Heavy Goods Vehicles (Seat Belts)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:30 pm on 8th December 2009.

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Photo of Alan Milburn Alan Milburn Labour, Darlington 12:30 pm, 8th December 2009

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for the opportunity to have this debate on what may seem a small and somewhat arcane issue of fitting seat belts to heavy goods vehicles. However, on occasion small issues have large consequences and, in this case, it can be a matter of life or death. Normally, discussions about road safety and heavy goods vehicles focus on their role in accidents and fatalities involving pedestrians, cyclists or other motorists. Clearly, there are issues to be addressed in that respect and the Minister is well seized of those. But today I am focusing on a different matter: the dangers posed to the drivers of HGVs whose lorries have not been fitted with a seat belt.

I have called this debate because in July 2007 a constituent of mine, Peter Williams, was killed when the 7-tonne lorry that he was driving crashed near the village of Wolsingham in County Durham. Peter was just 23 years old. According to evidence heard at the inquest into his death, the injuries that Peter sustained were mainly above the legs and on his chest, probably indicating that he had been thrown against the steering wheel before being thrown out of the cab as the lorry plunged down a bank and on to a railway line. The Calor Gas tanker that he was driving dated from 1995. It had not been fitted with seat belts.

After Peter died his mum and dad, Jan and Mark Williams, who are also my constituents, came to see me as their local Member of Parliament. Understandably, they were deeply upset by Peter's death, but what impressed me then and what has continued to impress me over the two years that I have known them is their shared determination and their calm resolve to see some good come out of their family's terrible personal tragedy. At no point have they displayed any rancour or bitterness about what happened to their son. They are a quite remarkable family and I want to pay tribute to them today.

Mr. and Mrs. Williams have worked tirelessly over the last two years campaigning to highlight the need for every HGV on Britain's roads to be fitted with seat belts so that no other family has to endure what they have endured or suffer the loss that they have suffered. I hope that this debate helps the Williams family and helps their campaign; I hope that it raises awareness about the lack of seat belt protection in too many lorries; and above all else I hope that it prompts the Government and the road haulage industry to take action together to save lives.

After Mr. and Mrs. Williams first came to see me, I started looking into this issue and I was genuinely shocked to find that Peter Williams's lorry is not the only one on Britain's roads lacking that most basic safety protection-a seat belt. I had assumed, obviously naively, that every lorry on the roads had seat belts fitted. I guess that most Members of Parliament and members of the public would make the same assumption. By law all HGVs weighing more than 3,500 kg and registered for use after 1 October 2001 have to be fitted with a seat belt. That followed European legislation that we introduced in this place. The problem is with lorries that were registered before 1 October 2001.

I tabled questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister's predecessor as a Transport Minister, my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick, to gauge the extent of this problem, which is pretty big. My hon. Friend estimated that more than 250,000 vehicles were registered before 2001 and are still in use. Since that number includes many older vehicles, those are precisely the ones that are probably most prone to having safety problems. Of course, it is true that their numbers are falling year on year as they are scrapped and new lorries are introduced: the Road Haulage Association and the Department for Transport estimate that some 40,000 of these older lorries are disappearing year by year. Although there was no statutory requirement for manufacturers to fit seat belts in lorries registered prior to 2001, some manufacturers, such as Scania and Volvo, did so voluntarily because they were concerned about the safety implications if their cabs did not have them. So not every one of the 250,000 older lorries will be without seat belts, but many will. It is time to close that loophole.

I know from helpful conversations with Ministers and officials in the Department for Transport, and from helpful communication that I have had with the RHA, that there are no reliable data to allow us to judge just how many lorries there are currently on the road and in daily use that do not have seat belts appropriately fitted. But it is highly likely that their numbers run into many thousands-perhaps tens of thousands. DFT figures suggest that in 1997 alone more than 400,000 lorries in use had been registered prior to that date. Of course, I understand that the cabs of those old lorries may be difficult to adapt to enable a seat belt to be fitted, but that will not be so in all of them. Indeed, when my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town kindly agreed to meet the Williams family and myself in this place more than a year ago, he informed us that he had discovered that more than 150,000 HGVs registered before 2001 have the necessary anchorage points already fitted in their cabs to enable seat belts to be easily installed. So the fittings are there, but the seat belts are not. I can see no excuse for that, and I believe it has to change. I am not alone in that presumption.

