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Motor Vehicles (Variation of Speed Limits) (England and Wales) Regulations 2014

Volume 758: debated on Thursday 22 January 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Motor Vehicles (Variation of Speed Limits) (England and Wales) Regulations 2014.

Relevant document: 17th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

I apologise to the Minister. I would not normally seek to intervene before he even started but I failed to find both impact assessments on these issues. As I understand it, we are dealing with an increase in two speed limits: from 40 miles per hour to 50 miles per hour on the single carriageway and from 50 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour on the dual carriageway. I inquired in the Printed Paper Office but it appeared to have only an impact assessment for raising the speed limit on dual carriageway roads. Before we start, has there been an impact assessment on increasing the speed limits on single carriageway roads or is there only one impact assessment?

My Lords, there are two impact assessments and I would be happy to give the noble Lord the one on the roads going from 40 miles per hour to 50 miles per hour sometime later today.

I can say only that I just inquired about it and was not given one in the Printed Paper Office, where they had a good look for it.

Maybe I am getting horribly confused—that is quite likely—but the one I have just been given by the clerk is the one I already have. It says:

“Raising the speed limit for HGVs … on dual carriageway roads”.

I see—I now also have the single carriageway one here. Maybe the clerk has only the one of them. I am sorry.

My Lords, thank you. These draft regulations are being made to increase the national speed limit for heavy goods vehicles of more than 7.5 tonnes on single carriageways from 40 mph to 50 mph and on dual carriageways from 50 mph to 60 mph, in England and Wales. The freight and logistics sector is an essential part of the UK economy. Improving conditions for growth in the logistics sector is critical to the Government’s growth agenda. Raising heavy goods vehicle speed limits, particularly on single carriageway roads, will lead to quicker journeys and lower costs for the sector, aiding economic growth and generating economic benefits of £11.8 million per year. It will also reduce frustration for the many drivers who find themselves stuck behind slower-moving lorries on busy roads and are unable to overtake.

These speed limit changes are part of a wider package of associated measures that the Government are bringing forward to continue to increase economic efficiency and remove outdated restrictions. The new limits will better reflect the capabilities of modern heavy goods vehicles. They will also ensure that heavy goods vehicle speed limits are proportionate to those of other large vehicles, such as coaches and cars towing caravans, and to the speed limits on motorways.

Vehicle-specific speed limits are set out in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, but the current speed limits have been in place since the 1960s. Since then, huge improvements have been made in vehicle design and highways engineering, and these limits are now outdated. What is more, our expectations of faster journey times and lower-cost goods are relying on heavy goods vehicle drivers systematically breaking the law. On single carriageways, the current 40 miles per hour speed limit causes unnecessary cost to vehicle operators and congestion. Because of the 20 miles per hour differential between heavy goods vehicle and car speed limits, lengthy queues of traffic often develop behind heavy good vehicles that adhere to the 40 miles per hour speed limit. This leads to avoidable accidents where following drivers become frustrated and make unsafe overtaking manoeuvres.

It is for these reasons that in July last year, the Government announced plans to increase the national speed limit for heavy goods vehicles to 50 miles per hour on single carriageways. The Government commissioned research into the potential impacts of the change and conducted an impact assessment and full public consultation. We also looked at what we could learn from other countries who are also leaders in road safety, such as the Netherlands and Norway, which already have 50 miles per hour speed limits for heavy goods vehicles on rural single carriageway roads.

Our impact assessment suggested that the change in speed limits could, in isolation and based on current road safety figures, result in an increase in fatal accidents of two to three per year as a result of higher average speeds. It also suggested that reducing the speed limit differential between heavy goods vehicles and other traffic could reduce accidents.

The public consultation highlighted that some respondents had reservations about increasing the speed limit due to concerns about road safety, road maintenance and the environment. To address these concerns, we are taking forward a package of measures to improve heavy goods vehicles’ safety, including encouraging local authorities to consider whether lower speed limits are appropriate on some roads because of high numbers of pedestrians or cyclists, the road condition or where there is a possible risk of air quality limits being exceeded. We will also conduct an evaluation study of the impacts of the change within five years of it coming into force.

