I was saying that I think that the speed limit on a suitable highway with grade separation should normally be 60 mph, rather than 40 mph or 50 mph. One of my principal arguments is that people need to know what is a normal speed for that type of road. It is perverse that highways authorities impose limits of anything between 40 mph and 70 mph on a seemingly random basis on roads where there are no pedestrians crossing and there is proper segregation of traffic flows entering and leaving the highway. The only objection that we have heard so far is that that might lead to inappropriate speed when leaving the good highway for a lesser one. I cannot accept that because, of course, there can be a suitable speed restriction for those leaving the highway, and there can be signs to warn those in the exit lane that they need to slow down considerably.
If we are serious about busting congestion, we have to use our limited number of really good roads to maximum capacity, and we would increase the capacity if we had appropriate maximum speed limits rather than very low ones. If we wish to be fair to the motorist, we should not change the speed limits too often, if at all, on similar stretches of road and we need to have a normal speed for each type of road—as we
tend to do on motorways, where the apparent normal speed is 70 mph—so that people know where they are. It is potentially dangerous for motorists to spend time trying to track down often obscure speed signs and watching their speedometers too attentively on stretches of road where the natural inclination of driver and vehicle is to go faster than the artificially low maximum speeds that are set in some places. Those limits are leading motorists to believe that many speed cameras are part of a collection racket: first, the authorities lower the speed on a good carriageway, then they put in a camera to collect the money that becomes due as a result of people's impatience.
I offer my support for new clause 31, as opposed to new clause 28. The former would raise the maximum speed limit to 80 mph on a motorway where there are no other restrictions. That is sensible. As somebody in the public eye who is, by inclination, law-abiding, I try to keep to the 70 mph speed limit on motorways. I am always in the slow lane and I am nearly always overtaken by practically every other motorist on the road; the smaller the car, the faster they seem to go and they seem to be jostling with each other in the fast lane, often at speeds in excess of 90 mph. Speeds of 90 mph or 100 mph on congested motorways are not a good idea.
If we consider the average speed that drivers achieve, they are making the judgment—against the law at the moment—that going up to 80 mph is not usually unduly hazardous on a properly designed, well lit motorway, or one in good condition in decent sunlight. That judgment about safety is right, although I deprecate the judgment to break the law. As lawmakers, our job is to make sensible laws, and this is an opportunity for us to bring the law into line with the practice and experience of most motorists. We should not wish to make criminals of all motorists; we should listen intelligently when the case can be made for more restricted speed in hazardous conditions and for a more sensible average speed where roads are well designed.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Another point is that the 70 mph speed limit on motorways was introduced at a time when most vehicles had drum brakes. Today, the braking systems of cars are far more efficient and advanced, so vehicles can stop more quickly and safely than they could when the 70 mph speed limit was introduced.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. He does so from his direct experience as a vehicle lover who owns several ageing and beautiful classic vehicles. I used to own and had the pleasure of driving a Jaguar E-type from the early 1960s, which I always drove rather more gently and even more carefully than I drive a modern vehicle. Although a Jaguar E-type is always an elegant lady, it is a 1960s vehicle, so the distances required to brake and manoeuvre are far longer than those needed by a modern vehicle with better steering, suspension and brakes.
My right hon. Friend is correct that sensible drivers adjust their speed accordingly. There has been a massive improvement in vehicles since the 1960s, which means that most of them on the highway are capable of travelling relatively safely at speeds of up to 80 mph.
The right hon. Gentleman says that there has been a massive improvement in vehicles, and I do not disagree. However, does he believe that there has also been a massive improvement in driving standards?
No, I do not think that there has been a massive improvement in driving standards and it is very important that there should be as big an improvement as possible. However, I do not believe that imposing speed limits that most motorists think are unreasonable is the way to improve driving standards. The experience of the past few years of speed controls via speed cameras has shown that most motorists observe speed restrictions when they know that they will be detected if they do not. They often then accelerate and probably drive faster and more recklessly when they are away from the camera than if no camera was limiting their average speed in the first place. There is also a false sense of confidence that safety is being taken care of by speed control when the main requirements for safety are eternal vigilance and good driving skill by every driver.
Most modern cars have better brakes, but if I recall correctly, the early E-type Jag was one of the first cars on the road to have disc brakes on all four wheels. Although vehicles have improved, the problem on our motorways is whether human reactions have also improved. The other issue is that roads are far more congested than they were in the heady days of the 1960s. There is now far more traffic on motorways.
Recommending a maximum speed limit of 80 mph does not mean telling drivers that they have a right to travel at 80 mph when the roads are heavily congested. As the Minister will know, there is still a general traffic law that will require the motorist to drive reasonably for the conditions and to keep a sensible distance from the surrounding vehicles and those ahead.
In many cases, it would be impossible to travel at anything like the 70 mph or 80 mph maximum limit, because at busy times of the day vehicles on a motorway travel at an average speed of 40 mph or 50 mph—if they are lucky—rather than 70 mph or 80 mph. However, at other times, such as weekends and nights, people want to make reasonable progress on perfectly safe roads. My observation—I am sure that the Minister's must be the same—is that when conditions allow, most people want to travel at 80 mph rather than 70 mph. If he and his driver are as well behaved as I am, he will know that while we are in the
slow lane, everyone else is making it clear that they think that the legislators are completely wrong about speed limits.
The right hon. Gentleman said that most motorists judge that 80 mph is a reasonable speed, irrespective of the fact that they are breaking the law. If the speed limit increased to 80 mph, would there not be a problem that motorists would judge that 90 mph was a reasonable speed, which would increase the overall speed and danger to road users?
I do not think they would, because most drivers are concerned about their own their passengers' safety, and are concerned to drive within their reaction times and limits. Most drivers would not drive at the upper limit. On roads with lower speed restrictions, my evidence is that, unlike on motorways, the average speed is often below the maximum. That is because people are sensible and adjust their speed to the conditions, and they know that often it would be foolish to travel at 60 mph on a road on which that speed was allowed, because of weather conditions, hazards, poor visibility or other traffic behaviour. Instead they would travel at 30, 40 or 50 mph. Motorists are more sensible than the hon. Gentleman says.
On the point that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) has just made, if 80 miles an hour is so bad on motorways, why is that the upper speed limit in France and Germany?
The Labour party is normally very keen on European harmonisation, and this is a rare example where my right hon. Friend and I might be in favour of it as well. They do not always get it wrong on the continent and this is one of those very welcome examples where I can show what a splendid European I am after all, and show the wisdom of our French and German partners and competitors.
I am a great fan of my right hon. Friend, as he knows, but I am beginning to worry. If it is becoming likely that he will think about these things, is he not in danger of encouraging us to drive on the other side of the road as well?
I have examined my natural choice, which would be to say that people are free to decide which side they drive on. However, there would be safety implications that would not recommend that to this Committee or to me. I think it better on this occasion to be a traditional Conservative and say that we drive on the right—it is a pity about the others. Perhaps that balances out what I said about the welcome French and German approach to speed limits.
