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Safety of Riders and Horses on Rural Roads

Volume 626: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the safety of riders and horses on rural roads.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to open this important debate; a number of colleagues have been very active on this issue and would also like to have secured it. I will welcome interventions and speeches later. I congratulate the new Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), on his appointment and welcome him to his first Westminster Hall debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) on his role. Welcome.

First, I have two confessions to make. I am not a horse rider; I have been on a horse twice in my life. The second occasion was because my wife is a horse rider: when we were courting, I was not really getting the opportunity to spend as much time with her as I intended, so I went horse riding with her. There was only the one attempt, and I eventually won the argument and we married. The earlier occasion was when I was younger, and I cannot really recall that experience.

My second confession is perhaps more serious. I am one of the Members in this place who has had to take a speed awareness course—I was caught speeding in Bristol some years ago. During that course, I was made aware of what damage a moving vehicle can do to vulnerable road users: children, motorcyclists, cyclists, and horses and riders. I welcomed that opportunity and wake-up call about why it is so important to keep to the speeds that are set out for us. So when a constituent, Debbie Smith—she is here this afternoon; welcome, Debbie—came to me wanting to raise the issue of the safety of horses and riders in west Cornwall, I had an open door and was ready to listen and do everything I could to support her campaign and the campaign of many of her friends who ride horses.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that one of the problems is that most drivers are unaware that they should not pass horses any faster than 15 miles per hour? They are often just guided by the speed limit, thinking that it is okay. Would he commend the work of the British Horse Society, which has advocated raising greater awareness of the speed at which one should pass a horse?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention; she is absolutely right, and I was pleased to meet the BHS today to discuss its concerns. A lot of the work, including this debate, that we have been doing over the past couple of years with Debbie Smith, the British Horse Society and many others is about raising awareness of how we should use our roads and consider others’ safety, and pressing on the Government that we believe that there is more they can do to take part in this cause.

For many years, Debbie Smith has been working with others to campaign on behalf of horse riders for safer rural roads. Her most recent petition about passing wide and slow, calling for stronger legal protections for riders on our roads, has reached almost 110,000—maybe now it is 110,000—signatures on the site. I first met Debbie in November 2015 and required little persuasion to join her cause to make our roads safer for horses and their riders. Our initial encounter led to a meeting in February 2016 with the former roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and civil servants from the Department for Transport. We discussed the need for a concerted effort by the Department to make our roads safer. Since then there has been a horse-riding awareness day—earlier this year, in which 15 different locations in the UK took part—and 110,000 signatures on the petition, as I said.

Horse riders make up a significant group of vulnerable road users, but despite there being 2.7 million across the UK, they often find themselves as the forgotten demographic—an afterthought in the minds of drivers and unacceptably low down many politicians’ priority lists. It is for this reason that the British Horse Society launched the horse accidents website in November 2010. Since that launch, 2,510 reports of road incidents involving horses, including near misses and collisions, have been logged by the BHS. That is but the tip of the iceberg. Most significantly, since the launch 222 horses and 38 riders have been killed. This problem is not in decline. In the past year there has been a 29% increase in the number of road incidents involving a horse reported to the British Horse Society.

My hon. Friend is making a very sound case. In fact, it is shocking. I am very nervous of horses, so I go incredibly slowly whenever I am near them because I am afraid of the damage that they might do to me, but does he agree that on the whole many people who drive cars just think of a horse as a horse and forget that they are individuals and that one has to be even more careful if it is a young and nervous horse? The 15 mph and distance from the horse are crucial.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I live in west Cornwall, where most of the roads are very narrow and horses and riders enjoy their valuable and important pursuit. It is absolutely right that we raise awareness and help drivers to understand that horses are living beings—they have brains. Something that they see, but we in the car behind perhaps cannot, may well cause them to get spooked. We need to make drivers aware of the risk not only to the horse and the rider, but to them and their vehicle. That might gain their attention. Statistics such as those should cause alarm.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this important topic forward for debate today. As somebody who has ridden all my life, I understand the problems out there with road safety and horses. My wife—just like his wife and the Minister’s wife—rides, so this is a very important matter. My hon. Friend mentioned the British Horse Society, so will he join me in congratulating it on the “Dead? Or Dead Slow?” campaign? It won the Driver Education Campaign of the Year, awarded by the Driving Instructors Association, in 2016.

Certainly. I am glad to do that and work with whoever across this House and the various organisations to raise awareness about the dangers on our roads. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him very much.

Yesterday, this debate was subject to a House of Commons digital debate: the first of this Parliament—and, I am told, without question the busiest of this Parliament, although there has been only one. The debate reached a total of 119,288 Facebook accounts, with almost 1,500 contributors. Obviously, I did not respond to every single one. Among the many excellent suggestions and sincere concerns expressed, the contributors articulated a strong belief among the horse riding and horse driving community that their safety has become a low priority.

