New Clause 3 - Cycle lights

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 3rd February 2005.

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'A pedal cycle fitted with a flashing or pulsating light shall be deemed to satisfy the lighting requirement of the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations 1989.'.—[Mr. Chope]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause is strongly supported by the Cyclists' Touring Club and other cyclists. It displays common sense and recognises reality. At the moment, under the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations 1989, a cycle fitted with a pulsating or flashing light is not lawfully lit. We know that an enormous number of cycles—far too many—used during the hours of darkness or twilight have no lights at all, and as with so much else in road traffic law there is inadequate enforcement.

Many cyclists recognise the importance of making themselves visible to other motorists and road users, and many purchase flashing or pulsating lights, or lights that are comprised of light-emitting diodes. Many of them purchase that equipment in cycle shops, not realising that, technically speaking, if they use it their cycle will not be properly lit for the purposes of the 1989 regulations, unless the lights are used in addition to other fixed lights. It may be that the police do not enforce this law very much because they recognise that it is better to have a cycle with a pulsating or flashing light, albeit an illegal one, than one with no lighting at all.

The significance of the existing ambiguity in the law is found in the civil courts because, if a cyclist is involved in an accident, civil liability is based on whether they were complying with the road traffic   laws. If the cyclist has a pulsating or flashing light, but no other illumination, it is possible—indeed this happens—that they will be regarded as having breached the law on lighting requirements, reducing their chances of receiving damages and perhaps raising the issue of contributory negligence. That is a significant issue for cyclists and road safety.

Many years ago, when I was the Minister responsible for road safety, the police and Department officials ran a campaign to ensure that pulsating lights were not used by cyclists, and flashing lights were outlawed because they caused confusion. Whatever the intent might have been at that stage, in reality, cyclists have used their judgment and reached the conclusion, which many road users share, that a cycle with a flashing or pulsating light is probably more visible than one without. The need for technical consistency to prevent any flashing or pulsating lights being used on the highway other than by emergency vehicles has been eroded by the effluxion of time and the behaviour by cyclists on our streets. I tabled some parliamentary questions on the matter late last year, and I was told by the Minister that the issue was under consideration. The Department has been thinking about it for far too long, and the new clause gives the Minister an opportunity to reach a conclusion.

There is a good deal of suspicion that the Department has suppressed information in this context. About five years ago, using taxpayers' money, the Department commissioned a report on this very subject from the institute of contemporary ergonomics at Loughborough university, which the hon. Member for Loughborough knows to be a fine institution. That report has never been published or revealed to people like us, which makes us suspicious. Today is an opportunity for the Minister to say that he will publish the report and introduce this common-sense change to our law.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

I rise briefly to support the new clause. First, I must declare an interest to the Committee. I own both a pulsating front light for my bicycle and a red pulsating light for the rear. Purely from the point of view of being a motorist and a pedestrian—not really thinking as a cyclist—when I needed to purchase some lights for my rather old-fashioned bicycle I thought that that would be a sensible choice. The Minister seems surprised that I mention that my bicycle is old-fashioned. The point is that it did not have lights attached to it; I had to purchase them separately.

Like most people looking to purchase lights, I was given a choice. I thought about what I had observed as a motorist and a pedestrian: it is important that we make the point that pedestrians need to be able to see cyclists. It is evident to someone such as me, who does not need to wear glasses all the time, but who cannot see details far off in the distance, that a pulsating light makes the presence of a cyclist stand out far more than a steady light that could seem to be further away. The pulsating light highlights the fact that it is a cyclist on the road and not necessarily a vehicle much further away.

The change would be helpful to all those who cycle, certainly those who do so at night. Pulsating lights would be effective and would help immensely in improving safety, not just for motorists who are trying to watch out for bicycle riders, but for pedestrians. I hope that the Minister will see that this is a sensible and well meant suggestion, and that he will support it.

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)

When I first looked into the issue, I was surprised to discover that flashing lights on bicycles were not considered to be legal, because so many people use them. From my own experience, they look immensely sensible. I am therefore minded to support the new clause, and I look forward to what the Minister has to say about it.

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

I welcome this debate, which is why I put my name to the new clause. I support most of what my two hon. Friends have said, although, on reflection, I think that the drafting of the new clause may be defective. It seems to me that, as it is drafted, it would probably be lawful to have a flashing orange or green beacon. That is not what we are trying to achieve. We are trying to have a debate and to get the Minister to focus on the issue.

On the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) about the police, I really do think that there is a problem. The police seem to be totally unwilling to bring pedal cyclists to heel when they are clearly breaking the law. In all my years on the road as a keen motorist, I have never once seen a cyclist pulled over by the police for breaking the law. I encounter many cyclists, some of them dressed in dark clothing, late at night, with no lights at all on their bike. Others sail through traffic lights and others, as we heard earlier, are not properly in control of their cycle because they are using a mobile phone while riding. If the Minister does anything, it should be to tell his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that we want more police action against cyclists who break the law and put their own lives at risk.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips 10:45 am, 3rd February 2005

I, too, enthusiastically support the new clause in principle. I understand my right hon. Friend's point about the drafting. One difficulty of opposition is that we do not have vast numbers of civil servants to ensure that we do not make mistakes. However, it is the principle that matters, and if we can persuade the Government that we are on to something sensible, they will no doubt get their experts to turn their minds to wording that would work in the courts.

