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Dangerous Driving

Volume 548: debated on Monday 9 July 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my concerns about the lack of current road traffic measures to address the incidence of fatalities and serious injuries caused by foreign drivers driving on the wrong side of the road in the UK. The UK, as we all know, is one of the few remaining areas within the EU and internationally whose drivers drive on the left-hand side of the road. The sparse statistics available on such road traffic accidents would suggest that more attention needs to be paid to such tragic accidents and that steps need to be taken to reduce or even prevent them.

On 11 September 2010, Andrew Alexander McLean, a 22-year-old, was returning home from his work in the Scottish borders when a car driven by a French driver approached him on the wrong side of the road at the crest of a hill. Andrew saw the oncoming vehicle and steered for the verge, but, sadly, as the French driver was on the wrong side of the road he too steered for the verge straight into Andrew, who was killed instantly. Although, as we can imagine, this is still a very sensitive matter for Andrew’s family, they have asked me to raise the matter through this debate in the hope that it will be given more prominence.

The French driver, a 23-year-old schoolteacher, was driving in the UK for the first time in his left-hand drive Peugeot 307 when the accident happened, and the subsequent court case in Selkirk heard that the accident was caused

“by a moment’s inattention resulting from the accused’s inexperience of driving in the UK”.

The accused’s defence lawyer claimed there were no aggravating factors in the build-up to the accident such as speeding or lack of rest. He momentarily suffered a lapse in concentration and responded by acting instinctively, moving to the right-hand side of the road, which was the right side for him but was sadly the wrong side of the road in Scotland. Even given those mitigating circumstances, Andrew’s family feels that the court’s sentence was lenient, although I appreciate that that is not an issue for tonight’s discussion.

Such accidents are a tragedy for the victim and in many cases the perpetrator. Often forgotten are the families of the victim, and I was initially alerted to this case by Andrew’s grandmother, Mrs Billett, who is a constituent living in Stirling. I have been specifically asked to highlight the case by Andrew’s family, including his father, as they wish to see the Government take steps to investigate ways to prevent foreign drivers from driving on the wrong side of the road.

I want to put a series of points to the Minister, perhaps with a view to investigating such road deaths and helping to reduce their number. I am aware, as he will be, that the Scottish Government have some devolved responsibility for road issues, such as accidents on Scottish roads, and I understand that they have published a policy framework, “Go Safe on Scotland’s Roads it’s Everyone’s Responsibility”, which covers the period up to 2020. Chapter 7 of that document refers to a Scottish Government report of 2001, stating that although

“tourist activity does not significantly boost road accident numbers in the rural… areas of Scotland”

such accidents do occur and most often

“involved driving on the wrong side, turning, and crossing the centre line”,

while 20% of collisions caused by cross-border drivers occurred when the driver was on the wrong side of the road.

As far as I can ascertain, the policy of the Scottish Government in relation to foreign drivers on Scottish roads is the publication of a tourist information guide for foreign drivers, which includes a “keep left” sticker available in four languages. I am not sure whether a similar minimum warning is given at ports in other parts of the UK. In certain areas, there are warning signs to “keep left”.

An issue allied to the circumstances surrounding Andrew’s death is the number of foreign truck drivers involved in road accidents in the UK. A press report of February 2012 suggested that one in every 31 motorway accidents in the UK was the fault of lorry drivers from abroad. It was also alleged that on the M25 the figure could be as high as one accident in three. While that might not be directly the result of foreign truck drivers driving on the wrong side of the road, I believe that there is little information held by the Department for Transport either to rebut or to substantiate such assertions.

I recently met the Association of British Insurers, which produced a report, “European Drivers: Crossing Borders Safely”, in November 2007. The report stated that drivers from elsewhere in Europe were involved in more than 18,000 recorded accidents in the UK. In 2005, UK drivers caused more than 5,000 reported collisions on continental European roads. The ABI believes that the UK Government are underestimating the risks that cross-border drivers pose and that they

“should establish an accurate and consistent picture of crossborder driving in the UK, in order to measure the risk that this represents and therefore take proportionate action”.

