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Orders of the Day — ROAD TRAFFIC BILL [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th April 1955.

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Photo of Mr John Boyd-Carpenter Mr John Boyd-Carpenter , Kingston upon Thames 12:00 am, 5th April 1955

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This Bill has three purposes. They are, first, to help, so far as legislation can, to promote safety on the road; secondly, so far as legislation can, to deal with traffic congestion, particularly in big cities; and thirdly, to deal with certain anomalies or ambiguities in the law which have come to light in recent years.

A Bill of this sort necessarily, when one looks at it for the first time, seems rather piecemeal, and if, as certain critics have done, one looks at it in isolation from the background, it can be made to appear somewhat incomplete. However, I would stress the words which I used a moment ago in connection with the first two purposes, road safety and the relief of congestion. The words were "so far as legislation can help." I would emphasise to the House that the greater part of sensible policies on both those subjects does not depend on new legislation; a great deal can be effected either by the use of existing legislative powers under previous Acts or by measures which have nothing whatever to do with legislation.

The Bill, therefore, on these subjects, deals only with those broad and in some ways limited aspects of the subject for which new legislation is required. The significance of what is sought to be done by the new legislation can, I submit to the House, only be fairly and sensibly judged if one fits the precise legislative projects into the background of the general policies which are being pursued quite apart from legislation.

I think it is from this reason that certain sincere, but, I submit, wholly unsound criticisms of the Bill have sprung. Even the "Manchester Guardian," which is a newspaper for which, I think, hon. Members on both sides of the House have a very high regard, and which certainly stands in a very special position to us all at present, fell into this error in a recent leading article. It indicated that, though there was much good material in the Bill, it was to be criticised because—these were the words used in the leading article: It shies away from the question of speed limits, leaving the existing law to be mocked as it now is daily, and it dodges the growing problem of controlling the gigantic loads that are being transported by road more and more frequently. In fact, as I am sure hon. Members in the House will be aware, while the Bill does deal with certain subsidiary aspects of the speed limit, on the major part of that problem existing powers are adequate, and, therefore, legislation is not required. It is in the exercise of those powers that I have recently referred to the London and Home Counties Traffic Advisory Committee the task of reviewing the speed limits in the London area with a view, among other things, to considering the use of differing speed limits on different roads.

Similarly, I can tell the House that so far as abnormal indivisible loads are concerned existing powers are, in my judgment adequate, and I am now engaged in preliminary discussions with the police and other authorities about how better to control them.

The fact that a newspaper of the standing and intelligence of the "Manchester Guardian" can be led to believe that the fact that these issues are not dealt with in the Bill means that they are being avoided is an indication of the very real difficulty which faces both the House and critics outside in considering a Bill of this sort unless one constantly looks at other policy measures being taken outside on the same subject. I think it really is necessary to fit the legislative pieces into the general jigsaw of the policies if one is to form a fair and reasonable view of the measures proposed.

Therefore, Mr. Speaker, with your permission, I will endeavour, at least so far as the rules of order and your kindliness permit, to deal with a good many parts of the Bill, with the aid of such references as may be in order, to the policies of which the proposals in the Bill are, in many cases, an ancillary part.

I must make, in opening my speech, one other general comment. Actually, the legislative steps which are taken in a matter of this sort are often, in the nature of things unpopular. Legislation on these subjects very often involves, as the Bill does, restrictions on the activities or liberties of different categories of road users, and it is very natural and human that those concerned, though they may themselves advocate more drastic measures in other directions, should not be particularly enthusiastic about those which affect them.

However, I think I can claim that the restrictions and penalties which the Bill, among other things, embodies are no more and no less than is required by a situation in which 5,000 people are killed annually on the roads and a quarter of a million injured, and in which congestion of traffic, particularly in great cities, does a serious hurt to the economy.

The theme of the Bill, as I see it, is the provision by legislation of that minimum provision of restriction and penalty and that minimum legal framework which is required to supplement and to support the other measures which we are taking on the subject of safety and congestion.

Opinions, naturally, differ so far as penalties and restrictions are concerned, and it is perhaps a little reassuring for the Minister in charge of the Bill to note that at earlier stages certain of the penalties and restrictions were simultaneously being criticised for being too lax and for being too severe. It is so much a matter of judgment and opinion whether one has reached the right mean in these matters. I should be the last to claim that on all proposals we have necessarily done so, but the House would want, I think, in considering the Measure to bear in mind that there is always a balance in these matters which it is sometimes very difficult to strike completely accurately.

Following the plan which I indicated I should like to follow in presenting the Bill to the House, I should like, first, to deal with the safety provisions against—I would stress it again—the other non-legislative safety measures which we are taking. I can very quickly summarise them: education in road safety, whose success in respect of the education of children is one of the most cheerful spots in the casualty figures; the abolition of black spots on the roads, some hundreds of which we hope to deal with in this year's instalment of the road programme; training schemes such as the excellent one sponsored by the R.A.C. and A.C.U. for motor cyclists; training schemes for pedal cyclists such as are sponsored by many local authorities and other public-spirited people; experiments in road safety such as that which I had the privilege to inaugurate at Slough on Saturday last; mobile police and the use of "courtesy cops"; and the Highway Code, which, I am glad to tell the House, has sold over three million copies and the free distribution of which is to follow. Those are the main body of the safety proposals to which the legislative provisions to which I am now going to refer are in a sense supplementary.