The sentiment that all too often tragedy is not followed by justice is underpinned by high profile cases such as that of Mark Evans and his horse Wil. Mr Evans was a funeral director who also ran a horse-drawn carriage service. Years spent building up his business were undone in 2016 when a car ploughed into a funeral procession, leaving one horse dead and the family of the deceased devastated. The incident has left Mr Evans physically and mentally unable to work and in a position where he may have to give up his home due to loss of income. That is just one example of how lives are affected and why this debate is so important.

Cases such as these, repeated up and down the country, are far from inevitable. In fact, 80% of recorded incidents were caused by vehicles passing too close or too fast for a horse. We are debating an issue that is eminently preventable.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing an intervention. Has he made any assessment of the type of accidents that occur—between those that may be a result of ignorance or neglect and those that are a result of people who, for some reason, take leave of their senses when in the vicinity of horses and become almost temporary class warriors, getting annoyed and driving up close to horses? Is there any assessment or statistic that he can bring to our attention?

I will not cite any statistics, but in the debate yesterday many people raised that very point. There is a perception that people on horses are not necessarily welcome on the road. We need to understand and address that. My personal belief is that nearly everyone is a taxpayer, so we all contribute in some way to the maintenance of our roads; everybody has a right to outdoor activity, however they choose to do it. It is important that we break down any attitude or prejudice, because it is the safety of lives—whether of horses, riders or drivers—that should be of paramount importance. I thank my hon. Friend for a good intervention.

Several factors contribute to the situation. The first is the attitude and behaviour of drivers. Drivers often have good intentions when passing horses, but may be unaware of what speed or at what distance they should pass the horse; of how quickly a horse can move; of the fact that a horse is a flight animal; of how it may react to a moving vehicle; or of how much damage it can do to a vehicle, notwithstanding the injuries it may receive.

The second factor, which my wife regularly raises with me, is the relative powerlessness experienced by riders on rural roads. The Highway Code stresses the importance of riders taking basic precautions to ensure that they take into their own hands as much responsibility for their own safety as possible. Campaigns such as “Pass Wide and Slow” do an excellent job of encouraging riders to wear high-vis jackets, avoid riding in poor visibility and use technologies such as hat cameras. The British Horse Society has a riding and road safety qualification to enable riders to upskill and better navigate today’s roads.

Despite such campaigns, riders are often at the mercy of the poor judgment of other road users. Hand gestures to drivers, save those made in moments of intense frustration, are rarely understood and seldom acknowledged. CCTV from hat cameras is not routinely followed up by police, which makes it difficult for riders to hold other road users to account. Increased usage of electric cars poses a new threat to riders that must now be considered; silent vehicles have already been the cause of several near misses.

Finally, the speed limit on many rural roads is too high. Many of the country lanes in my constituency are little more than adopted unmarked tracks, but they retain a speed limit of 60 mph—just 10 mph less than a motorway. The vulnerability of riders and the increase in road incidents involving horses on rural single-lane carriageways are symptomatic of a wider problem.

The Department for Transport has stated that around two thirds of UK road deaths take place on country roads. It issued guidance in 2013 that stated that local authorities should take the presence of vulnerable road users—including people walking, cycling or riding horses—fully into account, along with the concerns of local residents, when setting local speed limits. Despite this, inadequate consideration is being given to using the lower limit on high-risk rural roads. In effect, this has created legal havens for reckless driving. One participant in the digital debate yesterday told me how a driver rounded a bend at 45 mph on a very narrow road, striking and killing her horse, but police were unwilling to prosecute because the speed limit was 60 mph.

Campaigners have repeatedly stressed their sense of frustration that drivers who fail to exercise due care when encountering riders on the road, and in some cases exhibit a total disregard for the safety of both horse and rider, are rarely reprimanded by the police. I recently spoke to a solicitor who specialises in seeking compensation for clients injured in accidents that involve horses. She expressed surprise that many of the cases that she undertakes in civil court are not pursued as criminal cases, despite the submission of strong evidence—including headcam footage—of possible criminal behaviour. We need to consider how we can help police to make use of existing powers to pursue drivers who do not act with due care and attention when in the vicinity of riders.

I shall draw to a close with three recommendations for the Minister. I propose that we continue the discussions we had a year ago with the then roads Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, to develop a national “THINK! horse” campaign. Although many of the incidents that I have talked about today were not malicious, that does not make their consequences any less devastating. Some 80% of these accidents are avoidable because drivers are travelling too fast or too close to horses. I ask the Department for Transport to think carefully about expanding its existing work and running a sustained marketing campaign to promote safety measures for riders and horses on rural roads. It could borrow from the successful model employed by the “THINK! bike” campaign.

