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Road Safety: Electric and Hybrid Vehicles

Volume 714: debated on Tuesday 10 November 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the danger posed to pedestrians and cyclists by the near-silent operation of electric and hybrid vehicles.

My Lords, my department has discussed with Guide Dogs for the Blind and Imperial College whether electric and hybrid vehicles pose a danger to visually impaired people. The Government will, early next year, start a research project to determine the extent of any problem. We will keep the RNIB and Guide Dogs for the Blind informed of the progress of this research and I will consult with them when the research is complete.

I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware of the research from the University of California indicating that hybrid cars need to be anywhere between 40 per cent and 75 per cent closer than combustion engine cars before subjects can tell that they are approaching, leaving only one second to detect their approach when travelling at low speeds? What chance does that give small children and others to stop, look and listen before crossing the road? What is the timescale for the research that the Minister mentioned? Given that the Committee on Climate Change has said that it expects there to be 1.7 million electric and hybrid vehicles on British roads by 2020, does he agree that that research needs to be pursued as a matter of urgency?

My Lords, we anticipate that the research will take about nine months. In respect of the growth in the number of electric and hybrid cars in this country, by 2015 we expect that only 3 per cent of new cars will be electric or plug-in hybrid cars, which will represent 0.4 per cent of the total UK fleet. Although I accept the points made by the noble Lord about needing to be fully aware of the impact of electric or hybrid cars on those to whom they may possibly cause danger, I believe that we have time to take appropriate measures.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that an additional point for the research that he just mentioned should be to see whether the existing motor fleet could be made quieter so that ambient noise is reduced? Then we would be able to hear these electric cars more easily. Is that not the best solution?

My Lords, I believe that cars are becoming quieter over time, so my noble friend’s point is being met. However, he is right to point out that, according to research, more than 90 per cent of the UK population hear traffic noise while at home and about 10 per cent regard their exposure to that source of noise to be highly annoying. There is clearly more progress to be made.

Does my noble friend agree that this is a no-win situation, whichever way the Government turn? We cannot advocate noisy vehicles because of the environment and yet blind people and deaf people really are vulnerable to silent vehicles. The only realistic solution is to raise the awareness of the public and drivers.

My Lords, as a Minister now for four and a half years, I am used to being in no-win situations. My perpetual quest is for the happy medium.

My Lords, I must declare an interest as the owner of an electric vehicle, which is completely and utterly silent. Surely nine months is an awfully long time to have to wait. There must be a simpler method, particularly with modern communications, to produce a report even before Christmas.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former member of the council of Guide Dogs for the Blind. I think that the Question could go a little wider. Cyclists are completely inaudible and frequently ride on pavements. Whether one is visually handicapped or not, they constitute a real peril to pedestrians. I think, if I may say so, that something ought to be done.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there might be a simpler solution? When I purchased one of these cars a few years ago, my wife, being very practical, said that the answer would be to put on the front of the car a small Swiss cowbell.

My Lords, I think this is England. Whether such Swiss innovations would go down well here is a matter for conjecture. We have nine months for a wide-scale public debate. I shall ensure that the noble Lord’s suggestion features prominently in that debate.

My Lords, what discussions is my noble friend having with colleagues—including, if I may term him a colleague, the Mayor of London—as to how to improve the likelihood that cyclists will indeed obey the law?

My Lords, as I said earlier, cyclists have a responsibility to obey the law and we take that very seriously. They are expected to have regard to the Highway Code, which stipulates proper behaviour on the road. As a society we need, over time, to improve the facilities that are available for cyclists, too. I do not think that cyclists get the quality of infrastructure which ensures that they are able to cycle entirely safely on the road. Here again, what we need is a happy medium.

My Lords, pedestrian accidents are more prevalent in disadvantaged areas. How will the Minister prevent these new vehicles exacerbating this problem?

My Lords, we are addressing the issue of the impact of electric and hybrid vehicles on all areas. We are not discriminating between different types of area.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McColl, has suggested that a cowbell may be the answer. Does the Minister agree that, from the position from which I am speaking, maybe a man with a red flag walking in front of the car would be better?

Your Lordships are full of such useful suggestions this afternoon. I believe it was Herbert Morrison who lifted the speed limit above 20 miles per hour, which it was until the 1920s in this country. That is where it had got to after people had ceased to be required to carry red flags before cars. I do not believe, though, that the future always lies in reinventing the past.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the penalty for riding on the pavement is only £30? Would it not be helpful if that penalty were quadrupled to £120, which is the fine imposed under the London congestion charge if you do not pay the penalty within two days?

My Lords, I expect to see the law properly enforced, but the penalties which are in place at the moment are those that we expect to be observed.