I digress from the interesting new clause from the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). I am with him in saying that 80 mph should be the maximum permitted speed on the motorway, and I am glad we think alike. His new clause 28 also contains the interesting proposal that the maximum should be reduced to 60 mph in bad weather. I am sympathetic to that, because there are occasions when rain and
mist, fog and snow, ice and hail and slush mean that it is not appropriate to travel on the motorway at 80 mph, even if traffic conditions allow one to do so. My observation is that most motorists are not stupid enough to try, because they reduce their speed in those conditions.
The problem with the new clause is the definition of bad weather. Where one motorist might think that the weather was bad enough that their maximum speed should now be 60 mph, another motorist might say ''It is not bad, my eyesight is good, I can see my way through, and my car's traction control can handle this.'' There needs to be specific direction in each case. I go along with the hon. Gentleman, but with this proviso: that the 60 mph restriction should be imposed through the large number of traffic guidance systems and controls around the motorway when someone in authority makes the judgment that visibility and conditions are no longer good enough. We cannot have a universal ''60 mph in bad weather'' clause in the Bill, but otherwise he is absolutely right.
Should we vote on these clauses, I shall support my hon. and right hon. Friends in new clause 31—the 80 mph speed limit—and of course my own new clause relating to decent trunk roads, where the maximum should be at least 60 mph.
I am not sure whether the nation is listening to our deliberations today, but it is certainly talking about them. I suggest for the record that this is the biggest of the big conversations so far. The nation is discussing speed limits on motorways because everyone has a view, as virtually everyone in the adult population drives or is driven on motorways on occasions or with regularity. In framing my proposal, I was somewhat torn—and I am increasingly so, having heard the persuasive arguments of the right hon. Member for Wokingham—because the dilemma I had was whether miles per hour or kilometres per hour were more appropriate.
There is a case for saying that convergence with our European allies would assist. The European experience could persuade me that the Government should seriously consider a differential speed limit on motorways. My experience of motorways abroad is not merely the usual parliamentary experience of being caught on a French holiday weekend in August, but derives from having run a company that drove trucks across most of the European Union until 2002. Indeed, I have driven reasonably large vehicles in a number of European countries where use of the motorway is the sensible way to pursue business. Unquestionably, our motorways and our use of motorways are not the best in Europe. Some countries have good rules that are not necessarily followed; others have less rigid rules where drivers follow a sensible approach.
The concept of differential speed limits that are dependent on weather has more to do with the culture of driving than with enforcement. To have road signs on motorways repeatedly indicating differential speed limits dependent on weather will impact on driving decisions and driving speed. The signs used on the
motorways in France, for example, are very clear, and appear—judging from my professional and my leisure experience—to have a direct impact on driving in a country that is not particularly renowned for following its laws or for its driving prowess. In a more law-abiding country such as the United Kingdom, with more law-abiding people, that would have an impact. However, it may be too much to change the motorway speed limits in a mere half-hour debate today. I know that the Minister's mentality favours more the Italian General Fabius than the German philosopher Marx: gradualism in all things is sensible.
Judging from the chat shows and phone-ins, this debate has caught the public imagination. I put many similar proposals to Nottinghamshire county council six months ago: there should, for example, automatically be a 20 mph zone outside schools. I hope that the Minister will contemplate whether that would be worthy of national legislation.
Despite the fact that the Minister comes from the home of Sir Francis Drake, I hope that he will be prepared to concede that, on occasion, European legislation is better than ours. I hope that he seriously considers the issue and comes back with a suitable amendment to provide variability. There is no doubt, as was expressed by the right hon. Member for Wokingham, that if one drives at 70 mph, one is passed by many cars. The nub of the issue is officials' approach to enforcement. So far as the mathematics of speed cameras is concerned, I understand that one can drive at 77 mph on a British motorway and not trigger a speed camera. Therefore, officials will doubtless advise the Minister that should the speed limit be 80 mph, using the same arithmetic, 88 mph would be possible without triggering a camera.
There is an easy, logical solution. That is to use the approach of the Australians: if there is a suitable speed limit that has a general consensus, those who go above it anticipate that action will be taken against them. That approach is far more credible with the driving public. We should set a speed limit that is acceptable in terms both of people's experience of the roads and of road safety, and we should differentiate between good weather and bad. That would encourage drivers logically to adjust their driving speeds to match the weather conditions, with a consequent reduction in the number of accidents.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a concern of many drivers is people's lane discipline? That, rather than their exceeding the speed limit, causes many hold-ups. It is one of the primary causes of delay on our motorways.
I am all for people following the ''Highway Code'' and the rules of the road, and moving over rather than dawdling at any speed in the so-called middle lane or queuing in the so-called fast lane, which is, of course, the overtaking lane. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That does not detract from my argument that there should be a coherent set of speed limits appropriate to the road.
Finally, I disagree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham about whether allowing Big Brother to determine, via an electronic system, that the weather is poor in order to automatically reduce a speed limit is a sensible approach. That should be possible and available, not least for use in case of accidents, but a driver, seeing a speed limit of 60 mph, 50 mph or 40 mph even in the worst of driving conditions, is likely to presume that there is congestion or an accident ahead rather than that it is an instruction to reduce speed because of the weather. The potential to introduce such warnings would remain, because the technology is available, but the speed limit should automatically be reduced to 60 mph in poor weather. That should be the driver's expectation in every circumstance, and not just when directed.
Who determines what is bad weather? That is the weakness in the new clause. How would the motorist be certain, if the new clause were to become law, that the limit had dropped?
In countries abroad, drivers are capable of making such rational judgments. I would suggest that the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, like mine, are capable of doing so too. If they were to do so, the culture of driving would change—people would reduce their speed the moment that the weather conditions became more difficult and more dangerous. That has not been my experience on British motorways, particularly in the past 10 years. Creating that culture would be good for the motorist as well as for the passenger and road safety. I commend that suggestion to the Minister for his consideration, albeit with the rider that the continental limit of 110 kph or 130 kph might be more appropriate to align us as true Europeans with our counterparts abroad.
I have a huge amount of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's argument. I am conscious of the difficulty of defining ''bad weather''. The French say that bad weather is when it is raining, but we could have a long debate about what is and is not rain. Nevertheless, the system in France seems to work reasonably well.
I know from my constituency that variable speed limits have a role to play. Most of the M25's variable speed limit is in my constituency and there was a lot of scepticism about that scheme. It is clear when the limit applies, because it is indicated on gantries, and I accept that that is a distinction between my argument and the hon. Gentleman's. However, drivers get the hang of the system fairly rapidly. Constituents who were sceptical at the outset have been, in the main, persuaded that it contributes to safety and the ease of flow on the motorway. His argument would be more powerful if it dealt specifically with motorways rather than all roads. I support the idea that there is a use for variable speed limits.
I am slightly confused about the arguments made against a speed limit of 80 mph. On the one hand, some hon. Members have argued that 80 mph is not safe. I do not buy that for one minute because it is safe
elsewhere and a lot of our motorways are significantly better than those on which I have travelled abroad. We must determine whether 80 mph is an acceptable, sensible speed at which to travel on a motorway in good conditions. I think that it is, and see no evidence against that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham advanced the argument well, and there is no need to repeat it.
