Orders of the Day — Road Vehicles (Limitometer)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th November 1960.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

10.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr Charles Grey Mr Charles Grey , City of Durham

I make no apology for bringing before the House the question of the limitometer, but before doing so I have a serious complaint to make about the refusal of the Minister of Transport to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Slater) and myself to discuss this project. I warned the Ministry this morning that I intended to make this complaint tonight and it is a matter of regret that the right hon. Gentleman himself has not put in an appearance.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will convey the sentiments of my hon. Friend and myself about that refusal. It is a great pity that the Minister did not prove more reasonable and approachable, for he must have known that we would use this opportunity to express our views and to condemn his action, for no Member of Parliament can take kindly to any Minister's refusal to meet him to discuss various issues.

I have been a Member of Parliament for fifteen years and this is the first time that I have had a refusal from a Minister of either a Labour Government or of successive Tory Governments. My hon. Friend can vouch for that, and no doubt he will testify that this is also the first occasion on which he has been refused.

It is said that there has to be a first time for everything, and perhaps I should not, therefore, be surprised at this inevitability, but I am deeply shocked that a Minister of the Crown could be so discourteous. I fear that if this incident is allowed to pass unnoticed there is no telling where it might lead, or, indeed, what might happen. I wish, therefore, to protest most vigorously, and to make it quite clear that my hon. Friend and I consider that we are entitled to better treatment.

It is a matter of regret that I have had to say this, but I felt it right and proper to do so, so that we might preserve our rights and prevent the Minister of Transport, or any other Minister, from doing the same thing again. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will convey those views to his right hon. Friend.

I will try, briefly, to explain what the limitometer is, and what it is intended to do. It is a simple device which can be fitted to the outside of a car to show the vehicle's speed. It is, in fact, an external speed indicator in the form of a disc about 6 inches in diameter. It is made of two colours, for example, black and white, and can be seen at a distance of 100 yards.

I have here the device, which will perhaps enable the House to understand what it is, and how it works. It is half black and half white. When the car is stationary, the black part of the disc is at the bottom, and the white part is at the top. As the car moves off and gains speed the black portion moves up towards the left, and as the car reaches speeds over 30 miles per hour so the black part moves towards the top. When the car reaches 90 miles per hour the black part is at the top and the white part is at the bottom. I hope that the House has understood that.

Anyone will be able to tell the speed of a car at a glance. It does not need much imagination to realise what an advantage that will be. I do not think that anyone in his right senses would deny that this is a good thing. Many people are of the opinion that it would be an advantage. I am sure that the Minister will think so, too, and I am almost certain that the Parliamentary Secretary will agree with him.

Judging from a letter that was sent to Mr. Sculley, on 13th October, the Minister seems to have the wrong impression. He seems to have the impression that this speed indicator is for the benefit of road users. I get that from the fourth paragraph of the letter which says: It is also considered that the addition of any further signals to those already permitted on motor vehicles would prove distracting to other drivers and we would be reluctant to add to that number. That proves that he thinks that the gadget is for the benefit of road users. Nothing is further from the truth.

I can think of many things on cars which distract a driver. For instance, a wireless set could be distracting to a degree. I am not advocating the removal of wirelesses, and I am sure that the Minister would not, either. If I were to advocate such action the Minister would object on many grounds, one being that a source of revenue would be lost. However, this is beside the point.

The question of distraction does not come into the case. The limitometer is not meant for the road users. Its purpose is to act as a deterrent to those driving in restricted areas. The very fact that a driver knew that he was advertising his speed would be sufficient for him to make sure that he was travelling at no more than 30 miles an hour in a built-up area. That, alone, is a good reason why this thing should be considered.

A second reason is that pedestrians could tell the speed of the vehicle almost at a glance and, in certain circumstances, could take the action necessary to prevent an accident. The prevention of accidents is, indeed, the main purpose of the limitometer, and is one very solid argument for looking into the idea.

