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  Road Safety

This speech was given in the House of Commons on 7 September 2004

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am pleased to have this opportunity to raise the issue of road traffic deaths and road safety, which is of concern to many in the House, as is attested to by the attendance this morning. The United Kingdom has a good road safety record compared with many other countries. The Minister would probably agree that we are one of the world leaders. The latest figures from the Department for Transport show that in 2001 the UK suffered 3,598 road deaths whereas France, which has more than twice the land area, suffered 8,160. In Germany the comparable figure was 6,977 and in Italy 6,410. In Japan the number of deaths exceeded 10,000, which is horrendous. The United States has a larger population, but none the less the figure was a staggering 42,000. However, we have no reason for complacency.

Road traffic safety has undoubtedly risen up the agenda in recent months after being eclipsed by issues such as schools, hospitals and crime. I see that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) is in his place. Just before the House rose for the summer recess he introduced an excellent ten-minute Bill, the Motor Vehicle Manslaughter Bill. I am sure that he will refer to that in his own contribution, should he be fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

A number of serious cases have come to my attention since I became an MP. There is a wide range of issues to which one could refer in relation to road traffic safety and road traffic deaths. We could have a whole debate on rural speed. There is no doubt that while the Government have made progress in tackling speed, they have made more progress in urban areas than in rural areas. In a rural constituency such as mine, which has 122 parishes and where half the population lives in a village of well below 1,000 people, casualties and accidents on rural roads remain a hugely significant issue.

I could spend much of the debate talking about motor cycles. Indeed, two of the cases to which I shall refer later concern motor cycle accidents. A constituent, who, I am pleased to say, is a safe motor cyclist, has drawn my attention to the problem of people who as teenagers or in their early 20s have experience of riding a low-powered motor cycle. Later in life, perhaps when they are more prosperous and have a family, they return to motor cycling after some 20 years and buy extremely powerful machines. They think that they are as adept at riding such a machine as they were at riding, for example, a Yamaha 125 when they were 17 or 19. They are not. Many accidents are caused in that way.

Not only the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety but the Motor Cycle Industry Association has called for a review of direct access to high performance motor cycles. I come from the more libertarian wing of politics. I do not like unnecessary controls on people, but that is something that should be considered. Indeed, one case to which I shall refer involved a motor cycling instructor, whose capacity as a safe motor cyclist was not in question, yet tragically he was killed in a head-on collision with another vehicle.

I could talk about seat belts at some length. The campaign in the 1970s and onwards for people to wear front seat belts is being backed up by an ongoing campaign for belting up in the back, which most people support.

Drink-driving remains another area of concern. A not uncontroversial proposal has been discussed to reduce the alcohol content in the blood limit from 0.8 mg to 0.5 mg. That is of particular concern in rural areas, where often the only safe way to get to a pub is by car. The proposal is controversial, not least because most fatal alcohol-related accidents involve those who are way over the limit, not those who are around and about it. The Department for Transport has suggested that 50 lives could be saved if the limit were reduced to 0.5 mg. I suspect that it is within the margin of error.

I intend to concentrate on two issues. The first relates to the law in relation to road safety and fatal road traffic accidents. The second is speed cameras. I do not think that I could speak in this debate without at least referring to speed cameras, which are hugely controversial, not least in Norfolk right at the moment. The most prominent recent case involves my constituent, Mrs. Jenny Mason. In January 2003, Mrs. Mason's 42-year-old son Andrew was killed in a head-on collision with a car that had been attempting, unsafely, to overtake a lorry on the A1066 in my constituency. Mr. Mason did not have a chance. He flashed his headlights twice. He braked hard and veered into the verge. Unfortunately he crashed into the car. He was catapulted into the air, struck the roof of the car and landed in the middle of the road. He was a motor cycle instructor and had an advanced driving certificate. He had been due to give his daughter away at her wedding four days later. His wife, Mairi, describes the impact of his death simply:

"His mum lost her eldest son; I lost my husband and our three daughters their father. It has blown our lives apart."

