New Clause 21

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:45 pm on 20th April 2006.

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Road accident investigation service

‘(1) Within 12 months of the coming into force of this Act the Secretary of State shall by regulations establish a Road Accident Investigation Service (“the service”) which shall—

(a) investigate the causes of road accidents particularly where they result in death or serious injury,

(b) commission and publish the results of research into the causes and consequences of road accidents, and

(c) make recommendations to the Secretary of State.

(2) Regulations under this section may provide for the organisation, operation and powers of the Service.

(3) The Secretary of State may make financial provision for the Service.

(4) The power to make regulations under this section is exercisable by statutory instrument.

(5) No regulations shall be made under this section unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.'. —[Mr. Carmichael.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

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

New clause 21 moves on from some of the arguments advanced earlier in relation to the inclusion of vehicle data recording devices. As I said to the Committee then, the science—and it is fair to call it a science—of road accident investigation has moved on considerably in recent years and is a much more sophisticated branch of policing. There is now a case for the creation of a road accident investigation service, which would be akin to the marine accident investigation branch and the air accidents investigation branch. New clause 21 seeks to establish such an investigation service. Members can see from the text that this would involve investigation into

“the causes of road accidents particularly where they result in death or serious injury”,

and that the service would

“commission and publish the results of research into the causes and consequences of road accidents”.

The service would focus primarily on the more serious road accidents. One that springs to mind is that which involved the Land Rover that ran off the motorway while the driver was asleep, which ran into a train and caused multiple deaths. A degree of expertise is necessary in that instance. It would assist also in  establishing the contribution that sleep disorders make to the number and nature of road traffic accidents. The treatment and diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnoea, for example, is recognised much more widely now. The impact that it has on many road accidents is the sort of general topic that a service created specifically to investigate road accidents would be able to take on and give a nationwide perspective rather than a force-by-force approach, which seems to be the case at present.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

We already have the air accidents investigation branch. There might be some merit in creating a road accident investigation service, but we have our doubts over whether it would be cost effective. Before we give our full support, we need a lot more detail than the hon. Gentleman presented. Rather like black boxes, the subject requires further investigation. There could well be merits in it, but at this stage, a lot more work needs to be done.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

Again, I am sure that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland intends really to stimulate debate. As the hon. Member for North Shropshire said, we have an air accidents investigation branch. Of course, thankfully, air accidents are rare. We have, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, a marine accident investigation branch, and as I am responsible also for marine affairs I am pleased to say that accidents in that area are rare also. Therefore, the number of accidents that come into the remits of those bodies, so that they have to launch investigations, is relatively limited. One of the things that theycan do after investigating an accident is make recommendations on how to reduce the chances of such an accident happening again.

Of course, those agencies do not deal with quite the same situations as arise in road accidents. Road accidents result in 3,200 fatalities. I presume that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland would want all those fatalities to be investigated, so immediately we are talking about an order of magnitude and more work than faced by the other accident investigation bodies. Does he also want serious injuries to be investigated? If so, we are talking about an order of magnitude greater again. Then there is the question of what we would do with the information. To what recommendations would it lead, on which we could subsequently act?

If we are not going to investigate all deaths and serious injuries, how would we explain that to the loved ones of those whose accidents are not to be investigated? What would we do when we find someone sitting in our constituency surgery who says that such a service does not appear to value the life of their husband or wife because it is not prepared to investigate the case and does not think that anything can be learned from their loved one’s death? All those issues would have to be dealt with.

In addition, we already have well laid out procedures for the investigation of accidents, particularly where deaths occur. A national road death investigation manual was produced in 2002 which sets out how investigations are to be carried out. First, the police are involved. They have to take leadership, because if fault is involved they may need to prosecute someone. The police will work closely with local authorities and other  highway authorities to identify what can be learned from each accident. In addition, there is the Transport Research Laboratory and the teams working in the Highways Agency who look generally at accidents to see what engineering improvements we could make and what lessons we could learn that might lead to changes in road traffic offences.

We already do quite a lot of what the hon. Gentleman is seeking, but it may be disseminated over a large number of organisations. We might want to consider in the coming years whether the Transport Research Laboratory or the Department for Transport are bringing sufficient focus to the investigation of road accidents in order to lead to evidence-based changes in legislation or engineering. That is a worthy debate to have. In my view, we are doing that work at the moment, but perhaps we could do even more. We have to decide whether it would be cost effective to move ahead.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

On many major roads we see the blue traffic monitoring cameras in use. On some motorways—for example, the M42—cameras are in place that assist the police in detecting serious crime and vehicle fraud. Although they are not there for that purpose, have those cameras proved to be of use when accidents have been captured on film?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I understand that the cameras that are under the control of the police have been used for that purpose. Police cameras, which are normally used for the detection of offences, would have an evidential regime around them which would be sufficient to present in a court. The Highways Agency’s cameras are there to help us in any way that is appropriate. They are there to help us to monitor congestion and to react to it. If they pick up accidents, that information is available to the Highways Agency and the engineering teams to see whether it can teach us anything about the causes.

I do not know—if the right hon. Gentleman presses this point, I will have to write to him—whether the police have ever requested footage from the Highways Agency’s films to help them in prosecutions. I suspect that they have and I suspect that we would make it available if there were a properly formulated request for that information. Certainly if any information from those cameras were suitable to help people improve road safety we would want to use it, subject to the practicalities of the technology.

I hope that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will once again accept that he has raised an issue that is worthy of further debate. This is probably not the time for legislating on it, even if we were all to agree that it is necessary. I hope that he will withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I was hoping that the Minister might have talked for another five minutes. I felt that as his speech progressed he warmed to the idea after his fairly lukewarm start. Of course he is absolutely right that where there is a fatality or serious injury, the bulk of the investigation is already done. He was right to  draw attention to the work of various Government agencies, including the Transport Research Laboratory. However, investigation is needed into whether the range of responsibilities across a diffuse range of agencies, which may sometimes compete for resources, is in the best interests of road safety.

I shall not press the matter to a vote. I am pleased to have the Minister’s view on the record, and as the science of road traffic investigation evolves, my proposal may become an historic inevitability. I am confident that in 10 years’ time a Minister—probably not the present one, because I hope for his sake and his sanity that he will have moved on—will propose exactly that. Secure in the knowledge that history will be on my side, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.