In addition, the ABI proposes a series of easy measures that could be implemented in the interim.

In November 2011, in a written parliamentary question to the Department for Transport, I asked:

“how many fatal vehicle accidents have occurred where a visitor to the UK driving on the wrong side of the road was a contributory factor in the last 10 years.”

The Minister kindly provided me with a written response, which detailed in a table the

“reported fatal road accidents which had ‘inexperience of driving on the left’ as a contributory factor, in Great Britain for the period 2005-10. However, it is not known how many drivers involved in such accidents were visitors to Great Britain, or if they were driving on the wrong side of the road at the time of the accident.”

The table for that five-year period stated that there had been 55 such fatal accidents—a figure that I suspect grossly underestimates the scale of the problem if full reporting were in place and non-fatal serious accident statistics were included.

However, the Minister also advised that while

“contributory factors to road accidents has been collected since 1 January 2005”

such contributory factors

“are reported only for injury road accidents where a police officer attended the scene and reported at least one contributory factor. These factors are largely subjective, reflecting the attending officer’s opinion at the time of reporting. It is recognised that subsequent enquires could lead to the reporting officer changing his/her opinion.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 892W.]

It would appear, therefore, that full statistics are not available for foreign drivers driving on the wrong side of the road and being involved in fatal or serious accidents.

Since his tragic death, Andrew McLean’s family have been campaigning for Government measures that would reduce or prevent similar fatalities in the future. They have spent considerable time researching possible options, and they have advised me that some devices could be fitted to foreign cars being driven on UK roads. One such device, Lanesafe, is produced by a Scottish company, although I understand that other types of equipment are available. The manufacturers of Lanesafe have suggested that annually 8 million vehicles travel between the UK and Europe and vice versa, and more than 80% of drivers admit to momentarily, at some point, driving on the wrong side of the road. I am not sure whether those figures can be substantiated, but if they are accurate, I would contend that this subject requires much greater consideration by the Minister and his Department.

Andrew’s father strongly believes that devices such as Lanesafe, which would alert drivers when they are driving on the wrong side of the road, ought to be made compulsory for all foreign drivers. He is also totally convinced that, if such a device had been fitted to the car that caused his son’s death, his son would be alive today. Despite all the representations that he and the family have made, they feel frustrated that they cannot get anyone in the Government to listen to their suggestions on the implementation, fitting, checking and policing of the devices that he has identified. I am therefore delighted to have had the opportunity to discuss them this evening. Andrew’s family realise that his death is but one of numerous accidents involving young drivers, and they are keen to ensure that the wider issue is given greater prominence. The family have been energetic fundraisers for Brake, the national road safety charity.

I hope that the Minister recognises that there is a problem involving foreign drivers driving on the wrong side of UK roads. Without accurate and up-to-date statistics, the Government cannot say with certainty that the problem is not serious. I ask him to begin the process of ascertaining the facts, so that we can make a judgment on what action is needed. Andrew Alexander McLean’s family have made the case for action, and in Andrew’s memory as well as that of others killed and seriously injured on our roads by drivers driving on the wrong side of the road, I trust that the Government will look seriously at the options available. I certainly hope that they take into account the fact that, both in Europe and in the UK, many young people now drive cars that are not fitted to drive on the “right” side of the road in that country.

I look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope that he will give some comfort to Andrew McLean’s family by assuring me that he will consider anything that will enhance safety on our roads, not least for our young people.

It is an honour and a privilege to respond on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government to the debate introduced by the right hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) on such a serious subject.

I do not know whether the right hon. Lady knows this, but in a previous incarnation I was a firefighter. All too often, I was called to road traffic incidents—they were called something slightly different in those days, but I am more politically correct now. It is heartbreaking for families to lose a loved one, and my thoughts and prayers are with Andrew’s family.

