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Towed Trailers

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2016

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the safety of towed trailers on public roads.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this important debate.

My objective in securing this debate is to articulate the experiences of a constituent family who, just under two years ago on 27 January 2014, found themselves facing every parent’s worst nightmare. Although I need to explain the tragic circumstances that caused the death of three-year-old Bedminster resident Freddie Hussey, devastating the lives of his mum, dad and older brother, I hope to ensure that the Minister’s attention is focused on the action, legislative or otherwise, that can be taken to prevent similar avoidable tragedies from befalling others. I also hope that this debate will raise the profile of an issue that the family believes—and my research backs this up—is far more widespread and potentially life-threatening than might first appear.

On Monday 27 January 2014, three-year-old Freddie Hussey and his mother Donna were walking home along Parson Street, Bristol, after dropping off Freddie’s older brother at school. A Land Rover was driving along Parson Street that day towing a 2-tonne trailer, which became detached from the vehicle as the hitch had not been correctly attached and careered across the pavement, fatally crushing Freddie. I do not want to delve into the detail of the case brought against the driver, other than to say that at court he was sentenced to 200 hours of unpaid work and handed a six-month driving ban. It is easy in such tragic circumstances to call for sentence structures to be reviewed and so on, but I and Freddie’s family are keen that in this debate we instead focus on the possibility of introducing legislation to prevent unsafe trailers from being towed on our roads.

South Bristol’s people are made of strong stuff. They are resilient, they support each other and they are generous. In the face of that local tragedy, local residents rallied round with donations, which was particularly valuable after Freddie’s dad, Scott, a professional driver, lost his job after having become so traumatised that every time he got into his lorry he suffered panic attacks. I pay tribute to my constituents for their dignified response, which saw them hoisted into the public eye. The Hussey family deserve and expect to be allowed to continue to reflect on the tragedy that ripped apart their lives without any media intrusion. I express in anticipation our thanks to media representatives for their understanding of and respect for the family’s wishes.

Having experienced that personal tragedy, the family impressed on me their determination that some good will come from Freddie’s death. Other families should not be forced to undergo a similar nightmare. They seek certain outcomes, which I want to articulate on their behalf. They accept that nothing can be done about the driver’s sentence, but they wish the law to be changed so trailers must pass a roadworthiness test.

First and foremost, I ask the Government to state their position on the law surrounding the roadworthiness of trailers and the ability of drivers to ensure safe attachment, and why it will not be changed. Looking at this issue from a layperson’s perspective, people are surprised that there is no requirement for a person driving with a 2-tonne trailer on their tail to check how it can be safely fixed or to ensure it is roadworthy. I have been told by the Minister responsible that no change is planned, but I do not have a clear idea why that is so. I sought a clear understanding on my constituents’ behalf over a period of several months last year.

I was elected in May 2015, and I was first contacted by Freddie’s mum, Donna, a month later. I subsequently met her and her husband. Donna’s email outlined the tragic circumstances and explained:

“We want trailer and towing laws changed and tougher sentences for drivers. Our little boy cannot have been killed for nothing.”

Like many other residents of Bristol and elsewhere, I still remember where I was when I heard the awful news of Freddie’s death. The depth and cruelty of the disaster felt almost unreal, and shattered the special home-to-school journey that thousands of parents make every day. It surely must have been a one in a million occurrence, but Freddie’s mum explained that

“in the last two weeks alone I have come across four separate incidents where trailers have come loose.”

She gave me web links to news stories, and has added to them since, from North Yorkshire, Kent, Dorset, Tameside, Essex and Somerset. One from Taunton, Somerset, even included a dash-cam video of the incident. Anyone who watches that footage of a trailer smashing across a busy road into traffic lights, luckily without hitting anyone, will understand the risk to public safety we are dealing with. My constituents told me that they have kept a log of further similar incidents, and they assure me that many similar cases have come to light. Such incidents are far from uncommon. The work they have undertaken to highlight this issue means they have been alerted to new accidents on an ongoing basis by a network of people across the country who share their concerns. If the Minister would like to know more, they will be pleased to furnish him with more information.

In her email, my constituent stated:

“in the UK trailers do not carry MOT or safety checks. In countries like Australia or New Zealand they do, and if you are caught with an unsafe trailer you are prosecuted.”

The Minister will be aware of the legal position in other countries across the world. For example, I understand that in New Zealand trailers require a warrant of fitness similar in principle to an MOT, and in Sweden all trailers are required to be registered, to have a certificate of conformity from the manufacturer and to pass a roadworthiness test. The family understandably wondered why similar measures cannot be enacted at home, so I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport outlining the case and asking what plans his Department has to introduce safety checks for trailers and other towed vehicles. I also asked whether any consideration had been given to changing the driving test regime to include towing a trailer. The short reply I received stated that

“there are no plans at this time to require MOT tests for small trailers”.