Charles Wright, the 90-year-old who was driving the car involved in the accident, was charged with careless driving. He did not attend court for his prosecution because he claimed he was too frail, although he was obviously not too frail to get behind the wheel of a motor car. Originally he was given a £150 fine, ordered to pay £200 costs and disqualified from driving for 12 months. One can find many similar cases in different parts of the country. Indeed, were I to go through all the cases I have come across in preparing for this debate, there would be no time for any other contributions. No matter where one looks, one finds similar stories of people causing a death and being given a sentence which, in the eyes of most reasonable people and particularly in the eyes of the victims' families, is simply not just.

There have been a number of calls over the years in different Adjournment and other debates and most recently in the Motor Vehicle Manslaughter Bill proposed by the hon. Member for South Dorset for a change in the law. When the Minister addressed the Select Committee earlier in the summer on the proposals for a road safety Bill, he declined to propose a change in the law. One of my purposes in initiating this debate today is to give him the chance to reconsider whether a change in the law is now justified and apposite. My own feeling, looking at the various cases around the country is that a change is now justified.

I will mention just one other case in passing because it comes from Norfolk, although not from my constituency. Mrs. Bridget Wall chained herself to the railings outside the House of Commons in late July before we rose because of the death of her son Adam, who died from head injuries received in a collision with a van that pulled out of a junction in front of him as he rode his motorcycle along the A47 at Walsoken in Norfolk. The driver later appeared in court, where he admitted driving without due care and attention; he was fined £180 and given six penalty points. In the Eastern Daily Press on 17 July, Mrs. Wall made a point that has been made by many other victims:

"I want people to be aware that the Government has violated human rights by not acknowledging the people killed. I cannot begin to mourn Adam until something is done about this gap in our legislation and until I have won this fight."

My constituent Mrs. Mason would echo those words. I am pleased to say that, as a result of her persistence, I was able to arrange a meeting between her and the chief constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, who leads on road safety issues for the Association of Chief Police Officers. It was a very constructive meeting, and I thank Chief Constable Brunstrom publicly for meeting my constituent. That still leaves the question of what the Minister will do when the Bill comes before the House, I hope, this autumn, because it is not clear that the Government have got the balance right.

At present, the law on this issue fails. There are several offences on the statute book relating to dangerous or careless driving. The first is causing death by dangerous driving, which requires the prosecution to show that the driving of the accused caused the death of another person, that it fell far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver and that it would be obvious to such a driver that driving in that way was dangerous. The second driving offence is dangerous driving, without causing death, which requires the prosecution to show that an individual's driving fell below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver and that it would be obvious to such a driver that driving in that way was dangerous.

Then there are the careless driving offences. Under such an offence, an individual can be prosecuted for driving without due care and attention, and a prosecution will generally be appropriate when their driving shows serious miscalculation or disregard for road safety. Under the same section of the relevant legislation, an individual can be charged with driving without reasonable consideration, which is appropriate when their driving behaviour amounts to selfishness, impatience or aggressiveness, or causes inconvenience to others.

Then there is an offence of causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs, and I stress the reference to drink or drugs because one of the central issues is that there is no simple offence of causing death by careless driving. The nature of the offence of dangerous driving means that the burden of proving that driving was dangerous results in prosecutors being reduced to offering a charge of careless driving, which has much weaker penalties. With such a charge, the magistrate must consider the seriousness of the carelessness or the lack of consideration that constituted the offence. The basic offence of careless driving - leaving aside the issue of being under the influence of drink or drugs - completely ignores the fact that a death has been caused, which is one of the most serious problems with it. As the law stands, no account is taken in many cases that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service bring before the courts of the fact that a death has been caused. That is the central issue, which I want the Minister to address.

What will the Government do to acknowledge the widespread feeling among our constituents, of all parties and in all parts of the country, that the law needs to be able to take account of the fact of a death, irrespective of other circumstances?

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Most of us will have had such constituency cases. In my case, a constituent called Callum Oakford died when a driver drove carelessly. My hon. Friend may want to invite the Minister to say whether the Government, if they have no solution, are prepared to allow a free vote on an appropriate Bill to make it possible for the effect of dangerous driving to be made known to the court. Most grieving families do not necessarily want a punishment, but they want acknowledgment of what has happened. That matters just as much, whether the driver has been drinking, taking drugs or driving carelessly.

