Orders of the Day — Motor Cyclists (Safety)

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

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman , Huddersfield East 9:46 pm, 13th November 1979

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.