Orders of the Day — Road Transport Lighting Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st May 1967.

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Photo of Mr Ken Lomas Mr Ken Lomas , Huddersfield West 12:00 am, 31st May 1967

I should, first, like to express my very sincere thanks to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for his extremely kind words about the part which I played in helping to bring the Bill forward. In return, may I express my personal thanks both to him and to his Department for the help and guidance which I have received over the last few weeks. I couple with those thanks the name of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) who, on an all-party basis, has joined in stimulating and creating interest about the concept of reflective number plates.

I am extremely glad to have the opportunity of speaking in support of the Bill, because it deals not only with reflective number plates but with the whole question of the lighting of vehicles in general. It is customary for a Member to declare his interest. I will declare mine: road safety, and the saving of lives and of suffering by people who sustain accidents on the road.

Without seeking to dramatise an already dramatic situation, may I say that I think that everyone in the House should be appalled that during the time that the House has been in recess—from Friday, 12th May, until today, 31st May—400 people have been killed on our roads, 5,000 have been seriously injured and 15,000 have been slightly injured—20,000 people involved in accidents in the short space of two and a half weeks. Some of those who died would have been alive today and some of those who were injured would have been fit and well if motorists had obeyed the simple road safety slogan "See and be seen".

To me, it is ludicrous that as the law stands a vehicle can be on the road, day or night, without either headlamps or stoplights. I therefore warmly welcome the recently published Report of the Home Office and Metropolitan Police on the compulsory fitting of dim-dip headlights on all vehicles. I hope that the Minister will give urgent consideration to the recommendations made in that Report, for this is literally a matter of life and death. I hope the Bill will give the Minister power to do something about this matter.

As hon. Members know, my main interest in the Bill is the power which the Minister will be given under it to lay regulations to allow the use of reflective number plates on all road vehicles. Before I deal with that matter, I should like to say a few general words about the rest of the Bill.

It may come as a surprise to some hon. Members to know that Britain is second only to Italy in the number of road vehicles in the country per road mile. In Belgium, there are 34; in Canada 14; in France 17; in the German Federal Republic 49; in the Irish Republic 6; in New Zealand 15; in Spain 24; in Switzerland 44; in America only 24. In this country we have no fewer than 57 vehicles per road mile. Faced with that appalling density on our roads, it is obvious that any measure designed to assist motorists to see and be seen, especially at night, should be warmly welcomed.

I was glad to hear the Parliamentary Secretary say that a measure is being contemplated to standardise the lighting of vehicles at the rear. It is time that this was done, and the Bill gives the Minister power to do it. The assortment of colours which sometimes appear on the backs of vehicles needs to be standardised. The gimmicks and gadgets which we sometimes see should be outlawed. In many instances, only the person driving the car knows what those gimmicks and gadgets mean; the person following has no clue. I have no objection to having a "tiger" in my tank, but I object to having one in the rear window of a motor car which flashes its eyes at me. This is a matter on which the Minister should take action.

I hope that under the Bill the Minister will have power to introduce, and will introduce regulations stipulating that every vehicle should be equipped with stop lights. It is ridiculous that stop lights are not obligatory at present. Few drivers use hand signals to denote that they are slowing down or stopping. Stop lights are a great help in warning approaching vehicles that the one in front is coming to a halt.

I was glad to hear the Minister say that regulations would be laid before the House to require certain commercial vehicles to carry a distinctive rear marking to show that they constitute a special road hazard. I am thinking of those types of vehicle, the heavy lorries, which carry equipment longer than the vehicle or those which are so long that to overtake would be highly dangerous unless one had a warning signal that the vehicle was over a given length. If the rear lights of these vehicles fail, vehicles which can be under-run can cause the worst possible kind of accident, especially to motor cyclists and the baby and mini cars. Whatever form these markings take, they must be visible at night in the light of the lamps of a following car. It was very heartening to hear the Minister say that the Ministry has in mind that there should be a reflective triangle in the centre of the tail board and reflective and fluorescent zebra stripes on either side.

