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Smart Motorways - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Berkeley Lord Berkeley Labour 4:03 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on securing this debate. It is a very important subject and we do not seem to be getting very far with our concerns. I share the fear and worry of many other noble Lords: with no hard shoulder, driving is quite a frightening experience because everywhere, not just on the hard shoulders, people are driving too close. They do not seem to see parked vehicles until it is too late and they cannot stop or divert. In the old days—I suppose when I started to drive, 100 years ago or so—you were always told to keep enough distance from the vehicle in front of you so that you could stop if it stopped suddenly. That certainly does not happen nowadays.

What can be done? The noble Baroness mentioned the Swedish experiment, which is very interesting. It has achieved a significant reduction in the number of deaths. But there has been a curve between the deaths when it started, in 2000, and now: there was a significant drop in the first three years, then it levelled off. That is exactly the same as has happened here, according to the latest Road Safety Statement for 2019. That rather indicates that the low-hanging fruit has been picked already and we have to do something more radical.

In this country we have around 1,770 deaths each year on the roads, and 26,000 people are killed and seriously injured. That is a terribly high figure. As noble Lords have said, every one is a serious personal tragedy. What are we going to do about it? We can debate ad nauseam whether motorways are riskier or more threatening than other roads. What would happen if the smart motorways were abolished and speed limits introduced? There would probably be more delays, but is a delay not better than a death or a serious injury? We all think it will not happen to us until it does.

I suppose this is a bit of a refrain of mine: we need to enforce the law. Speeding is one thing—the law is easy to enforce, but that does not happen as often as it should. However, we need a step change. I have suggested for a number of years that when you compare the legislation for other safety activities, including on the railways, which is led by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, it means that you all have to operate in a manner that is as safe as is reasonably practicable. That means that as the driver, you have the responsibility for acting safely, and if you do not, the enforcement is pretty high and pretty heavy. It applies in many parts of industry, and on the railways, and I cannot see why it cannot apply on the roads as well.

The easiest way would be for the Office of Rail and Road to be given responsibility for road safety. On rail, if you contravene the railway legislation, which is based on the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, you will get into serious trouble. The statistics bear it out. Last year, on the railways there were 17 passenger fatalities on the main line and on the Underground. We can leave suicides to one side, sadly, because that is a difficult subject. However, there were no train accidents involving fatalities, whereas, as I said, there were 1,770 road deaths and 26,000 people killed and seriously injured. I know that if you measure the fatalities per mile travelled, you can come up with all kinds of things. However, the ORR’s approach to road safety puts the responsibility for avoiding accidents and driving safely on the person driving. They are often at work—many usually are—and Ministers should seriously look at that as a way of dramatically reducing road deaths.