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Roadside Recovery Vehicles: Red Lights

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 23 July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered roadside recovery vehicles and the use of red lights.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to speak under the watchful eye of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), who is the chairman of two all-party parliamentary groups looking at this important issue.

In September 2017, a roadside recovery worker and constituent of mine, Steve Godbold, was hit and killed by a lorry on the M25. He was assisting a driver at the side of the road, wearing high visibility clothing and with amber lights flashing on his vehicle when he was struck. This tragedy has caused unthinkable pain to Steve’s family and partner Sam Cockerill, while the driver of the broken-down vehicle, Nathan, has suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder after the experience.

Many would have given up after the loss of their beloved, but Sam, who is here in the Gallery today, became a spokesperson for the Campaign for Safer Roadside Rescue and Recovery: a group that has provided a united voice within the roadside recovery industry to lobby both Government and Highways England to improve safety for roadside recovery operators. The campaign is calling for greater recognition of the dangers faced by roadside recovery operators, identifying four key areas that could prevent further fatalities in the future.

The campaign is calling for a halt to the current roll-out of smart motorways, until Highways England can prove they are safe; for the Department for Transport to collect data on the number of accidents specifically involving roadside recovery workers, to provide greater understanding of the problem; and, following the success of the “Slow Down, Move Over UK” campaign, for a change to the highway code that makes clear to road users what to do when approaching a breakdown. This has been implemented in all 50 states in the US, treating drivers who disobey the safety rules of the road the same as drunk or reckless drivers.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate; I spoke to her before it started. Does she agree that roadside recovery workers would be much safer if red lights were used, as opposed to amber ones, given that they portray a greater sense of danger? That might change how drivers react. Pilots of these schemes could be tested in a short space of time, thereby providing the long-term benefits that she and other hon. Members wish to see.

That will be the focus of my speech. There are nearly half a million roadside recovery operators, in a variety of guises, who deserve protection. There are many parts to the wider campaign, but I want to focus on one specific call: to allow the use of red lights by the roadside recovery industry. We are simply asking for recovery operators to be permitted to use prominent red warning beacons while attending accidents and breakdowns on the hard shoulder or on other roads; I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead has particular concerns around countryside roads in his area.

This campaign is supported by the wider industry of both independent firms and nationwide operators such as the RAC and the AA, and I am grateful for their briefings. Evidence given by the AA suggested that although UK motorways are the safest roads to drive on when calculated using serious accidents per billion miles, they are also the most dangerous to work on as a breakdown patrol or vehicle recovery operator; there have been at least three known fatalities of operators in the past 18 months.

There is a firm view within the industry that the use of red lights while attending a breakdown would alter behaviours enough for drivers to become more cautionary in their approach, and there is enough science to back this up. In a previous speech in the House on the wider campaign, I referenced the Rayleigh effect, which means that red can be seen from further away. With significant help from Stephen Westland, a professor of colour science at Leeds University, and Hugh Barton, from Opticonsulting Ltd, I have learned a lot more on this, including regarding the neurological response to red.

Mr Barton helpfully points out that red light as a danger signal can be traced back to the 1820s, when the first passenger trains were signalled using red, green and white flags, which were later replaced by red and green semaphore signals. Red is a useful colour for long-range warning signals, because it suffers from atmospheric scatter to a lesser degree than other colours, due to the effects of Rayleigh and Mie scattering processes: at the limit of visual detection red lights are seen as red, whereas other colours are seen as lights with no specific colour attribute.

Professor Westland provided me with some comments regarding the psychological aspect of red and its association with stop and danger. In a traffic situation, everyone knows that red means stop and danger. He kindly forwarded me an interesting paper in an ergonomics journal, which provided some interesting data on this. In one experiment, for example, the researchers presented words on a screen in one of three colours: red, grey or green. Participants had to categorise the words as being danger words or safety words. The reaction time to identify the words in the danger category was quicker when the words were red than when they were green or grey. The same sort of effect was found with danger symbols rather than words: red danger symbols are more quickly categorised as danger symbols than, say, green danger symbols. In other words, although this is a psychological effect, there are implications for performance. One could rightly surmise that a driver noticing a red light on the hard shoulder would be more likely to slow down than if they saw an orange light, and their reaction times would likely be quicker.

With that science in mind, I ask the Minister to review the Road Vehicles Lighting Regulations 1989, which currently prohibit roadside recovery vehicles from using red lights. This change in policy can be easily implemented. Highways England vehicles have recently joined the fire service in being exempt from these regulations via a statutory instrument; they are permitted to use red lights in their regulation of traffic around accidents and other road incidents. The Campaign for Safer Roadside Rescue and Recovery argue that the work that roadside workers do on the side of the road, whether a motorway or a country lane, is dangerous and ought to receive the same level of protection. I would argue that, too. The issue is not just their safety, but the safety of those they are there to help.

