Electric Vehicles (Vulnerable Road Users) — [Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 30 October 2013.

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Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Labour, North Tyneside 2:30, 30 October 2013

It is a great honour to introduce this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, and I am grateful to colleagues for coming along today.

In June this year, at the request of a number of my constituents, I attended a reception, here in Parliament, for the “Safe and Sound” campaign run by Guide Dogs. It was there that I was alerted to the dangers faced by blind and partially sighted people from silent electric cars. The development of electric and hybrid vehicles is very much welcome across the country; they reduce the cost to motorists who buy them, and they are important for our greener environment. I have to say, parochially, that their success is particularly important to the economy of my region, the north-east, where Nissan in Sunderland has invested more than £400 million in the development of the Leaf electric vehicle. In addition, the Government have pledged more than £800 million in subsidies for the ultra-low emission market.

However, the downside to such vehicles is that they are so quiet that they pose a danger to members of the public, and particularly the elderly, the blind and the partially sighted, all of whom rely on hearing sound to judge when it is safe to cross the road. Guide Dogs “Silent but Deadly” report, which is an excellent report that I am sure everyone here today has read, states:

“If you can’t see or hear a vehicle approaching, how do you ‘stop, look and listen’ to stay safe?”

Statistics and research show that electric cars pose a greater threat to vulnerable road users than average vehicles. Research conducted by the University of California showed that some quiet vehicles travelling at low speeds cannot be heard until they are just one second away from impact with a pedestrian.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this enormously important debate. As well as this issue being important for those who suffer from hearing or sight impairment, would she also add to her list of those who are vulnerable from these otherwise very welcome vehicles, children and cyclists, who often rely on the noise of an approaching vehicle to alert them to the fact that something is behind them?

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Labour, North Tyneside

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. It is understated, or perhaps more widely taken for granted, that those people are also vulnerable—in fact, who among us are not? We must remember that being able to hear a vehicle also allows road users to judge the direction and speed of nearby traffic, which are crucial factors in deciding when it is safe to cross the road. For all pedestrians, 80% of our perception to danger is from our hearing.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the Chamber for our consideration. I suspect that every one of us in the House have had the opportunity to do a walk with the Guide Dogs association, where we put on a blindfold and do a 2-mile walk through a very busy town. If ever an illustration was needed of how dangerous it is for a blind person, and how vulnerable they are, that is one way in which the message is brought home very quickly. Does she feel that when it comes to electric cars, there is an onus on the Government—perhaps the Minister will address this point today—to have some sort of method of warning people, whatever that may be? I am not an expert, but blind people and vulnerable people need to be protected on roads and on footpaths.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. For future reference, that sounded more like a speech than an intervention. I hope that any other intervention will be a lot shorter than that.

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Labour, North Tyneside

Jim Shannon is right, and the tenet of our debate today is to ask the Government to do more. I have to confess that I have not yet done a walk around with a blindfold on, but I know people who have, and I do not think that any of us here who are blessed to have our sight can imagine what it is like or what the dangers are until we have experienced what people with poor sight or no sight have to experience.

Research by the TAS Partnership that was published only last month shows that electric and hybrid vehicles were involved in 25% more collisions, causing injury to pedestrians, between 2010 and 2012, than conventional vehicles. Moreover, between 2005 and 2008, crashes involving quiet vehicles trebled. In 2011, research for the Department for Transport found that electric and hybrid vehicles were far more difficult to detect than internal combustion engine vehicles at the lowest steady speed and, when pulling away from rest, at the lowest speed. EU research has shown that 93% of blind and partially sighted people have experienced difficulties with electric vehicles.

All those figures are very concerning. The fact that people have been injured in accidents with these vehicles is frightening enough, but as Guide Dogs has pointed out, loss of confidence is also a massive problem for blind and partially sighted people, and a bad experience, as already described, could ultimately lead to someone not wanting to leave their home, and therefore losing their independence. Many blind and partially sighted people are easily discouraged from independent mobility if any element of their journey is adversely impacted by outside factors. Guide Dogs estimates that about 180,000 blind and partially sighted people never leave home alone.

Research by the eVADER—electric vehicle alert for detection and emergency response—project found that 91% of blind and partially sighed people want to see quiet vehicles recognised as a problem, and with 81% of the general public, according to a survey by Orange, wanting electric vehicles to emit a noise at a level equivalent to conventional vehicles, it is surely time for the Government to act.

Photo of John Leech John Leech Liberal Democrat, Manchester, Withington

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and I welcome this debate. Is she aware of any evidence that the situation has resulted in people with electric cars getting higher insurance premiums? If there have been more accidents, insurance premiums will be higher. That would be an incentive for makers of these cars to increase the noise levels, so that in future, people will not get higher insurance premiums if they buy these cars and are more likely to have an accident.

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Labour, North Tyneside

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Unfortunately, I have not looked at insurance, and it has not come up in anything that I have looked at, but that seems to be a logical step to take and a convincing argument, if not for insurers—well, even an insurer would have to pay out, so I hope that the Minister will say something about that.

In 2010, Japan and the United States legislated for alert systems to be put into cars. Any such system is cheap and simple to fit, and in the UK it would add only about £20 to the cost of a car. I am sure that everyone here would agree that that is a very small price to pay for road safety.

