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Heavy Goods Vehicles

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 30th March 2004.

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Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell 11:00 am, 30th March 2004

May I first through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank the Speaker for allowing me to initiate this debate? I welcome the attendance of my old friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Jamieson, and I am pleased that he will respond to this short debate.

In a conciliatory spirit, I put it to the Minister that there are many matters on which we agree, including the importance of improving safety on our roads. An analysis of the events in Madrid only a couple of weeks ago showed that as horrific, wrong and dreadful as that terrorist act was, the number of people who perished and the larger number who were maimed were not nearly as high as the number of people who die on roads in Spain or, for that matter, in this country. That is not to diminish that appalling terrorist atrocity, but it puts in perspective how much more we all have to do to ensure that our roads are safe and that casualty figures continue to fall.

Heavy goods vehicles represent about 1.4 per cent. of the traffic on our roads, yet they are involved in 15.5 per cent. of accidents that result in fatal casualties. I expect that, like me, hon. Members find those figures startling, but they get worse. Occupants of heavy goods vehicles represent 8 per cent. of the total casualties, whereas the occupants of vehicles that collide with a heavy goods vehicle account for 26 per cent. of casualties on our roads. It is therefore fair to say that anything that realistically can be done to improve the safety of heavy goods vehicles, such as my proposal to ensure that they are more conspicuous, would hugely benefit road safety and save lives.

I recall the days when there were no reflective number plates, and I am sure that the Minister does so too. In the days when we were both involved in Solihull politics, number plates were black and white. It was startling when reflective number plates were introduced in the late 1960s, largely by the 3M corporation, which has its UK headquarters in my Bracknell constituency. Hon. Members may recall a time when there was no reflective tape on the back of heavy goods vehicles, but now we all benefit from that at night. If we drive up behind a heavy goods vehicle that has broken down on a quiet road, our headlights pick it up much earlier than would otherwise be the case.

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe regulation 104 suggests that reflective tape should be put on the sides of heavy goods vehicles. A significant number of accidents occur at night or in bad weather conditions, when drivers simply fail to spot the heavy goods vehicles sideways on, with the consequent accident and casualties that I mentioned earlier. For reasons that are not entirely apparent from my correspondence with the Minister, the Government have chosen not to implement regulation 104, although it has been implemented in Italy. A similar regulation has been implemented in Russia and America, where it has led to a 17 per cent. reduction in casualties and accidents involving heavy goods vehicles. The prize is therefore huge, and many far-sighted companies, such as Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury's and the John Lewis Partnership, have voluntarily added reflective tape to their vehicles. That is marvellous, but we cannot rely on community-spirited companies. We should move towards all heavy goods vehicles having retro-reflective tape on the sides of their vehicles.

I have corresponded with the Minister in an attempt to persuade him of the need for such a provision. In his reply of 28 November 2003 last year, he was good enough to say:

"We are aware of the conspicuity benefits of retro-reflective tape, which can be used to outline the shape of large vehicles, using red to the rear and yellow to the side.

I am pleased that he recognises the strength of the case, but he went on to say that as regulation 104

"does not mandate the fitment of that tape to vehicles the Government have decided that at this stage they do not want to implement it in our country, which is a great pity. The Minister referred to a Loughborough university research and cost benefit study which states that

"mandating retro-reflective side and rear markings on new heavy goods vehicles in the UK would cost

"£12 million, while the expected benefits would amount to £6 million.

That was worrying, and sent a shiver down my spine. I am not sure how the Minister can place a value on dead and maimed people, but I should have thought that the price of saving so many lives was well worth paying.

I am by nature a deregulator rather than a regulator, so there must be special circumstances for me to call for additional regulation. I need, for example, to be satisfied that the cost is not disproportionate. The cost of putting tape along the sides of an average heavy goods vehicle is £100, which might be a lot of money to you and me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if we were fitting tape on our own cars, but as the cost of a heavy goods vehicle costs is approximately £100,000 it is hardly a major financial burden on hauliers and companies with such vehicles. There is no reason whatever for not implementing the regulation.