On the other hand, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw argued that if the limit were raised to 80 mph, it would, in effect, rise to 90 mph. Both arguments cannot be used. If 80 mph is safe, we could deal with it in the way that the hon. Gentleman argued—80 mph is safe but 81 mph will not be tolerated. That has been done elsewhere. However, if someone argues that 80 mph is not safe, we should lower the speed limit from 70 mph. The limit is currently 70 mph because people insist on driving faster. If anyone argues that increasing the limit will make the situation worse, they are arguing for reducing it. It is perfectly possible to enforce a limit of 70 mph at 71 mph if we so choose, but we do not because the overriding view is that common sense dictates that driving at 74 mph, 75 mph or 77 mph is safe. That argument cannot work both ways: either it is safe to drive at 80 mph or it is not. If it is safe at 80 mph, the new clause is sensible; if it is not safe, let the Minister prove it.
If I drove home on Thursday—most of the 200-mile journey is on motorways, except for the section between this place and the constituency of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire)—at 80 mph instead of 70 mph, I would save about 20 minutes. We are suggesting risking more lives for the sake of me having the privilege of saving 20 minutes. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw and the right hon. Member for Wokingham, that is an absurd argument.
I agree with the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw made about variable speed limits. There is a place for them, although the argument about how to regulate them is complex. However, for example, it is absurd that at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, people should be allowed to drive at 30 mph outside the school to which my children used to go. At 3 o'clock in the morning, it would be perfectly safe to drive past it at 50 mph or 60 mph, so I agree with the principle of variable limits. However, I am opposed to the message coming from the House that we encourage raising the speed limit.
I shall explain. The World Health Organisation announced that this year it would highlight road danger throughout the world. Figures of deaths on the road match those for famines and the worst form of carnage that we can imagine. It is estimated that by 2030, 2.5 million people a year will be killed on developing countries' roads. That is the scale of the problem.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham spoke about his E-type Jaguar and recognised that when he is driving a ton and a quarter of steel that can do 150 mph plus, he has a lethal weapon in his hands. He also recognised that speed is extremely dangerous. It is imperative that the House does not send out any message that it is okay to speed.
What I said was that I recognise that excessive speed in a vehicle that does not have the brakes, steering and suspension to match is dangerous. Beautiful though E-types are, older brakes, steering and suspension are simply not responsive enough to withstand the speeds at which the vehicle can travel. Many of the problems have been remedied in modern vehicles, and we are talking about safe speed, not reckless speed.
I take the point that vehicle design has changed dramatically. It has made the cocoon in which we sit considerably safer. In fact, the E-type was one of the first vehicles that took on board the principle that in the event of a head-on impact, the engine should slide underneath the driver's legs to prevent his legs being chopped off—a common injury in earlier high-speed crashes.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that vehicle design has changed dramatically. It has done so to the huge benefit of those inside the cocoon, but even though vehicles can stop more quickly, there is still a problem. The quieter and more comfortable the cocoon becomes, the easier it is to allow speed to drift up, and my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East is spot on: unfortunately, a minority of the population will abuse that. All the evidence shows that, whatever the speed limit, drivers will perpetually push the boundaries beyond it.
No driver on the Committee could hold up their hand and say that they had never driven faster than the speed limit, but we should think rationally about the situation. In a huge number of cases, we make laws in this House not for the sensible people, but for the idiots in our society. The expenditure on signage and gantries around the constituency of the hon. Member for Spelthorne is designed not for sensible drivers but for idiots—that minority of the population who do absurd things that put the lives of the rest of us at risk. All the evidence, not only from the UK but from throughout the world, shows that the higher the speed limit is raised, the worse the risk of death and serious injury is. It would therefore be absurd for the House to raise the speed limit.
I shall finish by quoting Paige Mitchell of the slower speeds initiative:
''We need people with complete authority''— that is us—
''to dispel the damaging and bogus arguments, since drivers whose outlook is affected by continual criticism of the legitimacy of enforcement will predictably more likely speed . . . and crash.''
New clauses 28 and 31 suggest that the upper limit on motorways be raised to 80 mph. In principle, I see nothing wrong with reviewing the upper limits on motorways or, perhaps more
importantly, the limits in areas where cars can come into conflict with other road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists.
I shall comment first on new clause 28 and two of the points made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, one of which was about differential speeds. I recall that in 1972, when I was working in Arkansas, the freeway had a differential speed limit. It had an upper limit of 85 mph and a lower limit of 65 mph. That recognised that the greatest danger was the differential in speed between different cars on a particular road at a particular time. There were no great problems with the operation of that system, but it was coupled with pretty strict enforcement by state troopers, who were not always the most pleasant people to meet if one got caught by them—I hasten to add that I did not fall into that category.
The hon. Gentleman's other point, which is extremely important, is that this matter cannot be decided in a half-hour or one-hour debate added on to consideration of the Bill. Whatever conclusion we come to, attempting to take a decision today would be wrong, however valid our debate. I hope that whatever the temptation, we shall not divide on the issue, because the debate needs to flow and it will flow better if we do not seek to take decisions today.
I have said that I see nothing wrong in principle with the possibility of raising the speed limit to 80 mph. I remember that when I worked in a business in the south of England, I had a conversation with the then chief constable for the area, who said that he, too, was quite happy with the concept of increasing speed limits on motorways, which are designed to carry cars and do not have pedestrians. Other chief constables have also felt fairly relaxed about that. The one thing that all the chief constables to whom I have spoken about this issue have said is that such a change would have to go hand in hand with a more severe enforcement regime. They said that increasing a speed limit so that the legal limit corresponds with the speed at which people actually travel must be linked to enforcement. We cannot have one without the other.
When we discuss speed, the most important point on which we should focus, and which the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) raised, is the carnage that takes place at slower speeds when cars comes into conflict with pedestrians, cyclists and other road users. We must ensure that those problems are addressed before we allow people to go faster at the top end. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern. If people take a message from this place that they can do 80 mph and we add that to some of the comments that almost trivialise enforcement and the use of cameras, we send out the message that the House does not really care about speed and does not consider it to be terribly important. We should be sending out the opposite message. We need to educate people and, as several hon. Members have said, we must change the culture. There is nothing wrong with going fast in the right place when the driver is good and road is appropriate, but we must stop the culture of driving too fast where it is wholly inappropriate. That is far more important than anything else.
In yesterday's papers, I read the tragic story of the mother who went to jail following an accident in which she overtook a line of cars at 80 mph and killed her daughter and her daughter's best friend as a result. I do not believe for a moment that she deliberately set out to be dangerous, but I do believe that she had no concept of how the way in which she was driving could have that result. Anyone who has been around a skid pan and driven on a race track has some idea of what a car does at speed. We have a real problem, however, with a great many motorists who do not. They simply get into their vehicles after passing a relatively easy test. It is too dangerous to consider raising the upper speed limit without considering the unintended consequence that that might have.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) and I accept the principle that higher speeds could be worth while, but we should first ensure that we make our roads safer at the slower speeds. When we have sent out that message and got the culture right, by all means let us consider raising speed limits on the motorway. That is why I would find it difficult to support the amendments if they were pressed to a Division because, if I can use an odd pun, we are putting the cart before the horse. We need to worry about road safety first and about driver convenience second, and not pander to the boy racer instincts that exist in some sections of society. Instead, we should ensure that safety is put first and that speed and convenience are second.