In February this year, Members of the European Parliament voted for an amendment to the EU regulation on the sound level of motor vehicles to make acoustic vehicle alerting systems mandatory for all quiet vehicles. That amendment is now being negotiated by the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament. The UN Economic Commission for Europe is developing a global technical regulation to specify standards for AVAS around the world. It will be finalised next year and will form the basis of the EU regulation, but unfortunately it seems that our Government are pushing for only the voluntary introduction of AVAS and have reservations about making those systems mandatory.

I ask the Minister to say why the Government think that making the systems mandatory will place a financial burden on car manufacturers when, as I said, the inclusion of such a system will add only £20 to the cost of a car. Motor manufacturing companies are not averse to developing alert systems. Nissan, which I make no apology for mentioning again because it is a local car company and therefore I have been in contact with it, has been researching and working with cognitive and acoustic psychologists to produce a practical system that is safe and environmentally friendly. Many technical issues need to be considered with regard to the right sound in order to be heard without encroaching on the environment, but it is good to see that companies such as Nissan, which has been so successful, are being proactive in this field.

It was greatly concerning to learn that the Government do not accept the national and international evidence of which I have spoken. It does show a link between silent vehicles and a road safety threat to vulnerable road users. Does the Minister think that the opinions of organisations such as Guide Dogs, the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club are not trustworthy on this matter?

The next EU negotiation on the matter will be on 5 November, and an agreement must be reached by the time of the next Transport Council in December in order to be finalised within this EU Parliament. There are already nearly 3,000 electric cars and more than 133,000 hybrid vehicles on our roads. What commitment will the Minister give to make AVAS in electric vehicles mandatory, so that the many more motorists who will be buying these cars and other road users, especially the most vulnerable, can all be confident that they will be able to travel safely in the future? I hope that he does not agree with his predecessor—now the Minister for Crime Prevention—who, in a reply in July to a letter that I had sent him, said:

“To date the number of electric and hybrid electric vehicles on the road is small compared to conventional vehicles and more data will need to be gathered over the next few years before we can be certain of the best approach.”

As I said, the Government have already committed more than £800 million. Car manufacturers are committing large sums. People are buying these cars. We shall see many more of them on the roads. However, the numbers of people who are vulnerable—elderly people, children, cyclists and the blind and visually impaired—are not decreasing. Those people remain vulnerable, and I hope that the Minister will listen today to what all these people feel.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

I congratulate the hon. Lady on achieving the debate. She has made excellent points. It seems to me that now is the time to be taking action, before we have the very rapid rise in the number of these vehicles, which I gleefully anticipate. We have only to look at how fearful our elderly residents are of people on bicycles riding around, especially when they are on pavements. I go to meetings that are packed out with elderly people saying, “Why don’t cyclists use their bells?” There is real fear out there, and I concur that this is a matter of urgency now.

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Labour, North Tyneside

The hon. Lady just got in before I concluded. This debate has attracted an awful of attention outside Westminster. I thank Guide Dogs in particular for the work that it has done, because it has spurred on people such as me and, I am sure, other MPs to bring up this issue. Again, it is a timely issue, and I hope that the Minister will be able to send us away today feeling that he has listened and that very soon we will see mandatory systems, so that people who are blind or visually impaired and any other vulnerable road user will no longer have to fear that they have only one second to decide whether they should cross the road.

T

Well done Mary, I congratulate you for getting a debate on this disabled issue, unfortunately you appear to have forgotten wheelchair users and the problems they encounter on footpaths, roads and commercial premises, not forgetting the lack of safety legislation for disabled lifting equipment. I remind Mrs Glindon of her failure to follow through on my requests to the Minister on this...

Submitted by Terry Harding Continue reading

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood 2:45, 30 October 2013

Unfortunately, Mr Hood, I cannot stay for the whole debate, but I trust that you will allow me to contribute on this very important issue. I hope that is in order. I congratulate Mrs Glindon on calling this important debate. The issue is rapidly rising up the agenda as we approach the time when the EU will make its decision.

I say that I am fortunate, although I do not know whether I am fortunate or not, to have taken part in the blindfold test in my constituency. I had the privilege of walking blindfolded with a guide dog. I found the experience half terrifying. To put one’s trust in a guide dog and walk along the high street with no vision is terrifying—it was for me as an individual. At the same time, our ability to train these animals to assist people who are partially or wholly unsighted was inspiring, and it should be celebrated. However, we have a responsibility to ensure not only that such people have access to these animals, but that they are safe in their use of them on our high streets.

While I was walking along with my blindfold on, it became apparent to me that people have to make use of all their other senses to try to access the environment around them. Those include hearing and touch. I put my hands up to not being aware that when someone presses the button at a pedestrian crossing, there is a little button underneath that twists round and tells them via touch that it is safe to cross if they cannot hear the beepers or see the green man. It was a real education for me and something that drew me to the cause.

The Government are making some progress. First, we have a Minister with a track record on road safety. He has done an enormous amount of work on road safety during his parliamentary career. The Home Office is listening on the issue of attacks on assistance dogs, and we are making some progress on that. What we are discussing today is probably the last piece of the jigsaw—to try to help people in such circumstances to cope with electric vehicles that are silent.