In his letter, the Minister said:

"We are aware that the Italian government have proposed to mandate the fitment of ECE R104 retro-reflective tape to heavy goods vehicles registered in Italy. At the moment there is some doubt as to whether they have the legal powers to do this. Vehicle lighting and signalling equipment on new vehicles is harmonised throughout Europe and currently R104 tape is 'optional' under type approval: thus it is at the vehicle manufacturer's discretion whether or not to fit it. National governments cannot impose extra requirements on a vehicle which has been correctly type approved.

The Minister is nodding, but I am not sure that the rest of us buy that argument. The implication is that vehicle manufacturers alone can fit retro-reflective tape, and that if regulation 104 were made mandatory here it would be their responsibility to ensure that compliant materials were fitted before delivery. That is incorrect. Retro-reflective tape is easy to fit and can normally be done by end users themselves, as is the case with the companies that fit it voluntarily.

The Minister went on to say:

"Vehicle lighting and signalling equipment on new vehicles is harmonised throughout Europe.

Consequently, neither Italy nor the UK could act unilaterally. That is questionable, to say the least, as there are already instances where the UK imposes stricter provisions on safety markings for domestically registered vehicles while still complying with EU and UN type approval legislation. It is the responsibility of the end user, rather than the manufacturer, to ensure that additional provisions are met, because there is a distinction between type approval and domestic vehicle requirements. The Minister will be well aware of that distinction.

A pertinent example is "Long Vehicle marker boards, as described in UNECE regulation 70. The boards are mandatory for vehicles registered in the UK, but not in other EU countries such as Germany. The vehicle type, for example, a particular type of Volvo truck, is approved under the appropriate regulations, but the UK imposes an additional requirement before an end user can register the vehicle in the UK. That seems perfectly reasonable, and a similar arrangement could apply to retro-reflective tape. I put it to the Minister that, happily, a precedent has already been set.

If regulation 104 were made mandatory in the UK the vehicle type would be approved in the same way, but to register such a vehicle the end user would have to ensure that it was fitted with the appropriate retro-reflective material. As I have already mentioned, that would cost no more than £100 a vehicle. Such an initiative would not prevent vehicles from other countries from being allowed on UK roads, and would not contravene any EU trade legislation, so there is no good reason why we should not proceed.

Occasionally, the Minister and I gently clash about the issue of speed cameras in parliamentary questions. Far more lives would be saved by introducing a measure on retro-reflective tape than by siting speed cameras in the wrong place, such as, I strongly believe, the Heathrow airport exit. I would be out of order if I pursued that argument very much further so, as the Minister firmly believes in road safety, I urge him to implement regulation 104 as soon as possible. That is in everybody's best interests, and people who own and operate heavy goods vehicles have nothing to fear from the regulation.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West 11:13 am, 30th March 2004

With the approval of my right hon. Friend Mr. Mackay and the Minister, I should like to make a brief contribution. I am at fault for not tackling the problem, because 18 years ago, I proposed a regulation to fit sidelights on vehicles. That regulation could have dealt with the problem of the visibility of long heavy goods vehicle when crossing the path of approaching traffic.

My right hon. Friend has made the case for fitting reflective tape to the sides of vehicles. I expect that the Minister will say that to make that mandatory straight away would not be the best way to make progress. If the initiative is to be of value, it should be taken up with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and made a Europe-wide proposal. I hope that today's debate will stimulate every operator of new and old vehicles to put yellow reflective tape on the sides of their vehicles and red tape on the back. That would represent progress, and I wish the Minister well in trying to get international agreement on introducing the measure as a mandatory Europe-wide provision.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 11:15 am, 30th March 2004

First, I congratulate Mr. Mackay on securing this important debate, and I agree with the general thrust of what he and Peter Bottomley said. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that we are old friends who go back a long time; I first debated with him nearly 40 years ago. I always used to win those debates and I shall be equally convincing today, so I hope that he will not be too disappointed.

