Orders of the Day — Motor Cyclists (Safety)

– in the House of Commons at 9:46 pm on 13th November 1979.

Alert me about debates like this

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

10 pm

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield East

I was especially pleased when I discovered that I was to have the opportunity to initiate this Adjournment debate this evening rather than yesterday evening, when it would have taken place at a far later hour, because I passionately wanted to introduce a discussion on motorcycle deaths, injuries and motor cyclist training.

The origins of my concern about this matter—as with most areas of genuine concern of any Member of Parliament—lie in the knowledge and experience gained in my constituency. Time after time in Huddersfield I read in the Huddersfield Weekly Examiner or the Yorkshire Post of yet another young man or woman needlessly and tragically killed in a motor cycle accident. The reports prompted me to pursue my investigation into how we, as a legislative body, as a House of Commons in touch with the major problems of our country, could alleviate that dreadful loss of life.

I have asked for this debate at an appropriate time. The Ministry of Transport advisory committee that was set up in July 1978 reported two weeks ago. The committee was set up following an Adjournment debate on this subject initiated by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) now the Minister of Transport.

I have no intention of boring the House with a large number of statistics on motor cycle deaths and serious injuries. However, I must stress the gruesome nature of some of these injuries. Most hon. Members will know that three people die and 60 are injured on average every day in this country in motor cycle accidents. A motor cyclist is killed or seriously injured every half hour of the day on British roads. That is an unacceptable level of casualties in a civilised society, especially when we bear in mind that motor cyclists account for only 2 per cent, of the total mileage covered by motorised travellers. However, 20 per cent, of all casualties occur as a result of motor cycle accidents. Those accidents cost about £205 million in direct terms—to take the Ministry's costing—in 1977, which is the most recent figure. What is more, over half of those casualties were in the 17–19 age group. Young people, who had everything before them, were tragically lost to our community.

As anyone who has studied the problem knows, this is a complex subject. Its complexity should not be under-rated. I should be the last person to suggest that there are simple solutions to such complex problems, but sufficient evidence exists to suggest that the Government should take some relatively simple measures to reduce significantly the numbers of young men and women unnecessarily slaughtered on the roads.

Governments have few opportunities to achieve easily attainable results. The art of government is difficult and, very often, long-term. However, I believe that there exists a unique opportunity to do something now for which there will be almost universal praise and support from parents, teachers, employers and trade unions. Possible courses of action were suggested by the Government's advisory committee. I suggest that they are the basic minimum, but I accept that if these recommendations were to be implemented as a package—I stress that and will come back to it later—some good results might be achieved.

Let us look briefly at the recommendations. They include voluntary training to begin with, but compulsory training if 75 per cent, of motor cycle riders have not received training within three years. At present the number of drivers who receive training is a deplorable 15 per cent, of all those who buy motor cycles and take them on the road.

Another recommendation of the committee is that there should be greater incentives for undergoing training and that the relationship between training, testing and licensing should be taken more seriously. The present dilemma is that the young person who takes one of these machines out of the showroom on to the road is not required to undergo any training and can continue to ride the machine without taking a test. I believe that the advisory committee is right when it recommends that there should be some incentive for taking the test.

A third recommendation is that there should be a new two-part test. This is at the heart of the recommendations and is one that we should accept. Part one of the test would be taken at an approved training centre, and part two would be a Ministry of Transport test on the road. The committee also recommends that learners should be restricted to machines with a maximum of 12 bhp, and there are other recommendations relating to mopeds. Restriction to a certain level of brake horse power is a minor though important item. I believe that such a restriction would not achieve a great deal unless the two-part test was adopted.

When I considered the advisory committee's report and compared it with what had been said in a previous Adjournment debate in April 1977, I knew in my heart that these recommendations were the minimum that we should implement now. Looking at the remarks made by the present Minister of Transport during that debate, I see that he expressed impatience with the Government, and as I read through that debate I experienced the same kind of frustration. I understood what the right hon. Gentleman thought and why he believed that an investigation could not be delayed for more than three months. He asked why we should wait more than three months for an investigation into this matter, and tonight I feel very much the same way.