From my research, I became aware of a similar case that was raised in Parliament in January 2008 by the then Member for Amber Valley. It involved a hauntingly similar case of a four-year-old boy tragically killed when he was hit by a trailer that broke free from a car while he was walking in a Derbyshire village with his mother.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She raised the tragic case of young Finlay Martin in my constituency, who died just over eight years ago. I agree, first, that sentences for people who cause such accidents should be much tougher—the sentence for Finlay’s killers was derisory—and, secondly, that there need to be tests of trailers’ roadworthiness. When they are manufactured, we must ensure that they have all the controls and safety checks that they need. When they are used, an MOT is the right idea.

I am grateful for that intervention. I agree that sentences are an issue, although the Hussey family do not want to look at them. It is surprising that there are no checks at the moment, and I am interested to hear the Minister’s response to that.

That case was raised in Parliament at the time. Having expressed his condolences, the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport responded to the then Member for Amber Valley:

“Introducing MOT-style tests for such trailers is a possibility that we have considered before, and it is a matter that we keep under review. There have been several such accidents in recent months, and I will certainly consider the matter with officials in the Department to see whether we need to move on that.”—[Official Report, 22 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 1354.]

As I was aware from that parliamentary record that the Department pledged to keep the issue under review, last August I wrote to the Minister to draw attention to that case. I asked to see any documentation or advice that his Department officials had provided, and I asked whether the Department had considered whether it is now appropriate to introduce MOT-type tests for small trailers. The somewhat terse reply was:

“I am not able to provide information about advice given to Ministers in a previous government.”

It stated that the testing of small trailers had been considered at a European Union level in 2014, but that it would not be mandated. It did not explain why, so my constituents remain in the dark. It concluded, in the fourth short paragraph of four, by repeating that the Minister is not considering introducing MOT tests for small trailers at this time. Again, it failed to explain why. It prompted me and my constituents to ask, what has changed since 2008 and why? Had incidents of trailers becoming detached fallen or ceased? We know that they have not. In 2008, the Government kept the matter under review. Had the active review policy changed? If so, when? Who changed it? Why? My constituents are angry, but they are dignified and tenacious. They have asked me to seek answers. I have tried, but the Minister’s written responses have been unhelpful, in the opinion of those who have read them, because they failed to give answers to those key questions and prompted further questions.

Let me be clear. I am not calling for the Government to introduce a compulsory MOT test for trailers immediately, although I would like the Minister to set out how UK law compares with that of other countries that do have roadworthiness tests for towed trailers. It might be that a change in the law is the right course for the UK, but at this stage I, along with the family whom I represent, want to understand fully why the considerations that were actively undertaken as recently as 2008 have now apparently been dropped. If the process of introducing such a test is felt to be too bureaucratic or too expensive for trailer owners or for the taxpayer or both, what is the evidence base? Perhaps the issue is not considered important enough to justify public expenditure. Will the Minister please explain the sums involved? Speaking of the evidence base, will he outline data showing the number of recorded incidents of trailers becoming detached? If he will not or cannot, will he accept my constituents’ help in understanding the levels, and therefore the extent, of the issue, which would then allow them to contribute in some way to shaping future Department for Transport policy on an issue that has devastated their family and their south Bristol community?

Finally, will the Minister agree to meet my constituents, should they wish it, so that he can explain personally, face to face, what the Government can do to address this serious issue? My constituents believe that it cannot be long before there are further fatalities and, based on my research, I agree with them. They know that they cannot rewrite history, but they want to help shape a better future and to do all that they can to help avoid any other families suffering as they do. As a minimum, the Government should publish any evidence they have considered around trailer safety and allow further consideration of how tragic deaths from unsafe trailers can be avoided in the future in this country.

Before I call the Minister, I should advise the House that my information is that there are likely to be two Divisions at 4.20 pm, in which case the sitting will be suspended, the clock will stop on the Minister, and he will have to come back to finish his remarks.

I fully share the sadness, so eloquently detailed by the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth), at the death of Freddie Hussey. I can only extend my deepest sympathies to his parents, Donna and Scott, and their other son, Archie, for their tragic loss. It is always devastating to hear about the impact that road deaths have on families. Losing a child is a burden that no parent should have to bear.

