Clause 17 - Speed assessment equipment detection devices

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 25th January 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 4:30 pm, 25th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 22, in clause 17, page 22, line 43, leave out 'detect, or'.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 39, in clause 17, page 22, line 46, leave out 'detected' and insert

'provide information about the location of'.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

My amendment and that tabled by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross are incompatible. The latter would outlaw all equipment that provides information about the location of speed assessment devices; my amendment would limit the ambit of the clause to devices that interfere with the speed assessment equipment.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I tabled the amendment because there are several devices on the market, including the Road Angel. I regret that I speak with some ignorance, although some hon. Members may have this equipment, which I believe may be purchased at considerable expense. I am told that the Road Angel contributes to road safety; it is very effective in reducing the number of accidents among people who have the equipment because it alerts them to accident blackspots, which is where cameras are placed; the driver then modifies his driving accordingly. I have no basis on which to question the assertion made by those who market the devices, so they must surely be a good thing. If they go further and interfere with the operation of the speed assessment equipment, no one would wish them to be on the market or to be used. However, if their purpose is to allow motorists to be more aware of accident blackspots, surely we should not prohibit them as the clauses proposes.

Photo of Mr Paul Stinchcombe Mr Paul Stinchcombe Labour, Wellingborough

On Thursday 20 January, the hon. Gentleman criticised fixed cameras because he said that local people get to know where a speed camera is placed and slow down, then accelerate away. Would not his amendment lead to even more such behaviour?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The hon. Gentleman is facing up to the fact that the speed cameras are of limited use. I thought that he and his hon. Friends and the Minister were arguing that they were of use. Obviously, as I described earlier, people slow down at the point where a camera is if they know that it is there. The purpose of installing a camera is to reduce the number of accidents at its location, and in many cases a camera will secure such a reduction.

The point that I made in the earlier debate to which the hon. Gentleman referred was that too many people now regard speed cameras as a substitute for the general law on speed limits. They think that they have to comply with a speed limit only where there is a camera. This matter is about the psychology of enforcing speed limits; it is about finding appropriate limits; and it is about the reduction, which we have greatly criticised and continue to criticise, in the number of police officers who patrol the roads.

The principal point that I raise in the amendment is that if motorists are enabled more easily to identify an accident blackspot, that must contribute to road safety rather than undermining it. That would be the effect of the amendment.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

As the hon. Gentleman said, my amendment is diametrically opposite to his. That is for a specific reason: I wanted to probe the Minister as to the Government's thinking on clause 17 and the reasons for its wording. I thought that, rather than draft an amendment to do something similar to that tabled by the hon. Gentleman, I would not pander to the boy racer element but would aim for something a little more responsible, listen to what the Government had to say and withdraw the amendment on that basis.

I want genuinely to probe the Government's precise thinking on the clause. I have experience of a detector. It goes back a few years to, I think, not long after the hon. Member for Christchurch introduced speed cameras. A friend of mine acquired a device that he plugged into his dashboard. We went tooling down the M40 and the device kept going beep. He later discovered that it beeped every time he went past a microwave oven. A great many such devices were sold at that time, but they detected any and all forms of microwave energy and were set off by all sorts of things apart from cameras. In fact, many people believe that many of these devices, which are sold on the basis of being accurate, are of great value to the people who sell them and to no one else.

I am reliably informed of another, far more worrying, device, which, I believe, is already illegal, and which, it is claimed, somebody has fitted to their car. It is capable of detecting a hand-held radar gun that is laser-operated and sending a reciprocal beam that causes the gun to jam and reset while setting off an alarm in the car. The driver can then slam on the brakes so that, by the time the constable has reset the gun, the driver will be at a speed that is legal. It seems   to me that the fitting of that device, which is at one end of the spectrum, should be illegal. I hope that it is. The device has no purpose other than to permit the driver to exceed the speed limit and hope to fool any covert or overt detection.

I now come to the devices that the hon. Member for Christchurch mentioned, such as the road angel, which I do not know anything about. He says that the device sits in the car and goes peep when it detects something, so that the conscientious driver in the car, who is not intentionally exceeding the speed limit, immediately checks their speed to make sure that they are doing the right speed when they go past the camera. This morning I amused myself by reading the Handbook of Rules and Guidance for the National Safety Camera Programme for England and Wales for 2005-06. If the argument is that the device is to help safety, under camera signing rules a fixed camera must have a warning sign within 1 km of the first camera, which may answer a question that my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) raised the other day. For mobile sites, warning signs must also be placed in advance.

There is also rule 4 on ''conspicuity''. It says:

''Fixed speed camera housing must be coloured yellow, either by fully painting both the front and back of the housing or fully covering both the front and back of the housing with retroflective sheeting.''