My hon. Friend is making a really passionate and constructive speech and is reaching his peroration. Does he agree that this issue does not affect exclusively rural roads? Constituents of mine in semi-rural parts of Cheltenham such as Charlton Kings have written to me; they are equally affected and should not be forgotten either.

I thank my hon. Friend for that good intervention. I am sure he will have the opportunity to raise the matter with the Department. My concern particularly relates to rural roads, because narrow unmarked roads present a particular hazard to horse riders, but I take his point; I hope the Minister has heard it and will respond.

I ask the Department for Transport to borrow from the successful model employed by the “THINK! bike” campaign and focus on inspiring empathy between road users, as well as raising awareness of steps that both parties can take to avoid collisions. A greater emphasis on good driving practice around horses might be considered for driving lessons and tests. The Government might also think about possible measures to strengthen the rights of riders to control their immediate environment through the use of hand signals.

My second recommendation is that we empower the police to ensure that they can make use of their powers to pursue drivers who do not act with due care and attention in the vicinity of riders. We must establish common national police practice for recording and dealing with road incidents that involve horses. We should also increase the use of section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002 to act as a viable deterrent.

Although some incidents may not meet the threshold for prosecution, that does not mean that there are not serious concerns about the standard of driving that is often shown in headcam CCTV footage. Officers should automatically consider the use of section 59, which enables them to warn a motorist that any repetition of similar driving within 12 months may result in the seizure of their vehicle and in recovery charges. The Government might also consider encouraging a standard online system to enable incidents and video recordings to be submitted for retention, action and feedback. Some police forces, including Greater Manchester and North Yorkshire, have already implemented such systems; I know that they are willing to share good practice with other forces.

Finally, we need to reduce speed limits. The Government must consider what action is needed to reduce the speed on rural single-lane carriageways. Guidance is issued by the Department for Transport but is under-utilised by local authorities; rural roads are consequently exploited as rat runs. Will the Government consider whether a 40 mph speed limit is more suitable for high-risk rural roads, particularly those that are unmarked? I urge the Minister to consider stronger measures to protect our most vulnerable road users, not least those in the riding community.

Wind-ups will start at 5.15 pm. There will be no contribution from the Scottish National party group on this occasion, so it will be for the Government and the Opposition to split the time between them. Mr Speaker has said firmly that interventions and speeches can be made only by Members who have been present from the start of the debate.

It is a pleasure to speak on this matter. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on setting the scene so well for us. I regularly deal with this issue in my constituency, where a lot of people are interested in horses. There is nothing like the grace and poise of a horse, and many people in my constituency enjoy riding. To be truthful, I am not someone who knows much about horses, but I do have a particular interest in horse-and-carriage and driving competitions. I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue forward.

I hail from a constituency that is a combination of rural and urban areas, which is why I often boast—quite rightly so, if I may say so myself—about having it all in Strangford. The constituency is not just beautiful; it has all these other things as well. Just a few miles from my home is the picturesque village of Carrowdore, in which it is not uncommon to see horses and traps and carriages trotting down the main street. We see them all the time. People who live in the area know to slow down, as the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) said, and go at a certain speed. They learn to live with all those on the road. The horses are used to having cars in front or behind and have learned to take their time. More importantly, cars stay back and drive slowly by, giving them a wide berth, so there is a way when people have an understanding of the area they live in.

I want to turn to why this issue is compounded in my area. On occasion, I have had the opportunity of judging the concours d’elégance class—picking a horse and carriage that I like; one that is pleasing to the eye—at the game fair and other events in Ballynahinch, Carrowdore and elsewhere. I believe those events add character to a village and give so much enjoyment to so many people. However, all it takes is one uninformed or inconsiderate person to turn what is a delightful sight into a horror scene, and unfortunately that is the reason for this debate, as the hon. Member for St Ives has outlined.

Those who hail from the countryside know how to drive around horses. They know to take their time, they know to drop their speed to 15 mph and they know to drive very slowly. However, we are increasingly seeing new build houses, bringing what are affectionately known as “blow-ins” into the area. For those who do not know what a blow-in is, it is someone who does not have a third-generation grandparent buried in the local cemetery. I am 58 and I am looked upon as a blow-in in my constituency, which might give hon. Members a perspective on blow-ins.

It is good to see more people moving into the area—let us be honest—and breathing life into the local economy, filling the schools and enjoying the peace of living in the countryside, but this is about knowing how to live effectively alongside horses, or horses and carriages, on the road. With that influx has come people who perhaps do not fully appreciate how easy it is to upset the delicate balance of an area. That is in no way to be interpreted as placing blame on city folk. That is not what this is about—I am lucky that I am a country boy; I have lived in the country all my life, so this comes to me first hand. I am only highlighting the fact that everyone needs to be aware of the dangers of passing horses and riders.

