Road Safety (No. 2)
Oral Answers to Questions — Health
3:34 pm

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

4:27 pm
Photo of Bob Russell

Bob Russell (Colchester, Liberal Democrat)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision to reduce the permitted blood alcohol level for drivers from 80 mg per 100 ml of blood to 50 mg;
to empower the police to suspend an individual’s driving licence pending assessment of his or her suitability to drive;
and for connected purposes.

Last Sunday was the world day of remembrance for road traffic victims, which was established in 1993 by the UK-based charity RoadPeace and adopted by the United Nations in 2005 as a response to road crash victims’ need for public recognition. My Bill is dedicated to the memory of two teenage girls who lived in my constituency and whose lives were cruelly taken by the selfish attitude of two drivers in separate incidents almost three years apart. Although the circumstances of each death were different, the outcome was the same for both families: the loss of a much-loved daughter who had her life ahead of her and all that that entailed. Indeed, given current average life expectancy, perhaps 65 years of life were stolen from them—65 Christmases and 65 birthdays. Their life expectations, and possibly marriage and children, were destroyed in seconds because of irresponsible drivers.

Only those who have lost a child, particularly in tragic circumstances, can truly appreciate the enormity of such a loss. I therefore empathise with the parents and admire all they are doing in memory of their respective daughters to campaign to make our roads safer so that other families do not suffer the grief that they continue to experience.

The two girls, 14-year-old Jordan Bell and 16-year-old Cassie McCord, lived in the same part of Colchester, little more than a mile apart and with the former ground of Colchester United football club on Layer road midway between their two homes, but to the best of my knowledge they did not know each other. Jordan was a pupil at Alderman Blaxill secondary school and Cassie was a student at Colchester sixth-form college.

Had there been a lower drink-drive limit in March 2008, the driver who killed Jordan might not have ventured on to the road. He was exceeding the 30 mph speed limit when he struck Jordan as she sought to use a central island refuge on Layer road. Tests revealed that he had been drinking, but he was just 2 mg under the drink-drive limit—78 mg to 100 ml of blood—when he was breathalysed some time after the incident. For taking Jordan’s life, he was fined for careless driving and speeding. I will return to this incident later to describe the campaigning by her parents, Steve and Michelle Bell, to get the drink-drive limit reduced to 50 mg, in line with most of Europe.

Cassie McCord was killed in February by a driver who should never have been on the road. Police were called to a supermarket petrol forecourt where an elderly motorist had caused concern. He was not on the public highway, but in the grounds of the supermarket. They drove his car home, informed him that they would be reporting him to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency because of their concerns about his ability to drive, and they advised him not to drive again. That was on a

Friday. On the Monday morning, before the DVLA could act and ignoring the police advice, the 87-year-old driver ventured out on to busy roads and into Colchester town centre, where he mounted the pavement and killed Cassie, who was walking with friends to Colchester sixth-form college.

Cassie’s mother is now campaigning to give police the powers—subject to safeguards, obviously—to suspend a driver’s licence with immediate effect for, say, 72 hours if they have major concerns about the driver’s ability to function. That would give the DVLA time to institute the more formal process it currently operates. Such police action would, I suggest, require the approval of an officer of senior rank, such as superintendent or above.

Had such a power existed earlier this year, the police could have suspended the driving licence of the 87-year-old motorist, and that I think would have deterred him from taking his car back on the road where he killed Cassie McCord. There is a sad postscript. The driver has since died, and no charges were ever brought against him.

There appears to be a loophole in the law. Police have the power to impound a vehicle that is in an unsafe condition, and they can arrest someone for being under the influence of drink or drugs, but seemingly they do not have the power to prevent a driver, whom they consider to be unfit on health grounds, from continuing to drive.

The campaigns by the grieving parents, Mr and Mrs Bell and Mrs McCord, have been brilliantly supported by the award-winning local newspaper, the Essex County Standard, with the reports of chief reporter, Wendy Brading, showing what a campaigning newspaper can do on behalf of the community that it serves.

The campaign by Mr and Mrs Bell—Mr Bell is a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces, serving with 16 Air Assault Brigade based at Colchester garrison—is one that led the parents to have a personal meeting with former road safety Minister Mr Paul Clark. I accompanied them to his office at the Department for Transport’s Great Minster house. It was a rather moving occasion, and I cannot thank Mr Clark enough for the way in which matters were handled. His warmth and sincerity meant a lot to my constituents.

We left buoyed by what had transpired, and with a degree of confidence that the drink-drive limit would be reduced. That was certainly our belief, given what occurred at our meeting with the then road safety Minister. Indeed, the North report, published after our meeting with the Minister, recommended a reduction in the drink-drive limit as part of wide-ranging reforms to the driving laws.