In an aside, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East made an important point that fell outside the scope of the amendments when he referred to the lack of lane discipline. However, it is worth putting on record that, in my experience, lane discipline has led to some of the most dangerous situations that have occurred on motorways, particularly when HGV vehicles decide that they want to go faster and pull out into the third lane. A motorist in that lane has every right to expect such vehicles not to do so, because they are not entitled to use that lane.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham made several good points about new clause 6, which I hope the Minister will address. On a recent visit to Loughborough, I came across a stretch of dual carriageway that runs between the town centre and the motorway. For some reason, it has a 40-mph speed limit, despite the fact that there is no obvious stretch of this dual carriageway that pedestrians would want to cross. In addition, the 40-mph signs are partly obscured by foliage in the summer. Three times, I saw police officers with speed cameras hiding in the central reservation at the end of that stretch, pulling in motorists one after the other and giving them a ticket. That led me to the inescapable conclusion that most motorists believe that the speed limit on that road should be 60 mph. When the sign is partly obscured, they probably do believe that it is 60 mph, yet the reaction of the police is to hide in a hedge and try to catch as many speeding motorists as possible. That does not do the reputation of the police any good, and
it makes one wonder whether that stretch of road is the sort to which my right hon. Friend referred that could reasonably have a higher speed limit.
Several Members expressed their concern about the effect of new clauses 28 and 31. I understand that concern. There is another side to the coin, which is not the boy racer argument, but which is a legitimate argument—that our speed limits on motorways are too low. Not drastically too low, but they are too low and could reasonably be increased to 80 mph.
A few years ago, we had a ridiculous campaign that had the slogan ''Speed kills''. To me, the slogan itself was wrong. Speed does not kill. If it did, everyone in an aircraft on take off would be killed. What kills is inappropriate speed, too fast a speed in inappropriate road conditions. At times of non-congested traffic on motorways, it is quite safe to travel at 80 mph, as the French have done for some years and as the Germans do on those roads where they have decided to impose an upper limit. It is insulting to the British motorist to say that a driver in France can use a motorway at 80 mph, and a motorist in Germany can travel at 80 mph, but over here we would be encouraging a boy racer culture and would be giving out the wrong message if we increased our speed limit on motorways to 80 mph. I do not buy that argument.
It probably is mile for mile, but when framing a law we should look at the totality of the situation. For part of the day, for the period of the rush hour, when it is unsafe to travel at 80 mph on our motorways, it is probably unsafe even to travel at 70 mph or 60 mph. On some stretches of the M1 on a Thursday and Friday evening I choose to travel at 50 mph, because the traffic is bunching and stopping frequently. It is what is appropriate. When I travel at non-rush hour periods on motorways, when there are only one or two vehicles on the road that I can see, it would be quite safe for me and other motorists to travel at 80 mph.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, on his logic, we would not have any signage at all and would leave it to the common sense of drivers, but that a minority of drivers would abuse the situation?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would let me finish. Laws should be framed for the majority. I would take the view that a good motorist should know when it is safe to travel at the maximum speed limit, but personally I am not offended by the situation on the M25 where someone in authority decides what the variable speed limit should be and, if the road is very busy, lowers that limit. I would be quite happy if the
Minister were to say that we will have an 80 mph upper limit on all motorways but will also consider introducing variable limits at appropriate times. I can live with that. I can see no objection to that at all, because that is guiding the inexperienced or inadequate motorist as to the speed at which he should be travelling. I can see the case for that and would hope that the hon. Member could support it.
Laws have to be framed in such a way as to command wide public support. I have no statistical evidence, but would guess that were we to conduct a poll among every UK citizen with a full driving licence, the vast majority would say that they felt it was appropriate for the upper speed limit on motorways in this country to be increased to 80 mph.
On new clause 28, I was disappointed by the proposing speech of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, as I was hoping that he would deal more comprehensively than he did with the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham. I do not think that it is right for motorists to have a subjective view on what is bad weather. What are we trying to achieve? We are trying to get motorists to drive safely. What is safe in bad weather very much depends on what vehicle is being driven.
The right hon. Gentleman argued the case for harmonisation with Europe. The rule that applies in parts of northern France and in Belgium is that the driver must make a judgment on whether signs apply to the circumstances that he is facing.
I never argued for harmonisation; I have been asking why, if there is a 80 mph top limit in France and Germany—where they have a limit at all—can we not have one here? I was posing the question, not arguing at all for harmonisation. We can frame our laws in our way but where it has been tried in France and Germany, it seems to work quite well. I think that we should try the 80 mph upper limit here.
In terms of new clause 28, when does the lower 60 mph speed limit apply? I should be more attracted to the new clause if it had an element of certainty. I should prefer the system mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, where the overhead gantries start to flash the lower speed limit if those in charge of the system felt it appropriate.
The right hon. Gentleman keeps referring to the speed limits in our European counterparts, such as France and Germany. It is true that they have higher speed limits than in the UK. However, he has not given to the Committee any evidence that they are successful in lowering the number of accidents in comparison with the number of users on those roads. Not as many vehicles use the motorways in France compared with the UK. His argument is interesting, but I should be more interested if he were able to give some comparative information for those countries.
I am not able to do that, but those who have a duty to patrol our motorways—the police—have long held the view that the upper speed limit on our motorways should be 80 mph. I wonder why they
take that view if some of the dire consequences that some hon. Members think would flow from acceptance of the new clause would happen. They take it because there are times when it would be safe to drive at 80 mph on motorways in this country. I support that view and, although it would not be safe to do so all the time, in appropriate conditions, it would be. I think that 80 mph should be our upper limit.
I have a certain amount of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's argument about variable speed limits with an upper maximum. However, I have always been prevented from supporting it because of the higher death rate in France. Could the hon. Gentleman address the issue that the death rate in some of the countries that he quotes is higher than in the UK?
I have seen no evidence whatever that the higher death rate in France is attributable to their 80 mph speed limit on motorways. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the totality of accident figures for France and Germany, it is not the motorway upper limit that causes the higher death rate to which he alluded.
On new clause 28, I felt that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw had thrown in the towel. He gave the impression that the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron) had been leaning on him a little. I hope that he will put the new clause to a vote.
The right hon. Gentleman's statements, like his arguments, are rather presumptuous. If he is going to put his amendment to the vote, it is incumbent on him to give us some evidence from continental Europe on the comparatives between the three major differentiated systems—the Dutch, Danish and French systems—which, with an eye to the time, I did not include in my discourse. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could give the Committee an analysis of the different motorway speeds in those countries and their impact on driving and accident records, so that we can put his proposal in a proper context.
You would soon call me to heel, Miss Begg, if I started taking the Committee round the countries of Europe. I have never said that I support harmonisation; what I have said to those who say that it is impossible to have a limit above 70 mph is that two of our closest and nearest partners across the English channel have 80 mph upper limits on their motorways, which is accepted by the electorate in both countries. The motorists there seem to manage quite well; 80 mph would be appropriate in this country and that is the view that the police take, too.
I am not arguing for harmonisation with Europe but I am saying, although it is not part of the new clause, that there is a case for this country developing further the variable speed limit programme on motorways other than the M25. If that is being done, to be equitable and fair we need to consider raising the speed limit as well as lowering it. The Minister may find a suitable way forward in that respect—a central unit determining when it is safe to travel at 80 mph and
when the road conditions require the limit to be lowered. That would take account of all the concerns expressed in the Committee.