I want to encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to think the matter through thoroughly and properly and ensure that we get to the right point, because we need to get the tone of the vehicle correct. If we get that tone wrong, it could cause nuisance in residential areas, but it needs to be audible to those who need to hear it. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues in Europe will give some thought to the decibel level. It is important to get that correct, so that members of the public can hear the vehicle coming without there being the antisocial effect of residents being woken at midnight.

Given how modern technology moves, I wonder whether it is possible not to have the vehicle emitting a noise on a motorway, for example, where there will not be pedestrians, and whether, once the vehicle reaches a particular speed level, that sound—

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Labour, North Tyneside

I do not profess to be a very technical person, but I believe that the sound systems in these vehicles operate differently from normal car engines, whose sound can go throughout the whole of the atmosphere. The sound goes forwards or backwards, so it does not create the same noise pollution. That is what I am led to understand.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I am grateful for that intervention. That is exactly the sort of technology that we need to embrace. The sound needs to be projected forward to those people who are in danger.

Photo of John Leech John Leech Liberal Democrat, Manchester, Withington

I was going to make a point similar to that made by the hon. Lady. Existing non-electric vehicles make quite a lot of noise. I do not think there is any suggestion that the noise created by some sort of warning system on an electric vehicle would be any more obtrusive than noise from existing petrol and diesel engines.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is important to establish those facts while the discussions are ongoing.

My final point to the Minister is that we need to give some thought to retrospective action for silent vehicles already on the road. Should the law change? How do we encourage people in possession of a silent electric vehicle to fit kit that will assist others to hear it coming?

I congratulate the hon. Lady again on securing this important debate about an issue on which I hope we can make progress in the coming months.

Photo of Iain McKenzie Iain McKenzie Labour, Inverclyde 2:50, 30 October 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Glindon on securing this important debate.

Silent cars, be they electric or hybrid vehicles, are becoming more and more popular and their number is increasing year on year. In 2006, more than 39,000 such cars were sold, and the latest study shows a growth rate of about 5% by 2012. The reasons for increasing demand include the EU policy objectives of reaching the 2020 target for reducing carbon emissions and rising consumer awareness of climate change and the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Car manufacturers are well aware of buying trends and aim to meet the expectations of consumers who want the benefits of lower fuel consumption and emissions.

We have all become accustomed to the traffic noise that the internal combustion engine causes—be it petrol or diesel, two or four stroke—but in the modern age, it has been made quieter by means of a reduction in moving parts or engine compartment noise dampening. Some cars still make a lot of noise and some owners still like to hear the roar of an engine—if you were the lucky owner of a Ferrari, wouldn’t you?

Electric and hybrid cars make little or no sound when running at low speeds and their use contributes to quieter urban areas. However, not everyone benefits from that innovation, and others’ needs must be considered. That group comprises people with visual and hearing impairments, children and older people and other road users, such as cyclists. They are all exposed to danger, because they are no longer warned by audible noise from a vehicle engine and may be unable to react accordingly. We are, after all, taught from an early age to cross the road safely by looking and listening.

Silent cars have created an unforeseen tension among car manufacturers, environmentalists and organisations representing pedestrians. Guide Dogs in the UK has raised concerns about the implications of hybrid and electric vehicles. As we heard from hon. Members, silent cars can limit the independence of blind and visually impaired people in everyday life. Guide dogs are equally vulnerable to the dangers of silent cars.

Children are exposed to the dangers of traffic daily. Most children involved in accidents are under 10 years of age. The risks raised by the distractions of playing in the street do not need to be stressed, and they are increased by the use of silent cars. The youngest children have great difficulty in assessing the speed of an approaching vehicle, and silent cars increase the difficulty, because speed cannot be associated with engine noise. It is not only children and pedestrians with visual impairments who are affected—cyclists, who might not look behind before making a manoeuvre, people listening to an iPod or using mobile phones and older people are all at risk if they do not hear a vehicle approaching.

Awareness is growing in the USA and Japan of the dangers of silent cars. General Motors has been working with the US National Federation of the Blind to develop a safe level of sound to alert pedestrians.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

My hon. Friend makes a persuasive speech. Does he agree that an important argument from an industry perspective is that, although motor manufacturers want to be consulted fully and are ingenious in bringing forward solutions to problems, there are advantages in the certainty of knowing where they stand, rather than the uncertainty of not knowing when a regulation is coming or whether it will be voluntary or mandatory?

Photo of Iain McKenzie Iain McKenzie Labour, Inverclyde

My right hon. Friend makes a good point. When changes have been made to vehicle regulations in the past, there has been an area of overlap or a time scale to allow manufacturers to bring in the change. The safety aspects of this matter would override giving a discretionary term to bring in changes.

General Motors looked at a vibrating sensor that transmits sounds as vibrations, but its effectiveness is dependent on the vehicle emitting a sound. Although sound is deemed a critical component for the increased safety of silent cars for vulnerable pedestrians and other road users, experts in the USA believe that such cars also need to indicate directions and show acceleration or deceleration.

In Europe, Guide Dogs has worked with Lotus Engineering Ltd on developing a synthesised sound system that can be added to vehicles. The UK Government commissioned the Transport Research Laboratory to conduct two items of work: first, assess whether there is an increase in the incidence of accidents between silent or quiet vehicles and pedestrians; and secondly, assess sound requirements through simulated trials.