The Minister's argument is that the limitometer could be tampered with. Nobody would deny that. As long as there are human beings there will always be those who want to do wrong, but, even assuming that they numbered thousands, the limitometer could be sealed in much the same way as the main fuse in an electric meter is sealed. Those sealed main fuses are in practically all premises—how many people interfere with them?

The Minister also says that as long ago as 1935 some such thing was considered by the Transport Advisory Council, which recommended against compulsory fittings of this kind to vehicles. I believe that a little later the Departmental Committee on Road Safety came to the same conclusion. That may be the case, but that was a long time ago, and that decision was reached at a time when, comparatively speaking, there was practically no traffic on the road—and certainly less slaughter. Road safety is vital, and no stone should be left unturned in making our roads safe for vehicle users and pedestrians alike. Every day, about 20 people are killed on the roads, and the fact that a third of them are pedestrians proves that the big accidents occur in restricted areas.

I believe that if motorists had the limitometer fitted to their cars they would think twice before speeding in built-up areas, and no one can doubt how much safer life would be for pedestrians. This invention may not be the complete answer, but it is an attack on the problem and could make a contribution to road safety. I beg the Minister not to turn this idea down flat, or to turn a deaf ear to what we say. I only ask him to send one of his experts to interview Mrs. Wilkinson and Mr. Sculley and see the thing work. If the Minister will do that, he has everything to gain; if he does not, he has everything to lose.

10.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham (Mr. Grey) has succeeded in bringing this matter to the attention of the House. I support his criticism of the attitude of the Minister of Transport to Members of Parliament. I have never before experienced such treatment. Whenever we asked to meet the previous Minister of Transport about constituency problems we were always received, but when we apply to the present Minister to meet him, as Members of Parliament, on an issue that has been brought to our notice by our constituents, he gives a blank refusal. Surely it is not too much to ask that an official from the Ministry should meet my constituent, Mr. Sculley, and his partner and look at this limitometer, instead of giving it the cold "brush-off". These men have been told by the Ministry that a similar type of project has been brought to the notice of the Department before and, therefore, it is known to be of no use without any examination.

I believe that it is important to emphasise that Ministry of Transport officials have not seen this instrument, but are prepared to sit in judgment on it and pass sentence without having heard the case which could be made out in its favour. That is a fantastic attitude. I understood that the Minister was keen on road safety, but how keen is the right hon. Gentleman, or the Parliamentary Secretary, when they turn down something which might result in a greater measure of safety on the roads? I believe that road safety committees will take a dim view of their attitude. In one part of my constituency the A.1 trunk road runs through the centre of the village of Chilton Buildings, and fatal accidents have occurred on this stretch of road. I am convinced that the attitude of the Ministry will not be received kindly in that area in view of the publicity which this limitometer has received.

I questioned Mr. Sculley when he came to see me and he was very forth-coming in his answers. He maintained that the invention would act as a deterrent to drivers who drove at an excessive speed in restricted areas. Pedestrians would know immediately by means of the instrument how fast a vehicle was travelling. It was emphasised that the record of the instrument would be of no use unless there was more than one witness. The limitometer has created great interest in other countries and it would be a slap in the face for this country if it were produced in another country because the Minister of Transport was not interested.

So enthusiastic are those who believe in the limitometer about road safety, so much do they believe that they have the answer to the problem of reducing the number of accidents, that, if the Minister of Transport is not interested in this patent at all, they will be forced to go elsewhere. If another country tests it and accepts the idea, and if it proves to do what the owners have said it will do, what will be the reaction in this country as the accident figures continue to mount? My hon. Friend has cited the figures. What will the reaction be as they mount as more vehicles are brought on to the roads?