In November last year, the Government also announced plans to increase the national speed limit on dual carriageways for heavy goods vehicles from 50 to 60 miles per hour to complement the decision about the single carriageway speed limit. This change will modernise the speed limit and bring it into line with the behaviour of professional heavy goods vehicle drivers, but the Government’s analysis suggests that it will not result in significant changes to average heavy goods vehicles’ speeds. This is because heavy goods vehicles already travel at the same speed limit on dual carriageways as on motorways, which have a 60 miles per hour speed limit. It is implausible that lorries will travel faster on dual carriageways than on motorways because motorways have fewer obstacles and are built to higher standards. So we think that the practical effects of this change on dual carriageways alone are limited.

The proposed new speed limits received significant support in the public consultations and I believe that they represent a pragmatic change that reflects the needs and capabilities of a modern transport network. I beg to move.

I thank the Minister for explaining the purpose and reasoning behind these regulations. I have one or two points that I wish to raise and if the answer to those points is in the impact assessment I have just been given, I hope he will accept that I have not really had a chance to digest its contents in the few minutes that I have had it.

The Minister has not indicated that there has been lobbying for this increase from the road haulage industry. Perhaps he can say whether that is the case, bearing in mind that many are of the view that increasing HGV speed limits is a priority for the haulage industry.

We do not intend to oppose the increases in the speed limits but we wish to express some reservations about the way the Government appear to have handled this matter and to make some comments on the supporting documentation. It seems from the work undertaken that the safety impacts of the single carriageway increase from 40 to 50 miles per hour are somewhat inconclusive. It would be helpful, although I have no doubt that the information is in the document that I have just been given, if the Minister could say what the Government’s impact assessment shows that the increase to 50 miles per hour will result in, in terms of any additional fatalities or serious accidents each year. Once again, I accept that that information may be in the document that I have been given. Could he also indicate how many fatal accidents involving heavy goods vehicles in excess of 7.5 tonnes there are currently each year on single carriageway roads, so that we can see whether it is accepted that there will be an increase and, if so, at what kind of percentage level that increase is projected to be?

The evidence of a link between increased speed and crashes is well documented. It is estimated that one-third of deaths on the road are caused partly by excessive speed. There has been nothing but anecdotal evidence to suggest that road safety will improve due to less of what is described as “risky overtaking” in the Explanatory Memorandum, as a justification for these measures, if the speed limit for HGVs is raised.

As I look at the Explanatory Memorandum, the single carriageway speed increase appears to have been objected to by nearly three-quarters of respondents to the Government’s consultation, so one could suggest that not very much weight has been given to the results of the consultation. Is it not also the case that the increase in the speed limit is being pushed ahead before the Department for Transport has concluded its promised review of rural road safety?

The consultation on increasing the speed limit for HGVs on single carriageway roads, according to the Explanatory Memorandum, was launched in November 2012 and went on for three months, until the beginning of February 2013. A decision to proceed was not made, presumably, until very recently—that is, 2014. One could construe that the delay was, at least in part, because the Government knew from the responses that the change was likely to be controversial, but perhaps the Minister could comment on that point.

There does not appear to have been too much of an attempt to assess the impact of higher speed limits on dual carriageways. The Government have, presumably, not properly assessed costs and benefits for the dual carriageway increase because they are of the view that, in reality, the speed at which vehicles go will remain the same. However, the majority of respondents to the consultation did not agree with that assertion, which, if it is incorrect, could lead to significant impacts for road safety, the environment and road maintenance. Higher average speeds for larger vehicles will increase fuel consumption, emissions of CO2 and particulates and noise levels. However, it is not clear why the Government want to increase the speed limit for heavy goods vehicles over 7.5 tonnes from 50 to 60 miles per hour on dual carriageway roads.