In a letter to me dated 2 June last year, the chief executive of the RHA said that

"fitment of belts to those vehicles not currently fitted should not cause too much of an engineering problem."

The DFT estimates the cost of installation to be some £110 per vehicle. The RHA said that the cost could be between £200 and £300. I have every sympathy for road hauliers, particularly in the current difficult economic circumstances, who are finding it difficult sometimes to make ends meet. But this will not cost the earth. A few hundred pounds seems an incredibly small price to pay for something that is potentially life-saving. We know from the experience of the last few decades that seat belts save lives. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents estimates that in all vehicles-lorries, vans, cars, buses, etc.-over the last 25 years some 50,000 lives will have been saved as a result of people wearing seat belts.

In 1997 a report specifically looking at the consequences of fitting HGVs with seat belts indicated that some 130 deaths and serious injuries could be prevented if all truck drivers wore a seat belt. A further study conducted for the DFT in 2001, prior to the legislation being introduced, concluded that three deaths and 35 serious injuries could be prevented if seat belts were fitted to HGVs.

Of course, even when seat belts are fitted they are not always worn. A decade ago, when the Government were thinking about introducing the legislation, it was estimated that only one in 10 truck drivers regularly wore a seat belt when fitted. That low level of usage remains a problem today, and I know that the Minister and his colleague are anxious to address the problem, and rightly so.

It is welcome that both the DFT and the organisations representing the road hauliers, most notably the RHA, are actively encouraging drivers to wear a seat belt when one is fitted. Sadly, Peter Williams did not have that option. If he had wanted to wear a seat belt, he could not have done so because his lorry was one of perhaps many thousands that did not have one installed. No one will ever know whether, if Peter's lorry had been fitted with a seat belt, he would still be with us, but I hope that most sensible people believe, as I do, that it is not unreasonable for lorry drivers, regardless of the age of the lorry that they are driving, to be afforded basic protection from death or serious injury in the event of an accident. We are all rightly concerned, here and in wider society, about drivers of cars and lorries not wearing seat belts when they are fitted.

I am no great fan of the nanny state approach to public policy, but when research consistently shows that one third of car occupants who received fatal injuries were not wearing seat belts, society, the Government and the law have a responsibility to act. Most people would agree with that. My question is a simple one: should we not extend our concerns from drivers not wearing their seat belts to vehicles that do not have seat belts fitted? Those are two sides of the same coin. They are both road safety issues, and they need to be addressed.

I know from conversations with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Paul Clark, that he is worried about the current loophole. My hon. Friend, like his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, has taken an active interest in the Williams campaign, and I thank him for that. In essence, its plea is simple. It is urging haulage companies to fit seat belts to all commercial vehicles on the roads that do not have them. More than 10,000 people, many from my constituency, have already pledged support for the campaign, and they are not alone.

Mr. Andrew Tweddle, the Durham and Darlington coroner, who presided over the inquest into Peter's death, has called for the current law to be reviewed. When I approached the RHA, I was pleased to receive its support for a campaign that focuses on the operators of older vehicles that have anchorages fitted but no belts installed. Similarly, when I contacted the Health and Safety Executive, it offered to assist in disseminating messages about the fitting of safety belts in lorries.

Such a campaign is long overdue. I hope that today my right hon. Friend the Minister will pledge his Department's support for that campaign and, more than that, I hope that he will actively work with the various organisations representing road hauliers to make that campaign a priority for the new year. The aim should be to win the hearts and minds of the firms operating older lorries to fit seat belts to every single one of them. It is far better for the loophole in the current law to be addressed by voluntary action than by the sometimes arduous and often long process of legislative change. For one thing, that action, if the will exists to make it happen, can make progress quickly. Equally, however, if that campaign does not happen or does not succeed in persuading road hauliers to install seat belts, I hope that the Minister will at least keep open the option of amending the law to make such a change mandatory. I hope that common sense will prevail, and that we do not have to contemplate moving down the legislative route. More than that, however, I hope that common human decency will prevail.