The British Horse Society has found that in the last five years, since the launch of its horse accidents website, about 2,000 road incidents involving horses have been reported to the charity. I presume that they were all reported to the police as well—if they were not, they should have been. Of those incidents, 36 caused rider deaths and 181 resulted in a horse dying from their injuries or being put to sleep—the hon. Gentleman referred to that at the beginning of his contribution. Some 75% of accidents happened because a vehicle passed a horse without allowing enough space. It is just about understanding life in the countryside and how to pass safely; it does not take a great capacity to do so. More than a quarter of respondents said that they had also had to deal with driver road rage during the incident, which further compounds the issue and adds to the frustration of the horse owner and those of us who perhaps have a better understanding of the countryside and how overtaking should be done.

The majority of these incidents happened on a minor road, in a rural area. The incidents that I am aware of happened in the countryside: nearly half the horses involved—

Order. I was rather hoping that hon. Members would be generous to each other and take about five minutes each, in order to get everyone in.

I will be very mindful of that. I am sorry, Sir David. I should have realised that.

It should be noted that only 10 such accidents were reported in Northern Ireland, but anyone who has loved a horse will know that that is 10 too many. I believe that more information must be available UK-wide to help to prevent such accidents.

To conclude, we need signage on the road that adequately describes what should happen. There is undoubtedly room for all on rural roads—indeed, there is a need for all—but we must share the roads, and be wise and sensible in our approach. This information needs to get through to those who perhaps do not understand it yet. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I would like to put on the record my thanks to the good people of South East Cornwall, who have ensured that I could do that and speak here today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution. I want to thank my constituent Audrey Cole, a retired police officer and a highly experienced equestrian who was sadly injured while riding last week, although not in a road traffic accident collision.

Horses and their riders are an integral part of rural life. I spend many days going round my constituency, hearing the familiar sound of the clip-clop, clip-clop of horses’ hooves on the roads and seeing riders on the byways of the countryside in my constituency. We are all aware that our roads are increasingly busy and congested, and rural areas are no different. In addition, constituencies such as mine have problems that can be exacerbated by the otherwise very welcome influx of holidaymakers. Some of them are inexperienced in rural road conditions, and that inexperience, when combined with local agricultural traffic and the fact that not all local people drive in a responsible way, can present real challenges to horses and their riders.

More awareness and education are definitely needed, as other Members have said, and perhaps the driving test should be refined to ensure greater emphasis on rural road conditions and on horse rider and driver activity. Also, I understand from the British Horse Society that there is currently no safety requirement for any equestrian-related road accident to be recorded unless there is human injury that requires hospital treatment directly from the scene of the accident. I would be grateful if the Minister could consider these issues when he responds to the debate.

However, improving the safety of rural roads is not just about improving driving and encouraging responsible behaviour by those on four wheels, two wheels or two legs. Many responsible horse owners do the sensible thing of providing early road training for their horses at home before ever venturing out with them on to public roads, learning to pass a stationary vehicle, bicycle or dog walker. Another great help for any horse doing road hacking is to go out for the first few times in the company of a more experienced animal that is used to the sights and sounds of public roads. For many riders, this is a matter of good common sense and good practice.

I know that every rider is encouraged through their respective sporting organisation to respect an unwritten code of conduct as far as courtesy to other road users is concerned. Sadly, it has been reported to me that the actions of a small minority of riders do not reflect those good standards of behaviour. I understand that there is a rider road safety test that the Pony Club and other riding clubs have offered in the past, but it is not compulsory. Perhaps we could consider introducing suitable incentives to encourage people to take up such courses. For example, horse insurers could be encouraged to offer a discounted rate to those who hold such a safety certificate.

Finally, I encourage the Minister to work closely with all stakeholders, including road user groups and the British Horse Society, to enhance safety for riders, horses, drivers and pedestrians. There is much good practice that can be built on, to improve driver awareness and education, and to ensure more efficient road preparation training for horses, including greater use of common sense and courtesy by people in the first instance.

Sir David, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) and thank him for securing and introducing this very important debate. Horses are very important to me: horses brought my wife and me together, many years ago, and I have ridden many, many times. I therefore know that horses, as well as being very big and powerful, are very nervous and volatile, and consequently very unpredictable. That is a big part of this debate.