The impact assessment says that the average speed at which HGVs travel in “free flow conditions” is about 53 miles per hour and asserts that the limit of 50 miles per hour is, “out of date”, apparently because it is,

“systematically ignored by professional HGV drivers”,

averaging 53 miles per hours—that is, three miles per hour more, in what are described as “free flow conditions”. If the Government regard a speed limit as being out of date because people are proceeding on average three miles per hour in excess of it, surely on that basis they must be pretty close to regarding the 30 miles per hour speed limit as being out of date, unless the Minister is going to tell us that in free-flow conditions motorists, including lorry drivers, do not go at average speeds in excess of 32 or 33 miles per hour when there is a speed limit of 30 miles an hour. Perhaps the Minister could comment on the view that a speed limit is out of date if it is being exceeded, on average, by three miles per hour, and where that leaves us in relation to the government view on a 30 mile per hour speed limit.

If heavy goods vehicle drivers are averaging 53 miles per hour on dual carriageway roads, why is that an argument for increasing the limit to 60 miles per hour when, in their own impact assessment, the Government state that they “do not expect” a change in the average speed of heavy goods vehicle drivers? If the Government’s argument is that they are doing an average of 53 miles per hour in free-flow conditions at the moment, when the speed limit is 50 miles per hour, what is the argument for increasing it to 60, when the Government’s view is that they will continue to do 53 miles per hour? Perhaps the Minister could comment on that point when he comes to respond.

The Government, as I said, refer to average speeds being 53 miles per hour in free-flow conditions on dual carriageways. Free-flow conditions, as I understand it from that impact assessment, mean when heavy goods vehicles are not held up by other traffic or by obstructions such as junctions, hills or bends. The change for dual carriageways means that these vehicles will presumably be able to travel up to 10 miles per hour faster when at, on or approaching junctions, hills or bends. But is it not the case that more accidents happen at junctions or on hills or bends than in what the impact assessment describes as free-flow conditions? Where was that issue addressed in the impact assessment? Was it even addressed? No doubt the Minister will want to comment on that in his reply.

The consultation period on raising the speed limit for heavy goods vehicles over 7.5 tonnes on dual carriageway roads was considerably shorter than the consultation period in respect of single carriageway roads. Why was that? Why was the consultation of just some six weeks on the speed limit on dual carriageway roads deliberately held over the summer holiday period from 24 July to 5 September, when many people are away? Perhaps the Minister could comment on that in his reply.

The Explanatory Memorandum sets out from what sources the responses had come to the consultation on the single carriageway speed limit increase, saying more than half came from private individuals. How many replies came from private individuals to the consultation on dual carriageway roads? That figure does not appear to be given in the Explanatory Memorandum. The number of local authorities responding to the dual carriageway consultation is—or was—well down on that for the single carriageway consultation. Does the Minister think that has anything to do with the fact that the consultation period was not only shorter but held over the summer holiday period?

The Explanatory Memorandum also refers in paragraph 8.8 to encouraging local authorities to consider lowering local speed limits. Can the Minister confirm in respect of which roads within its area the local authority could make the decision itself to lower speed limits, and in respect of which roads within its area the local authority could not make that decision? In relation to lowering speed limits, can a lower speed limit be placed on a road by a local authority for a heavy goods vehicle of more than 7.5 tonnes than applies to other vehicles, or is it the case that if the speed limit is lowered by a local authority, it has to apply to all vehicles?

The quick look that I have had at the impact assessment on single carriageway roads says, I think, that these vehicles are currently travelling at an average of 45 miles per hour. Could the Minister confirm whether that is the same as applies in the dual carriageway impact assessment, where the figure was 53 miles per hour on what were described as free-flow conditions? On a single carriageway, is that 45 miles per hour in free-flow conditions? Presumably it therefore does not apply when there is an obstruction—an obstruction being described as a junction, a hill or a bend. Once again, if the average speeds are 45 miles per hour, why are the Government pushing for an increase in the speed limit to 50 miles per hour?

