Road Safety (Pillion Passengers)

– in the House of Commons at 1:43 pm on 9th February 2005.

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Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Shadow Minister, Economic Affairs 1:43 pm, 9th February 2005

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about protective helmets for children riding on motor cycles as pillion passengers;
to make further provision about motor cycle construction and use in relation to pillion passengers;
to make it an offence to carry a child as a pillion passenger without parental consent;
and for connected purposes.

My constituent Sean Pearce-Weston was only eight years old when he was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in May last year. It happened on the Pevensey bypass. He was riding as a pillion passenger on a 750cc Honda motorbike owned by a friend of the family. The bike collided with a Ford Fiesta. Sean suffered serious head, neck and back injuries. He was airlifted to the local district general hospital, and later transferred to King's college hospital, where ultimately his life support machine was turned off. His parents were unaware that he had gone for a ride. He was wearing a helmet that was either ill fitting or with the strap undone. In any event, I understand it was not a specially designed child's helmet.

I was contacted by Sean's mother Cassie and her friend and neighbour Clare Lacey. Despite the terrible grief suffered by family and friends, Cassie's main priority since the terrible accident has been to campaign for better regulations to try to ensure that what happened to Sean cannot happen again to anyone else's son or daughter. I pay tribute to Cassie and the whole family for their bravery and determination.

Cassie started a petition in my constituency. It rapidly attracted not hundreds but thousands of signatures. Currently it has more than 7,000 signatures. There were very strong feelings on the matter in my constituency, especially in the Langney area. I was left asking: how did Sean come to be on this pillion seat without proper protection and without his parents' knowledge or consent? Would a change in the law help to avoid a similar tragedy?

I have to admit that my initial reaction was to press for a blanket ban on children being carried as pillion passengers. I am still of the view that very young children have no place on motorcycles. I have delved into the legal and practical issues very carefully, and I met a range of organisations and bodies. I would like to pay particular thanks to the British Motorcyclists Federation, in particular Mr. Richard Olliffe. It is a responsible organisation that has been working hard through the Advisory Group on Motorcycling to develop a national motorcycle strategy.

I do not wish to demonise motorcyclists. During this campaign, I have received e-mails and letters from bikers across the country—indeed, across the globe. As the BMF says in its mission statement, motorcycling is a legitimate means of personal transport and form of recreation. About 1 million motorcycles are registered for use on our roads.

I recognise that the vast majority of bikers are responsible people who take particular care when carrying their own children on their pillion seat, but the case of young Sean suggests to me that there is a minority who are less responsible and that some changes to the existing law are required. From the outset, I was determined that any change in the law should be fair, proportionate and enforceable. I am not interested in empty gestures and neither are Sean's family. Some accidents are unavoidable.

Among the other organisations I consulted were the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, Brake—the road safety charity—the Motor Cycle Industry Association and Sussex Police. I am grateful for all the expert advice that they have given.

The existing laws of direct relevance to this case can be summarised as follows: a motor bike must be equipped with suitable supports or rests for the feet of the pillion passenger; pillion passengers must be capable of sitting astride a proper seat securely fixed to the motorcycle; a pillion passenger must wear a safety helmet; and the decision to carry a passenger remains with the rider, who is legally responsible for ensuring that the passenger is safely supported.

On 21 July last year, I went to the Department for Transport with Cassie and her daughter to present the petition. A few days earlier, I had sent a letter setting out my concerns following the accident and asking Ministers to review the legal position. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Jamieson, who is on the Front Bench, was otherwise engaged, but was good enough to write the following day expressing his condolences to the family. In his letter he stressed that the Government were concerned about motorcycle safety and made the point that

"Motorcyclists are our most vulnerable road users and are some 30 times more likely to be killed on the road than car users and 4 times more likely to be killed than cyclists."

However, he concluded:

"The Government believes that present regulations do not make it necessary to amend the legislation."

The Minister's review of the legislation cannot have been too comprehensive because that was in reply to my letter of 8 July. Very prompt, but suggesting, perhaps, a not too deep and long-standing review.

I have concluded that rather than a blanket ban, three things are required. First, there should be a clear legal obligation that where a child is to be carried as a pillion passenger by anyone other than a parent or legal guardian, the consent of a parent or guardian must be obtained. That should be backed up by stiff penalties. Had that obligation existed and been enforced before this tragic accident, it is more than likely that Sean would not have been on the bike in the first place. Parents have a right to know that their children will not be placed in possible danger without their knowledge and consent.

Secondly, it should be crystal clear that a child must wear a properly fitting and specially designed child's helmet. The best information I have been able to obtain is that Sean was wearing a full-face adult lady's helmet. It was the smallest size available, and although it probably fitted the diameter of Sean's head reasonably well, the differences in the jaw of an adult female and a child meant that the strap did not fit properly, so the helmet came off on impact. So wearing a helmet was of no use at all.

It must make sense for the law to require that specially designed children's helmets are worn. I understand from ROSPA that it plans to seek funding to create an advice leaflet for parents on taking their children on their pillions, which would look at all these issues. The BMF tells me that it would support moves to ensure that helmets approved to current UK and EU standards are readily available in child head sizes.

Thirdly, the regulations governing the design of foot rests, or "pegs", must make it clear that the very youngest child could not legally ride pillion, and that the manufactured position of foot rests cannot be modified. At present, as I have explained, the law requires that the passenger must be able to reach the foot rests. But certain sports bikes have the rests in more accessible places, and there seems to be some evidence that owners may modify their bikes, including the position of the rests. In fairness, I should say that the BMF does not support a ban on modifying the position of foot rests, but in a constructive spirit, it has told me:

"The BMF is however concerned that riders may not be aware of their obligations to pillion passengers and would therefore support a Department of Transport publicity campaign to ensure that riders and pillions are aware of their obligations under the current regulations."

What has been the legal aftermath of this tragedy in my constituency—the very sad death of young Sean Pearce-Weston? The rider of the motorcycle has not been prosecuted. The driver of the car was prosecuted and admitted driving without due care and attention, rather than dangerous driving. He was fined £500 and banned from driving for six months. Sean's mother pointed out in the local paper at the time that £500 was less than the cost of organising Sean's funeral.

I understand that the coroner's court in this case is due to reconvene on 5 April. Only after that final hearing does the Coroners Act allow the release of the formal police report on this tragic incident. It will, I am sure, make interesting reading. It is quite possible that the coroner may decide to make recommendations relating to the carriage of child pillion passengers on motor bikes. I hope that he does, and if he does, that the Government will seriously consider acting on those recommendations and on mine.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Nigel Waterson, Mr. John Horam, Mr. Peter Ainsworth, Mr. Robert Walter, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Julian Brazier, Mr. Richard Spring, Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. Edward O'Hara, Tom Cox, Mrs. Jacqui Lait and Mr. Bill Wiggin.