The first with which I should like to deal is the extension proposed in the Bill, which is dealt with in Clauses 4 and 5, of certain restrictions and liability to prosecution of both cyclists and pedestrians. The present position of the law affecting cyclists is that the only offence which a cyclist can commit is that of riding furiously contrary to the Highway Act, 1835, and to the Town Police Clauses Act, 1847. Clause 4 of the Bill proposes to apply to pedal cyclists liability to be charged with reckless, dangerous and careless riding; that is to say, with an offence similar to that committed by motorists under the same title. They will also be required to stop when required to do so by the police.

This provision does not, as has been stated outside, involve either registration of cyclists or licensing of cyclists—that is wholly unnecessary—but it does impose upon cyclists liability, if they offend, to be prosecuted for those offences. The great majority of cyclists ride in a law-abiding and sensible manner, but probably the experience of hon. Members would cause them to agree that it is proper that some control of this sort should be extended to the very small minority of cyclists, who, by doing silly things, may endanger their own lives or the lives of others.

Similarly, there is an extension of the law affecting the control of pedestrians. That is effected by Clause 5. At present the only offences which a pedestrian can commit are those of loitering on a crossing contrary to pedestrian regulations, or wilfully obstructing the highway under the Act of 1835. It is proposed to make it an offence for a pedestrian to proceed across the road in contravention of a direction given by a policeman in uniform directing traffic.

That is a modest but, I think, not unimportant extension of the law, and in the overwhelming majority of cases it will be unnecessary. Those who have faced the problem of traffic and pedestrians in heavily crowded city streets will agree that at least some legal authority is needed to back the moral authority which is generally, but not always, sufficient in the case of perhaps one or two people.

Similarly, the penalties for motorists are increased by Clause 20. Increased use is made of the penalty of disqualification from driving. A great many people think we might have gone even further in that direction. If the House gives a Second Reading to the Bill that is just the sort of point which it might be convenient to discuss in Committee. In view of certain comments made outside it is important to notice that we extended the penalty of disqualification in respect of certain of these offences.

There is a difference of opinion as to the extent to which it is right to make disqualification automatic on conviction for certain offences. On the one hand, there is the proper and understandable desire to keep off the road those who are a danger and there is the deterrent effect. On the other hand, every extension of automatic penalties can have the effect of making it more difficult for convictions to be obtained. It is, therefore, necessary to look very carefully at this aspect of the matter before coming to any very dogmatic conclusions. I would point out to the House that there is some extension here of the penalty of disqualification. Fines are increased in line, largely, with the fall in the value of money since they were fixed by the Act of 1930 and there is some increase in the possibilities of imprisonment.

A very different question, on which I am anxious to have the views of the House, relates to the question of defective vehicles. That raises a problem of very great difficulty. Figures have been quoted which, on the face of them, would appear to indicate that defects in vehicles are a comparatively small cause of accidents. I believe that those figures do not give the whole story and that, on the contrary, a considerable number of accidents, primarily perhaps caused by something else, were contributed to, or could have been avoided, if one or more of the vehicles involved had not been in a defective condition.

It is clear that the three points on which a great deal of thought is needed relate to lights, from the point of view of dazzle, braking and steering. Those are points of very real, practical consequence to which great attention has been given in the United States of America. On the question of dazzle, the House will wish to have in mind the fact that international organisations have been trying to work out standards. It may be that before very long we shall have some agreed international recommendations on the subject. When we do, the question of what action we take to enforce them in this country will become urgent.

When the Bill was introduced in another place it made provision, among other things, for testing of vehicles to be undertaken in licensed, or authorised, garages. As the House will know, noble Lords, in their wisdom. deleted that provision, with the result that these tests can only be undertaken in Government establishments. On the other hand, the provisions have been reinforced by one which, speaking from memory, I think is in Clause 10, which deals with the sale of vehicles in bad condition.

The situation which arises on the Clause is not one, I think, of any politically controversial nature. but is a difficult practical problem. I do not think that any serious body of opinion, inside this House or outside, contemplates setting up throughout the country a vast network of Government-manned and Government-operated testing stations. Considerations of expense and manpower, and of the shortage of competent and qualified men required, would inhibit that.

The House knows that we are proceeding with an experimental pilot station in the London area, which, I hope, may be open in a few weeks' time, to get experience of what precisely is needed to operate a testing station of this sort—how many vehicles it can deal with, the staff needed, and so on. When that test has been undertaken we shall be in a better position than we are now to know the practical limitations of the matter.

As the Clause stands, limited as it is to Government testing stations, it is not in a practical form. It is clear that we shall have to give a great deal of thought and consideration to it in the light of advice and experience of hon. Members as to how we should proceed further. It is not a matter on which I would wish to be dogmatic. It is a difficult matter, but I hope the House will not underrate the seriousness of the problem we are seeking to tackle, nor the practical difficulties which loom up in face of every particular proposal put forward. This is eminently a matter on which the Government would wish to have the views of the House.

Clause 9—still in the safety group—deals with a possibly serious gap in the law with respect to the issue of provisional licences. It has been possible for an applicant to obtain a provisional licence and to continue to renew it without having any real intention of passing a driving test. In the case of motorists, that possibility is made less attractive by reason of the fact that he has to have a qualified driver with him, but, in the case of motor cyclists, for practical reasons, that does not arise. There is the possibility of someone who does not feel he would pass a test continuing to drive with a provisional licence.

The Clause proposes to give the authorities who issue licences power to refuse to issue one in the case of a driver who has had a licence in the previous 12 months and who does not appear to intend to take a driving test.