Let me say at the outset that I hope that we can arrange a meeting with the family, because our time this evening is quite short and what we can discuss is limited. I passionately believe that, in many cases, what families bring to the road safety debate is a lot more than the “professionals” bring. It is important that families feel involved. I think it is a shame that we have not debated the matter before. I fully respect the right hon. Lady’s point about how limited the statistics are; I am all too aware of that. When I answered her parliamentary question, I tried desperately to open it up as much as possible. She will recall how long that answer was. I was disappointed that the statistics that I gave did not tell the whole story. For instance, the deaths per year figure could have included a driver from another country in Europe or anywhere in the world, inexperienced at driving on the left, who was driving a right-hand drive hire vehicle on UK roads. We are looking into whether we can make the statistics clearer. As the right hon. Lady suggested, the police have to form an opinion on whether that was a contributing factor. In Andrew’s case it obviously was. I feel for the family when a court makes a decision that does not feel to them or to us like natural justice. I know that we are not allowed to go into the court’s decision, although we have powers as Members of Parliament to appeal against leniency in some cases, and very good lawyers sometimes get results from the courts. We need to make sure that the legislation on the statute book fits the circumstances.

The title of the debate covers a broad spectrum, but as we were preparing for it I guessed that the right hon. Lady would raise a very serious issue. I thank her for the fact that her office contacted mine earlier today to give us an indication of what she would be speaking about this evening.

On dangerous driving offences, we are tightening up. In a serious case resulting in death, such as the one the right hon. Lady spoke about, there is in my opinion only one charge that could have been brought, but that is entirely up to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in England or the Procurator Fiscal Service in Scotland.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on bringing the matter to the House today. I spoke to the Minister earlier. With reference to the information and the statistics that the right hon. Lady asked for, will that include the relationship that Northern Ireland has with the Republic of Ireland and the relevant statistics? When it come to pursuing those who were involved in accidents and who flee the country, how will the Government deal with that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He indicated to me earlier that he would intervene. There are reciprocal agreements between the Republic and not only Northern Ireland but the rest of the United Kingdom. Interestingly, the Commission is looking at those reciprocal agreements to see whether they are fit and proper. I think the agreements work well between the Republic and the Province and the rest of the UK. We have very good relationships so prosecutions do take place. In the case of an offence as serious as the one described, it would not matter where the driver came from. They would be arrested on the spot if the police thought that they were responsible for committing an offence, and they would be prosecuted through the courts, as is right and proper.

I accept that there is an issue with minor offences, though not so much with commercial vehicles because of the system whereby we hold a deposit. If the vehicle is overweight or the driver has worked more hours than he should, we take a deposit so that they do not pay the fine. There is much more of a problem with cars. We have to be slightly careful that we do not damage our tourism industry. We want people to come to this country, drive responsibly and enjoy the wonderful countryside of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. I have seen what the devolved Parliament in Scotland has put out.

The difficulty arises at port. We cannot in any way delay someone at port under the existing agreements. In the case of some of the heavy goods vehicles that come into our ports, which we know have a track record of not being as roadworthy as they should be, I would like to detain them before they get on to UK roads. We are working with the Commission on the problem, but at present we have to let the vehicles get on to the road before we can stop them, which seems a somewhat perverse way of dealing with the problem.

There are things that we can do. The right hon. Lady referred to Lanesafe. Technology is moving on enormously. I recently drove a mid-range vehicle at the manufacturer’s test track—I must not advertise the company, but it is well known in the UK. It had lane awareness, so as I started to drift from the lane it pulled me back, although it is possible to override that. It had distance awareness, in case I got too close to the vehicle in front. More frighteningly, for those of us with daughters who drive, it had independent parking, so I was able to take my hands off the steering wheel and the car parked itself. I am not being sexist about my daughters’ driving abilities, but both my girls have had great difficulty with lateral parking—they will not mind my saying that. That is not one of the most expensive cars, a dream car or a concept car; it is a mid-range vehicle available in showrooms today.