Many motorists find it unfair that when they are driving in non-rush hour periods when traffic on the motorway is very light they have to travel at 70 mph when it would clearly be safe to travel at 80 mph. Sometimes when I am driving back to my constituency from this place, for mile after mile I am the only vehicle on the road within my range of vision. It is a matter of degree, and of road conditions.
I have real sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's argument in this respect and with some of the other points that have been made, but surely, as part of the process of considering the matter in greater detail it would be appropriate to consider the other systems that operate in Europe, their accident levels and the cause of those accidents. I simply ask the right hon. Gentleman for further detail about why they have more accidents in countries where there is a higher speed limit? If there is evidence to prove that it is not because of the speed, but the result of other factors, there should be more debate on the matter. In that case, it would not be appropriate simply to insert in the Bill an arbitrary increase in the speed limit without such further consideration. There is some sympathy for the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes, but not in this respect.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady appears to have an open mind on the issue. My hon. Friends and I have not yet decided what we will do at the end of the debate; we want to hear what the Minister has to say. If he says that there is merit in the proposal and that he wants to consider further the evidence of how it operates in other countries, we would take a different view of how to proceed on the new clause than if the Minister merely got to his feet and dismissed it as irrelevant and unnecessary. How the debate plays out is very much in the hands of the Minister. If he is willing to indicate to the Committee that the arguments are valid and that he wants to consider them further, I would be sympathetic to giving the debate more time to reach its conclusion—in the hope that when it did reach its conclusion, the hon. Member for Watford would be voting the same way as me.
I was about to say 10 minutes ago, on new clause 28, that the defect with the argument of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw that each motorist should be allowed to make a subjective judgment is that the motorist's main concern should be what is safe. He should ask himself whether he is driving safely in the current weather conditions. The answer will vary with the type of vehicle being driven.
I had the misfortune a few years ago, for a short time, to drive an MG Metro, which I regarded as one of the most unsafe vehicles that I have ever driven. On the other hand, I have the good fortune to own a Jensen FF—it was the world's first production sports
car with four-wheel drive, and it was made in West Bromwich. That car was tested in the Alps, and one could not make it skid in snow. I would argue that driving my Mini Metro in snow at 50 mph would probably be highly unsafe; but the Jensen FF would probably be quite safe on a motorway at 70 mph. That is why leaving it to the driver to make a subjective judgment will not work.
I hope that the Minister will engage constructively in the debate, and say that the points raised by both sides are worthy of further consideration. I hope that he will be willing to consider the matter with a view ultimately to considering whether it would be appropriate—I believe that it would—to increase the upper speed limit on motorways to 80 mph.
I have listened to the debate with great interest. When considering new clauses 28 and 31, it can be entirely seductive to believe, as the police seem to portray, that if the upper limit of 70 mph is enforceable only above 77 mph because of the 10 per cent. leeway, it is therefore okay to travel at 80 mph. The danger of course is that the public will receive the message that if it is permissible to drive at 80 mph they will assume that they can travel at 88 mph. Unless the new speed limit is vigorously enforced, it will fail in its aim. In effect, the new clauses are saying that, de facto, we already have a 77 mph speed limit on motorways, so why not make it 80 mph?
I also highlight the fact that increasing speed by 10 mph at the lower speed limit on urban roads, say from 30 mph to 40 mph, can be the difference between life and death. As one drives along such roads, children playing in the gardens or driveways may rush out in front of the car. If one is driving at 20 mph, the chances are that one will stop. At 30 mph one will probably break the child's legs. At 40 mph, one will kill them.
Such distractions are not necessarily so prevalent on motorways, which makes it easy to think that we could raise the limit by 10 mph without any worries. However, we must remember the simple fact that, every year, 3,500 people are killed in road traffic accidents. We must stigmatise speeding drivers. So far, touch wood, I have never been stopped for speeding, but that is not to say that I have never been speeding.
We have to address the fact that speeding is an endemic problem. It is not only about speed cameras and enforcing the law; it is also about making people understand that it could be their children about to step in front of a speeding car. However, the right hon. Member for Wokingham and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw were right to highlight the inconsistency whereby the police could in theory stop someone driving at 78 mph and book them for speeding, but that they could not do so if the car was being driving at 75 mph.
Clampdowns on speeding seem to show enormous inconsistencies between police forces. The travelling public cannot see why they should not be allowed to travel at higher speeds at different times and in different conditions. It is all about driving to suit the conditions and making the judgments mentioned in new clause 28 regarding, for instance, bad weather,
which is a classic example. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw suggested, it would not be beyond the British police to enforce lower speed limits on motorways when the difficult driving conditions are more difficult.
Of course. They have to drive according to the conditions. Their speed has to depend on the weather, whether there is oil on the roads, whether they are overtaking and so forth. However, with regard to the specifics of new clause 28, it is not difficult to figure out the difference between good and bad weather. If you are driving along a French motorway and you turn on your windscreen wipers, you soon know if it is bad weather. To some extent, we should trust people to be able to figure that out.
New clause 28 needs a lot more thought and debate, and its language would need tightening up for it to be enforceable. That is why I could not support it at this time and will not be voting for it today, no doubt to the relief of my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso).
In our culture and our society we think it acceptable to speed in our cars, just as 15 years ago drink-driving was not seen to be a problem. It was acceptable to have one for the road, and if you had had a few too many drinks, that was okay, it was a bit of a laugh. Now society has changed, partly because of Government advertising and partly because the police have clamped down. People's opinions have changed because they realise that drink-driving kills the innocent. Speeding does the same.
My hon. Friend mentioned the tragic case of the mother who was driving far too fast for the conditions, and who killed her daughter and her daughter's friend. Clearly she has been punished beyond belief; nevertheless it was right that the judge gave her a custodial sentence, partly to send out a warning to other motorists that such driving is not tolerable, particularly on rural roads, where this carnage often takes place.
Jeremy Clarkson once said that the best way to make drivers slow down was not to put in more airbags, but to take them out and put a large spike in the steering wheel, which would make drivers realise that they had to slow down, otherwise their head would hit the steering wheel. Maybe he had a point.
We have to remember the cost of all this: 3,500 people are dead, some of them on our motorways, and when one adds up all the costs—the destruction of the vehicle, the insurance, calling out the emergency services, the legal wrangling and the clean-up afterwards—each fatality on our roads costs on average £1 million of taxpayers' money. That is a phenomenal cost to the taxpayer, and we are getting far ahead of ourselves if we are saying that the House should encourage drivers to speed when we should be asking them to slow down.
I shall not keep the Committee long. We have had a good debate on these issues, but we had rather a factual vacuum. I want to introduce one or two statistics from the Department for Transport. There is, as the hon. Member for Bassetlaw said, a great debate raging on the airwaves and in newspaper columns as a result of the new clauses that we are debating this afternoon, and that is an extremely healthy development. Almost all of the 32 million people in this country with driving licences have a view on the issue. It is incumbent on MPs to address the issues that concern people and by debating the new clauses we are certainly doing that.