Mr. Bacon: My hon. Friend is right. It is the lack of acknowledgment that is the central problem. I do not pretend that legislation can provide an easy answer, but my hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. If the Government are not prepared to introduce proposals, perhaps they will allow a free vote on the issue. I would like the Government to consider introducing a charge of negligent driving - an intermediate offence between careless driving and dangerous driving - to allow courts to take account of the fact that a death has been caused. Recognition is the most important issue for families.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Is it not the case that driving under the influence of drink or drugs is dangerous in itself? Surely there must be a presumption that anyone driving under the influence of drink or drugs should be charged with dangerous driving, whether he has caused an accident or not.

Mr. Bacon: I agree with my hon. Friend. As he has no doubt seen, the sad truth is that there are many cases in which it is not in dispute that people were under the influence of alcohol - in some cases it is not in dispute that they were banned from driving - but they were still let off with what most members of the public would view as a cursory slap on the wrist. If someone is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or driving without insurance or when they are banned, there ought to be a presumption that those factors are taken into account in determining the penalty. In all events, a death, no matter how it was caused or the extent of the culpability of the driver, should be taken into account.

One must be able to imagine circumstances in which a death is caused in an accident but the driver is not culpable. I happen to know of a case in which someone driving through a green light, with a passenger seated to the left of them, was hit by someone coming from the side, killing the passenger. The person who hit the car was on a red light. In that case, the driver was not culpable and yet he was driving a vehicle in which someone was killed. It is not a given that the fact of a death should render the driver liable to prosecution. In the case that I have just cited, the other driver was probably liable. The facts should be available to the court, so that it is able to make a full, informed decision, because families of victims need acknowledgment of what has happened.

It should be possible, though not always necessary, to take full account of the consequences of drivers' actions in sentencing. It ought to be possible to define an offence of negligent driving, which would explicitly recognise that serious injury or death had been caused, by defining a duty of care that, if breached, would render the driver liable to more severe penalties such as imprisonment, disqualification or community service. I am not a lawyer, and the hon. Member for South Dorset might say that if we introduce an offence of negligent driving we might encounter the same problem that we have with dangerous and careless driving—namely, defining the degree of dangerousness or carelessness.

I do not stick rigidly to the idea that the offence should be called negligent driving. It is possible that a better route would be to define an offence that takes into account the fact of death rather than the quality of driving, as in the proposals made by the hon. Member for South Dorset for an offence of motor manslaughter, and a further offence of aggravated motor manslaughter. I am agnostic about that, and I am interested to hear what the Government have to say. There must be a method of changing the law to get the acknowledgment, which is currently lacking, into the courts.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but I hope that he will return to his starting point. The crucial matter is to reduce the number of deaths and serious accidents involving motor cyclists. Much of what he says about changing the law is absolutely right, but I hope he will stress the fact that we must not allow people who have been off a motor cycle for many years to go back on one without being fully trained. That is probably the cause of most motor cycle deaths today.

Mr. Bacon: I look forward with interest to the hon. Gentleman's speech. The very first thing that I was sent when I arrived at the House of Commons three years ago was a little pen pot from the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, showing down the side statistics for the number of deaths and serious injuries per 1 billion passenger miles on different forms of transport. I vividly remember that the figure for travelling by air was 0.1 deaths and serious injuries per 1 billion passenger miles, the figure for travelling by train was 0.7, the figure for travelling by car was 40-something, the figure for travelling by bicycle was in the 800s, and the figure for travelling by motor cycle was about 1,400. There is no question but that motor cycles are the most lethal machines on the road.

Given how phenomenally fast motor cycles are, and how great their acceleration, there is a case for saying that if someone wishes to have a very powerful Ducati, BMW or Harley Davidson, they should undergo special instruction. I am sure that Mrs. Mason, whose son was a motor cycle instructor, would support that. I look forward to the contribution of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who was quite right to say that we must focus on accident reduction in all possible ways.

Other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall refer to just one further subject: speed cameras. They have become controversial recently. Perhaps the truth is that everyone would like a speed camera outside their house or near where they live, but does not want the inconvenience of speed cameras elsewhere. If they are being reasonable, most people accept that speed cameras have a role to play.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson ) indicated assent.