Not everyone supports adding sound. Opponents claim that artificial sounds will do more to cause noise pollution in the environment than aid pedestrians or other road users. There needs to be a clear definition of a recognisable sound and set requirements, to ensure that the sound conveys distance, speed, acceleration or deceleration and the size of the vehicle to the pedestrian or other road user. Safety must be paramount.

The European Parliament voted in February 2013 to require manufacturers to install an acoustic vehicle alerting system in hybrid-electric and electric vehicles. The legislation has been through the Parliament and is awaiting First Reading at the EU Transport Council. Guide Dogs, which works hard to give blind and partially sighted people the confidence to get about, has intimated its concerns.

Guide dogs are trained to sit at kerbs and await their owner’s assessment of when it is safe to cross the road. If the owner cannot detect a vehicle, they do not know whether it is safe to cross. One near-miss with a quiet vehicle could severely hamper a person’s confidence, and the lack of certainty resulting from the presence of quiet vehicles could be enough to deter people from leaving their home alone, for fear of being involved in a collision. Studies have shown that some electric vehicles cannot be heard until one second before impact with a pedestrian.

Guide Dogs “Safe and Sound” campaign for audibly detectible vehicles calls for the installation of artificial engine noises on all quiet vehicles to ensure their audibility for pedestrians. It also asks EU decision makers to support the introduction of mandatory artificial engine noises at the earliest opportunity and reject the addition of a mandatory pause switch to the regulation. We all expect the Government to use their position on the Council of the European Union to ensure that quiet vehicles in the UK are made safe for our pedestrians.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford 2:58, 30 October 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate Mrs Glindon on securing this debate on an incredibly important issue, although, as she pointed out, it is not as simple as one would hope.

The growth of electric vehicles is good for not only our economy, but our environment, so we as MPs should welcome it. However, it is clear from the research, cited several times in the debate, that such vehicles bring with them hidden and silent dangers to pedestrians and cyclists.

I have visited my local Guide Dogs branch, as well as the Kent Association for the Blind, and I will speak later about the challenges they face from electric vehicles. It is important, though, that we remember other pedestrians in this debate. I do a lot locally and nationally on the issues that affect elderly people. We have to recognise that they face particular challenges when they try to cross the road or stay connected within their local community. We welcome the growth of these silent vehicles—the electric cars—but some of them are frightening our elderly population, especially those in the early stages of dementia, who perhaps do not understand some of the technological changes. We always need to be aware of the issues that face them.

Let us not forget children. When they are taught the green cross code, they are told to stop, look and listen. We grow up remembering those three words. We would all confess that in our busy days, we often look, although in London we might not even stop. But we almost always listen. If we are not giving people the opportunity to hear cars coming, we are automatically removing a key aspect of the green cross code. We need to pay close attention to that.

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Conservative, Pudsey

I wonder whether, like me, my hon. Friend has walked between this building and Portcullis House and had a Government vehicle suddenly appear at her knee because she did not hear it come through the archway. It is bad enough for people like us; it must be difficult for anyone who is elderly or has a sight problem. We must think about those people, because that situation is challenging.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I agree entirely. I have always thought that the sudden appearance of those vehicles is a consequence of my voting record and that there is an intention from Ministers or Whips.

My hon. Friend raised the point of there being areas in all our communities with blind spots and blind corners. Whereas someone can hear a normal car, a lorry or even a cyclist who has the good sense to ring their bell as they go round a corner, these silent electric cars cannot be heard. We need to remember that disabled people and people with limited mobility cannot necessarily turn their heads to see what is behind them.

We also need to remember that people with learning disabilities, particularly those with autism, get used to certain sounds in the environment—they know what they are looking for and are comfortable with certain things. All of a sudden, an electric vehicle might completely unsettle everything they know and have learned. Because they do not necessarily have the immediate sense of danger that they would get from another vehicle, they become incredibly vulnerable.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the point about autism. Many autistic people will have acute hearing issues and the frequencies they are attuned to can be very different from those who have what is euphemistically called “normal hearing”. Her point is powerful. We have to think about the unforeseen consequences of vehicles that to us might seem to represent an acceptable reduction in noise. Those vehicles can discombobulate people with autism in their daily lives.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

My hon. Friend is a great champion of those with autism, and I congratulate him on all the work he has done on the issue. He is absolutely right that those of us without a learning or physical disability do not necessarily understand the challenges that those with disabilities or impairments face. While we all accept and recognise the need for the growth in more environmentally friendly cars, we have to remember the other challenges that come with them.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

As one who represents a rural constituency where we are campaigning for more pedestrian crossings in various villages, I should say that the increase in traffic makes this a serious matter. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that the issue is acute in rural villages.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. My constituency is part-urban, part-rural, so I see the challenges from both sides: the densely populated areas with blind spots and corners and the villages with high hedges and everything else. Electric vehicles are bringing challenges in every part of our community.