Before I conclude, it would be remiss of me not to mention that one in 12 men and one in 200 women are colour blind. Although the primary purpose of this debate is to call for a change of use from amber to red beacons to protect recovery workers, for some it would make less of a difference. Perhaps part of a review could be to consider how we support colour blind drivers too, perhaps through shaping or flashing techniques within the beacon.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. When I was the Minister with this portfolio, sitting where the Minister sits today, one objection to this deregulation, which could save lives, was that the police did not support it. I am sure that my hon. Friend and the Minister have seen the evidence that the police now support this measure, which will save lives.

I agree. Now that the police have lifted that objection, I see absolutely no reason why roadside recovery operators should not have that same level of protection. At the end of the day, they help the police and Highways England to open up the network, so that our roads can continue to operate and provide the great economic value that having an open and flowing network brings to the country. I hope the Minister has seen that evidence suggesting the police have lifted their objection to this and will bear that in mind in his response.

This debate was borne from tragedy, and I pay tribute to Sam for the campaign she continues to champion. This is just one part of the wider campaign but it is also the simplest to achieve. As the baton passes from one Administration to another, and we all consider what we want to be remembered for, maybe this is something—a small thing—that will make an enormous difference in protecting those who come out, rain or shine, when we are at our most vulnerable on the side of the road.

I will only make a short speech. As I mentioned a moment ago, I had the honour and privilege of being the Roads Minister. That portfolio allows the Minister to make a massive difference to people’s lives—in this case, to save lives. I held the road safety portfolio as well as the roads portfolio.

The roll-out of smart motorways was an integral part of the previous Government’s programme as well as this Government’s, but an unintended consequence of some of that has been that some roadside recovery workers have been seriously injured and others have lost their lives. In a parliamentary question to the Department, I asked how many roadside workers had been seriously injured or killed on managed motorways. The answer came back that the Department did not hold that information and that this was a matter for the police. I completely disagree with that. This is a matter of road safety on a managed motorway.

I do not really understand why Highways Agency—now Highways England—workers should be any safer or less safe than roadside recovery workers. In other words, are their lives worth more? Of course not. No one wants to see the people who help us in our daily tasks, whether in commerce or in getting away for the coming recess, become injured. They come to rescue us, just as I did when I was a firefighter in the fire and rescue service. I saw the sorts of work and skills that the recovery industry has when it delivers them at the roadside. It does not matter whether we are in a 44-tonne artic or in my little Morris Minor that comes out of the shed every now and again: when they come out to rescue us, they rescue us, and their lives are as important as anybody else’s.

I saw the Minister turn round to his advisers when I suggested that the police had been supportive, based on an evidence session with the all-party parliamentary group. I have submitted a letter to the Secretary of State and had extensive correspondence with him about the matter, so I hope that his thoughts will be reflected in the Minister’s reply.

Our suggestion, which I think is picking up credibility in the Department, is that we could pilot something and work it out on the evidence base for what could happen—although it could also be done very quickly by regulation. The vehicles would not be moving with a red light; they would be stationary, which would make it so much safer and much more tangible for the motorist that it is a danger area for them as well as for the people working at the roadside. I had a meeting with the Secretary of State only two days ago and followed it up with letters, which I am sure the Minister has seen.

People in the industry do not want special preference. They just want to be treated exactly the same as any other person working for the Government on the roadside. Their lives and families are just as important as anybody else’s.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) on securing this important debate about roadside recovery vehicles and the use of red flashing lights. I would like to take the opportunity, if I may, to express my sympathy for those affected by the individual, tragic case that she referred to and that provoked the debate. I am also grateful for the intervention and speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning).

I very much admire the work performed by the men and women of the roadside rescue and recovery operations. They provide a crucial service to stranded motorists and motorists in danger, and they do it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in all weathers including severe weather conditions. As well as providing comfort and relief to those who have broken down and having a substantial positive impact on the individuals they rescue, they support the wider economy by getting goods moving and preventing the build-up of congestion on our very busy road network. A report published by Highways England in 2017 noted that business sectors reliant on the strategic road network contributed more than £314 billion to the UK’s economy, while current projections suggest that the cost of congestion to the freight industry will be £14 billion in 2040.

It is clear that the work of recovery operators can be hazardous, particularly when they operate on roads with fast traffic, such as motorways and other parts of our strategic road network. It is important that we do all we can to provide a safe environment for operators to work in and for people who use the network to travel through. I am sure it has not gone unnoticed that the United Kingdom has some of the safest roads in the world, but the effect of every death and serious injury on our roads is devastating for the individuals involved and for their families; I absolutely recognise that.