I turn to the specific question of reflective number plates. I should like to say why I believe that they should be introduced at the very earliest opportunity. I first raised this question in the House in November, 1965, and I have been pressing for their introduction since. During that time, I have met no one who has argued a case, let alone a convincing case, against them. They are designed to stop accidents. Other safety measures which the Ministry of Transport has introduced—for example, the compulsory fitting of seat belts—are designed to reduce the severity of accidents. Reflective plates are designed to stop accidents.

Clause 2 gives the Minister power to permit the use of reflective number plates. I am sure that this will make a great contribution to road safety because it will allow motorists to fulfil the second part of the slogan "See and be seen", even if all the lights on the vehicle should fail or if it is left parked or abandoned on the roadside at night without lights. It is no use denying that this happens. We all know that it happens. Many serious accidents occur because a vehicle has been left with no lights showing and an oncoming motorist has no indication that there is a hazard in front of him and there is a rear-end collision with sometimes appalling results.

The Bill is obviously necessary, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, because under the Road Transport Lighting Act, 1957, the fitting of reflective number plates would be illegal, because they could be held to be showing a light to the rear, unless the colour was red. The Road Research Laboratory and the Lighting Working Party of the Ministry and the experience which has been obtained from other countries where these plates are now in use point to the fact that the most effective colour combinations are black and white at the front and black and amber at the rear.

Forty million vehicles in the world out of a vehicle population of 160 million, or 25 per cent, of the total, will by the end of 1967 be equipped with these retro-reflective number plates. I am all in favour of some form of standardisation of lighting on the rear of vehicles, and I hope that we shall not seek to emulate certain States in America where these plates are in use which have chosen a colour combination which sometimes has very little to do with the most effective road safety combination but has more to do with the colours of the local State baseball team or the State college or university or the personal whim of the governor. One State has chosen the combination of white on green merely because the Governor happens to be an Irishman. There could be worse reasons than that, but it seems odd that there should be this lack of standardisation. I hope that we shall not allow this but that we shall seek to standardise colour schemes.

However, I appreciate that a convincing case could well be argued for the police or doctors or Government officials having a distinctive marking so that people know who they are. An argument could be advanced—in fact, I have heard it advanced—that in the period when these plates are made permissive, provided the Minister gets power to do that, and until they are in general use, some confusion could arise in the minds of members of the public. But this is an argument which I reject completely. It is not an argument against retro-reflective number plates; it is an argument against change.

I am certain that, once these plates are allowed under the Bill, motorists will soon see the benefit and more and more will come to adopt them for their own use. It would be logical to argue that, once the case for these retro-plates has been accepted, it would be right for the Minister to introduce compulsory regulations. However, at this stage I am content to see the introduction of permissive legislation in the firm belief that the value to road safety will become obvious within 18 months, and I give notice that at that time I shall begin to press the Ministry for the compulsory fitting of these plates to all new vehicles and to all vehicles coming up for Ministry of Transport tests, which, I hope, will be down to two years by 1969.

When in the process of preparing my Private Member's Bill for presentation to the House on 19th April, a Bill designed to allow the use of reflective number plates on all road vehicles, I wrote to a number of organisations for their views, including the R.A.C. and the A.A. The R.A.C. replied on 18th April saying: I am pleased to confirm that the Club is sympathetic to the objective of your Bill which will enable further experience to be obtained concerning the advantages of reflective number plates which have been revealed by the limited experiment in this country and the use of such equipment in other countries. It is the Club's view that it is desirable to encourage the use of devices which may help to reduce the risk of accidents at night, especially when vehicles have broken down on the highway and when their lights are not operative. The Automobile Association replied on 12th April saying: We would certainly be in favour of permissive legislation as this would enable more experience to be gained of the practical value of these number plates. Thereafter, the possibility of making reflectorisation a standard requirement might well be considered". Those two organisations represent a considerable body of motorists and their opinions should be noted.