I had the great privilege of attending the Kent Association for the Blind forum in my constituency last Friday. I did so as chair of the Medway council disability partnership board. I was asked to attend to answer various challenges, and the issue of electric vehicles was rightly raised with me. Other issues were also raised, such as how difficult it can be to get from A to B, even with a guide dog, or just with a stick. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood pointed out, being blind makes the other senses more acute and it shows how much we rely on them.

I heard an incredibly horrific and distressing story about a blind lady who uses a guide dog and came across a lady with a pram on a path. The lady with the pram refused to go into the road, because it would endanger her children, but the dog was trained not to take the blind lady into the road. There was a stand-off.

As it happened, another pedestrian came along and challenged the lady with the pram, who refused to get out of the way. The pedestrian took the blind lady and her dog into the road and around the lady with the pram.

When the hon. Member for North Tyneside was talking earlier, I thought that if that good samaritan had not come along and helped and if that lady had gone into the road and an electric vehicle had been coming—the dog is there to help see and hear and be of assistance to the blind lady—there could have been a tragic consequence. We need to get greater awareness out to wider society, not only of the issues around electric vehicles, but of the issues around the partially sighted or blind. There are many issues in our local environments that challenge the vulnerable.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

To reinforce my hon. Friend’s point, I put on a blindfold and used a guide dog along a main road with the help of my local Guide Dogs branch. It became immediately apparent to me that while the dog is there to work and guide the person, it depends on the commands the user gives. The problems that she has mentioned became immediately apparent to me when I found out for myself what it must be like to be visually impaired and rely on a guide dog.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

My hon. Friend makes another excellent point. Many members of the public are ignorant as to what the guide dog is there for. The same lady from the previous story told me about how she had got on a bus and asked the driver whether it was the one to Chatham. The bus driver said, “Can’t your dog tell you that?”, as if the dog could somehow read the number of the bus and communicate that in human language to the blind person. These are important issues about electric vehicles, but the debate also gives us the opportunity to discuss the many challenges that partially sighted and blind people face.

I commend the Medway guide dog puppy trainers, who I had the privilege of meeting recently. They are desperately trying to train the next generation of guide dogs in all the challenges of their local community, and they are finding it incredibly difficult to train the pups into understanding the challenges of silent vehicles. It was a challenge for me to hold 18 leads of puppies and for them all to sit still and smile at the camera. It was a pleasure to meet them, and I am pleased that the trainers raised the issue with me.

The studies show that losing sight equals losing confidence. A near miss is enough to make anybody very wary, regardless of whether they are blind, partially sighted, elderly, a child or even able-bodied. The Health Secretary recently spoke of the dangers of chronic loneliness, and we do not want to isolate people further from their communities. People with a physical or learning disability already face social isolation, but if we put extra dangers and challenges in their way by increasing the number of electric vehicles without providing any means to protect them, another vulnerable group could end up experiencing chronic loneliness.

There are international comparisons out there. The US and Japan have taken strong action, and the hon. Member for North Tyneside spoke about the European parliamentary vote. I am not often inclined to support things that come out of Europe, but it has taken a lead on this issue on behalf of everybody across the EU, and it is important that we listen to what it is saying. We should do that for not just the visually impaired, but older people and children.

It feels as if the UK is lagging behind, so I urge the Minister to think carefully about the concerns raised this afternoon. If he cannot reassure us today, I hope he will go away and think, as a former road safety champion, about the issues raised for many people and about how we can protect the most vulnerable, including the groups I have highlighted.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 3:11, 30 October 2013

I am pleased to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate Mrs Glindon on securing this important and timely debate.

Let me start by declaring an interest. Guide Dogs runs a centre at Forfar, in my constituency, and it is very popular and well supported locally. Trainee guide dogs are a common sight around the boroughs of Angus, and many of the centre’s supporters have asked me to make their views known today. However, I must confess that I also drive a hybrid car—one of the vehicles concerns have been raised about.

As others have said, hybrid and especially electric vehicles were pretty much a niche market until recently, but they are clearly beginning to take off, with many major car makers bringing out models. On my way into Parliament, I noted that Nissan has many posters around Westminster tube station, including a prominent one for the Leaf electric car—the hon. Lady will be pleased to see that. Anyone who has switched on a TV recently cannot have avoided the massive advertising campaigns BMW and Audi have mounted for new electric and hybrid vehicles. Charging stations are now appearing in our cities and particularly at motorway service stations, which is a sure sign that the industry expects a sizeable take-up of such vehicles in the relatively near future.

Guide Dogs is therefore right to raise concerns, and it is a good time to look at this issue, as it is still developing. What has happened is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences. For environmental reasons, we all want to see the greater take-up of these vehicles, but we now find that they may pose a serious danger for the blind or partially sighted. Guide Dogs cites a statistic showing that quiet hybrid and electric vehicles are 25% more likely than conventional vehicles to be involved in a collision with a pedestrian because pedestrians might not hear them coming. Although the debate is about the blind and partially sighted, other groups—particularly the elderly, youngsters and cyclists—are also affected.