I would be grateful if the Minister could answer some of those questions but I appreciate that he may wish to reply in writing. I can confirm that, despite all the questions that I have asked—which may not have seemed to the Minister entirely helpful—we are not opposing the regulations.

I thank the noble Lord for a number of interesting points. I shall endeavour to answer as many as I can. Failing that, I shall be happy to write to the noble Lord.

The first question he raised concerned whether there was any lobbying by the haulage industry. It has been known for many years that the logistics industry has been pressing the Department for Transport to raise the speed limit and modernise the law. It feels that the law as it stands unnecessarily criminalises professional drivers and encourages risky overtaking by other road users. For the motorist who is trying to overtake, a lorry that is going at a much slower speed can be quite frustrating. Quite often, it can create long queues and congestion in certain areas.

The noble Lord asked what impact the speed limit change will have on road safety. The change will remove outdated restrictions set up in 1960 and 1980 and allow our roads to be better used and to better reflect the capabilities of modern heavy goods vehicles. This is one of the many changes being made to ensure that road transport regulations are fit for purpose. We have an excellent record on road safety—one of the best in the world—and I am confident that both our rural roads and lorry freight will continue to become safer. Better vehicle design, highways, engineering and changes in behaviour have all contributed to these improvements.

As to dual carriageways, in practice, because the Government do not believe that raising the speed limit to 60 miles per hour will result in changes in average heavy goods vehicles’ speeds, the change is not expected to have any impact on road safety. On single carriageways, analysis indicates that the direct effect of the speed limit changes on road safety on their own will be relatively small. The impact assessment identified a small additional risk to road safety resulting from the increase in speed—an additional two or three fatalities a year, assuming no other changes. However, it also identifies a potential benefit from a reduction of speed variants and dangerous overtaking. It is difficult to assess the size of the benefit so the impact assessment does not include a figure for that. The Government will be carefully monitoring the impacts of the changes.

My Lords, it may be that the Minister intended to deal with this in writing, but does he have the current figure for the number of fatalities on single carriageway roads involving HGV vehicles in excess 7.5 tonnes? I think he said the projection is an increase in fatalities by three or four, or two or three—I am not sure—and presumably there will be a likely increase in serious injury. The answer will perhaps come in the written response—I am happy to wait for it—but does the Minister know whether it represents a significant or minimal increase in fatalities involving HGV vehicles in excess of 7.5 tonnes on single carriageway roads?

The impact assessment states an additional two to three fatalities a year, assuming no other changes. However, it also identifies a potential benefit from a reduction of speed variants and dangerous overtaking. We do not have figures for the number of lives that can be saved and accidents that can be prevented by the increase in the speed limit. We have problems with dangerous overtaking when a lorry is being driven at a slower speed than the one suggested in the SI, so overtaking becomes easier.

The noble Lord asked about road casualties. The most recently published Reported Road Casualties Great Britain annual report highlights the lowest figure in road deaths since national records began in 1926. Deaths decreased by 2% in 2013, compared to 2012, and were down to 1,713.

The figure is in the recently published report of road casualties in the United Kingdom overall. It is the lowest figure since national records began in 1926.

I suggest, as does the Explanatory Memorandum, that that is not attributed to increasing speed limits. The Government’s Explanatory Memorandum gives reasons for the improving road safety record. It states:

“Better vehicle design, highways engineering and behavioural change have all contributed to these improvements”.

There is no claim in the Explanatory Memorandum that increasing speed limits will reduce deaths.

An increase in speed limits is just coming into force. It is not the reason for fewer deaths. The reasons for a low numbers are more professional drivers, better vehicles, better signage and all that. This is why the department wants to review this after five years. We believe that, on the balance of probabilities, the number of accidents and deaths will not go up if we increase the speed limit as suggested. Bearing in mind that heavy goods vehicles break the law by driving at over 50 miles per hour on dual carriageways, we are suggesting 60 miles per hour. Remember that lorries have a meter so that they cannot exceed 56 miles per hour anyway.

