Orders of the Day — Motor Cars (Headlights)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st May 1962.

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Photo of Mr Leonard Cleaver Mr Leonard Cleaver , Birmingham, Yardley 12:00 am, 21st May 1962

I raise 'the question of whether or not motorists should be obliged to drive with headlights dipped under all circumstances when their vehicles are on the move and not only with sidelights on. That is not to suggest that they should not drive with the headlights full on on suitable occasions. I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport whether the Minister proposes to use his powers under Clause 13 of the Road Traffic Bill, which would enable him to make regulations regarding the use of headlamps. I also draw his attention to Rule 50 of the Highway Code, which, in my view, requires strengthening. It reads: Use dipped headlights at nights in built-up areas unless street lighting is good. One of the most difficult social problems today, and one which we must face, is that of road casualties. They amount to the staggering total of 343,000 injured and 7,000 killed in one year. Motoring is no longer a question of pleasure but a calculated risk. That is what has to be faced by a motorist every time he takes his car out.

It is true that the number of accidents per year has slightly decreased, but the figures are so serious that if there were a war— and I hope that there will never be one again— and at the end of twelve months 7,000 men had been killed and 343,000 wounded, there might well be a change of Government and certainly a political crisis in this House.

Perhaps the most tragic casualties are those of the elderly. A survey of the accidents in Birmingham during 1961 revealed that 88 pedestrians were killed and 1,496 injured and of those numbers there were 44 fatal and 444 injury accidents during the hours of darkness. Of those 44 fatal accidents, 24 concerned vehicles driving with only their sidelights on. I do not possess the figures of the injury casualties occurring because of vehicles driving only on their sidelights, but if this percentage of 54 can be applied to them it might be as many as 250 injuries. I remind the House that the figures which I have given are for Birmingham only. How much more tragic they would be if I could give them for the country as a whole!

The casualties in my constituency have been particularly tragic. In February alone, no fewer than four people were killed, two during the hours of darkness. One unfortunate old gentleman of 82 was killed at the junction of Sheldon Heath and Este Roads. Another particularly tragic case occurred on the Coventry Road, outside the Sheldon Cinema. Here, a young girl of 14 was knocked down and killed while on a crossing and her companion, aged 15, was injured. The driver concerned, unfortunately, did not have his headlights on. In December, again on the Coventry Road, a gentleman of 71 was injured at Gilbertstone Avenue and an elderly lady of 62 was knocked down at Lyndon Road.

From the report which the Chief Constable of Birmingham issues from time to time and which I have just received dealing with casualties for April, I find that there has been yet another casualty in my division, late at night, when a car ran straight into a heavy lorry and when the car driver was killed. These accidents occurred during the hours of darkness when headlights could have been used with advantage.

The Coventry Road has a terrible story of tragedy to tell. There has been a death or an injury or bad damage on every single day for the last two years. I would not like to give the House the impression that this is the only spot in my constituency which has a bad accident record. In Yardley we seem to have more than our fair share of tragedy and unhappiness. Other months and other roads in my constituency are involved.

The point which I wish to stress is that these accidents, not only to pedestrians but to all other forms of road user, are due in many cases to the driver having only his sidelights on. I do not rely on statistical evidence alone. I have had letters from coroners supporting the case which I am putting forward and these gentlemen have made their views known in their public statements.

In a case concerning one of my constituents aged 65 and resident in Kemps Road, Kitts Green, who was unfortunately killed, the City Coroner is reported as saying: In view of mounting road casualties, a law might profitably be passed requiring people to drive or, dipped headlights. This view is not taken in Birmingham alone. The City of Bradford Coroner, dealing with a case in which flashing headlights had been one of he causes of the death said: I think a motorist is entitled to drive on dipped headlights. In West Bromwich, not far from our city, a coroner said: You might think that the recent Birmingham experiment of driving on dipped headlights might have helped in this matter. It might have enabled one of the drivers at least to see the men and give the pedestrians a chance to see the cars. The coroner deals with about 198 fatal cases a year, and of those which occurred during the hours of darkness one of the reasons put forward by motorists is that the pedestrian was crossing on a dark spot between lamps or trees or buildings, and invariably he says these tragic words, "I did not see the deceased until I was a few yards from him and then he was right in front of me".

The coroner's conclusion, with which I agree, is that the sidelights of motor cars get lost in the other lighting and the pedestrian does not notice the motorist, and that if he does lie cannot judge the speed of the vehicle or its distance from him.

That brings me to the kernel of my proposal, to see and to be seen. What I am asking the Minister to do is to make it obligatory for all vehicles to be driven with dipped headlights during the hours of darkness. The reasons for this are as follows. First, it is just as important that a motorist should be seen as he approaches as it is that he can see anybody or anything in his way. The presence of a vehicle using dipped headlights, particularly to those who are aged, infirm, deaf, or perhaps have faulty eyesight— but not by any means to them exclusively— would immediately imply that a vehicle was moving. The display of sidelights only would indicate that the vehicle was parked. The fact that there are two lights approaching renders the judgment of distance easier for both another driver and for pedestrians, and if it is in a brightly illuminated shopping area the vehicles recognition is more sure. It would also help people in the country. Many times when I have tried to pass a car in the country I have seen two pinpoints of light in front of me and not been able to judge where the car was or the speed at which it was travelling.