Clause 2(b), says that the provisions which may be made by regulations include: where any such light is required or authorised by the regulations to be so shown by means of reflecting or fluorescent material, provision imposing conditions with respect to the material, its position and dimensions … I assume that the Minister's decision about the material to be used will be taken after consultation not only with her technical advisers, but with the motoring organisations and other interested bodies. Without seeking to delude the House into believing that I am a technical expert—which I am not—I hope that the Minister will not think in terms of British Standard 873, of 1959, which is the material now used for road bollards and road signs, but more in terms of the superior British Standard AU47 of 1965.

The Minister will have power to specify the position of these plates. I appreciate the difficulties of obtaining uniformity at once on all road vehicles, but I trust that the Minister will bear in mind the advantages which would be obtained if these plates were to be centralised on the rear of vehicles, because that would be a further indication to motorists that there was something on either side of the reflected light.

I assume that the area of the plates will be roughly the same whether the plates are oblong or square, but at some date perhaps the Minister can think in terms of introducing regulations to standardise the shape of the plates on all vehicles.

I am well aware of the efforts of the present Minister and her Ministry to promote road safety and to overhaul the Lighting Acts. The Ministry is doing great service. We know that, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the cost in monetary terms of road accidents in this country in 1966 was no less than £267 million, a factor of which we must take careful note. Lighting regulations are crucial. Almost 50 per cent, of all road deaths occur at night and more than one-third of road accidents occur during the hours of darkness, and this is at a time when traffic is much less when measured in vehicle miles travelled.

Motorists pay too little attention to ensuring that their vehicles have adequate lighting. According to a recent survey conducted by the A.A. one-third of all vehicles on the road today are inadequately lit at light, which means that 5 million vehicles constitute a potential source of a road accident at night.

The previous Government—and I am grateful for the efforts which they made—in April, 1964, asked the Road Research Laboratory to conduct a trial with reflective number plates and I am glad that the present Government are acting so rapidly on the conclusions obtained from those trials and the investigations of the Lighting Working Party.

Quickly to summarise the advantages of these reflective plates for the benefit of those hon. Members who were not present on 19th April when my Bill was introduced and for those who are not yet convinced; they are not dependent on their own lighting system; they have no battery and no bulb and no wiring is required; their brightness is at least 100 times that of white paint; after 80,000 miles of motoring—this was the rigorous test to which the Road Research Laboratory submitted these plates—they were still 60 times brighter than white paint and could be restored to about 80 or 90 per cent, of their original power by the use of a simple polish.

There are those who argue that it is just as efficient to have simply effective or enlarged ordinary reflectors, but I point out that there are no red reflectors on the front of a vehicle and that in any case reflectors are brittle and can easily be damaged and that a reflective plate means that a vehicle can be identified even if all the rest of its lights are out, and that is something to be welcomed as a contribution to law enforcement.

I will not weary the House with them, but statistics can be produced to show that in America, where tests have been carried out in Minnesota, Maine, Illinois and Iowa, night-time accidents, especially rear-end collisions, have been greatly reduced by the use of these plates. At the Fifth World Meeting of the International Road Federation in London in September, last year, Mr. Kare Rumar, who is well known in road safety circles and who comes from the Department of Psychology at the University of Upsala in Sweden, said: The retro-reflective materials that industry is now able to produce are capable of giving the registration plate … a sizeable increase in the night-time visibilty of the vehicle. With reflectorisation there is also a considerable improvement in the legibility of the number at night as well as increased difficulty for those who might attempt to fabricate counterfeit plates. When reflectorised. therefore, the-registration plate becomes a definite safety element. He concluded by saying: In the beams of headlights they make the vehicles carrying them visible from long distances and almost any angle, a fact which contributes to greater road safety.The four plates as well as the rear plate are more legible to law enforcement patrols—and from a greater distance. This is a factor of order and discipline on the roads. At the Fifth International Congress of Traffic Police in Paris in 1965 a resolution was adopted recommending the use of reflectorised registration plates as a contribution to road safety and to assisting in law enforcement.

