New clause 14 - SPEED LIMITS FOR VEHICLES OF CERTAIN CLASSES

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 3rd February 2005.

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'In Schedule 6 to the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 (speed limits for vehicles of certain classes), in section 5(2)(b)(iii), column (c) leave out ''40'' and insert ''50''.'.

—[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 clause would raise the maximum speed for heavy goods vehicles on single carriageway roads from 40 to 50 mph.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.  

On resuming—

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 4:31 pm, 3rd February 2005

I was saying that my new clause has to be looked at in the context of raising the maximum speed in ideal circumstances. At the moment, for lorries on single carriageways, that speed is deemed to be 40 mph. We know that lorries have become much safer, their braking has become more efficient, and the quality of many of our single carriageway roads, particularly trunk roads, has increased significantly.

In the past, it was possible to overtake lorries on single carriageway roads with relative ease, because the traffic was much lighter. Now, however, it is virtually impossible to overtake any vehicle at busy times on single carriageway trunk roads, and so all the traffic goes at the speed of the slowest. I have in mind, for example, the road between my constituency and Honiton, most of which is single carriageway. The result is that heavy goods vehicles often find themselves generating driver frustration—a fact recognised by the Minister in a letter he recently sent to Commercial Motor in response to its campaign to raise the limit to 50 mph. Tesco lorries now have a sign on the back saying ''This lorry is limited to 40 mph'', because so many motorists find that speed incredible, and sometimes vent their frustration on the driver. In times past, I suspect that some lorry drivers raised their speed above 40 mph in ideal circumstances, but now, with cameras and tachographs, they are unable to do so. As a result, driver frustration creates danger.

I propose that the maximum speed in ideal circumstances for HGVs on single carriageway roads should be 50 mph rather than 40 mph, which would improve road safety rather than making it worse. That is the view of those in the commercial goods industry, and of many of those involved in driving HGVs.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

I am sorry that I have missed the campaign by the organisation that the hon. Gentleman mentions, and I have not heard before today the argument that driver frustration leads to danger. Is there any evidence of what that danger is, or is it anecdotal?

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

We do not have much time to go into the details, but I would pray in aid what the Minister himself said in his letter to Commercial Motor on 13 January 2005:

''Your article suggests that some car drivers may become irritated when they are following a slow moving HGV and I have no reason to believe that this is not the case.''

In fairness, he goes on to say that, human nature being what it is, he is not convinced that even if the speed limit were increased the same small minority of car drivers might not still want to overtake. That is where I part company with him. There is a lot of difference between driving behind an HGV mile on mile when it is travelling at only 40 mph and doing so when it is travelling at 50 mph. Also, overtaking a vehicle that is travelling at 50 mph is a significantly more dangerous manoeuvre than overtaking a vehicle that is travelling at 40 mph—for obvious reasons.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Just to be clear: is the danger that drivers will be irritated? The Bill is about saving lives   and preventing casualties on the roads, not about people being irritated.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

There are signs—admittedly mainly on trunk roads—saying, ''Dual carriageway 3 miles ahead.'' Those signs are put up to try to ensure that drivers who are frustrated and do not know that length of road very well will hold themselves back, will not engage in a potentially dangerous overtaking manoeuvre and will wait for the dual carriageway. The issue of driver frustration and the reality of life on the roads is already recognised by the highway authorities. That is why we are deluding ourselves if we deny that there is such an issue as driver frustration. We delude ourselves if we think it is not a sensible way forward to try to reduce the amount of driver frustration and create safer roads as a result. Obviously, I would like a lot more dual carriageways and bypasses. We are already on record as having promised that and that is what we intend to get down to after 5 May.

In the meantime, however, we think that raising the HGV speed limit would make a contribution in this area. I am not saying that it is a panacea and that we will save hundreds of lives, but we will save some and we will certainly make the roads more efficient.

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 begin by directly addressing the point made by the hon. Member for Stafford. If he were to drive on the A9 south of Inverness, after the dual carriageway at Daviot, he would come across a large sign that says, ''Frustration kills. Allow overtaking.'' Indeed, if he were to speak to the chief constable of the Northern constabulary, he would find that frustration is one of the major concerns on our roads.

Raising the speed limit is a matter that I have raised in correspondence with the Minister. I have also corresponded with the chief constable. The view of both the Minister and the chief constable, as I understand it, is that the potential safety disbenefits of allowing an increase in the speed for HGVs are greater than the potential safety benefits. That is certainly a case and I have no doubt that the Minister will make it, but I would like to add a few comments on the other side of the argument.

Funnily enough, the hon. Member for Christchurch made a point that I want to make: when the traffic is not too thick on the A9, the fact that a lorry is travelling at 40 mph makes it easier to get past. The problem is that, since the road was built—it is part dual carriageway and part high-grade non-dual—traffic levels have risen to the extent that there can be queues of up to half a mile. Part of the problem is that many of the visitors are not used to overtaking. We get lorries in a line astern and it is a question not of getting past one lorry, but of getting past a fleet. Many of the regular long-distance drivers, such as Stevens from Wick and Bannermans from Thame, know that and always leave a gap between their lorry and the one in front, for which I am always grateful. However, there are lorry drivers who do not leave that gap, and force one to try to overtake—where it is safe—two or more vehicles. When a queue builds up, it causes huge frustration, and eventually after driving for mile after mile through the beautiful highlands in a long queue   someone will lose patience and go for it, and that is when the potential for big accidents arises.

