Orders of the Day — Motor Cyclists (Safety)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:18 pm on 13th November 1979.

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

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—