If these plates are introduced, they will do much to reduce the number of accidents involving parked cars, because the plates reflect at an angle regardless of the position of the vehicle. I understand that some time ago a comparison was made of the number of fatal and serious accidents involving parked cars in an 18-month period before and after the coming into force of regulations allowing parking without lights in certain areas of London. Serious accidents involving heavy vehicles parked without lights increased by 50 per cent. This would not have happened if the parked cars had been fitted with reflective plates. Once again, it is a simple question of seeing and being seen.

The Pedestrians' Association, which is concerned with road safety, was in touch with me and was concerned that reflective number plates might take the place of the light which must be shown over the rear number plate. That, however, is not the intention either of myself or the Bill, because the light which is required over or under the number plate would still remain to assist pedestrians and when vehicles are parked.

It is wise to dot the i's and cross the t's when one has the opportunity, and perhaps I may correct a slight mistake which I made on the subject of reflective plates when presenting my Private Member's Bill last month, when I mentioned that the cost of the plates would be about £2 a pair. I should have made it clear that that was the manufacturers' price.

Road Research Laboratory Report No. 44 states, in paragraph 7: Ordinary registration plates are sold by manufacturers to garages at a cost of £2 a pair and upwards and fitted to cars by garages at a cost of £3 10s. It is estimated, after consulting with the firm making plates of the type used in the experiment, that the price would be about £2 a pair. Even if the price increased slightly, this would be well worth paying to save life.

A number of organisations which have been in touch with me would like to see, for example, raised digits and numbers above the surface, of the reflective material. With that I do not quarrel. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister can consider it at a later stage. I am, however, glad again to assure the House and the Ministry that I have received a number of letters from the Number Plate Manufacturers' Association, one of which, dated 5th May, states: We do not wish to resist the reflectorisation of vehicle number plates for the purpose covered in your Bill. As a result of further correspondence, a letter dated 26th May signed by the chairman of the Association, states: I am of the opinion that all the points raised have been satisfactorily covered and can therefore assure you of my co-operation when the Bill is finally passed. We therefore have the support of a tremendous number of bodies which are interested in the project.

I am also informed that the plates can be produced in this country. No dollar expenditure is involved, no balance of payments crisis is threatened as a result. The purpose of the plates is, however, to help to save life. They have been tested and tried in over 30 American States and many other nations have accepted them, including France, where they are now compulsory on all heavy road vehicles.

I have a report which I obtained from the Tasmanian Government from a 1965 Committee on Road Safety and Traffic Accidents, in which all the advantages of reflective number plates are given. I quote merely two short paragraphs: Whilst they are obviously not a complete answer for the following too closely or improper signals accidents, we believe that the reports which we have read show that they materially reduce night-time accidents. The Committee recommended to the Tasmanian Government that reflectorised number plates be issued to all vehicles at the earliest opportunity. It is the same story in Australia as well.

Police forces throughout the country have expressed themselves, and have being doing so since 1959, in favour of these plates. A sub-committee of the United Nations has gone on record as giving its support. As the hon. Member for Totnes said, Members of all three political parties have urged their introduction. I hope, therefore, that it will not be long before we have the appropriate regulations.

I express once again my appreciation to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for the speed with which the Bill has been brought forward by his Department and I hope that it will have a speedy and successful passage through its various stages to the Statute Book.

I conclude with the words of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, who, when speaking at Brighton in October, said that coming to terms with the motor age means developing a new sense of urgency about road safety. In the last 10 years, 3< million people have been injured on our roads, and if accidents continue to increase at the present rate the figures will have risen to nearly 1 million a year by the 1980s. We can no longer tolerate this terrible toll. I entirely agree with those sentiments.

Let us make sure that when we drive, all of us can see and be seen. To do that we must act, and act now, and give the Bill our full support and ensure that the Minister is in a position to lay the appropriate regulations to allow the permissive use of retro-reflective number plates, certainly before the dark nights come upon us again.