Mr. Bacon: I see that the Minister agrees. I suspect that most people would also agree, however, that speed cameras are not sited purely according to safety criteria. I wait to hear the Minister laugh and nod just as vehemently as he did at my previous point, but he does not. That is because the Government maintain what most people do not believe - that there is no question of speed cameras being sited on any ground other than safety. They maintain that speed cameras are purely about safety and that the motive of revenue simply does not enter people's heads. The Minister might be right about that, or he might be wrong, but I support the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) to have a review of the position of speed cameras, and I should like to have a sensible debate on the basis of facts.

I gave an interview on my local radio station this morning, which cut to a report from someone standing next to a speed camera on Grapes Hill in Norwich that is perhaps the most notorious in East Anglia. There is no evidence at all of a cluster of collisions there. The site is a major urban dual carriageway that goes downhill, and I have been informed of the average speed at which motor cars are clocked there by Mr. Barry Parnell. He was the chief executive of the Norfolk safety camera partnership until he resigned earlier this summer following the issue of a report, still not made fully public, commissioned by the chief constable of Norfolk, Andy Hayman, on the criteria by which safety cameras were being installed. Mr. Parnell has since said, however, that his resignation was for entirely unrelated reasons. The camera has now been turned off, although it is still in situ and may be turned on again. Most residents of Norwich and people who visit it from outside, including the many who live in South Norfolk but work in Norwich, are bewildered as to why the camera is there. As I have said, the road is not the site of a collision cluster or an accident blackspot. I tabled a parliamentary question to try to find out how much revenue had been raised by the speed camera, because allegations were floating around, although I do not know whether they were true, that that camera had raised revenues of many hundreds of thousands of pounds, if not more.

It seems to me that the way to get round the problem is to make quite clear, and to publish on a website, the safety criteria used for each speed camera and the revenue that each raises.

Mr. Jamieson: The information is there.

Mr. Bacon: It is there now, is it? I am grateful to the Minister for telling me that, because when I tabled a parliamentary question not long ago, I was told that the information was not collected in that form. If that is correct, it is a welcome advance.

The Minister and the Government have not yet succeeded in bringing people all the way with them. If asked, most people say that there is some merit in speed cameras. I think that most people who question the placing of speed cameras on some sections of the highway would still acknowledge that cameras have a role: particularly, for example, outside schools.

In my constituency, I am pleased that, following pressure from myself, the local district councillor and the school, the county council has agreed to introduce a speed limit of 30 mph in a small lane parallel with the A140, but some miles to the east, just outside Shelton with Hardwick community school, in what was a 60 mph zone. That limit was plainly unsuitable outside a small rural school where at 8.30 in the morning - I have stood outside to watch - a large volume of traffic avoiding the A140 on the way into Norwich comes round a corner at high speed, to meet school buses and parents dropping off their children. Some juggernauts come the other way, also to avoid the main road. I am pleased that the council has seen fit to introduce a new speed limit there.

In a conversation a few weeks ago, the Minister pointed out to me that counties have the capacity to introduce any speed limit from 20 mph to 70 mph on roads under their control, subject to the national speed limit - those were his words. When I talk to local county officials, I sometimes get the feeling that they tend to blame central Government and, when I talk to central Government, I sometimes get the feeling that they tend to blame local government. The Minister said - and I take it that he is correct - that the power exists for counties to exercise much more latitude than they are sometimes willing to. Too often, they seem to be waiting for further guidance from central Government when they have the autonomy and capacity to act in many cases. I am grateful to the Minister for that point.

All I say about speed cameras is that a policy that allows, encourages, permits, requires a speed camera on Grapes Hill in Norwich, where there is no accident or collision cluster, but that does not require one outside Shelton school - as a matter of common sense, most people who visit that site would say that it was a good idea to force cars to slow down before they reach Shelton school - is plainly in need of adjustment. The plain fact is that the Government have not finished their work in making the case to the public on the issue of speed cameras. If they are to bring the public with them, they need to be more open and straightforward than they have sometimes given the impression of being. For a Government who have been dedicated to the proposition that perception is reality, there is a little way to go. I hope that the Minister will agree.

In conclusion, let me reiterate my central point. In his reply, I want the Minister to address the issue of road traffic accidents where a death is caused and to consider the possibility of making a change in the law, by introducing either an offence of negligent driving that allows the fact of a death to be taken into account, or an offence of motor manslaughter, so that the families of victims in many different constituencies throughout the country, who have felt so aggrieved and let down by the justice system in this country, feel that they get their day in court.



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