I also have an interest in the debate as I used to be the chairman of the all-party group for the horse and currently serve as the joint chairman of the all-party racing and bloodstock industries group, and I draw the House’s attention to my entry in that respect in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is very important that we understand that there are very many horses in this country.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) that this is not just a rural issue. There are many horses in London, for example, as well as in Cheltenham. I am very fortunate that the Cheltenham racecourse falls within my constituency, not his—nevertheless, he is very supportive indeed. My point is that there are very many horses around our towns and cities and, in particular, around our country roads.

I want to pick up on one point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives: speed on rural roads. I myself have been involved in a car accident because someone was driving down a narrow country lane so fast they could not stop—I had stopped and they ran into me. If it had been a horse in that position, there could have been a serious accident. Only some four weeks ago, during the general election campaign, I was called away from campaigning to another similar accident down a very narrow lane, where someone was again going so fast they could not stop. I do not know whether the car they hit was a write-off, but it certainly looked that way. I do not know what the speed limit for that country lane technically was, but, as has been suggested, surely the important thing is that people drive according to the road conditions rather than any arbitrary speed limit. I urge the Minister to consider that serious issue and to review the situation.

I know we are tight for time, but my hon. Friend has really sparked my attention. I, too, suffered an accident, in a rural lane in Taunton Deane. The driver had just passed his test and was going at at least 65 miles an hour. I had stopped, because I had seen the lights, and he crashed into me. I could have died; a horse would have had no chance. I wonder what my hon. Friend thinks about the earlier suggestion of a 40-mph speed limit for some of these rural roads, not just because of the horses but for the safety of other drivers.

I am grateful for that intervention. Even 40 miles an hour on the wrong kind of road could be too quick. This goes back to what my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) said about education being very important, in connection with horses but also with driving safely according to the road conditions. It is often not possible to go faster than 10 or 15 miles an hour on a very narrow country lane to remain safe, so education is crucial.

My final point is that in order perhaps to take horses off roads that might be dangerous we could do with reviewing the rules on bridleways. It might be that many existing footpaths could be made dual use, and function as bridleways as well. That would help to ease the problem.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as I know time is tight. Precisely on bridleways, close to urban settings there is a terrible dearth of them and they do not connect up. I think it is the fact that they are seen as multi-purpose—for pedestrians, cyclists and even motorised transport as well as horses—that leads to great reluctance on the part of landowners to extend any sort of bridlepath network. Might we appeal to the Minister to consider a new designation for off-road safe riding for equestrians?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend’s remarks. I will not take up any more of the House’s time except to stress that horses are part of our countryside and our country. We only have to look at the startling statistics that have been cited to realise that we really must do something about the issue.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this brilliant debate on what is an important issue for rural areas and also, now, for towns.

One reason why I wanted to speak in the debate was to have the opportunity to thank my constituent Christine Brindle, who invited me to her stables in Hadleigh in July 2016 to meet her and her fellow campaigners. She is part of the “Pass Wide and Slow” campaign group. I was brought up in London but moved to South Suffolk in 2011 and am a keen cyclist. What I have observed is that the key word is simply “respect”. Someone living in the countryside comes to respect equestrian road users and know that they should slow down and pass wide and slow. The question is: what happens when someone—either from the communities or from outside—does not show that respect and drives aggressively or carelessly? What measures can we take to make a difference?

Several measures have been suggested, including with regard to speeding. A particular concern is about anticipation, because my constituency, like many others, has bendy rural roads, and drivers have to anticipate more what is ahead of them. If they come sharply round a bend and there is someone there with a horse, they have to react far more quickly. This is about sensible driving, but speeding is also an issue. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether there are any ways in which we can affect the law. I know this is not optimal timing for changes to legislation, but it would be good to know if we could make any changes, which I think would have support, to enforce the idea that drivers should be considerate in the presence of vulnerable users, including horses. However, I think this is a public messaging issue in particular. We all know about the very good “THINK! bike” campaign, which has promoted the idea of taking motorcyclists into account and checking for them in our side mirror; we should have a similar campaign—it has been referred to as “THINK! horse”—for equestrian road users.

I want also to mention driverless vehicles. We have had driverless horses for many centuries, but driverless cars will bring their own issues. Members might be aware that Volvo has an issue with kangaroos. The company has recently reported that its driverless cars, initially tested to detect and avoid moose in Sweden, have struggled with marsupials. I am no expert, but I think it is because they bounce rather than approach steadily. This is a serious point, because we want to lead the world in the industrial field of driverless automotive: I hope that in developing large-animal detection systems in driverless cars companies will be cognisant of all road users.

My final point is that this is a predominantly rural issue. I have a predominantly rural constituency. We live in an age when people in the countryside sometimes feel ignored, and on this issue we could show that we have a transport policy for the whole country that takes into account and is fair to all users, in particular those on horseback and those riding with horses.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I very much thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing the debate and look forward to working with him on many issues that affect his islands and the Isle of Wight. I was fascinated to hear my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) talking about kangaroos. I think it will be some time yet before we start riding them but that will be an issue when we come to it.