The right hon. Gentleman said that he is a keen deregulator, but I will avoid making the obvious joke—this is an example of him trying to increase the use of red tape. However, I am grateful to him for raising some important points on the use of retro-reflective tape on heavy goods vehicles to make them more conspicuous. I listened carefully to his arguments and I have re-examined our correspondence on the matter. We are in agreement on heavy vehicle safety. The Government take that matter seriously—it is an important part of our road safety strategy.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that road safety is extremely important to me and to my Department, as it has been to many other Ministers over a great number of years. We are making good progress on our road safety strategy, as set out first in "Tomorrow's roads—safer for everyone, which contains casualty reduction targets to be achieved by 2010.

Total deaths and serious injuries were down 17 per cent. in 2002, which is nearly halfway to our 40 per cent. target. Child deaths and serious injuries were down 33 per cent. in 2002, which is two thirds of the 50 per cent. target for 2010. However, that is no reason for complacency, even though those figures probably rank with the best in the world. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned several other countries, including Italy, Spain and Russia, which have substantially worse road safety records than we do.

The number of accidents involving heavy goods vehicles is high, but that too is falling. In 2002, 13,480 heavy goods vehicles were involved in injury accidents compared with 14,417 in 1993. That is a 6 per cent. fall in injury accidents over 10 years during which heavy goods vehicle traffic increased by 16 per cent. The rate of casualties related to heavy goods vehicles is falling dramatically, as it is in other areas of road transport. In the five years from 1997 to 2002, the numbers killed and seriously injured in accidents at night involving heavy goods vehicles also fell by 15 per cent. However, that is no reason for complacency, although things are clearly going in the right direction.

We have taken a number of other measures, such as extending the requirement for anti-lock braking systems to all vehicles and trailers over 3.5 tonnes. We have also introduced regulations making front under-run guards for new heavy goods vehicles compulsory, in addition to the safety guards already fitted to the sides and rear of heavy vehicles and trailers.

We have also been putting considerable effort and money into helping the road haulage industry to train the people that it needs to meet its requirements. About £8 million from the road haulage modernisation fund has been invested in training to help the industry to meet its future labour and skills needs.

Turning to the specific issues, the right hon. Gentleman raised some good points. I hope to be able to put my response in a context that may bring some comfort to him in the long term, although perhaps not in the short to medium term. I share the concerns that he raised about the conspicuity of large vehicles. He will know that, since 1973, retro-reflective long vehicle marker plates have been required on all new vehicles over 7,500 kg and trailers over 3,500 kg.

From 1991, vehicles more than 6 m long have had to have side marker lamps and side retro reflectors to make them more conspicuous from the side, and end outline marker lamps to show the height and width of the vehicle from behind. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned measures taken in the United States, where there has been a 17 per cent. reduction in casualties and accidents involving heavy goods vehicles. Some measures taken by the UK did not prevail in the United States; our vehicles were more conspicuous because of measures other than the use of tape.

When the new standard for retro-reflective tape was developed, we recognised that its use might offer further road safety benefits. In 1997, the Department commissioned research to establish how best to use retro- reflective and fluorescent materials on large vehicles. In particular, the research considered tape conforming to regulation 104, a specification for reflective tape agreed in the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, which regulates the technical requirements of vehicles. The regulation controls the physical properties of the tape—qualities such as its colour, how much light it reflects, dimensions, resistance to external agents and so on. It also contains guidelines on how the tape should be mounted on the vehicle, outlining its shape.

The Department's research on retro-reflective tape was one element of a larger project involving motor vehicle and pedal cycle conspicuity, which was carried out by the Ergonomics and Safety Research Institute at Loughborough university. The research showed that some accidents are due to the low conspicuity of vehicles or the poor perception of drivers as they approach a large vehicle, which retro-reflective tapes can improve by increasing the luminance contrast at night. However, fluorescent materials are more appropriate during the day.

The cost-benefit analysis prepared as part of the overall assessment showed that the estimated annual cost to the haulage industry of marking new heavy goods vehicles would be about £12 million, which was set against estimated savings of about £6 million. All deaths and injuries are important and we must concentrate our energy and resources on the best means of reducing casualties, focusing our finite resources where they will have the most impact. The report is available in the Library.

