whether the white lining was improved at the same time as some of the other works that have been approved. On rural roads, it is very useful.

Finally, I turn to the cost of insurance. As a parent, I put both of my children on my policy, but they were not the main drivers. In many cases, however, children are the main driver, but are not listed as such. That is breaking the law, and it is not fair on the insurance industry.