On the Isle of Wight, we have the highest percentage of horses per acre in Britain and our riding stables are an important part of island life and of our economy. I share the concerns about the dangers of riders and cars colliding on busy roads. On the Isle of Wight, we have been fortunate enough to have a new contract to resurface all our roads so we will soon have some of the best roads in England, if not Europe. However, riders have expressed concerns that the new road surfaces will, at least for the first few months, be slippery and not all horses can have studs fitted, so I look forward to talking to Island Roads about what more we can do. Although I am generally impressed by the consideration that islanders in my part of the world have for riders when they pass them, there are complaints from a small minority of drivers that horses should not be on busy roads. However, riders clearly do not want to share roads; they do so only when there is no other choice.

So what do we do? In my part of the world I will raise with our council the issue of what can be done to improve the conditions of some bridleways, to encourage their use by not only riders but cyclists, who are also vulnerable users. I think there could be a role for the ferries in reminding people coming to the island that we have a lot of very small lanes, like west Cornwall, and to remind people of distances and to be considerate of more vulnerable road users.

More generally, I wonder whether more could be done to encourage minimum distances. We have heard about the excellent campaign from the British Horse Society and others, but can minimum distances be stipulated, apart from in emergencies? Can they be in the driving test? Can it be brought home to people in towns and villages that there needs to be a minimum distance between cars and horses, cars and cyclists and cars and motorbikes? I say that partly out of self-interest: while a car is very dangerous to a horse, a horse is reasonably dangerous to a car if it kicks or spooks. Thoughtfulness and consideration should be our bywords.

I share the concerns about single-lane roads. I live one and a half miles down a single-track lane. On my patch, someone going round a corner at more than 15 mph will have a problem if something is coming at more than 20 mph from the other direction. I share that lane with lots of horses, because it is a popular route for them and lots of other lovely members of the animal kingdom. I wonder whether the answer is to have what have become known as quiet roads, where drivers do not have priority, but pedestrians and cyclists and riders do. We have one or two quiet roads on the island. There is a cost to them, but they could be in part an answer to national speed limits, which make driving very fast on single-track roads legal, but extremely foolish.

To sum up, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives mentioned his national campaign ideas, with which I fully agree, but I stress that more might be done with the driving test to reinforce minimum safe distances.

It is a pleasure to make my first contribution as a shadow Transport Minister under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for securing this debate today, which has focused on the significant issue of safety for vulnerable road users, whether they have two legs or four legs, or are on a bicycle or perhaps even a unicycle. It is important that all road users feel safe and are not put at undue risk.

The subject of today’s debate is horses and their riders, and it is vital that that matter receive attention in this place, because there have been more than 2,500 incidents involving horses over the past seven years, of which 222 resulted in the death of the horse and 38 resulted in the death of the rider. In the past year alone, almost 40% of riders were subject to road rage or abuse, with 81% of incidents occurring because the driver did not allow enough room between their vehicle and the horse. One out of every five such incidents resulted in the vehicle colliding with the horse. Clearly the Government need to address that pressing issue.

The British Horse Society reports that since its “Dead? Or Dead Slow?” campaign launched in 2016, reports of road incidents have creased by 29%. That proves that safety campaigns on their own are not enough. The Government must do more to protect riders and their horses. In a Westminster Hall debate in the last Parliament on road traffic accident prevention, the Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), stated that he did “recognise the problem” for horse riders, yet no concrete policy has materialised. While I do not doubt the Government’s sincerity on road safety, their record has been a disappointment in recent years. They failed on their 2015 manifesto commitment to reduce casualties year on year, and their manifesto in the recent general election only mentioned road safety in passing.

Does the hon. Lady share my disappointment that more Opposition Members have not come here to take an interest in this important issue?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have a keen interest in this issue as an Opposition Member who has a constituency that includes a lot of rural areas. Indeed, my constituent Susan Armitage has raised the issue with me on a great number of occasions. It obviously affects the whole country, although the demographics of constituencies represented by Opposition Members might be considered to be more urban than rural.

By contrast with the Government’s manifesto, ours stated very clearly:

“Labour will reset the UK’s road safety vision and ambitiously strive for a transport network with zero deaths, reintroducing road-safety targets”.

We implore the Minister to follow our lead and reintroduce the targets that were brought in under the last Labour Government. I have no doubt that those targets successfully reduced the number of those killed or seriously injured by about a third. During a Westminster Hall debate on road traffic law enforcement in the previous Parliament, the Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, stated that while other countries might wish to have road safety targets, his belief was that we did not need them. However, road safety targets focus minds and attention, and the Opposition simply do not see the reason or logic behind the Government’s persistent refusal to bring them back. When we support international targets at the United Nations and European level, why do we still reject them for our own country?