Mr Spencer mentioned pedestrian crossings, but the danger may, paradoxically, be greater on roads in less busy areas where pedestrian crossings have no audible signals. In the centre of London, people would cross the road only at a pedestrian crossing—at least if they had any sense—and most crossings have audible signals. In relatively quiet areas—in small villages or towns such as those in my constituency—there may not even be a pedestrian crossing. Not only may someone who has to cross the road not hear an electric vehicle coming, but there will be nothing to tell the driver someone may be on the road.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

The hon. Gentleman is making a well-informed and comprehensive speech. I came to the debate because I was encouraged to do so by two constituents, who very much share his concerns and those that were expressed earlier. Given the, happily, increasing number of hearing dogs, does he agree that the problem we are discussing goes beyond the important group he mentioned—blind people with guide dogs? People with hearing dogs are also puzzled by what is happening.

Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Members have pointed to other groups that are affected. Clearly, Guide Dogs has been leading on this issue for its constituency of blind and partially sighted people, and it has made much of the running, but he is right that the problem is much wider.

I took part in a previous Guide Dogs campaign, on the issue of shared streets. At that point, the organisation was concerned by moves in many areas to remove defined kerbs and to allow the intermingling of vehicles and pedestrians, the idea being that each would be more aware of the other and take more care. As part of that campaign, Guide Dogs took me to a shared street, put a very effective blindfold on me and asked me to cross the street. The only thing that would give any indication of the presence of a vehicle was noise. It was a terrifying experience, although I knew it was temporary, and I could take off my blindfold at the end. There were also people there to make sure no one ran me over, although if they had been from the opposition, they might not have done so. The point, however, is that a blind or partially sighted person in a shared street might not even know they had gone on to the road, let alone hear a vehicle coming. That is a very dangerous situation.

It would be terrifying for someone who could not see vehicles to know that they might also be unable to hear some vehicles; effectively, they would have no way of knowing whether those vehicles were on the road, and they would take a major risk crossing any road, but that is what blind and partially sighted people may face every day. There is also a greater onus on drivers of hybrid and electric vehicles to take care and to ensure they see any people on the road. There is an issue for such drivers, as well as for people crossing the road.

Guide Dogs suggests that the way to deal with the problem would be to fit vehicles with an acoustic vehicle alerting system, which ensures that all vehicles are audibly detectable. That has been done in the USA and Japan, it has been investigated by a UN commission. That is an eminently sensible precaution, and if it is implemented now, it will ensure that the vast majority of these vehicles are fitted with devices as they come on the market, just as the industry takes off.

The one thing that has been put against doing that is the cost to motor manufacturers and the concern that it might impact on their productivity and their ability to produce vehicles. The hon. Lady cited a cost of about £20, which does not seem particularly high, given the cost of the vehicles. I should remind the Minister and others that we have not been slow in the past in insisting on safety precautions for those in vehicles. Seat belts are the perfect example, and air bags are another example. Both add to a vehicle’s cost, but they have been introduced because of the need to ensure the safety of people in vehicles. Is it not right, when we develop new vehicles, that we also look at the safety of people crossing the road when these vehicles are about, given that the large section of the population with disabilities may not be able to hear them coming? It seems a small price to pay to ensure that those fellow citizens are safe when they cross the road. Will the Minister seriously consider how to ensure that not only those who travel in a car, but other people on the roads, can be safer?

Photo of Susan Elan Jones Susan Elan Jones Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:20, 30 October 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs Glindon for a highly informed and moving speech about the importance of the issue and how profoundly it affects so many people’s lives.

If anyone had said a generation ago that there could be reasonably environmentally friendly cars that were also quiet, most of us would have leaped for joy and thought we had reached nirvana. However, today’s debate and the excellent work of Guide Dogs make it clear that those vehicles present a significant problem to many people. There is no excuse not to take action now.

We should pay tribute to Guide Dogs for its work on many related campaigns. I recall one that it did about talking buses, soon after I was elected as an MP. I was interested, especially since—to make an international comparison—I worked in north Japan in the early 1990s and talking buses were standard there, not just in urban areas but in rural ones too. All the announcements were audible, and I can remember how helpful it was, as I had gone to Japan unable to read any Japanese script.

We have had some discussion of technical aspects of electric vehicles. I confess that I dropped physics at 14, and will not enter into anything resembling technical debate, but I remember that only 20 or 25 years ago there were all sorts of arguments about the impossibility of certain disability rights arrangements, such as putting ramps in at village halls. People who used wheelchairs, or who were severely disabled, went on being hoiked up steps in a profoundly undignified way. That was wrong, and we would never want to go back to those days. When we speak of rights and independence for people who are blind or visually impaired, or who fall into any of the many categories mentioned by colleagues in the debate, we should recognise that it is not possible to be a little bit equal. We need to give serious consideration to enabling such people to have the same sort of independent lives that the rest of us enjoy.

A point was made earlier about how a near miss with a car could affect the confidence of people who are blind or visually impaired. If I had been in such a situation, I think I would find it difficult to go out alone again; we cannot know when such things might happen. International comparisons have been cited, and many hon. Members have spoken eloquently, and I urge the Government to act on this matter. It will have a meaningful effect on the lives of many people.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley and Eccles South 3:24, 30 October 2013

Thank you for calling me at short notice, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs Glindon on securing the debate and on her excellent opening speech. We have heard moving speeches from other hon. Members, for which I am grateful.