Our research was completed in 1998, so there are good arguments for re-doing the cost-benefit analysis and I agree that there is scope to do so. However, improving the visibility of heavy duty vehicles is included the European road safety action programme. The European Commission is carrying out research on the effectiveness of retro-reflective material, which will take about a year. Its research includes an assessment of costs and benefits, so it makes more sense to wait for the results before deciding whether we need to do anything more.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Italian proposal to require vehicles and trailers over 3.5 tonnes registered in Italy to be fitted with tape on the rear and the sides. It is part of a package of measures that the Italian Government are considering to tackle Italy's road casualty problems. That country already has requirements for heavy vehicles similar to those in the UK, but Italy has a much higher accident rate and I can understand why its Ministers want to take action.

To illustrate the scale of the problem, there were 11.1 road deaths per 100,000 of the population in Italy in 2000 whereas in the United Kingdom the figure was 6.1 per 100,000. That is a substantial number less. Total road deaths in Italy in 2000 were 6,410 and in the UK the figure was 3,598, so road casualty levels in this country are much lower than in Italy, probably even for heavier vehicle usage. While Italy has strong reasons for wishing to take this action, there is some doubt as to whether it can do so unilaterally.

Since I wrote my letter to the right hon. Gentleman in June 2003, the UNECE position has changed. It did so as recently as 28 February and it is now an optional provision for type approval. A member state cannot refuse to register a vehicle that has type approval in another EU state. Member states cannot unilaterally mandate that, as it could constitute a barrier to trade. There has been some confusion about that, but it has been cleared up by the European Commission. If the right hon. Gentleman wants more information on that and some detail, I am happy to correspond with him.

I have been asked how we can have mandated for so many years that marker boards be fitted on the rear of trucks but cannot now unilaterally mandate on retro-reflective tape. It might help the House's understanding if I explain that the rules are different. This is a complicated topic, but I will do my best to give an outline of why we can include one requirement in our national law but not the other.

The situation hinges on Economic Commission for Europe regulation 48, which concerns the installation of lights and signalling devices. That has been changed in the last month or so to include an optional provision for reflective tape. It makes no mention of the marker boards. They are covered by ECE regulation 70. The subtle difference in those regulations permits national Governments to set their own requirements. That is what we do in the United Kingdom. I believe that most other member states take the same position.

Germany recently made a proposal to the UNECE working group on vehicle lighting to allow countries to make the fitting of regulation 104 tape mandatory for type approval of new heavy goods vehicles weighing more than 12 tonnes. That would mean manufacturers having to fit the vehicles with a tape to be allowed to sell them in those countries. It makes sense for Germany to make that proposal, as it does not apply the regulation for rear marker boards. Clearly it has much to gain from requiring conspicuity markings to the rear of heavy vehicles, but it starts from a lower baseline than we do, so the safety case is easier for it to justify.

We will consider the new UNECE proposals carefully and examine how they will affect our vehicle manufacture and haulage industries. As well as questions on the safety benefit, there are practical concerns, such as the difficulty with mounting the tape on unusually shaped vehicles without flat surfaces—for example, petrol tankers, cement mixers, cranes and car transporters.

So, as I am sure the House appreciates, we need to discuss the German proposal with United Kingdom stakeholders before we decide whether to support it. However, I assure to the right hon. Gentleman that, if we feel that that could bring genuine road safety benefits, of course it will have our full support.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the cost of fitting the retro-reflective tape. My Department's research shows that the cost is about £150 for materials, but there is a further cost for fitting. We have had representations from the industry—for example, the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association; he probably knows the latter. Returning again to Solihull, his old pal Roger King may have a different view from the right hon. Gentleman. He may want to catch up with an old pal and have a discussion, perhaps over a little noggin somewhere, to see whether he can come to an accommodation with him as well.

This has been a useful debate on an important subject. If there is any matter that I have not covered in full, I shall, as always, be most pleased to correspond with the right hon. Gentleman.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.