In considering road safety and highway matters, one of my concerns is the growing menace of some cyclists. I stress that I in no way mean to suggest that every cyclist comes into this category, but there are some and their numbers are increasing. The reason why the new clause is important is that anything that persuades a few or a lot more cyclists to have lights of some sort is good. The current restriction on the lights that they can have is an encouragement not to bother.

I increasingly encounter two sorts of cyclists who annoy me. First, there are those who are utterly selfish and who, with or without flashing or other lights, cycle up and down pavements. On the occasions that I challenge them, they say that it is safer for them on the pavements than on the roads, so stuff the pedestrians whom they may inconvenience or knock over, particularly when they do not have lights. Secondly, there are the arrogant ones: those who do not think that the law applies to them. Red lights matter to motorists, but not to them, as they gaily cross them. They travel around with dark clothes and no lights, and if anybody bumps into them, it is someone else's fault.

My view is that if someone owns a bicycle and wants to commit suicide, they should jump off a cliff and get it over with, rather than go out on the roads in the dark without lights and have an innocent person kill them. Several times I have thanked my lucky stars that at the last minute I have seen a dark figure on the road in front of me who turns out to be someone on a bicycle. The number is not huge but every time that it happens, it frightens the life out of me. I could easily have knocked that person over because, with all the good will in the world, I did not see them until the very last minute. If those people want to get themselves injured, could they not do it in a way that does not make other people feel guilty or involve them in something that is not their fault?

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

This has been a short but useful debate, and I agree with almost everything that has been said. I fully understand hon. Members' desire to get peddle cyclists to use flashing lights. There is a lot of interest in this area, but my lawyers inform me that the finer points of cycle lighting are regulated under secondary legislation. The hon. Member for Taunton asked why we had not put a clause in this Bill about that. We did not because primary legislation is not needed to take the action that we want to take.

The Committee will be pleased to hear that the Department undertook a public consultation exercise, to which the hon. Member for Christchurch referred, to amend the Road Vehicle Lighting Regulations 1989 to permit the use of flashing lights on bicycles, as part of a package of amendments. Some years ago we carried out research into flashing lights and compared them with steady lights. It concluded that flashing lights neither improve conspicuity nor impair it. The result was neutral. What a wonderful piece of research to find out that they make no difference at all.

The response of consultees to the proposal was generally favourable. Two Members alluded to other sorts of flashing lights such as amber and blue. That is a far more controversial and complicated area, which we are unravelling at present. It caused quite a lot of difference of opinion in the consultation. There has been some delay, but we hope to bring forward an amendment to the lighting regulations before the summer.

The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) made the point more robustly than I would, but it is true that cyclists should protect themselves by being properly lit at night. A fluorescent jacket or whatever is helpful in the day, but for cyclists at night reflective strips either on their person or on their bikes are certainly a useful addition to lights.

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

I am grateful to the Minister for responding so comprehensively to this debate. Is he willing to share with the Committee the scope and nature of the general consultation on lighting? If he cannot respond now, perhaps he could drop me a line. Is he also consulting on the use by many motorists of hazard warning lights when vehicles are in motion, which is strictly against the law? Many motorists do so to warn others behind them of an impending traffic jam. I do not want to drag the Minister off the new clause, but it would be useful to know the scope of the consultation on lights.

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

I can drop a note to the right hon. Gentleman on that. As the Government have brought in a Freedom of Information Act, information about all these consultations could be made available. It sometimes seems as if the freedom of information was invented by the press, but it was the Government who brought in the legislation. Yes, the results will be available.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am grateful to the Minister. Could he ensure that the report, in its present form, is placed in the Library as soon as possible?

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

Yes, we wanted to ensure that it was up to publication standard. We can make the information available to the hon. Gentleman. We felt that it was not terribly helpful in its present form. Under the Freedom of Information Act people can access it; it is not a secret report. We try to publish things that are helpful to the general public and to the debate.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Riverside

Will the Minister expand on that a little? Is he saying that the Government are minded to implement the substance of the new clause irrespective of what happens in Committee? Is the issue still under active consideration?

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

I thought that I had made myself clear, but obviously there was a deficiency in what I said. The answer to my hon. Friend's question is yes. There was strong support for the measure in the consultation. Many other issues, not to do with cycling but to do with flashing lights, must be resolved. We want to implement the whole package. I hope that we will have it in place by the summer. The important thing is to protect cyclists and, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne said, other road users. So, we are sympathetic to the new clause, but we do not need it because what it seeks to do can be done readily by secondary legislation.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

The debate has been productive. One wonders how much longer the Government would have spent wondering whether to act were it not for the debate. I shall not quibble with the Minister's timing. If the new clause were incorporated into the Bill by the time of its Royal Assent, the change would occur at about the same time as the Minister suggested it will occur through regulation. I hope that he and his Department will get on with bringing forward regulations as quickly as possible.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

I am sure that my hon. Friend has thought this through. Either the Minister will implement the proposal before 5 May, or my hon. Friend will have a chance to do so on 6 May.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Where there is consensus on an issue, I do not think that we need to be fussed—the change will happen anyway. Perhaps it would even happen if there were a Scottish Nationalist party Government.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to withdraw the motion?  

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I withdraw that last remark first. Having done so, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.