I agree with everything that my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham and for East Yorkshire said in support of the new clauses. I also agree with many of the points made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw. This is an issue about what is realistic. We are dealing with law and law enforcement and if the law is not to fall into disrepute, it must enjoy public support. We can judge the view of the public on these issues by their actions rather than by their words. The facts are that 19 per cent. of those who travel on motorways do so at speeds in excess of 80 mph.
There are 32 million drivers in the country, with an average annual mileage of 10,000 miles per driver; just short of 20 per cent. of their driving is on motorways, which is just short of 2,000 miles per driver on a motorway each year. One can extrapolate from those statistics that the average driver probably drives about 350 miles each year in excess of 80 mph, and the limit is 70 mph. We know that if 18 per cent. or 19 per cent. of people exceed 80 mph, 50 per cent may exceed 70 mph. That is probably quite likely because we know that the average speed on motorways is about 70 mph.
What is to happen to those people who are driving between 70 and 80 mph? Will we legitimise their behaviour? Will we bring them within the law so that people like my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, who is absolutely determined to comply with the letter of the law at all times, can drive on the motorway at 80 mph rather than at 70 mph as he does at present, which is probably a minority activity? As he says, he is pushed into the slow lane and almost everyone overtakes him. If the Committee is collectively agreed that driving in excess of 80 mph raises issues of safety that should concern us, there is plenty of scope for enforcement. There is that 18 per cent. or 19 per cent. of people who already exceed 80 mph.
One reason why police forces do not enforce at 71 mph, is the accuracy of speedometers. The question is whether speedometers are as accurate as they can be at 80 mph.
The problem is that people think that they can go 10 mph over any limit for the very reason the hon. Gentleman mentions. As a consequence there is a very dangerous read-across to the lower speed limits. People in a 30 mph limit think that they can go 10 mph faster than that. They go at 40 mph which is one third above the speed limit and they do so because of arguments about the accuracy of the speedometer.
I do not think that we can argue these days that speedometers are that inaccurate. Indeed, there is pressure on the enforcement authorities to reduce the level above the limit that is not subject to enforcement.
The relativity argument, which been deployed in this debate, is important in the message that it gives to people who do not comply with lower speed limits. It leads them to think that if the speed limit is 20 mph they can drive at 30 mph and it will not matter, even though that is 50 per cent. above the limit. We know from all the statistics that that imperils pedestrians, cyclists and other urban road users.
However, on the motorway there are no learners, bicycles or pedestrians. There are good safety features, hard shoulders and a culture among motorists of believing that they can drive safely and within the law at anything between 70 mph and 80 mph, even though they are technically breaking the law and thereby bringing it into disrepute, because it is not being enforced. One can understand why that happens; we cannot possibly enforce the law against about 50 per cent. of the people driving on the motorways. As I have said, on average, between five and six hours per driver will be spent in persistent offending against even the 80 mph limit. The level of persistent offending against the 70 mph limit must be even greater.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross talked about the unintended consequences of an upper speed limit with which there is minimal compliance in free-flow conditions. He should look at the unintended consequences of not enforcing a speed limit at all and the impact that that has on the effectiveness of much lower speed limits. In all the media interviews that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) has given today, he has emphasised that there should be a balance. We are trying to set realistic speed limits and achieve realistic compliance with speed limits that really count, instead of keeping the 70 mph limit on motorways, which most motorists now regard as arbitrary and irrelevant.
His is a moderate and reasonable voice. He is a much respected, retired senior police officer. Writing in the Mail on Sunday on 1 February, he stated:
''Policing is about balancing priorities and keeping the public on your side. If we lose the confidence of motorists, we will lose their confidence in more important areas such as crime and prosecution.''
He went on to call for a fresh look at variable speed limits, saying:
''There was no sense . . . in enforcing 20 mph zones outside schools at weekends and during holidays when no children were around.''
He also expressed the view that, on motorways, even a 75 mph limit could be too low in good conditions. That was no more than a statement of common sense. As a legislature, we should ensure that the law complies with common sense, and that is what the new clauses seek to do.
This goes on record as the longest debate so far on any of the amendments or new clauses.
In new clause 6, I detect the centralising tendency of the Conservative party. The new clause would impose on local authorities a limit of at least 60 mph when that might not be appropriate. The local authorities and the Highways Agency have sole responsibility for introducing speed limits on the roads. They currently have powers to introduce limits of between 20 mph and 70 mph without the need for authorisation from the Secretary of State.
The national speed limit normally applies on dual carriageways. It is 70 mph for cars, but it is not the same for all vehicles. Goods vehicles weighing more than 7.5 tonnes are not allowed to exceed 50 mph. It is often necessary for local authorities to impose lower speed limits for safety reasons. Dual carriageways are situated not only on inter-urban routes, but in towns, near villages and outside schools. Other considerations relate to the environment and noise and I shall return to them later.
''We should be more sensible and more variable in the speed limits we have to reflect the dangers both to drivers and, equally importantly, to pedestrians, particularly to children.''
I would not disagree with that. However, new clause 6 actually dictates that drivers should have a speed of at least 60 mph on the roads in question, regardless of the local circumstances and of what the local authority thinks. It would be helpful if he could convene his team and get some consistency on the issue, otherwise he might be accused of a little opportunism in the way in which he goes around television and radio studios.
There is no inconsistency between the approach adopted by my hon. Friends and I and the approach of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford. We are saying that in certain circumstances, such as outside a school when children are coming out, a low speed limit of about 20 mph is appropriate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham is saying that on a dual carriageway with grade-separated junctions, where pedestrians and cyclists are separated from the rest of the traffic, it is perfectly sensible to have a speed limit of 60 mph.
That would be the case if the two things were mutually exclusive. Sometimes 60 mph roads with grade-separated interchanges on dual carriageways are outside schools and parks. That is where they are situated in some parts of our cities. It is up to the Highways Agency, where appropriate, or the local authority to make decisions based on safety for children and their parents. It is up to them to make
those decisions, which should not be imposed by the Bill. There is an inconsistency, but perhaps we can argue about it at a different time.
Requiring local authorities to seek authorisation on all such speed limit changes would add unnecessary bureaucracy. I thought that the right hon. Member for Wokingham was generally against additional bureaucracy, but his new clause would put in place further heavy burdens.
New clauses 28 and 31 are important proposals about which I have one or two things to say. The present safety record on our motorways is very good and compares favourably with that of other types of roads. When we consider any change to speed limits, we must ask whether we could be jeopardising that good record. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston have also both raised that central question.
The motorway speed limit, which was introduced in 1965, has been subject to review on more than one occasion. The last review was carried out in 2001, when we considered the possible effects of increasing the motorway speed limit to 80mph. I have four different areas of concern about raising the speed limit from 70 mph to 80 mph. These are matters that I think we should debate sensibly and put into the pot for discussion.
The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire and others have asked why we cannot have some harmonisation with Europe. That is not generally what we hear from Conservative Members. The right hon. Member for Wokingham certainly does not generally favour harmonisation with other aspects of what is going on in Europe. I put a simple question to the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire: would he want to harmonise our road casualty figures with those of France and Germany? France's casualty rate is two and a half times higher than ours, and Germany's is substantially higher. In countries such as Spain and Portugal, the rate is even higher, so I do not want to harmonise our death and injury rate with the rates in those countries. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the European Union does not have a competence in that area, and I am pretty determined that it should not have one, because I do not want it to set targets above the levels that we are at. We are doing rather well.