That sort of technology is becoming available and car manufacturers are producing products such as Lanesafe, which the right hon. Lady mentioned. We would have to be very careful, because the Commission would come down on me like a ton of bricks if I in any way discriminated against another member of the European economic area who has a free right of travel here. In other words, I would have to make that available across the board, so the compulsion part would be quite difficult.

The right hon. Lady said that she had had a meeting with the Association of British Insurers. I have many such meetings. I must be honest and admit that this was not at the top of its list when it raised the matter with me. There are many other things it is concerned about, particularly the cost of insurance for young people and how we can make that transparent, but we must ensure that any ideas out there are listened to and that we work on an evidence base and ensure that our roads, which are some of the safest in the world, continue to be so.

We are very conscious of the concerns that the right hon. Lady raised about HGVs and overseas drivers, not least because they come here with their belly tanks full of diesel and compete with our hauliers. Even with the existing cabotage rules it is difficult for our hauliers to compete, so we are going to introduce lorry road user charging in this Parliament so that there is a better balance in the legislation and our truckers can compete with foreign hauliers.

However, the figures on actual incidents are very interesting. Only about 5% of the whole haulage industry is affected by overseas hauliers, and that is at the top end of the range, with the larger 44-tonners. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that they are disproportionately represented in accidents, but not necessarily the most serious ones, which is the point I think she was making. The word “incident” is there for everyone to see. Some are reported and some are not. We are trying to ensure that foreign haulage vehicles are as rigidly maintained and as safe as our vehicles.

The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency does an excellent job of enforcement in this regard. Only recently I was on a motorway with VOSA staff when a foreign-registered 45-tonne truck went under a bridge that we had a monitor on. The electronic monitor showed that two of its axels were overweight, so the technology is simply outstanding. We pulled the vehicle over and got it to follow us back on to the weigh bridge. We identified that it was not only over its cabotage but over its hours, so we tend to pick up other things as well. What we must ensure is that exactly the same rules apply to our hauliers as apply to others.

The right hon. Lady touched on a really important point about gathering evidence. We gather unbelievable amounts of data from the police, VOSA, DVLA, ports, the Highways Agency and the courts, but do we make sure that we gather the data that we really need and are not just form-filling for the sake of it? Do we focus on exactly what we require so that, for instance, we can get a better answer to the parliamentary question she asked me? The answer is that we try. I think I am right in saying that the police fill in more than enough forms—I was on patrol with the police in my constituency on Friday night, and the amount of form-filling was mind-boggling—so we do not want them to fill in more forms; we want the forms to be as accurate as possible to give the information we require but not to be too opinionated. The evidence is absolutely crucial. The right hon. Lady says that the figures are often skewed because the police officer may think, at the time of the incident, that something was a contributory factor, but later, after looking at the evidence, that it probably was not.

We are trying to take the issue very seriously. The right hon. Lady was part of, and had a ministerial role in, the previous Administration, and such work is difficult, but that does not mean we should not do it. I am conscious that we need to do everything that we can to ensure that our roads continue to be some of the safest in the world, and that when we have visitors to this country, whether for pleasure or for business, we give them as much assistance as possible to ensure that they know what their obligations are on our roads.

We have reciprocal agreements with some countries, and I think we could develop that much more to ensure that prosecutions take place. In the case of serious offences, prosecutions do take place because the person is arrested there and then and often their bail conditions make it difficult for them to leave the country before they return to court.

The one thing that we must do, however, is to listen to the families—both the families who want, for understandable reasons, to walk away when a loved one has been lost or seriously injured, and the families who want to campaign and to make things better so that such incidents do not happen to others. I have done that with many families, by bringing them in to work with the Department, and we have actually funded some of their campaigns, rather than just those of larger organisations.

If we can do that, we can make our roads much safer, we can have fewer terrible incidents such as the one involving Andrew, and we can protect our tourism industry and allow, as we have to under EU rules, free movement, which is what we would all expect.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.