I think it was last week—it is difficult to remember when things have happened in this place—that I attended an event run by the Royal National Institute of Blind People for young people, so that they could meet their MPs and be their own advocates on issues that they had encountered locally. A young constituent with visual and hearing impairments spent some time—and I was glad she did—telling me what lack of confidence meant to her. She had reached the stage of not being confident to go out or travel independently, and she explained how that curtailed her life and how, with the help of the RNIB, she was getting over it. Several hon. Members have talked about how incidents involving quiet vehicles can affect confidence: we need to think about that.

My young constituent told me she was learning to use a cane and hoping to get a guide dog. My hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones mentioned talking buses, and my constituent talked a lot about different modes of transport and how she could be assisted. However, lack of confidence was her biggest problem. It is vital to consider the needs of such vulnerable road users, because a limit is placed on a young life if such a person does not have the confidence to go out. Action on quiet vehicles could help with that issue.

There is a single trunk road, the A57, in the area where my constituent lives. There is a lot of development going on and a new stadium is being built. There is also at present a complex set of road works and traffic systems. Cyclists and pedestrians share the pavement, so it must be quite common for people to be pushed out into the road, as has been mentioned this afternoon. I have had many complaints about it. A traffic flow system has been installed, but it changes when the stadium is in use. Someone like my constituent, struggling to learn to use a cane or go out with a guide dog, must cope with such complications—pedestrians and cyclists on the pavement, a traffic flow system that is sometimes one way and sometimes another, and two narrow lanes. That is tricky even for someone whose faculties are not in any way impaired. There is nothing we can do about that until the new road is built, which will take more than a year, but that is the environment that my constituent is learning to deal with.

We have heard about people with a guide dog being forced out into the road, and sometimes there will be complex traffic and pedestrian conditions in a locality, as there are in my constituency at the moment. I should hate to think of my young constituent having a frightening experience with an electric vehicle as she was learning to become more independent and confident and get out more. I am sure that if that happened it would push her back into not using her cane or going out with her guide dog. She would not go out—which is the situation she has been in for some time. Sometimes such factors come together in an area, and they make things worse.

I want to do anything that would help my young constituent to become more independent and learn to be away from home. She wants to get out and have a social life, and to have opportunities for education and training. The move that we have been debating is essential for people like her and other vulnerable road users and I urge the Minister to take what action he can.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport), Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact 3:28, 30 October 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood, in this excellent and powerful debate. All credit is due to my hon. Friend Mrs Glindon for securing it and for raising the issues in such a powerful way. Credit is also due to Guide Dogs and the other organisations that have put the issue of quiet vehicles and vulnerable road users on the agenda for so many of us. It would be an important debate whenever it took place, but it is particularly timely that it is happening now, because further EU negotiations on the regulation on the sound level of motor vehicles will happen next week before an agreement on audio-alerting systems is reached at the next EU Transport Council on 5 December.

The debate is therefore not before time and is critical in the context of our future transport policy. It is important to put it on the record, as many hon. Members have, that this debate is not anti-electric or hybrid cars. Indeed, I am a fan of both. Two weeks ago, the Minister and I both stressed the importance of such vehicles in future transport policy. Making low-carbon transport options accessible and affordable is a priority for us all. I saw the importance of that when I helped to launch the new E-Car Club location in Poplar just last week. As well as improving access, the Government must focus on establishing proper safety standards.

This does not happen often in a Westminster Hall debate attended by many hon. Members from all parties, but we have today had absolute unanimity. We heard interventions from my right hon. Friends the Members for Oxford East (Mr Smith) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke), my hon. Friend Mr Leech and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). We have heard powerful speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) and for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) and the hon. Members for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Angus (Mr Weir). One way or another, they all said the same thing: we need action and agreement on audio systems for electric and hybrid cars and other quiet vehicles before they become mainstream and not afterwards, when there has been an increase in collisions. My worry, however, is that that is what the Government’s policy is risking. I echo the points of my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside about the importance of proper legislation for road safety and will ask several questions of the Minister today.

It has been established that electric and hybrid vehicles can pose both a real and a perceived threat to the safety of vulnerable road users. The importance of vehicle noise in helping road users gauge proximity, direction and speed of nearby traffic has been mentioned many times today. It is right that most attention has been focused on blind and partially sighted people, but the range of affected people is wide and includes children, people with autism and older people. We are not even necessarily only talking about pedestrians; my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East rightly mentioned cyclists. If noise is eliminated from road vehicles, the risk to vulnerable road users increases.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

Another group has been pointed out to me on Twitter during the debate this afternoon. Someone tweeted me to say that they drive a Toyota Prius and are amazed that they have not yet knocked over and killed somebody who has stumbled out into the street when drunk. Walking around our town centres on a Friday or Saturday evening, one can understand where they are coming from.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport), Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

The hon. Lady makes a good point. It is important that this debate does not encourage people to wander around the roads while drunk, but we need to consider such people.

In certain manoeuvres, quiet vehicles can be twice as likely to be involved in collisions with pedestrians than vehicles with conventional internal combustion engines. Evidence from the US shows that quiet vehicles travelling at low speeds—we are principally discussing accidents at low speeds—cannot be heard until they are just one second away from impact with a pedestrian. Recent research from the TAS Partnership revealed that such vehicles were involved in 25% more collisions causing injury to pedestrians in 2010 to 2012 compared with the overall vehicle population.