Road safety is right at the heart of transport policy and is a top priority for me, so I will first put my remarks into context with some words on road safety. I recently set out our new road safety statement, which contains our commitments to realistic and appropriate action to tackle deaths on our roads. We are particularly concerned about the deaths of vulnerable road users such as children. The statement sets out our key priorities for road safety, which include adopting the safe systems approach. That approach is clear in the framework we have set with Highways England, which it is now implementing. It is also a theme that runs throughout the statement. We are protecting vulnerable road users, including pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and horse riders, through infrastructure and vehicle improvements, the promotion of safer behaviour and equipment, and ensuring that other road users are aware of the risks posed to these groups and adapt accordingly.

Taking tough action against those who speed, exceed the drink-drive limit, take drugs or use their mobile phone has been a priority for successive Governments, and I intend to build on that. We are increasing the fixed penalty for handheld mobile phone use behind the wheel from £100 to £150 and increasing the penalty points for the offence from three to four for motorists and from three to six for HGV drivers. We are also consulting on legislative changes to improve urban cycle safety by ensuring that sideguards and rear under-run devices remain permanently fitted to HGVs.

I have also ensured that a £750,000 grant will be made available in this financial year to police forces in England and Wales to build drug-driving enforcement capacity, and we are consulting on options for a drug-drive rehabilitation scheme course and a high-risk offenders regime for drug-drivers. Further to that, I am consulting on proposals to support safety for motorcyclists, who tragically account for 19% of all road deaths and yet make up only 1% of road users, including better training and improved safety equipment. It is a comprehensive package of initiatives to tackle road safety and build on the progress that our country has made over many years.

Turning to towed trailers specifically, I should start by explaining the type approval and licensing processes for trailers. While small trailers are not subject to MOT testing, all new trailers now need to be type approved. Trailers are, for legal purposes, divided into four different types. Category O1 and O2 trailers are the smaller variety—meaning under 3.5 tonnes laden—which are mostly for personal and domestic use and include caravans. The trailer in this case was in the O2 category. Categories O3 and O4 cover larger trailers, which are usually used commercially and include, for example, articulated lorry trailers. The latter varieties are subject to more rigorous inspection procedures that are appropriate to large and heavily used vehicles.

Recent developments have improved the safety of all new trailers, but given the long life of trailers, it will take some time for the trailer fleet to be completely renewed. All new road-going trailers that are towed behind road vehicles such as cars, lorries or buses need to be submitted for European type approval. The system checks the safety of a new trailer, with regard to important items relevant to road safety such as the braking system, the lights, the tyres and the towing coupling. For larger trailers, devices to protect other road users from under-running the side or rear of the trailer were already fitted in most cases, but they have been subject to more stringent strength testing. We and the industry believe that that has achieved a significant improvement in the safety and quality of trailers. The trailer manufacturing industry has invested in improving the build quality of its product and in more thorough testing, in particular of their braking systems and devices for protecting other road users.

Moving on, we have also made it road users what is acceptable behaviour while towing a vehicle and we consistently make clear how people should behave. Rule 98 of the Highway Code makes it clear that individuals should not tow more than their licence permits and should ensure that loads are secured and distributed throughout the trailer body. The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency also issues a significant degree of guidance on responsible trailer use, including on how much weight a trailer is allowed to bear and the checks that a responsible driver ought to undertake before driving off. The checks include ensuring that the lights are working and the coupling height is correct and checking that the load is secure. The DVSA also provides advice on what to do if the trailer starts to snake or swerve, which is to ease off the accelerator and reduce speed gently. It is entirely reprehensible for an individual driver to set off without ensuring that the trailer is correctly and appropriately coupled and the load correctly distributed through the trailer.

I am grateful for what the Minister is outlining. I agree that that is entirely reprehensible, but we are talking about guidance and advice, and there is no onus on the driver or any enforcement authorities to enforce the advice. Will the Minister expand on how exactly he sees that working?

I will come on to further points, so perhaps we can pick up some of the issues then.

One issue that came out clearly in the hon. Lady’s speech was MOT-type testing. As I said earlier, smaller trailers are not subject to MOT testing, although larger ones are. There is no statutory or comprehensive national database to identify small trailers or to detail when they were built, so any such MOT scheme would prove difficult to implement.

A more universal testing regime for smaller trailers, such as those with the O2 category, was considered as part of a 2013 debate on the European Union roadworthiness directive. At the time, EU member states were in agreement that a scheme to register and test those vehicles throughout Europe was disproportionately burdensome—that was the phrase used—to establish and operate. Unless a registration scheme for such vehicles were established in advance of any testing scheme, it would be hard for enforcement authorities to check effectively that a trailer, such as a caravan, had its own authentic test pass certificate or, indeed, documentation on who owned it. It would be too easy, for example, for a certificate to be used for another, similar vehicle.