The Government will continue to lead the way in improving road safety. This is a major national issue that demands close co-ordination across government agencies, the devolved Administrations, local government, enforcement authorities and a range of other bodies. We therefore published our road safety statement very recently. The road safety action plan last week outlined no fewer than 74 actions to reduce the number of people killed and injured on our roads.

I have to beg the Minister’s forgiveness, because I have not read every detail of the road safety plan, but can he tell me how many of those 74 actions relate to roadside recovery operators?

I commend the document to my hon. Friend. I cannot give her the exact number at the moment, but perhaps she will allow me to write to her about it.

Highways England is the Government company charged with operating, maintaining and improving England’s strategic road network of motorways and major A roads. It therefore has a key role to play in moving broken-down vehicles to a place of relative safety to await recovery or in closing a lane to make it safe, in exercise of its powers under the Traffic Management Act 2004 to stop and direct traffic.

I am fascinated to hear that Highways England is now moving vehicles and pulling them off the motorways. When I was the Minister, I asked how many vehicles it moved and the answer was zero, so I do not know quite where the Minister’s information is coming from.

What I said was that Highways England has a key role to play in moving broken-down vehicles. Of course, it is all part of a team effort, including the blue-light emergency services as well as Highways England, when it comes to closing roads to improve safety after a road traffic collision or other breakdown circumstances.

Highways England is part of the SURVIVE group, which has developed and sponsors a detailed national standard to improve the safety of breakdown operatives, employees and customers during breakdown and recovery operations. Certification to the standard demonstrates that management systems are in place, with procedures established to meet safety standards, legislation and best practice for the industry and help road recovery operatives to carry out safe and rapid recovery of vehicles with minimal risk. The SURVIVE standard was introduced in 2015 and amended in 2018, and more than 500 organisations are currently accredited to it—a significant achievement that demonstrates real professionalism within the industry, which I congratulate.

The Government also recognise the benefit of improved vehicle construction standards. The road vehicles lighting regulations were amended in 2010 to require all new goods vehicles over 7.5 tonnes, including those used for road recovery purposes, to be fitted with conspicuity markings to the rear and side to illuminate the vehicle at night. Fitting such markings is optional for smaller vehicles, including the smaller recovery vehicles, but vehicles over 7.5 tonnes must have them. That requirement was brought in by this Government in 2010.

Amber warning beacons can be a valuable tool for conveying important information to other road users. The road vehicles lighting regulations restrict the fitting of amber warning beacons to vehicles with a specified purpose—including recovery vehicles, as well as vehicles used for highway maintenance, refuse vehicles and so on. Additional requirements limit the use of amber beacons to specific functions in order to avoid proliferation; for example, recovery vehicles may use the amber warning beacon only when attending an accident or breakdown, or while towing a broken-down vehicle.

Despite these existing measures, I realise that there is a call from the industry for the use of red flashing lights, because it sees added benefit in them. The police and some fire service vehicles are legally permitted to use red flashing lights, but even those blue-light services must use them under additional guidance issued to their trained drivers. Highways England traffic officer vehicles, which patrol our strategic road network of A roads and motorways, are permitted red flashing lights, but only when operating on live carriageways, not on the hard shoulder. I am aware that comparisons are often drawn between the operations of traffic officer vehicles and those of road recovery operators. Both traffic officers and road recovery operators perform incredibly important work, but as we know, recovery operators should not operate in live running lanes. To emphasise an important distinction, Highways England traffic officers should only use red flashing lights when operating in the live lane to control traffic. They, too, should use amber lights when stationary in other situations.

I humbly suggest that after the debate, the Minister looks at some of the additional briefing papers that have been sent to him in advance of it, because the roadside recovery industry is not calling for the use of red lights in live carriageways, nor is it calling for the operation of red lights while its vehicles are moving. It is specifically asking for the use of red lights while stationary, attending a vehicle, because as I pointed out in my speech, the neurological and psychological response to a red light is very different from the response to an amber one. The industry is not calling for anything that is difficult to achieve.

I am not suggesting that it is—I know it is not—but I am making an allusion to Highways England traffic officer vehicles and what their rules are, so as to differentiate between the current rules for traffic officer vehicles and those for recovery vehicles.