There are even recommended paint numbers and other such specifications. The handbook goes on to say that cameras must be conspicuous and visible and at a minimum distance of 60 metres if the speed is 40 mph or less or 100 metres at all other speeds. It strikes me that if one is paying attention to the road while driving along, missing one of those cameras with all that colour, signing and distance means that one probably deserves to get nicked. I do not see how a device that may go peep on the dashboard would make a great deal of difference. Therefore, what I am interested in finding out is whether there is a real argument that such devices can help safety or whether they are just going to help people who are predisposed to go a little faster than they ought to.

My second question is for the Minister. With all that signing, do we need also to have maps and all sorts of other things that help people to work out where cameras are? What is the logic of making everything as visible as it is and permitting such devices? As I said at the outset, I will not press the amendment to a vote. It is a probing amendment. However, I am interested to know what the logic is in removing detectors, but not removing other equipment in the car that can detect a location but do not detect the device itself.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 4:45 pm, 25th January 2005

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that train drivers receive audible warning signals to back up their visual inspection. If it is good for train drivers, why is it not appropriate for car drivers?

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I am not sure whether you will rule that question in order, Mr. Pike, but I would have thought that there was a straightforward difference—the way in which the vehicle is driven. One is on rails, where a dead hand is used, the method of control is different and the critical aspect is making sure that   drivers stop at red lights, do not pass them and observe a number of other commands that are external to the cab. A car driver is in variable control mode. He is turning the wheel, using the accelerator, the clutch, the break and other elements and he has a visual sign that he needs to be able to see. The eye is the principal organ that the driver is using in the operation. So, there is a clear distinction. The question for the hon. Gentleman is why an audible sign adds to safety, given the conspicuity that is already prescribed.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think that a wide body of opinion took the view a few years ago that these devices were probably illegal, but no one was certain. It was only when a court case was brought fairly recently by an enthusiastic Crown Prosecution Service prosecutor against a driver who was using a detection device that the issue was settled in law. In that case, as I understand it—the Minister will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—the judge decided that the car owner was receiving a signal that was intended for him, so no offence was being committed. The court therefore decided that these devices were lawful, and that is probably why the Government have put this clause in the Bill.

I support everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said. There is an overwhelming, unanswerable case for outlawing devices that interfere with a speed detection device, and I do not think that any member of the Committee would dissent from that. However, I disagree with the Minister's thinking on detection devices. The Government's whole policy is to allow detection to be easier. What is the difference between a can of yellow paint and a device in a car that achieves the same end? The Government have decided in their wisdom that speed cameras should be visible and motorists should see where they are and not be caught by surprise. If a motorist decides that he wants to have in his vehicle a second aid of an audio device, in addition to the visual yellow paint on the camera, why are the Government saying that should be illegal?

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

To answer the right hon. Gentleman's question, is not the difference that not every camera housing has an active camera inside it?

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

That is the case, and some cameras that still use it may be out of film. However, cameras that are not active are changed. A camera casing that is not working one week of the year may, in another week or month, be active. Such units are changed around. I do not think that the amendment is pandering to the boy racer; it enhances the Government's decision that cameras should be visible and motorists should be alerted to their presence.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

I think that the right hon. Gentleman missed the point about extra camera cases. We have discussed cameras at accident blackspots, and one advantage of empty camera cases is that drivers do not know whether they are live or not, so they slow down. If someone has a   detector device in the car, it will tell him that a camera is not live and he will not have to slow down and will be inclined to speed through a camera placed at a potential accident blackspot. Therefore, devices that beep on the front of a car will alert drivers to non-live cameras and they will increase their speed in those circumstances.

I believe that the Conservative amendment is wrong for a second reason. The principle of knowing where cameras are is not wrong because, as I argued last Thursday, I am favour of clear signs saying that a fixed speed camera is ahead in order to slow vehicles down. However, the detectors do not detect only fixed speed cameras; they also detect stationary vehicles—the white vans that we discussed last week with the cameras outside the back—and handheld devices.

In my part of the country, we have a great deal of difficulty in trying to get the police to monitor specific areas of speeding that are not accident blackspots. One of the arguments that I put to the Government is that there should be a liberalisation of the rules governing where the police can put mobile speed cameras, so that they can deal with specific and persistent offenders, particularly in residential areas.

I can think of one example, which comes up time and again when I am knocking on doors. In Teignmouth, a beautiful seaside resort, there is a new small housing estate at the end of Third avenue, and there are two or three boy racers—they are young drivers—who drive down a narrow road at high speed. There are low speed humps on the road but that does not slow their speed down from 35 or 40 mph in that section of the road. If we allowed the boy racers to have one of those detection devices on their vehicle, they could drive down that road any time they wanted in the certainty that they would not be caught, because when they turned into the end of Third avenue, the little device would go ''beep'' and they would slow down. I want those drivers to be caught and prosecuted, and I want them to learn that it is not safe to drive at 40 mph down a very narrow street with houses and parked cars on either side and with young children about.