This is not an issue that divides the parties. It is a matter on which we can take a bipartisan approach. As we talk, investigate and talk again, the lives of boys and girls are needlessly being thrown away. This is happening at a time when the House, by initiating action based on a thorough and sensible report, could reduce the number of dead and dreadfully injured.

I detected not only an air of impatience in the remarks of the present Minister of Transport during the 1977 debate but also a view that an extended training scheme would cost very little indeed. He said that an extended scheme should be a voluntary scheme. It may be that at some stage in the future we should consider compulsory training. As I have said, at present only 15 per cent, of motor cyclists undergo any training, which means that 85 per cent, ride off on powerful machines without any training. I ask hon. Members to consider the proposition of handing the keys of one's car to one's young son, daughter or wife and saying "There you are. Jump in and get on with it." How horrific that would seem to most intelligent people in our community today, but that is what we ask untrained motor cyclists to do.

I quote again from the present Minister of Transport, who said in that earlier debate: The administrative costs and the administrative difficulty of setting up a compulsory scheme are probably overwhelming at this stage. He went on: Lastly, there is today a general feeling that Government and Government alone are the only agency capable of tackling the many problems of our society."—[Official Report, 7 April 1977; Vol. 929, c. 1444–5.] I do not think that he was wrong in that conclusion. I recommend immediate action on the report that has been published, because it combines the very things that the Minister hoped would be implemented at that time.

It is now two and a half years later, another 5,000 people are dead and there are tens of thousands more maimed people and a countless number of cabbages who will never again be useful members of society lying in our hospitals. However, in that short time we have seen a tremendous growth in the number of voluntary bodies and organisations which can and do provide the training and which have expressed their ability and capacity to train all new motor cyclists coming on to the road. The situation has changed miraculously in two and a half short years.

I refer specifically to the schools traffic education programme—STEP—which has a tremendous capacity for training cyclists and instructors. I mention also the RAC-ACU scheme, which has expanded tremendously and trains many more young people. I could even recommend a number of small individual enterprises, such as that of Dave Taylor in Dartford, who has an imaginative scheme for training young people in the country before they take to the roads.

There is also considerable interest in this problem among industrial and commercial enterprises. They are ready and willing to set up schemes among their employees. An example is ICI at Billingham. Many industrial companies are appalled by the fact that they spend £10,000 on training an apprentice tool setter and then see him wiped out on the road. Not only is that a terrible tragedy, it is an enormous investment which that company has made and lost because of a lack of proper training.

The recommendations of the advisory committee can be implemented quickly, and they need not cost much money. It would be easy to have a levy on every motor cycle sold. The levy could also be imposed on everyone who takes a training course. This could be done with very little bureaucratic machinery. These days, no one wants to introduce more bureaucratic apparatus. The scheme could be implemented simply without a vast bureaucracy, and it would be invaluable in saving lives. What an attractive combination it would be of legislative initiative acting as a catalyst for voluntary effort to bring about an effective training programme.

Obviously there would have to be supervision of training standards, which might cost a little money, but when we compare £205 million lost in terms of medical care we see that it is worth while So many of these people are not killed outright, and they spend 20, 30 or even 40 weeks in hospital being put together again and rehabilitated.

The one doubt is that without compulsion the very people whom we most want to get on these training schemes will avoid them. However, I believe that a stiffer Ministry of Transport test would be an incentive to take the training scheme because the young rider would be anxious to get rid of his L-plates. If there were a two-tier test, there could be a period of training of a certain number of hours on the machine and a certain amount of theoretical training, followed by the Ministry of Transport test. I would not be hard and fast in my recommendations on the report, but there is a case to be made for training, in that there is a tremendous waiting list for the present test, which in any case is an appallingly inaccurate assessment of a person's ability to ride. There is a strong case for having a training programme to replace the test.