In his letter to the Minister, Mr. Sculley says that Durham County police are interested in and like the idea. We have a very efficient road safety section attached to the Durham County constabulary, and it is doing a very good job. If it is interested in and likes the idea, is not that another reason that the Minister should grant these people an interview to demonstrate it, if not to him, at least to a responsible member of his Department, who in turn could report to the Minister on his findings?

We talk a great deal in the House about inventiveness and initiative. I conclude by pleading with the Parliamentary Secretary to ask his right hon. Friend not to turn this application down, but to give further consideration to the request that these people should be received by someone from his Department.

10.37 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Hay Mr John Hay , Henley

I am sure that the House wants me, at the outset of my remarks, to deal with the very grave charge, which has been made by both the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Grey) and the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Slater), of discourtesy by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport for, as they put it, refusing point black to receive either or both of them to discuss this device.

With respect to both of them, I think they may have misunderstood the terms of my right hon. Friend's reply to them. My right hon. Friend wrote to the hon. Member for Durham on 2nd November a long letter, of which I have a copy, setting out in summary form the main reasons why he did not think that this would be a useful device to use on our roads. His letter concluded with this paragraph: I am most reluctant to appear unresponsive to ideas on road safety, but I really think that there would be little point in coming to see me. My right hon. Friend did not say, "I am not prepared to see you". That would have been most discourteous. The House knows my right hon. Friend and knows that he is not noted for discourtesy in the House—indeed, the contrary. If he felt for a moment that the two hon. Members considered that they had been wrongfully treated in this matter, he would be only too anxious to put it right, but I suggest to the two hon. Members that they have misunderstood what my right hon. Friend said in his letter. He said that those were the reasons why we are not very keen on this device and that, in those circumstances, there seemed to be little point in the hon. Members seeing him. But he has not turned them down point blank, and it is not a definite refusal. The words are not capable of that interpretation.

Photo of Mr John Hay Mr John Hay , Henley

Time is short and I must come to the main issues raised here.

No Minister of Transport and no Ministry of Transport wishes deliberately to turn down any reasonable idea or device which will contribute to road safety. We are not unimaginative or hidebound or restrictive in our view. On the contrary, we are always seeking new ways of improving road safety. But it must be remembered that the officials of my right hon. Friend's Department have some experience in these matters, extending over many years, and people ought not to complain too bitterly if, on objective examination, and remembering that we have a vested interest in finding something helpful to our efforts to alleviate the dangers on the roads, we sometimes are bound to take an adverse view on a new device or idea which its promoter quite genuinely considers would help.

We want to succeed in our road safety matters and we will willingly examine any promising new ideas, however novel, which we think may help. But the device being discussed tonight is not a new idea, and this is the first major point that I want to make. It is an idea that has been put forward on a great many occasions in the past.

It is true, as the hon. Member for Durham said, that as long ago as 1939 the Transport Advisory Council considered a number of devices of this kind which had previous to that year been put up. In 1947, again, the Committee on Road Safety examined the problem once more. Basically, what is suggested—

Photo of Mr Charles Grey Mr Charles Grey , City of Durham

Let us get the record right. The letter refers to 1935 and the hon. Gentleman is making a reference to 1939.

Photo of Mr John Hay Mr John Hay , Henley

I do not think that there is a great deal in it. It was certainly prewar. Perhaps I have the date wrong—I think not—but it is comparatively immaterial.

Basically, this is a form of external speedometer and the object has always been to show other motorists and pedestrians the speed of a vehicle. Many devices in the past have been put forward with that basic idea, to give some kind of visual or audible indication of the speed of a vehicle. The indicator is usually proposed to be put on the roof, on the radiator, on the screen, or on the bumpers of the car. Sometimes the device involves the use of coloured lights for different speeds or of a signal light which goes on and off as certain speeds are reached, and usually there is a proposal that whistles, bells, buzzers or hooters should be associated with the device.

I mention this not to mock, but simply to show that we have had all these ideas and modifications and variations put to us on many occasions over the years. This is why, perhaps, when this was put to us recently we were bound to say that it was comparatively little different from many of the others which we have examined exhaustively in the past.