Without seat belts, older lorries can become death traps for drivers who are unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident. We know that from what happened to Peter Williams. Nothing can bring Peter back, but I hope that lessons will be learned from his untimely death. My plea to my right hon. Friend the Minister is straightforward. Let us not wait for another preventable death before action is taken. Now is the time to take action, and I hope that he will pledge that he and his Department will take the lead in making that happen.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Minister of State (Department for Transport) 12:45 pm, 8th December 2009

It is a pleasure to respond to an Adjournment debate with you in the Chair, Mr. Benton, and one introduced by my right hon. Friend Mr. Milburn. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate and providing an opportunity to discuss the fitting of seat belts into older heavy goods vehicles. He has already written to and been in regular contact with my Department, and met Ministers. He has done a lot to bring the issue to the fore, and let us be clear that, as he said, it was not at the fore for many MPs, my Department or the Government before his campaigning. I extend my condolences to my right hon. Friend's constituents, the Williams family, on the accident in July 2007, which had such tragic consequences for Peter and his family, who are doing a huge amount to raise this important issue and to ensure that no other family goes through the trauma that they suffered in 2007.

It may be helpful if I begin by summarising the current requirements for the fitting of seat belts in heavy goods vehicles on the road. They are set out in full in the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986, as amended. Regulation 47 is key to the context of today's debate. It states that every heavy goods vehicle first used on or after 1 October 2001, and having a maximum gross weight exceeding 3.5 tonnes, shall be fitted as respects the driver's seat belt with a three-point "lap and diagonal" belt or two-point lap belt, and as respects every other forward-facing front seat with a three-point "lap and diagonal" belt or two-point lap belt. Vehicles first registered between 1 October 1988 and October 2001 were required to be equipped with the mounting points for two-point lap belts only.

As my right hon. Friend stated, a costs and benefits study for my Department in 2001 indicated that 100 per cent. safety belt fitting across the fleet would save three lives and 35 serious injuries. Since then, the number of HGV casualties has fallen steadily to 20 driver and three passenger fatalities in 2008, compared with 47 driver and seven passenger fatalities in 2001. That is still too many, but the casualties are fewer than originally estimated.

Our latest data from 2007 show that 527,740 large goods vehicles with a maximum gross weight exceeding 3.5 tonnes were licensed for use in Great Britain. Of those, 240,000 vehicles were first registered for use before October 2001, and my right hon. Friend made that point in his excellent speech. I have explained that those vehicles were not required by law to be fitted with three-point lap and diagonal seat belts, but some manufacturers install the anchorage devices to accept three-point belts. Some more safety-conscious manufacturers also provided the actual belts voluntarily, and we estimate that 105,000 vehicles may have been fitted with safety belts in this way, although, surprisingly, some may since have been removed. Around 25,000 vehicles-approximately 5 per cent. of the active fleet-were manufactured before October 1989 and are not suitable for any form of retrofit action.

The specific mounting points required in vehicles to install safety belts are usually incorporated at the time of manufacture. If the relevant anchorages are present in a vehicle's structure, we estimate that a safety belt could be fitted for less than £200. My right hon. Friend has explained in graphic terms the impact that a safety belt can have on the safety of a driver who is involved in an accident.

In some cases, safety belts are attached to anchorages on the seat, which are in turn mounted to reinforced points within the vehicle cab. Those seats are specially designed to withstand the large forces generated by a restrained occupant in an accident-otherwise, they would need to be replaced. For vehicles with suspension seats that are designed to reduce driver fatigue from vibrations, the retrospective installation of safety belts to the vehicle structure is an unlikely option due to comfort and ergonomic factors. In those instances, the entire seat would need to be replaced with one that used an integrated belt, at a cost in the region of £1,500 each. As my right hon. Friend will note, the issue is technically complex, and he is well versed in some of the issues involved.

Any campaign for the retrospective fitting of three-point lap and diagonal seat belts would need to target at least 110,000 vehicles. Such an action on those remaining vehicles could be completed during scheduled downtime, such as routine maintenance, thereby minimising any loss of income to the haulier. However, even if undertaken during downtime with no loss of income, such an action across the fleet would still cost between £25 million and £35 million, based on retail labour and material costs.

