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 Major Sir Robert Conant Major Sir Robert Conant , Rutland and Stamford 12:00 am, 5th April 1955

I fully agree with the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) about the danger of dogs on the highway. According to my reading of the accident statistics, about three times as many accidents were caused by dogs as by inebriated drivers. That is an interesting fact, but I am not sure what we can do about it. I do not think that we can send the owners of loose dogs to prison. Probably all that we can do is to commend them to keep their dogs more under control than they do at present.

Every hon. Member to whom I have listened this afternoon has expressed a qualified approval for the Bill, and I do so myself. It makes a contribution—though not a large one—towards solving the problem of road safety and the relief of congestion. I do not think that anybody feels that we can expect any substantial lowering of the accident figures by any one Measure which we can take. Probably the greatest single act which would contribute to the reduction of the number of accidents would be the spending of several more million pounds upon our roads. I am glad that my right hon. Friend has made a beginning with that, and I hope that he will soon be able to let me know his decision about the borough of Stamford, in my constituency, upon which we have had a very lengthy correspondence.

Probably the most controversial of all the proposals in the Bill is that which relates to testing stations. We should all agree about the very great importance of ensuring that our roads are reserved for roadworthy vehicles, and the importance of that requirement is not at all diminished by the fact that the number of accidents which have been caused by vehicles which were mechanically deficient forms a very small proportion of the total; it is about 11 per cent. We must take every possible step to see that only roadworthy vehicles are allowed upon the roads, but I am quite sure that a solution of this problem will not be achieved by setting up a chain of testing stations throughout the country.

I was very glad to hear my right hon. Friend express that view this afternoon—if I did hear him so express it. If that is so, however, I cannot quite see the object of the experiments which he is going to carry out in connection with testing. There is no need to experiment in order to find out whether the necessity for drivers to produce certificates of roadworthiness will reduce accidents, because it obviously will. One cannot test motor vehicles like atom bombs to see whether they go off, or like groundnuts to see if they grow, so what is the purpose of setting up a testing station upon a voluntary basis, to see whether people will use it? I am sure we should be wise to try to solve the problem of unroadworthy vehicles either through the insurance companies or by extending the powers which already exist for stopping vehicles and checking them on the road. I doubt if the proposal for designated garages is practicable, though it ought to be considered.

We depend to a large extent upon statistics in everything we do in connection with road safety. Would it not be possible to have statistics a little less elaborate and a little more up to date than those which are at present available and which relate to road accidents in 1952. They relate to three years ago and are extraordinarily interesting historically, but they have not much relevance to the position last year. I suggest that we might have a very much shortened form of statistics to ensure that we know what is happening on the roads.

I was opposed to putting parking meters on the roads when first I heard of the proposal, but after listening to my right hon. Friend's explanation I think the experiment will be worth while. I hope he will go slowly and will not try to impose parking meters in too many parts of the country. Parking meters will not of themselves create parking space, but it is possible, as the Minister suggested, that people who park their cars all day will be persuaded by the existence of the parking meter to put their cars in a garage.

There is the chance that the institution of parking meters will lead to a sort of musical chairs. The long-term parker will be replaced by the short-term parker moving from another street. It will be an interesting experiment in finding out whether we can persuade the long-term parker to put his car into a garage and whether more garages will appear as the result of this proposal.

I want now to refer to a matter which has not much relevance to road safety but which should, I think, find a place in the Bill. It concerns the minimum age-limit for driving motor vehicles. I think I am right in saying that it is 17 years for motor cars and 16 for motor cycles. In my part of the world, Lincolnshire and Rutland, many young men of 16 and even younger are extremely efficient at driving farm tractors. They carry out the most difficult evolutions on the farm with tractors during the day, but when it is time to go home an older man has to take over to take the tractor home. The lads then get on their motor bicycle, if they have one, and are allowed to travel around the country roads at any pace they like. It would be a great convenience both to drivers and to farmers if this anomaly could be adjusted, and the age for driving a farm tractor be put down to that for driving a motor cycle. There may be difficulties, but they should not prove insoluble.

Finally I want to say a word about penalties: I do not think that financial penalties have much effect on the commission of offences. I do not think that a driver would travel more slowly if he is told that he can be fined £30 for going at 31 miles an hour after this Bill is law instead of £20 as now. He probably knows that the average penalty inflicted in 1952 was about 43s. The question arises whether Parliament ought to lay down a minimum penalty for some motoring offences. It would not be a revolutionary step to take. We impose a minimum in the sense that we impose disqualification and insist that for certain offences the licences can be taken away, except where special circumstances exist, and no one quite knows what that means.

I am not in favour of Parliament imposing a minimum punishment. In the case of speeding there may be a great variety of mitigating circumstances. Almost every built-up area may be driven through in perfect safety at more than 30 miles an hour for three parts of the 24 hours and for the rest of the time it may well be dangerous to drive at more than 15 miles an hour. A bench considering what penalty to impose should therefore have a wide discretion in considering what punishment to inflict. That is not the same as saying that the fines now imposed are sufficient to restrict the commission of offences. I do not think they are.

I believe the Bill will, on the whole, do something to increase road safety, but it is capable of improvement and I hope it will receive considerable improvement when it goes to Committee.