If we allow the amendment that has been proposed, it will do two things. First, it will allow drivers to speed through cameras at accident blackspots and, secondly, it will allow people who are persistent offenders in particularly dangerous areas to avoid being caught when driving in a dangerous manner.

I thought that my hon. Friend probed very well with his amendment, and agree with his comment about boy racers. As we have discussed, the problem is not with boy racers alone; there are many middle-aged men going through mid-life crises who like to sit astride very large powerful motor bikes or to drive souped-up cars. There are a number of people out there who really ought to know better. I hear laughter from the Minister. I confess that I do have a sports car, and that I enjoy driving with the roof down. I have always had sports cars—[Interruption.] It is not an example of a mid-life crisis. It is something that I have   always done, so if it is a sign of crisis it is an early-life crisis and mid-life crisis and no doubt I shall also end up with a late-life crisis.

Although those satellite mapping devices show where there are fixed cameras, they do not indicate whether they are live or not, and therefore a motorist will tend to slow down when one is indicated. If the purpose of signing those cameras is correct—the hon. Member for Christchurch made the point that motorists will slow down at those points—it strikes me that those systems are an advantage for road safety, rather than a disadvantage. However, the satellite devices have a failing. A friend has one, but they are not always updated very fast; the cameras go in faster than the system is updated. He was therefore rather taken aback to get a speeding ticket for a camera that did not show up on his system; he had become over-reliant on it. That is his fault for speeding in the first place and not paying attention to what he was doing.

Essentially, that system is no different from being able to go on to the internet to find out where the speed cameras are. What the clause does, and the probing amendment does not do, is to make it illegal for someone to find out from other sources where the speed cameras are. The satellite devices give local knowledge of where the speed cameras are to someone who is driving—we discussed local knowledge previously. They are an effective way of slowing down vehicles. The measure should be supported.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley 5:00 pm, 25th January 2005

Before I call the Minister, I know that it always helps to focus minds on where we are going. If the Committee is going to sit past 5.30 pm, the Chair always likes to adjourn for a break, but I am assured that we are going to slip a little but not too much. I hope that, if people do not want to adjourn for a break and return afterwards, they will keep their minds focused. I say that to try to be helpful to Members, not to be difficult.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I will certainly obey your strictures, Mr. Pike, because we do not want to detain the Committee any longer than is required to give full, proper and thorough scrutiny of the Bill.

Amendment No. 22, which would remove ''detect'' from the definition of speed assessment equipment detection devices, would enable drivers to continue to fit or carry in their vehicles speed assessment equipment detectors, which warn them whenever they are in the vicinity of any police speed enforcement equipment. It is vital and legitimate police activity to undertake effective speed enforcement, including enforcement away from the published camera sites, to identify and prosecute people who speed. There may be occasions when the police, probably acting on pressure from residents in a local area, set up a mobile site for a period of time to catch the very boy racers that the hon. Member for Christchurch referred to. They may set it up at certain times of the week when those people are proving a problem. Often the sites are in villages and country areas, but sometimes they are   in towns. The seafront in Teignbridge is one area. I know that Plymouth Hoe is a famous racing spot on a Saturday night.

The last thing that we want is to do as the hon. Gentleman suggests and give those boy racers some equipment that can spot the police so that they can moderate their behaviour on that occasion only. They would be able to detect the presence of the mobile cameras. That sounds like a recipe for helping those boy racers. I do not know whether he has experienced what I am describing in his constituency. If he has, he will know that there is public outrage at the dangers, the noise and everything else that goes with the activity.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I did not refer to boy racers, but if I were to do so, I would also refer to girl racers because the Minister is being unduly sexist in thinking that it is only the male fraternity who break the speed limit.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I was using a generic term. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say there may be males or females behind the wheel, although I have to say that most of the time those who are involved in such activities are males and tend to be quite young.

There are three levels at which equipment in a vehicle can operate in regard to speed cameras. The first involves any piece of equipment that blocks or in some way jams the signal from the camera. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire said that there was an unanswerable case for a ban in that respect. We seem to be totally agreed on that. He asked whether that equipment was illegal. There was some doubt about that, but it has been cleared up. I was determined that we should put that beyond doubt in the Bill. We will make that equipment illegal so that people cannot use it.