So why do the Government want to increase the speed limit to 60 miles per hour if the Minister is telling us they cannot do that speed?

I am saying that by increasing the limit to 60 miles per hour, the chances of their breaking the law, which they are doing now, will be less than at the moment.

I thought the Minister just said that there is a device on lorries that stops them going in excess of 56 miles per hour, so why do the Government want to increase the speed limit to 60 miles per hour?

All lorries have speed limiters set at 56 miles per hour. There is no harm in increasing to 60 miles per hour. There is no point in moving the limit to 56 miles per hour. The Government are increasing the limit to 60 miles per hour in case some then can do up to 60 miles per hour. The point is that the speed limit is currently 50 miles per hour. We know that lorries break that law. By increasing the limit to 60 miles per hour, the number of people breaking the law will be minimal.

The Minister will accept that if that is his argument, that is an argument for increasing the 30 mile per hour limit because people exceed 30 miles per hour. I hope he not advocating that.

I had better write to the noble Lord on our reasons for increasing the speed limit. The noble Lord asked why the Government are proceeding with the change on single carriageways when most of the consultation responses supported no change. We carefully considered the evidence provided during the consultation. We took into account the high number of hauliers represented by responding trade associations, whose membership ranges from 300 to 14,000 members. Arguably the majority of respondents were in favour of an increase in the limit.

We consider the benefits of change, including time savings and a reduction in congestion and frustration, to be worth while and are confident that rural roads and lorry fleets will continue to become safer and that any road safety concerns can be addressed.

The noble Lord asked about the delayed announcement. We were unsure whether we had fully addressed all possible impacts, so we took the time to do a thorough impact assessment and a review of the impact assessment. The noble Lord asked whether the Government have not assessed the costs and benefits of the change on dual carriageways because we do not predict a change. We carried out a sensitivity test of the impact of a very small change in speed. It is set out in the impact assessment. It resulted in a benefit to business of £8.9 million per year. The safely impact was an additional 0.18 fatal accidents per year.

On local authorities’ ability to change limits, yes, the advantage of this measure is that if, in certain areas, a local authority feels that the speed limit is too high, it is empowered to change the speed limit to as low as 20 miles per hour.

The noble Lord was entitled to say that I ought to know the answer already, but obviously the fact that I am asking the question indicates that I do not. Is it in relation to any road within the local authority’s area that the local authority can decide, if it so wishes, to reduce the speed limit?

Yes, if the local authority feels that, in certain parts of the area, having higher speed limits is not safe, it has the right to reduce the speed limit to 30 miles per hour.

I am simply asking the question because I do not know the answer. Is it correct that that would apply on a main trunk road going through the local authority area—that the local authority, if it so wished, could decide to reduce the speed limit?

The answer is yes. We talked about the speed limit being out of date. Let me write to the noble Lord on the subject. My briefing says that if the local authority, within its contested areas, is worried about the safety of people living around there, it has the power to reduce the speed limit. But let me write to the noble Lord on the subject.

My Lords, we talked about the speed limit being out of date. I said earlier that, while heavy goods drivers already exceed existing speed limits, they cannot be caught by speed cameras, so enforcement is often very difficult. They currently break the law anyway. Heavy goods vehicles have to be fitted with speed limiters that limit them to a maximum speed of 56 miles per hour, and the average speed for heavy goods vehicles on motorways is already 53 miles per hour. Therefore, these changes are unlikely to have a big impact on speed.

I hope I have given a sufficient explanation of all the issues raised by the noble Lord; failing that, I would be very happy to write to him, as he raised a number of issues. It is a contentious issue, and I am certainly happy to look at it again and drop him a line where there is doubt.

Motion agreed.