The evidence that we have is key, and I have noted what my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has said about the Rayleigh effect and the scientific evidence about colour. Research into the effectiveness of red flashing lights on vehicles was also carried out in 2010 by the respected Transport Research Laboratory for what was then the Highways Agency, in support of its traffic officer services, so some work has been done on this topic in the recent past. In that study, drivers’ responses to the display of amber and red lights, both on the hard shoulder and in a live lane, were considered to identify which configuration produced the lowest risk to traffic officers. It concluded that flashing lights may make something more visible by attracting attention, but also that too many lights or lights of too great intensity may cause distraction or obscure pedestrians in or around a stationary vehicle.

Assuming that drivers are paying attention to the lights on a stationary vehicle, it is vital that they identify what the hazard is and what action might be necessary while they still have reasonable time to act. That requires early recognition of whether the hazard is in a live lane or on a hard shoulder. Permitting the wider use of any restricted lighting function, including red flashing lights, needs careful consideration, because the warning message they are intended to give will become diluted if they are used too often. Ultimately, that will be to the disadvantage of those who currently use them.

I was the Minister in 2010 when that report was done, and I questioned whether it was a defence of the Highways Agency—as it was at the time—or was trying to improve what the regulation was doing all the way through.

I was out on patrol with the police on the M1 only six or seven weeks ago, and the concept that only Highways England traffic officers use their red lights in a live lane is tosh. They were sitting on the hard shoulder with us, and thank goodness they did, because we had some very near misses while we were waiting for a recovery vehicle. Telematics are available, so that could be stopped, and that is exactly what the industry is offering now, but we are not talking about live lanes; we are talking about the hard shoulder, where these people—I am sorry to use emotive language, Mr Davies—are frankly being wiped out. I am sorry, but the Department for Transport is not looking at this with an open mind; I will say that the Secretary of State is, because this debate is completely different from the conversation I had with him.

I assure my right hon. Friend that the Department is looking at this with an open mind, as I hope will become clear as I continue my remarks.

Apart from recovery operations, there are many other legitimate reasons for vehicles to operate on the roadside. We have to bear in mind that any move to extend the use of red flashing lights will need to consider those additional purposes and the broader effects. However, I emphasise that I am aware of the work of the all-party parliamentary group for roadside rescue and recovery and the Campaign for Safer Roadside Rescue and Recovery, and the excellent work they have been doing to engage with stakeholders and witnesses from across the industry to develop an evidence base to support the call for a change in regulation that my right hon. and hon. Friends have referred to.

I understand that the APPG’s call for evidence resulted in a number of detailed responses, including from the AA and RAC, two of the largest recovery operators in the UK. Responses were also received from the National Police Chiefs Council and several other organisations representing the interests of those involved in the industry and supporting those injured during their work. We will need to properly consult the blue-light emergency services on their views about the use of red lights on recovery vehicles, and I am conscious of the fact that this campaign has attracted the support of many right hon. and hon. Members of this House.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has raised this issue with me, in light of the conversation he had with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. I have discussed this matter with my officials, and I know that the Secretary of State has raised this point as well. In light of the work by this campaign, by my right hon. and hon. Friends and by the APPG and others, we have asked officials to carry out a review of the available evidence in the context of existing policy on red flashing lights, and seek advice on whether a more flexible approach might be appropriate. I think that is the principal wish of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and it is something that we can agree to. That review is expected to take several months, and it will be done efficiently.

In the meantime, I draw the attention of the House to the measures that recovery operators can already take to improve the conspicuity of their vehicles beyond amber warning beacons, within the existing regulatory framework. Those include the use of retro-reflective materials to increase conspicuity at night or under low-light conditions, and the use of fluorescent materials to improve daytime visibility. It is also possible to use additional rear position lights, brake lights and hazard warning lamps. Work lamps may be used to illuminate the working area for the operator when the vehicle is stationary, and illuminated signs reading, for example, “recovery vehicle” may be used.

In the longer term, the Government recognise the need for better evidence and are currently undertaking a review of the national casualty data that we collect. As part of that review, consideration will be given to the merits of collecting specific casualty data for personnel performing roadside recovery or repair. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said at the beginning of this debate, and we will look into that issue.

I am really pleased that there is going to be a review. Can we wait for the evidence and recommendations of the APPG for roadside rescue and recovery before any decisions are made? There will be lots of evidence in that review.

I would certainly expect, and will require, that my officials have the fullest possible reference to the work of the APPG on this subject.

My Department has awarded the RAC Foundation almost half a million pounds to pilot new ways of investigating road crashes. It will trial a different approach to identifying and understanding common themes and patterns that result in death and injury on the public highway, and can help to shape future policy.

I believe that operators using the broad range of measures available to them and following the best practice guidance set out by the SURVIVE group should be able to recover stranded vehicles in relative safety. However, as I have mentioned, the Department for Transport is very conscious of the excellent work that that group does. We will be reviewing this issue over the coming months, and will undertake a review of existing policy and report back.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.