The Government have also overlooked the significance of road safety figures with their failure to release the 2016 national road safety statistics on time. The release has been pushed back to the end of September this year. As a consequence of the delay, casualty figures for the first quarter of 2017, previously scheduled for release in August 2017, will now not be published. The next quarterly update is expected in October, covering the period from January to June 2017.

If the Minister is determined to disregard road safety targets and figures, perhaps he can provide us with some assurances that the Government are progressing with other policy ideas. He may be aware of the petition mentioned earlier that has gathered more than 100,000 signatures on It calls for a law to be introduced that would require road users to pass a horse with at least two metres’ distance and to slow to a maximum speed of 15 mph, as well as ensuring that all road users abide by horse riders’ hand signals. Have the Government considered any of those proposals? If not, what other policies can the Minister lay out today to safeguard riders and horses on rural roads?

We must see some action from the Government on rider and horse safety and the safety of road users in general. Opposition Members are determined to keep pressure on the Government until we see a return to the progress made under the last Labour Administration. It must be stressed again: inaction risks lives. The Labour party wants to reduce risk on our transport network to zero. The Government should be prepared to show the same ambition and act accordingly.

Before the Minister responds, I want to ask that a little bit of time be left at the end for Mr Thomas to wind up the debate.

Thank you, Sir David. It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship. If I may, I will start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) on securing this very important debate on the safety of riders and horses on rural roads, a debate that has been dignified by some terrific contributions, albeit generally from one side of the House.

It is an honour to respond in my first Westminster Hall debate as the Minister with responsibility for roads and road safety. I do so as a rural MP who is extremely familiar with the issues from first-hand and constituency experience. I would also like to congratulate my hon. Friend on the e-debate, or online debate, that he has so successfully promoted. It has obviously proved to be an interesting and useful way to develop ideas, to share understanding and to promote awareness of these issues. I could not end the opening section of my remarks without congratulating the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) on taking her position on the Opposition Front Bench. It is testimony to her colleagues’ belief in her skills and abilities that none of them has seen fit or found it necessary to attend the debate themselves.

As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives said, this is a very important issue, but that is not merely because horses and equestrianism have an important role in local communities across the whole of the United Kingdom; nor is it because of the huge benefits of health and leisure and the sheer joy that come from riding. If I may, I will quote a somewhat unusual source in this area, Ronald Reagan, who once said that no problem does not look better from the saddle of a horse. I think that many people in the Chamber would share that view.

This debate is important because of the impact of accidents and fatalities in horse-related incidents on human lives. We need all road users to feel, and to be, safe on our roads. This country has a very strong safety record overall on roads—indeed, our roads are among the safest in the world—but we must not and will not be complacent in any sense.

It is important to flag up that there were 1,730 reported road deaths in 2015, which is the most recent year for which data are available. While this represents a 45% reduction compared with a decade ago, it still represents many wasted lives and shattered families.

A question has been raised by implication in this debate about numbers and statistics. I want to put that front and centre of the discussion, before I go on to talk about some of the ways in which we are trying to improve the situation. According to police statistics, there were no recorded incidents of horse rider fatalities during 2015. There were, however, 17 serious casualties and 77 slight casualties. Those numbers had fallen by something like a third over the previous 15 years. I recognise that these numbers do not by any means tally with the numbers reported to the British Horse Society or, indeed, the numbers quoted by colleagues here today. I start by saying that I absolutely welcome the potential for co-operation between the BHS and our own statisticians in the Department for Transport. I offer them for the purposes of establishing a set of accepted, worthwhile statistics from which we can all calibrate and understand the problem.

However one thinks of the number, it represents only a fraction of total casualties on our roads, but each one of those is enormously distressing to those involved. The Government remain very keen to support the safety and wellbeing on our roads of riders and horses alike.

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, in his indefatigable way, had a meeting in February 2016 with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), to discuss these issues. Following that, the Department, through the “THINK! road safety” campaign, worked directly with the British Horse Society to support its own “Dead Slow” campaign, to encourage car drivers to pass horses safely. The Department was able to reinforce the BHS campaign by developing a short film that is being promoted as a public information film on UK TV stations. I have encouraged the society to tweet that tomorrow, and I would encourage all Members to re-tweet that, as I will, as a small demonstration of the importance of these issues and the personal care and attention that we feel for them.

The Department has also invested in promoting the film on YouTube and other social media, such as Twitter and Facebook. Leaflets and posters to support the campaign further reminded motorists of the need to be patient when they encounter horses on the road and supplemented the advice already given in the Highway Code.