It might help our debate if I detail some accident data—I am aware that the hon. Lady’s opening speech included a request for more data to be published and, if I can find more, I will certainly write to her with that information. The number of accidents and casualties involving towed vehicles, compared with other types of vehicles, is low, at about 1% of all accidents. If we take 2014, the latest full year of data, 268,527 vehicles were involved in road accidents of all severities on the roads in our country. Within that total, 1,257 vehicles were towing a trailer, which equates to less than 1% of all vehicles involved in reported road accidents. Obviously that is absolutely no comfort whatever to families who have lost someone in any kind of incident, including the Husseys.

Furthermore, in many of those accidents the trailers are of the larger type, over 3.5 tonnes. Such heavier trailers are used by the operators of HGVs and for many years have been registered and tested under the DVSA’s heavy vehicles plating and testing scheme. The drivers are also used to towing trailers day after day, in the normal course of their jobs.

In respect of large and small trailers, much of the work on road safety, including in relation to careless driving, mobile phone use, drug-hindered driving and drink-driving, is also relevant to those vehicle combinations and applies to drivers irrespective of what they are driving. In the case that we have been discussing, I understand that the failure was to do with coupling the trailer to the Land Rover, which was an error by the driver. It is therefore unlikely that that type of failure would be picked up in a test designed for equipment, such as an equivalent to the MOT test for trailers.

The available data suggest that most accidents involving light trailers relate to driver behaviour, such as inappropriate driving behaviour for the conditions or breaking the speed limit. Indeed, the national speed limits for vehicles towing trailers, including caravans, are lower than standard national road speed limits. That is because of the handling characteristics of those vehicle combinations. Sixty miles per hour is the legal maximum on motorways and other dual carriageways, with 50 mph being the maximum on single carriageway roads, subject to the national 60 mph limit for general traffic.

I want lessons to be learned from the sad case that we have been discussing. We should all bear in mind the comments made about the family’s aspirations. I have met many families who have lost loved ones in road accidents, and I am happy to meet with the Husseys, should they wish to do so. We are always seeking to learn lessons, so I will spend a little time on what we can do with driver behaviour.

I will ask the DVSA to review all the advice it publishes about trailer safety. That will include in relation to trailer coupling—[Interruption.]

Order. There is a Division in the House on the Opposition day motion. I think there will be another Division straight afterwards, on the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, so I will suspend the sitting until after the second Division, when the Minister will have five and a half minutes remaining.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

Let me pick up on the points I was making in the context of driver behaviour, because it is important that we learn as many lessons as we can, not just from this case, but from all incidents that have resulted in fatalities or serious injuries on our roads.

I will ask the DVSA to review all the advice that it publishes about trailer safety, including in relation to trailer coupling. Safety of trailers, of course, involves more than the operation of coupling them safely. Cars, including four-wheel drives, and vans towing trailers can be driven in an unsafe way at excessive speeds. I will look at checking that those messages about vehicle control and speed are clearly put as well.

The DVSA can and does undertake regular checks of trailers. I will ask officials to examine the trends and patterns being picked up at those checks in respect of trailer maintenance and use, and to feed back to me some underlying trends, if, indeed, that is what is identified. I will ask officials to consider how the DVSA guidance about trailers and the lessons learned from the checks can be brought home to more of these motorists through some of their representative groups. That includes considering how we can communicate these issues to people towing trailers. For example, we can reach groups representing people towing caravans and horseboxes, although I appreciate that the trailer in this tragic incident was of a different type.

The hon. Lady mentioned other points, including European comparisons. I will ask my officials to make contact with their European counterparts and report back to me on any lessons that people may have learnt in other countries.

I mentioned earlier that I would write regarding data. I have some comparative data: in 2014, as I said, there were 1,257 total incidents involving trailers. That was broken down to 39 fatalities, 214 serious injuries and 1,004 slight injuries. Although that is a slight increase on the previous year, it is part of a broader downward trend. However, I will write with the data that we have, as they might help to inform the debate.

The Minister mentioned discussing the matter with different bodies. I know that this particular issue is not the same, but have there been discussions with the National Farmers Union, for instance, about the safety of farm vehicles? That is important: they are on the roads regularly and there are sometimes issues with lights, trailers and so on.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I will certainly pick up with farmers’ unions.

I come to my last point. I have detailed a number of positive actions, which I will progress personally. I am extremely keen to see our country’s record on road safety improve. We have a good road safety record in our country and some of the safest roads in the world—I do not want people who may be following this debate to go away thinking anything other than that—but at the same time, we still lose many hundreds of people every year on our roads. Those people represent not just statistics, but families shattered, so I will continue to work to improve on our record. The case of Freddie Hussey is particularly sad, and I will do all I can to ensure that we learn from this case, so that the tragic circumstances faced by the Hussey family are not endured by any other families.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the safety of towed trailers on public roads.