I do not want to labour the point, but I want to explain the reason why we had to reject this idea. What we are asked to do, of course, is to make it a compulsory fitting to all motor vehicles. There are several fundamental objections of principle which I would like very shortly to state.

The purpose of the device is twofold. First, it is said that many accidents are caused by the misjudgment of speeds of vehicles and that this could be prevented if there were some external indication on the vehicles of the speed at which they were travelling. Then, again, it is said that such a device might help the police in the enforcement of the speed limit, and both these points are quite genuinely put forward by those who want to see the device used.

It has always been a very basic principle of road safety in this country that each individual using the roads has a personal responsibility for road safety. We have never encouraged people to rely on any mechanical device rather than on their own judgment. For road users to rely on an external speedometer to tell them the speed of an approaching vehicle is open to a number of obvious dangers.

I will mention three of them. First, through giving too much attention to the disc on any vehicle a pedestrian or motorist might fail to take into account other factors, for instance another vehicle about to overtake the one being observed. Secondly, a mechanical fault which caused the device to register a wrong reading might cause a serious accident. A very high degree of accuracy and reliability would be necessary. Thirdly, there could be an accidental misreading of the speed. This could happen quite easily in fast traffic, especially when the disc was seen from an angle, or only momentarily.

It is said that this device is 6 inches in diameter and can be seen at 100 yards distance. At a speed of 30 miles an hour a vehicle travels 100 yards in seven seconds, and if there are two vehicles approaching each other at 30 miles an hour that time is considerably reduced, and there is not much time to observe the speed at which the approaching vehicle is travelling.

What matters in making quick decisions in traffic is not so much the absolute speed of other vehicles as their speed relative to each other and to other factors involved—such as the distance away of the vehicle observed, the width of the road, the visibility, and the behaviour of other road users. The need to relate the reading on a speed indicator—or possibly several, because there may be a number of vehicles involved—to these other factors could even have the effect of slowing down or confusing many of the essentially split second decisions that every motorist has to take.

This would be particularly true if it could not be read instantaneously—perhaps because of poor visibility, or the angle at which it was seen, or the state of the indicator itself. I understand that it is to be situated low down on the bumper of vehicles. It could easily there be obscured by dirt, mud, or grease.

We think that vehicles already carry about as much as is tolerable in the form of lights, indicators and signs. The road user has to exercise a very great deal of concentration and we do not particularly want to add to the numerous things that he has to look out for when driving. He has to look out for brake lights, direction indicators, traffic lights, hand signals, traffic signs, and many other things. The fewer things he has to look out for, the easier is his task of driving.

My right hon. Friend's letter made it very clear that the second possibility of using the device as an aid to enforcement of the speed limit would not be particularly effective. It could easily be tampered with. I felt that the optimism of the hon. Member for Sedgefield was a little marked in this connection. It would be quite possible for an ill-disposed person to tamper with it to make it under-read the speed, and it would then be quite useless for police enforcement purposes.

I hope that I have said enough to show that there are a number of difficulties of principle involved. There are great objections on these grounds. In these circumstances, my right hon. Friend decided that it was not worth while examining the device in the way suggested by the hon. Gentleman, because, incidentally, full details and photographs had already been sent to us.

In the few moments remaining I will say this, however. Since the two hon. Gentlemen feel so strongly about this, I will instruct one of our vehicle certifying officers in the Durham area to meet Mr. Sculley and Mr. Wilkinson and hear what they have to say. I cannot give any undertaking other than that. I will try to make such an arrangement, but I cannot hold out any hope—I must make this clear—that we will be persuaded by what he will find, to set aside these very great issues of principle, which so far have militated against the use of any device of this kind, either in this country or abroad. Despite what the hon. Gentleman said, this has been suggested in a number of other countries. Nobody else has ever tried it, as far as I know.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.