Secondly, the driver would get better illumination of the road and would be able to pick out obstacles in the roadway or on the footpath. It should be remembered that reflectors must be fitted to bicycles and to the backs of lorries or other commercial vehicles, and these reflectors can be seen about five times further away if headlights are used rather than if only sidelights are used.

Thirdly, the motorist would have better vision of any length of kerb and so see cyclists or parked cars. He would also be able to see better in the darker shadows between the pools of light and therefore it would be easier for him to see any pedestrian who was crossing the road, or who came out from between parked vehicles.

Fourthly, he could give adequate warning of approach at corners and crossroads.

It has been suggested that these proposals should apply only to those areas where the lighting is bad. It would be dangerous to leave it to the motorist alone to decide what was good lighting, and there is the additional difficulty that the dangerous moment is when a driver is coming out of a well lit area into a badly lit one. This is the moment when the motorist should have his whole attention focused on the road and not have it distracted by trying to fiddle with the switches in his car.

The objections to this suggestion are that dipped headlights cause dazzle, and that using them in well lit areas is unsatisfactory because street lighting is designed to show up a dark image on a bright background, whereas the headlights of a car are designed to show up a bright image on a dark background, and therefore the one type of lighting goes contrary to the other.

With regard to the first point, properly adjusted headlights will not cause dazzle. It is becoming more and more essential in modern conditions for a car to be roadworthy. In fact we all accept that a car should be properly maintained. The brakes, steering and tyres are among the essentials which should be tested regularly. Lighting equipment should on no account be left out from this scrutiny. No only should the lights go on; they should be adjusted so that they do not cause dazzle or glare. If they are properly adjusted they will not cause dazzle or glare. Any temporary embarrassment that the motorist may say he suffers if a car is coming over the crest of a hill or round a corner is not serious enough to jeopardise the lives of pedestrians— especially old folk, whose perception may be impaired because of their age, and children, who are sometimes not so wise or experienced as their elders.

As for the second objection, which is a technical one, the Parliamentary Secretary for Science has written to me to say that there is good reason to believe that dipped headlights could with advantage be used more frequently than is generally the practice in the country at present. I know that research is continuing on this matter, but I ask my hon. Friend to encourage the Minister for Science to take an energetic and urgent interest in this question forthwith and expedite a solution to this aspect of the problem. Important though research is, however, it is not so urgent as it is to ensure that drivers in badly lighted areas use their headlights. Another point made is that batteries may not stand it, but I think that the normal battery being used by a normal car under normal conditions can well stand any strain of this kind being put upon it.

I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the report to the Lord Mayor from the Chief Constable of Birmingham on the results of the dipped headlights campaign that we have held. For two weeks motorists were asked voluntarily to drive with their headlights dipped, and there was an excellent response. The police state that about 50 per cent. of the motorists agreed to co-operate in this way. During that fortnight accidents were reduced by 27 per cent. and they might well have been reduced more had not six casualties occurred in one in cident which involved a stolen car. Even at the last count, made after the week had finished, 22 per cent. of drivers were still driving in this way, and it was noticeable how, during the whole campaign objections by motorists about oncoming lights gradually diminished, and at the end they were hardly noticed at all.

In some areas there was as much as 68 per cent. or even 72 per cent. Co-operation, and subsequent research has shown that over 60 per cent. of the drivers, 67 per cent. of the cyclists and 80 per cent. of the pedestrians were in favour of this procedure. We are grateful for the help that Birmingham University gave us in obtaining the information. The success of this experiment was such that the Lord Mayor's committee has unanimously agreed that a further and longer trial should be held over a period of six months— because the period of two weeks was not considered quite long enough, in that it did not give the variety of weather conditions which is essential to get a proper and representative result.

I therefore ask my hon. Friend to take the utmost interest in this experiment, and to collaborate with his right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Science in partaking constructively in this longer venture to ensure that the right information is obtained and then studied. I ask my hon. Friend to consider what is happening in other countries. In the United States— that great motoring country— it is obligatory to drive with headlights on. In the most brilliantly lighted city in the world— New York— headlights are compulsory, although an experiment was made at one period to see whether it would be advisable to go back to the old form of lighting.

I wonder whether the House remembers what was perhaps the blackest day in British road history— 4th December, 1951. A parade of Royal Marine Cadets from the Gillingham area was marching to a boxing tournament when a bus, driven with only its sidelights on, on its normal route, crashed into them, killing 23 of these splendid young lads, aged between 10 and 13. At the subsequent trial of the driver it was said: All he needed to do was to put his headlights on and the collision would never have occurred. The remedy was at his fingertips That is true of every motorist today. Among all the hazards that face him, those of not being able to see in time and of not being seen are two of the worst. He has his remedy at his fingertips. He should put on his headlights. I urge the Minister to use his powers under the road traffic legislation to make this a statutory requirement. If the evidence of 80 million out of 125 million motorists in the world who use their headlights dipped is not sufficient to convince him, I ask him to take a great interest in the Birmingham experiment which has proved such a success and Which was welcomed by the majority of well informed motorists. I can assure my hon. Friend that what Birmingham thinks today the rest of the country will think tomorrow.