The next level is those devices that will detect a camera and decide whether it is operational. A lot of the time the cameras do not have film in them. Sometimes the radar device that flashes the light is not operating, and sometimes the cameras are not doing anything at all and are completely benign. Those cameras still have a deterrent effect on people because there is always the chance that they may get caught, so they slow down. If they have a device that detects whether a fixed camera is in operation, they can speed past it with impunity. They know with a high degree of certainty that they can carry on speeding at sites where there are known high levels of death and injury because those are the only places that the fixed sites can be put. Is the hon. Member for Christchurch saying that people who can afford to put such devices in their car should do so? Surely they must have only one motive in mind: that of exceeding the speed limit. That is the only motive there could be for putting in a device that detects whether speed cameras are operational. They want to exceed the speed limit at a site where casualties are very high.

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that such people should be allowed to have detectors in their vehicles? According to the thrust of his amendment, I am afraid that he is saying that. I do not agree. Those devices should not be permitted for fixed sites that are used in   partnership programmes, or for those sites that the police operate outside partnership agreements for proper law enforcement purposes. People should not be able to buy a device that prevents the police from doing the job that local communities want them to do.

The third level of apparatus tells a person where the sites are. People can interrogate a website to find out where the sites are, and many local authorities publish those details clearly. My local police station has a big map with every single one marked on it. I have no difficulty with people knowing where the cameras are, because that shows people where they need to slow down. They do not need a detector device to tell them they are turned on; they just need to slow down at those sites. The camera is not only telling people that they might get caught, but showing them a place where speeding causes death and injury, so that they should be particularly mindful of their speed.

All of us agree that the device that blocks a signal should be outlawed. The hon. Member for Christchurch thinks that some people should get away with it at certain sites, but I disagree. The amendment from the Liberal Democrats was a probing one, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said. I hope that he can see the reason why we have no problem with people knowing where the sites are, but we have a problem with people being able to detect whether they are operational. There is a world of difference between the two positions.

The hon. Member for Christchurch talked about his road angel. I thought that the angels were there to save us. It seems that those angels save people only from fines; they do not save drivers or other people from death and injury. That is not a very useful sort of angel: I would call it a road devil. I hope that has been a helpful debate, and I ask the Committee to resist the amendment.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

It has been an interesting debate and we have put clear blue water between what we say and what the Liberal Democrats and the Government are saying. The Minister picked up on the point about the Road Angel. From the promotional material that Road Angel produce, I understand that the company thinks that that product will continue to be lawful under the provisions in clause 17. The Minister seemed to be saying that that is incorrect. Certainly, those devices are marketed on the basis that they will continue to be lawful even after the Bill becomes law.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

It may help the Committee, in case we have been misinformed, if the hon. Gentleman were to set out what the Road Angel can achieve.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am no promoter of the Road Angel. All I know is that a large number of people have purchased them. A colleague of mine told me that his wife had bought him one for Christmas, and when I told him that it cost the best part of £400, he realised how generous she had been. My knowledge of Road Angels goes little beyond knowledge of their price and where one can purchase them. If the Minister wants   information about Road Angels, I suggest that he uses all the resources available to him as a Minister to find out a bit more.

It is very important that, whatever the Government intend by the clause, people who go out and buy equipment so that they can identify accident blackspots and be safer drivers should know whether such equipment will be banned. If there are fixed camera sites at accident blackspots without operational cameras in them, I would ask why not, and why a game of bluff is being played. The Minister seems to think that anyone who exceeds the speed limit is of a suicidal tendency. I do not think that that is the case. We must try to ensure that speed limits are realistic and command respect and support from the motoring public.

There are accident blackspots, and it is reasonable to enable people to know where they are. There are anomalies with some of the speed cameras that are available at the moment. I think that they are called Truvelo speed cameras and they are forward-facing. We mentioned earlier that speeding motorcyclists are the biggest problem on the roads. They cannot be detected by Truvelo forward facing cameras. The Government still allow their installation, although they fail to detect the biggest speeding menace on the roads.

The Government are rather muddled. A clear definition of what will be excluded under the Bill would be better; that definition should be limited to pieces of equipment that interfere with law enforcement and have a jamming device. I ask the Committee to support the amendment.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 3, Noes 11.

Division number 3 Nimrod Review — Statement — Clause 17 - Speed assessment equipment detection devices

Aye: 3 MPs

No: 11 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

What time scale does the Minister have in mind for the implementation of the regulations under the clause? Will they incorporate a system of compensation for people who bought equipment when it was legitimate and lawful, but will now find that it is unlawful as a result of the Bill?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The provisions will be implemented at the earliest possible date. They are important measures and I think that little further consultation on   the issue is needed; there is strong public feeling about them. We have included no provision to compensate people who have bought equipment with a view to avoiding being caught on a camera, when, clearly, their only purpose in doing so was to speed at sites where they thought that the cameras were not operational.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.