One would cut out bureaucracy rather than increase it. A certificate to drive could be awarded to those who passed the supervised test. It would therefore be possible to build in incentives, and at an early stage the young rider could learn the importance of roadcraft and training. However, I stress that this is part of a package of changes which would provide a valuable step forward. I urge the Government not to pluck parts out of the recommendations, because taken individually they would make little sense.

Photo of Mr Gary Waller Mr Gary Waller , Brighouse and Spenborough

I agree with a great deal of the hon. Member's remarks, but does he accept that a high proportion of accidents involving motor cyclists are caused by car drivers? In terms of expenditure, one of the most valuable things that we can do is to continue with and expand the programme of education for car drivers about motor cyclists and the difficulty of seeing them.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield East

I accept the comments of the hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller). We are talking not about a campaign to solve the problem but about how to make workmanlike progress in the right direction. There must be increased and continuing efforts to make better drivers and to educate the public to be better pedestrians. There is a great deal of evidence that many of the accidents involving motor cyclists are not the fault of the motor cyclist. Therefore, "see and be seen" and "watch that motor cyclist" and other such campaigns are all very useful. In a small way they make an important contribution. Tonight, however, we are discussing a sensible and workmanlike set of recommendations which can lead to a reduction in the problem.

Experience has shown what can be achieved by determination and by refusal to accept this loss of life of young potential. I cite in support of that what has happened in Japan and the experiments conducted in California and a number of other places. That is why I hope that tonight we can begin a discussion between Members of Parliament and the Government in which we say that we want to make progress and to see change but that we do not want to wait another two and a half years for it. I am sure that the Minister accepts that point of view. I hope that from tonight we can make progress.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport) 10:18 pm, 13th November 1979

I begin by welcoming the holding of a debate on this important subject and then congratulating the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) on initiating it. He is right to underline the serious problem of motor cycle casualties. He said that he did not want to labour the statistics, but they are awful and they paint a clear picture of the misery that is being caused by the current level of accidents.

The casualty figures have become very much worse in recent years. There were 43,000 accidents to motor cyclists in 1972 and the figure went up to nearly 70,000 in 1978. The motor cyclist is a particularly vulnerable road user. In terms of miles travelled, he is 30 times more likely to have an accident on the road than someone travelling in a four-wheeled vehicle.

As the hon. Member told us, there is a terrible death rate, particularly among our young people. A quarter of the deaths of those aged between 16 and 19 in this country are attributable to motor cycle accidents. The danger of the machine itself is not worsening. The figures are getting worse because motor cycles are getting more and more popular as a means of travel. I am afraid that as the sales figures increase this year, unless something is done soon it is inevitable that the accident figures will also rise.

I confirm that the Government regard safety as a high priority. We are anxious to take steps that will begin to have an impact on the appalling toll of death and injury. I have followed the comments of the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East since he was elected and he suggested again tonight that perhaps there has been some delay in taking action. I assure him that my right hon. Friend and I do not desire to delay making decisions. An advisory committee on motor cycle training was set up before we came into office.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield East

When the report was published, the Minister asked the Parliamentary Secretary to proceed with the talks. It seemed to many of us that the committee was a talking shop, albeit a valuable one, representing every area of concern. To go through that process again would be a waste of time.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

We do not intend to go through the whole process again. The advisory committee contained an impressive range of expertise, and we were right to wait for its conclusions. Mr. Robins and his committee are to be congratulated on the helpful conclusions which we now have. The discussions are a necessary preliminary to decisions. They are not simply a means of stretching out the talking.

The recommendations of the advisory committee are not universally accepted. The hon. Gentleman has an early day motion, signed by about 40 hon. Members, asking us to go far beyond the recommendations. That demonstrates the wide range of opinion, but the committee, which was not set up by this Government, has made a useful contribution. We now need to go beyond the scope of the committee to reach our conclusions on what action to take. My right hon Friend asked me to hold quick discussions in order to reach decisions on the wider question of motor cycle safety, of which training is only a part. The discussions are aimed at eventual decisions and action.