My Department has considered those costs in the context of the road casualty benefits, while also taking into account the economic situation, and in particular the burden that any new measures would place on companies in this important sector. In his important and considered speech, my right hon. Friend accepted that his preferred route would not be primary legislation. However, I am not complacent about the issue, and neither is the Department, which is actively working with trade associations to encourage haulage operators to fit safety belts into vehicles where the anchorage points are already installed. My officials have held two meetings with the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association, which between them represent about 75 per cent. of the active fleet. The Health and Safety Executive attended one of those meetings, and I am pleased to say that all present were supportive of the intent to encourage voluntary fitment of belts to those vehicles already engineered to accept them, and agreed to assist in the delivery of the message to their members, using existing networks.

It is mandatory to wear seat belts if they are fitted on heavy goods vehicles. However, it is difficult to get robust statistics on rates of seat belt wearing in heavy goods vehicles, because it is almost impossible to see whether the vehicle is fitted with a belt and, in some cases, it is difficult to tell whether a driver is using one. During our meeting, the trade associations also indicated that they would take the opportunity to encourage the greater use of seat belts, where fitted, among their members. If all goods vehicle drivers used their seat belts all of the time, lives would no doubt be saved. That wider message is not only for drivers of heavy goods vehicles but for drivers of other vehicles. I am pleased that both trade associations have engaged in publicity to promote the use of safety belts, and have produced reminder stickers that can be placed in vehicle cabs.

My right hon. Friend referred to the Freight Transport Association, and I am pleased to say that the FTA members magazine, Freight, included a supporting editorial that sought to remind employers of their responsibilities towards their employees, and further highlighted the issue among operators and drivers alike. The FTA has also updated its training DVD, and since January 2009 the daily checks that every driver should make as a routine part of their job now include the wearing of a seat belt where fitted.

My right hon. Friend referred to a speech made by my predecessor, my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick to the road safety charity Brake, at a conference on work-related safety issues earlier this year. The speech highlighted the fact that if seat belts were fitted to vehicles that were engineered to accept them, casualties could be reduced and lives could be saved. Additional publicity to highlight the issue of seat belt wearing among operators and drivers could usefully raise the profile of the problem, and we will continue to work with the industry to ensure that any opportunities are fully exploited.

Photo of Alan Milburn Alan Milburn Labour, Darlington

On that point, I fully understand and welcome the fact that the various associations are campaigning and giving a profile to the issue, so as to encourage more truck drivers to wear belts when they are fitted. I want to ask the Minister two simple and specific things. First, alongside that campaign, may we have a small, specific campaign run by the Department for Transport, the two associations, the HSE and anybody else who wants to get involved? It should be given a reasonable profile, so that we can see that it is happening.

Secondly, may we try to get an arrangement with the Road Haulage Association, and through it the fleet operators that it represents, to ascertain the impact of such a campaign? It would be good to be able to come back at the end of 2010-alas, I will not be here, but no doubt someone in my place will be taking up the cudgel-and ascertain what impact such a campaign has had, and how many additional older lorries that currently do not have seat belts have been fitted with them.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Minister of State (Department for Transport)

I welcome that intervention, and I will respond with a couple of points. First, I am happy to look at the issue of a specific and discrete piece of work that the HSE could do on this specific and discrete problem. Secondly, of course we need to measure success on an objective basis, to see whether there has been an impact on this working relationship. In his speech, my right hon. Friend made a plea for us to keep all matters under review, and I am pleased to do that.

I conclude by saying that this is not an issue that fills the postbags of MPs. The fact that my right hon. Friend has taken up the cause means that it is higher up the DFT's radar than would otherwise be the case. I hope that he will go back to the Williams family and not only pass on my condolences but say that we have heard the message about the importance of this issue. We will continue to work with key stakeholders, road safety charities, the industry and haulage companies, drivers, the Health and Safety Executive, and with my right hon. Friend, whether he is inside or outside the House. He has been a passionate advocate for this important cause, and we must see what progress can be made. If it is not made fast enough, we must see whether we can make it even faster. I thank my right hon. Friend once again for raising this issue in what has been an important Adjournment debate.