Road safety has been discussed at the Transport Council, and I have attended those discussions with representatives from the other EU countries. Those countries are becoming concerned about road safety. The 10 new countries that are coming into the EU on 1 May are especially concerned, including the Czech Republic, which is very anxious about its road safety record. Instead of us looking to them, they are looking to us and asking, ''How is it that your record is so good on your roads?'' They want to know how we have retained political consensus over a long period to reduce deaths on the road. In the past 30 or 40 years, Governments of all complexions have tackled that issue, and those countries want to know how we have achieved our results. We should not be looking to France and Germany; they should be looking to us to
find out why our road safety record is so much better. I certainly do not want to harmonise our casualty rates with those in other European countries.
Let me repeat for the third time that I did not use the word ''harmonise.'' I asked why, although France and Germany have upper limits, we cannot try one in the UK. Will the Minister confirm that the accident figures to which he referred include all accidents in France, and not just those on the motorways?
Finally, did the 2001 survey undertaken by the Minister's Department consider the possibility of introducing a trial 80 mph upper limit as part of a variable speed limit on certain motorways?
No, the survey did not consider that possibility, but I will return to that point at the end of my remarks. It is a good point.
I am not sure about France, as its motorways are generally long, straight and far less congested than ours, but the Germans are examining their upper speed limit because of the number of crashes that occur at very high speed on their motorways. I believe that there is no upper speed limit on the autobahns, so vehicles sometimes travel at more than 100 mph, and there are some spectacular crashes—I mean spectacular in the worst sense of the word—which cause death, substantial injury, and great disruption on the roads.
The situation in Germany is that there is no speed limit for cars on many parts of the autobahns. Therefore, people are discussing whether there should be an upper speed limit.
Those involved are considering whether the fact that cars can travel at almost any speed at which they are capable of moving is contributing to the problem of casualties on the German roads. As we have had a 70 mph limit for some considerable time, they are looking to our example to see if that limit is one of the contributory factors in ensuring better safety.
The Minister is right—it is a myth that one can travel as fast as one likes on any stretch of the autobahn. That situation has changed, and large stretches now have speed limits. He is also right that the Germans are looking to the British way of setting speed limits on motorways.
I believe that many Germans are also finding that they cannot travel at excess speeds on the autobahns because they are so congested, but I shall return to that point.
The reason why motorways are safer than other roads is that the traffic is all going in the same direction and the lanes are clearly divided. That is obvious. Even if there is a collision, the fact that the speed differential between vehicles is lower means that the consequences are usually less than when two cars collide head on.
As we know, buses and lorries are subject to a lower speed limit than 70 mph on the motorways. They tend to occupy the inner lane or lanes and to move at a slower speed than the traffic in the centre or outer lane, which may be travelling legitimately at 70 mph or sometimes faster. If we were to raise the speed limit, there would be a general increase in speed in the outer lane, and a consequent increase in the differential speed between vehicles on the motorway. If there were a collision, it would therefore be more serious.
I do not want to go too much into the mathematics, but as speed increases the consequences of the collision increase by the square of the extra speed. Thus the impact does not just increase in direct proportion to the speed, but increases exponentially.
Moreover, there is a great difference between the braking distance at 70 mph—regardless of the sort of vehicle—and at 80 mph. About 30 per cent. more stopping time is needed for a vehicle travelling at 80 mph. Although braking systems on cars have improved enormously, we know that most casualties on the roads are caused not by the condition of the vehicle, but by errors made by the driver. Human beings have probably not changed much since the 1960s.
If the trains were not held on to a track and going in one direction, there would be a concern about that. Alas, road vehicles are not on a track. Trains do not share their space with a large number of other vehicles going at different speeds. If they did, there would be a large number of crashes on our rail system.
The point is that there is much more traction for rubber on tarmac than there is for steel on steel. The Minister's points about differential speeds apply even more on the railways, with slow trains and fast trains, and drivers that go through red lights. Why is the Minister countenancing speed?
The comparison is spurious because on a rail system each train is highly regulated, whereas on the road each vehicle is not. A vehicle on the road is capable of getting close to the vehicle in front, whereas that is not possible on the train system, as long as it is operating safely and properly, and is properly regulated by the signalmen.
I shall take the Minister back to the question of roads. He made the fair point that drivers should realise that, if they are travelling faster, they need to leave a bigger gap between them and the car in front. In developing his argument, can he tell us what conclusions his Department has drawn on the effectiveness of the chevron markings on the M1 motorway in Northamptonshire, the aim of which is to encourage drivers to drive further apart? If an 80 mph upper speed limit were to be introduced, would one option not be to make greater use of chevron markings?
The chevron markings are apparent on a number of our motorways—the M6 also has them somewhere towards Manchester. They have been successful in making people think about how far behind another vehicle they should be, and we are assessing their value. However, if they were rolled out across the whole road network, that would be very costly, and their impact might also be reduced.
Before we move on from matters of safety, I should say that the safety barriers were constructed to take account of a certain maximum speed. I believe that that maximum speed was around 74 mph. We must therefore take that issue into account.
The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire mentioned the police. I understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers does not support an increase in the speed limit. If that is wrong, I should be interested to learn about it, although that is not the information that has been brought to my attention.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the ''Speed Kills'' campaign. I remember that campaign, but I think that it was in the early 1990s, when his party was in power. Again, his party is trying to distance itself from its past. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary had amnesia a little earlier, but I certainly do not, and I can remember some of the issues very vividly indeed.
An important issue that has not been raised is the impact of extra speed on the environment. We know that the amount of fuel used by a vehicle travelling consistently at 80 mph is probably between 10 per cent. and 20 per cent. more than that used by a vehicle travelling at 70 mph. That increases not only the amount of CO2, in the atmosphere, on which we rightly have targets because of the damage to environment, but the amount of NOx and other emissions. That mainly affects the people in the vehicles, but also the people who live round and about.
Another issue that was not raised is the noise from engines and tyres and the wind noise around vehicles. A number of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues have told me about the huge impact on their constituents of noise caused by the speed at which vehicles travel on major roads and motorways such as the M3. We must not overlook the point about noise.
They are, but since the noise is created by the vehicle, it is possible only to introduce mitigation measures rather than remove the noise completely. The problem is another issue and has been raised by Conservative Members and many of my hon. Friends, who say that urban areas through which congested motorways pass suffer substantially from noise.
Increasing the average speed to 80 mph and its effect on the economy was alluded to. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston made the good point that travelling consistently at 80 mph rather than at 70 mph for 200 miles would, assuming that the whole journey was on the motorway, probably save 15 to 20 minutes. In reality, however, because of local roads at either end of that journey, one may save only eight or 10 minutes. I do not think that the economic case is well made. Also, if it were shown that going at higher speeds caused more collisions, more vehicles would be held up. The issue is free flow, which I shall comment on in a moment.
How is what the Minister has just said consistent with his approach in part 1 and other parts of the Bill, which is all about measures to increase the speed and reliability of traffic flow? The advantages that will result from those provisions in the Bill are nothing like as great as that in the example that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston gave.