We must first look at training, which is the remit of the advisory committee. The present level of training for beginners and novice motor cyclists is inadequate. Safety would be greatly improved with better training, and one problem is whether it should be compulsory or voluntary.

Despite the excellent efforts of local authorities, the RAC and STEP, only 15 per cent, of motor cyclists receive any training on their machines. That is ludicrous when contrasted with car drivers, 90 per cent, of whom receive professional tuition. I recently tried to ride a motorcycle on a STEP course within the safety of a school playground, and as an experienced car driver I found it a tricky machine to handle. In theory it is possible for riders to buy a motor cycle, take it on a public road and with or without the assistance of a friend who has done it before find out how a powerful machine can be handled. It is not surprising that the casualty rate is high in those first few months.

We must come to a rapid conclusion about whether voluntary or compulsory training is required. It is possible to argue, as the committee has recommended, that voluntary methods should be allowed to work. There is no hard and fast research evidence to indicate that training improves safety, and there are practical problems about the training. No doubt the hon. Gentleman has examined the various ranges of training that are available. The style and nature of the courses provided by STEP and RAC are excellent but different. If compulsory training is to be held, it should be decided whether it should be for four hours or 10 hours, whether it is to be on the road or off the road, and so on.

However, will voluntary methods by themselves work? The Government have not changed their mind about the matter, and we shall look seriously at the issue of voluntary or compulsory training and come to a rapid conclusion. In particular, we shall examine the recommendation that one way to improve training and provide positive inducement to take up training is to link it to the test, if that proves practicable and can be arranged.

We shall not rule out the possibility of examining the nature of the present Ministry of Transport test and its adequacy. However, taking steps to improve the test will be difficult in the short term, because there is considerable delay in carrying out the tests. It is difficult to go in for more onerous standards while recruiting examiners to deal with a backlog.

We should consider what can be done to give an added incentive to the inexperienced motor cyclist to take a test. The hon. Gentleman said that various things could be done to help the young motor cyclist who wants to get the L-plates off his vehicle. However, if a rider has a machine smaller than 250cc and does not take pillion passengers, there is no particular inducement for him to pay the fee and take a test. We should examine that matter.

The Government are seriously examining the recommendation about the size of motor cycle that can be ridden by a novice motor cyclist before he takes the test. The present limit of 250cc was set in 1962. Since then the machinery has been improved considerably and such machines are capable of speeds of up to 100 mph. They can be driven by an adsolute beginner who is trying to get the hang of handling his machine on the road. The advisory committee recommended that a new limit restraining the power of the machine should be chosen. It recommended 12 brake horse power. The Government have not yet decided on the proper limit, but the principle is right. We must look at the size of machine that can be ridden by a novice.

The hon. Gentleman has spoken in the past about the possibility of raising the age limit of motor cyclists. I believe that the accident figures are worse when related to experience rather than to age. The figures are bad for the young because they are beginning to learn to ride motor cycles. It is getting experience on a two-wheeled machine with safety that matters rather than the age at which the experience begins.

It has been suggested that leaner drivers should be accompanied. That is not practicable with a motor cycle. To have a pillion passenger accompanying a learner puts two people at risk rather than one, because the pillion passenger cannot control the machine.

We shall consider whether there should be a limit to the number of provisional licences that can be held by a learner rider. That matter has been considered in the past. We shall look also at the safety of machines and the equipment of riders. The Transport and Road Research Laboratory is doing research into the braking systems of machines and the ability to stop them. We are considering the question of the conspicuity of riders. We shall encourage riders to wear conspicuous clothing.

We are considering also the question of the protection of the rider. The wearing of helmets is compulsory, but we are examining the allegations that have been made about the adequacy of the present standard of helmets. A new British standard is being devised using dynamic testing, along the lines of which The Guardian, to judge from its recent article, would approve.

The hon. Gentleman conceded that there is no quick solution, but there is an urgent need to find a solution. The figures will not be reduced quickly, but nobody can be complacent about them. There is a serious problem and the Government are anxious to move on—

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

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.