It is therefore with considerable annoyance and disbelief that I note how the incoming coalition Government ignored the North report recommendation and decided to leave the drink-drive limit unchanged. My Bill aims to reinstate what the North report recommended. I am pleased to say that in September it was announced that the Parliament in Northern Ireland was looking to lower the drink-drive limit to 50 mg. I suggest that we do the same in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Let me tell the House what Mrs Bell said only last week about the loss of her daughter:

“Every day is a struggle. It is a constant reminder. You try to stay positive, but you are always thinking of the things Jordan will miss out on. She missed her prom and the chance to go to university and getting married and having a family. That has been taken away from us.”

Last week, a tree was planted in Cassie’s memory at Colchester sixth-form college where she was studying. Her friends have launched a campaign called “Cassie’s Law”, backed by the Essex County Standard, and a petition form can be obtained by clicking on the link to “Cassie’s Law” at essexcountystandard.co.uk.

Mrs McCord said last week:

“Nearly everyone we have spoken to about the petition has been supportive. If the Police had been able to take the driver's licence away, Cassie would still be here.”

Mrs McCord would like doctors to use their discretion to write to the DVLA if they feel that a patient is unfit to drive, and she would also like drivers aged 70 and above to be medically assessed to ensure that their reactions are sufficient to allow them to drive safely.

I never use the term “road accident”, because in most instances what occurs is the result of driver failure of some sort. As a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, I believe that it would be in everyone’s interests if every driver were required to take refresher driving courses every few years, because it is clear that some people think that, having passed the driving test, they are competent to drive for life. We all know that that is not true. There is some appalling driving, of which tailgating, speeding and overtaking in the nearside lane are some of the most worrying examples.

Successive Governments are to be applauded for past actions, which last year saw the smallest number of people killed on our roads since records began 85 years ago. Given that the number of vehicles in the UK is at a record high, that comparison is an even greater achievement than just the bare figures show.

Britain’s roads are the safest in Europe. Worryingly, however, the number of deaths on our roads has started to increase in recent months, so the coalition Government should redouble their efforts to reduce them. The aim should be zero deaths—an impossible dream, I recognise—but as every death is an individual tragedy we should strive to avoid every death. Loss of life in a road crash is the only form of involuntary sudden death that is somehow considered as just one of those things. Well, that is not an attitude a responsible Government should take.

We should not be creating situations where it is known that actions will inevitably lead to more crashes, more injuries and more deaths. Although this is not part of my Bill, I suggest to Transport Ministers that if they raise the speed limit on the motorways, allow moving traffic on to motorway hard shoulders and reduce the frequency of MOT vehicle inspections, they do so in the full knowledge that they will be responsible for more crashes, more injuries, and more deaths. I would not want that on my conscience.

I have, through a written parliamentary question, invited the new Secretary of State for Transport, who I am pleased is in her place, to visit a hospital accident and emergency department to discuss with the medical team there the consequences of dealing with people injured on our roads. I did that in the wake of suggestions to raise the motorway speed limit to 80 mph.

Road safety has interested me for nearly 50 years. As a trainee reporter, I used to cover inquests at a time when road deaths were more common than they are today. I simply could not accept that they were accidents—all could and should have been avoided. For many

years, I was chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on road safety. On 19 December 2000, I had an Adjournment debate entitled “Road Crashes”, reported in

Hansard

from column 333. I am proud to say that when I was a borough councillor in Colchester, I pioneered the first traffic-calming scheme in the town and the first 20 mph speed limit in Essex. All people who hold elected office have a duty to make our roads safer.

I return to the substance of my Bill. I would like to quote what Mrs Wendy Brading, who is trusted by both families, of the Essex County Standard told me yesterday:

“The point both mothers make is that the drivers in each case had made a selfish choice. One chose to drive while 2 mgs under the drink-drive limit, the other despite advice from the Police. Both acted selfishly and two girls died as a result. This is what they cannot forgive and what has spurred them on, to ensure other families do not go through what they have due to someone’s selfishness.”

In conclusion, my Bill calls for the lowering of the drink-drive limit and for the introduction of measures for the immediate suspension of the licences of those it is clear have health issues. Such measures will assist in saving the lives of innocent people, such as Jordan Bell and Cassie McCord, who were two lovely teenagers cruelly robbed of their lives.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Bob Russell, Mr David Amess, Mr Mike Hancock, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr Julian Huppert, Andrew Miller, Lisa Nandy, Jim Shannon and Andrew Stephenson present the Bill,

Bob Russell accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 30 March 2012, and to be printed (Bill 251).