There is a difference between speed and flow. What problem is an increase in the speed limit from 70 mph to 80 mph an attempt to solve? I would have thought that many motorists, including myself, would be happy to know that they could always travel at 70 mph on our motorways. Sadly, however, they cannot do so, because the motorways are very often congested, particularly when there are incidents. That relates to our earlier discussions about traffic officers dealing with incidents more rapidly. Those things will concentrate people's minds. I have been told that we take too long to clear up many of the incidents and that we are leaving our roads congested for too long periods. Those are the real issues, and people would be happy if they could drive at 70 mph. Indeed, an 80 mph limit would often be academic because congestion makes it impossible to drive that quickly. I think that the right hon. Member for Wokingham also made that point.
Like the hon. Member for Ashford, the AA expressed views on the idea. John Dawson of the AA Motoring Trust said that most drivers did not want the speed limit to raise only for everyone then to drive 10 mph faster. He said:
''Motorists don't want the driven speeds on motorways to change and there's no safety reason to change it—motorways are incredibly safe'' and, significantly:
''If it were raised, it would have to be enforced at 80mph.''
The Association of Chief Police Officers guidelines state that the current 70 mph limit should be enforced at 10 per cent. plus two, which is effectively 79 mph—more than my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw said. In other words, the police are not pulling over people who are doing those speeds but driving safely in other senses.
I agree with John Dawson that if the limit were raised to 80 mph, it would have to be enforced at that speed. As has been alluded to in the debate, there would be difficulties with that. If someone were brought before court for doing 80.5 mph, the magistrate or judge would throw the case out because of a lack of reliability of evidence and because the driver could claim that their speedometer was not reading accurately and that they broke the law inadvertently. The ACPO guidelines exist to ensure that the police can secure a prosecution in the courts.
Is the Minister saying that if a driver, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham, drives at anything between 70 and 79 mph on a motorway, he is not doing anything about which he should be concerned?
What I am saying is that the police have issued guidance that if a driver in that band is not doing anything else to infringe road traffic laws, they should not pull them over. However, the matter is for the discretion of the individual constable, who would have to consider the circumstances. If someone were travelling at 75 mph on a motorway and driving dangerously by weaving in and out of traffic, they would be picked up. It is a matter for the police to use reasonableness and good sense in implementing the law. If the limit were 80 mph, a 10 per cent. plus two rule would take us to 90 mph, which would be a different world. Although many modern cars are constructed to travel at higher speeds, I would feel unsafe if many of the cars on the road were passing me at 90 mph.
We could use the Australian system, in which people are allowed to drive up to, but not at, the speed limit and in which any transgression is automatically prosecuted with a significant fine. Does the Minister agree that if we adopted that with the continental limit of 130 kph, which if my maths are right translates at 76 mph, we would reduce the real speed limit at which people are prosecuted?
Yes, that is possible.
My eye was attracted by a document that was published on 10 November last year in the United States. It was a status report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, covering places where speed limits had increased. Under a section entitled ''Deaths go up when speed limits are raised'', it said:
''States that increased speed limits to 75 mph experienced 38 percent more deaths per million vehicle miles than expected''.
It makes the point that states that raised their speed limits experienced a considerable increase in casualties. Several hon. Members said that we need to consider the matters carefully, and we do. The evidence that I quoted is compelling, and we should
not plunge into any changes without giving them significant thought. The hon. Member for Ashford is going round television and radio studios without the full knowledge of the information or the potential consequences.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw raised a point about introducing a lower maximum speed of 60 mph in bad weather. That is a good idea, but he would have to agree that it would be difficult to decide what is bad weather. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw made the point about variable speed limits, and we will have to consider that seriously. The hon. Member for Spelthorne said that most of the variable speed limits on the M25 are in his constituency. As he knows, that system has worked well; slowing traffic can make it go faster because there is a better flow with no stopping and starting. The new scheme on the M42 will have a variable speed limit, especially when there is hard shoulder running.
Once the technology is in place—loops in the road and variable message signs throughout the motorway and trunk road system—together with the type of information systems available to drivers, it will be interesting to consider varying speed limits along the lines suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw. The Highways Agency and traffic officers on the motorway would make decisions based on rain or fog. If there had been an incident, they could impose a mandatory reduction to the limit for road safety reasons or for flow reasons, as is the case on the M25.
Notwithstanding issues of safety, the environment and noise, if we found that we could enforce variable speed limits at certain times of the day, we should have a sensible debate about that. However, given current technology and the massive congestion on our roads, that is not practical. I hope that this debate has been useful; it has certainly been the longest so far. There are issues that must be examined, but I have given my reasons why accepting the new clauses would be inappropriate.
I shall be brief. We have had a long debate but the Minister has given a muddled and unsatisfactory reply. He told us that our motorways are our fastest and safest roads. When asked about the distinction between trains and motor vehicles, he pointed out that he thinks that railways are safer because traffic flows in one direction on any given track and there are no pedestrians, cyclists or children playing football. The same conditions apply to motorways, but there is the added advantage that cars have steering, better brakes, and adhesion to the tarmac. The problem with trains travelling faster is that rails are more likely to break because rail stress increases with speed geometrically. Therefore, the distinction that he made makes no sense. If he believes that all speed kills, he should apply that logically to all modes of transport, not just to motor vehicles.
Speed alone does not kill; speed allied with other factors kills. Those factors can include inattentive and dangerous driving, or inappropriate conditions arising from climate, other road users, conflict of junctions, bad road design or vehicle failure. Our traffic laws rightly place a duty on every motorist to drive with due care and attention. That must mean choosing an appropriate speed whatever the maximum speed limit. If someone is involved in a disastrous accident causing injury or death, it is no defence in a court of law to say, ''I was going at exactly the permitted maximum speed limit.'' If a case can be made that the speed was too fast for the conditions, it is no defence for a driver to say that he was obeying the maximum limit. Every motorist should know that they have to make a judgment all the time that they are in their motor vehicle about what is the appropriate speed. The permitted maximum is only one factor that they should take into account. They are required to make judgments all the time about appropriate speeds.
It is the view of practically every motorist in this country, however, that 70 mph is sometimes an inappropriately low speed limit for, say, fast roads in suitable traffic conditions when the weather permits and every other circumstance is right. This law is being broken daily by otherwise law-abiding citizens. They do not break it only once in a while; they break it as a matter of routine. We as lawmakers have to ask ourselves the very difficult question, ''Are we really going to get tough with them and say that going at 72 mph on a motorway is unacceptable conduct and stop them, or are we going to say we have got it wrong and that, on this occasion, the speed limit is inappropriately low and we ought to adjust the behaviour patterns out there?''
There is a very clear division in the Committee on this simple proposition, and I think it should be tested by a vote.
Having heard what the Minister said about the important change of approach and his point that variable speed limits using technology could be considered—which would be quite a significant change in the way our motorways operate—and considering the necessity of speed limits and such issues being fully debated in public rather than out of rank opportunism, I beg to seek leave not to press my new clause.
The opportunity to withdraw the new clause is not yet before the Committee. I shall take that when we come to it. We are still on new clause 6. The others will be dealt with when we come to them later this afternoon.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 8.