The leaflets and posters are available free of charge from the THINK! online shop and are often used by riding groups to support local campaigns. Road safety officers around the country have also been encouraged to feature the campaign locally. To some extent, therefore, there is already a national campaign, in embryo at least, but I have no doubt more can done. Officials in my Department have worked with the BHS on its “Ride Safe” book, which is endorsed with the THINK! logo. There is a great deal of co-operation already.

I am aware of requests, and we have discussed them today, that the Government prescribe speed limits and minimum distances when drivers are passing horses. There are different concerns here. One is that it would be difficult to enforce and impractical in some circumstances, where roads are very narrow. Road speed limits are in many cases local matters and are locally configured. Judging from Herefordshire, frankly, there is a serious issue, which is the extraordinary slowness with which local authorities bring in changes to speed limits. That is something that my Department can properly look at, but it is important to be aware that even bringing in speed limits—the same is true for national speed limits—may not necessarily be safe in all circumstances. We do not want to make our roads less safe by producing a one-size-fits-all solution, but we do need to improve local take-up and local impact.

It is important to note that where people are reckless around horses, there are already laws in place that make them liable for prosecution. The offences include driving dangerously, driving without due care and attention, and driving without reasonable consideration for other road users, as set out in rule 144 of The Highway Code. However, I recognise that there may be other steps that we can take. One that has just been suggested is the idea that we can supplement The Highway Code with further material such as images of horses to promote a greater understanding of their presence on the road.

The Department’s focus has been to raise awareness of the issues and to provide advice to all road users. Last autumn we ran a “Country Roads” campaign, which encouraged drivers to anticipate the hazards—anticipation has been raised by colleagues across the House today—and reduce their speed into bends. Some 59% of all road fatalities occur on country roads, and the number of people killed on country roads is nearly 10 times higher than on motorways. We have already heard about sharp bends, hidden dips, blind summits and concealed entrances—all of which can conceal potential hazards, leaving drivers little time to react if they are driving too quickly.

As well as targeted campaigns, the Department also endeavours to protect vulnerable road users through other channels. The driving theory test contains questions about how drivers should interact with vulnerable road users, including horse riders. The hazard perception test uses on-road video clips shown from a driver’s perspective. Learner drivers are required to successfully identify developing hazards. The current test includes a number of clips where horse riders are the hazard to be identified, either directly or indirectly. The clips are refreshed and updated periodically, and the move to computer-generated imagery may mean that we are able to incorporate situations that would otherwise be too difficult to film.

In relation to the driving test, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency has recently concluded a two-year trial, which aims to make the practical driving test much more reflective of a real-life driving journey, and a revised test will be in place from December. Changes include increasing the duration of the independent driving section from 10 to 20 minutes, and following directions from a satnav instead of an examiner. One of the aims of the changes, which I am sure colleagues will welcome, is to open up test routes and make sure that candidates can be assessed effectively in more natural or higher-risk situations, including driving on national speed limit roads.

Rules for all road users are set out in The Highway Code. As well as advice specific to horse riders, there are rules and advice for other road users when passing horse riders and horse-drawn vehicles.

Wider efforts are also in place to improve road safety. Many things combine to create safe and responsible roads users. As has been noted, young and novice drivers are at the highest risk of being involved in a road collision. That is why the Department has recently invested £2 million in the design phase of a research programme to identify the best technological and behavioural interventions for learner and novice drivers, and has awarded funding via the Innovation Challenge Fund to develop new hazard perception training.

I could dwell on changes that have been made to increase penalties for mobile phone use and many other initiatives, but let me just say in closing that I think the debate has been dignified by a large number of important and interesting changes. One I would like to touch on is the importance of effective policing. This can be done at several levels, and I would encourage all colleagues to raise the issue with their police and crime commissioners locally. I am delighted that the national roads lead for policing is Anthony Bangham, chief constable of West Mercia, my own police authority, and also a very near neighbour of mine in Herefordshire. I assure the House that I will be raising the issues personally with him.

I close by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives on securing this debate and by reassuring him of the Department’s commitment to improving road safety for all users, including our most vulnerable.

I thank the Minister for his response. We know our communities are working together. That includes groups such as the Pass Wide and Slow campaign and the British Horse Society, but also cycling and motorcycling groups. They are bring forward sensible recommendations and ideas, and I look forward to seeing how the Government can increase their participation and do the right thing for vulnerable road users, including horses and their riders.

I note that the shadow Minister attempted to make this a party political issue. Having spoken to the Minister, I know that he wants to work with everyone who cares about the issue to do the right thing for rural roads. I thank all Members who have participated and contributed, because together we can bring about a safer environment for all who use our rural roads.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the safety of riders and horses on rural roads.

Sitting adjourned.