The other side of the argument—the reason why I wrote to the Minister about the matter—is put by the haulage industry. In the far north there are a number of companies that regularly transport goods—particularly fish from the port of Scrabster, and many agricultural commodities from Easter Ross—down the A9. The A9 is a high-grade road. Having to travel at 40 mph rather than 50 mph limits the distance that the drivers of those vehicles can cover during the time available for them to drive, with the result that there are certain destinations that they would go to that they cannot reach in the legal driving time. They are therefore forced to stop overnight in the cab and to start again the following day. That has a number of consequences: it makes the produce less competitive, and causes the driver to spend time in rest periods that would not always be required. I am also told, although I have not seen substantial evidence for it, that the engines are less efficient at 40 mph than 50 mph, and that therefore the emissions are slightly greater. However, I do not stress that last point, as I have not seen it borne out.

There is therefore an argument for increasing the speed limit to 50 mph on good roads. Part of the problem is that our A road categorisation system covers a huge variety of roads. They range from the easily identifiable very high-grade dual carriageways, such as that on the A9, which is extremely well built with barriers and where necessary underpasses for stock and pedestrians; to the high grade A9, which is a single carriageway but with good lane width and good width to the side of the road; to the 1970s model A9, which is somewhat narrower; to the 1950s part of the A9, which is narrower still. Other parts of my constituency have A roads that are single track with passing places. I invite members of the Committee to come and enjoy those any time that they would like a lovely holiday.

My point is that, as the A road categorisation covers a wide range of road types, there is an argument for recategorising our major roads, so that we can differentiate between roads built to a modern engineering standard, for which a limit of 50 mph might be appropriate, and roads built to an older standard, for which such a limit would be inappropriate.

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

The new clause would increase the speed limit from 40 mph to 50 mph on single carriageway roads. However, it is phrased in such a way as to cover only rigid vehicles drawing one trailer, where the aggregate weight exceeds 7.5 tonnes. I think that the hon. Member for Christchurch may have intended to cover all vehicles of more than 7.5 tonnes.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

If that is the only objection that the Minister has to my new clause, I am very relieved.

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

Oh no, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will not be as lucky as that this afternoon.

I acknowledge the importance of the transport industry to the UK economy. Moving goods around   rapidly is important, particularly with the ''just in time'' principle that many companies work on these days. I also accept that allowing vehicles to travel faster could improve some journey times in some cases. There are two questions: first, to what extent being able to travel at 50 mph rather than 40 mph would decrease journey times; and secondly, whether one can do so safely.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:45 pm, 3rd February 2005

Did the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 impose that speed limit, or was it a codifying piece of legislation, with the speed limit imposed at an earlier date? When were such vehicles subject to the 40 mph speed limit? What is the comparable speed limit for those vehicles in France and Germany?

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

That is some extra technical information to get hold of before we complete. It may even be coming to me now. Right, it says, ''No, I don't know. Have to write.'' There we are. All the gathered intelligence in the Room cannot tell us, so I shall jot a note to the right hon. Gentleman.

The 40 mph speed limit for heavy goods vehicles on single carriageways exists for a purpose. Even with the technological advances in braking systems and tyres, heavy goods vehicles take longer to stop than cars travelling at the same speed. Whereas an HGV travelling at 40 mph could pull up in time to avoid hitting a car travelling at 60 mph which was stopping in an emergency, an HGV driver is unlikely to do so if his vehicle is travelling any faster.

Even at the current 40 mph speed limit, the HGV accident involvement rate on single carriageway rural roads is 45 per cent. higher than for cars. If the HGV speed limit were to be increased, all the evidence points to the fact that it would result in more casualties. Notwithstanding the constituency of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, which is perhaps atypical—I do not mean that unkindly—because it is a rural area and has few major roads, for most of the time and most of the journey, HGV drivers will be expected to be on major trunk roads or motorways, where they travel at a maximum of 60 mph. Usually, the single lane road would form the smallest part of the journey. We do not expect HGVs in general to travel long distances on minor roads, except in some circumstances in England and in parts of Wales and Scotland.

The hon. Member for Christchurch referred to safety and accident records. We looked at a sample of 632 overtaking accidents on single carriageway roads between 1999 and 2001 where the identity of the overtaken vehicle was known. Some 44 of those incidents, which is only 7 per cent., involved vehicles overtaking HGVs. By far the majority of overtaking casualties—43 per cent—involved vehicles overtaking cars. So the numbers are not large.

I said in my letter that people might be irritated, and I stand by that, but if we are irritated it does not give us an excuse to do something that puts our life and other people's lives at risk. Attractive as the new clause may sound, in road safety terms I must ask the Committee to vote against the motion if it is put to a vote.  

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I certainly shall not push the matter to a vote, because the new clause does not go as far as I had intended, as the Minister realised. He quoted some statistics and promised to provide my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire with some data, so with that information we may want to revisit the subject.

The point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross was the one that I had very much in mind when I drafted the new clause. If it had been possible to limit it to A roads, it would have probably overcome some of the Government's concerns. Again, if one limits it to A roads, however, one has a definitional problem, because some of them are of a much lower standard than others.

Frankly, the Minister is not on to a good point about the stopping distances, because it is incumbent upon heavy goods vehicles to travel at a safe distance from the vehicle in front. That is what we expect them to do, although the way many of them travel on the motorways, it defies belief that they could ever stop in time. However, that is another story and we shall not get into that now. We have had a short and interesting debate, but time is pressing on. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.