Many hon. Members also mentioned that it is not simply a question of accident statistics; we are also discussing perceived danger and its impact on confidence. Recent EU research showed that 93% of blind and partially sighted people are already experiencing difficulties with electric vehicles. Personal testimonies collected from Guide Dogs reveal how vulnerable people can now feel less confident about leaving their homes. One guide dog owner said:

“Crossing roads safely is a huge part of my independent mobility. Quiet vehicles take away this independence.”

That point was made powerfully by the hon. Members for Sherwood and for Angus and by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South. Another guide dog owner said:

“the idea of stepping off the pavement into the path of something as lethal as a silent car is truly frightening.”

Big improvements in road safety for people with sensory loss have been made over recent years, including making crossings safer through the use of audible warnings, but the failure to ensure that low-carbon vehicles are audible would be real backwards step. In the light of the evidence presented today from across the Chamber, will the Minister confirm whether he accepts that quiet and electric vehicles pose both a real and a perceived threat to vulnerable road users?

In February 2013, the European Parliament voted on an amendment to the EU regulation on the sound level of motor vehicles, which I am pleased to say that Labour MEPs supported. The amendment would make the fitting of an acoustic vehicle alerting system—AVAS—mandatory in all electric and hybrid vehicles. Legislation mandating AVAS in all quiet vehicles has already been passed in the US and in Japan. A globally applicable UN technical specification will also be agreed in 2014.

I am, however, unsure about the Government’s position. Parliamentary question after parliamentary question has been submitted, but the answers seem to be the same: the Government are considering moving their negotiating position from a voluntary to a mandatory approach or that they are considering how to implement the requirements in the UK. In reply to my recent parliamentary question, I was concerned to hear the Minister say that the Government’s position had actually moved backwards and that they were opposed to a mandatory approach. I hope that he will confirm today that that is not the case.

If the change is anything to do with alleged burdens on businesses and on the motor industry, hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East, have made it clear that the technology to fit such devices is available and is relatively cheap. What motor manufacturers need is certainty. They need to know what is going to happen and when. For the Government constantly to say that they are considering this or thinking about that or considering making such devices voluntary is frankly no help to motor manufacturers. What is the intent behind the Government’s decision to wait until more electric and hybrid vehicles are on the road? Are the Government against mandatory AVAS systems in principle—most hon. Members here today, myself included, would not welcome that, but it would at least be a clear position to take issue with—or are they waiting for something to happen before they take a position on the EU regulation and its mandatory nature? If it is the latter, what is the Minister waiting for?

Photo of Stephen Phillips Stephen Phillips Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I apologise to Mrs Glindon for not being here for the beginning of the debate, as I was detained elsewhere. I rise partly because I believe that I am the only Member who is an electric car driver. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government will have to decide whether existing electric cars should be retrofitted with some form of device, so that all road users, particularly the blind, children and others identified in the debate, can be safe in the way that he is advocating?

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport), Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

I am not sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman is the only electric car driver, but I do not want to get into an argument about that. He makes an important point about retrofitting, which raises various issues. In my judgment, it is important to regulate quiet vehicles across the piece, not simply new ones. I say to the Minister that the longer we delay regulating or giving clarity to motor manufacturers about fitting devices, the greater the problem of retrofitting further down the line. Will the Minister state clearly what the Government are waiting for?

Evidence from other countries has already shown that quiet vehicles pose real dangers to vulnerable road users, and that has led to action in Japan and the United States. Such evidence is patchy, but I hope that the Government are not waiting for more accidents, with more people being killed or injured, to provide conclusive evidence before they will act. Surely, there is now enough evidence to support other European Union member states and some British MEPs who are saying that now is the time to do something. We have opportunities to act in the negotiations next week and the discussions on the regulation on 5 December. The UK Government should not hold back or delay that process or wait for proof, the form of which is not clear; they should be at the forefront of promoting road safety and standing up for vulnerable road users, and they should respond to today’s very clear call from Members on both sides of the Chamber.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 3:42, 30 October 2013

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate Mrs Glindon on securing this debate on electric vehicles and vulnerable road users. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate—Richard Burden listed them, so I will not do so—which has given me an early opportunity to review the issue.

I am responding to the debate, but my noble Friend Baroness Kramer covers this area of competence in the Department, and I have taken her advice. I hope hon. Members will feel as free to lobby her as they have lobbied me today. The Government take the issue seriously, because the concerns are very real and affect many road users daily. Ministers in my Department are united in our ambition to do what we can both to maintain and to improve safety standards.

The Government understand the real concerns of the visually impaired and other vulnerable road users about the potential hazards of very quiet vehicles, including electric vehicles. Quiet vehicles are not new. I am not sure whether it was Mr Rolls or Mr Royce who bragged that only the clock could be heard when one of their cars was running. Many of my generation will remember milk floats making deliveries to houses. Indeed, I came to Parliament today on a silent vehicle, a bicycle—panting was the only noise that could be heard—and there are hundreds more bicycles than electric or hybrid cars on the streets of London. Anyone who ventures to cross the road because they can hear nothing coming will quickly find that they might be hit by one of the bicycles ridden around London at breakneck speed.

I commend the Guide Dogs campaign, which has been effective in bringing concerns to the attention of a much wider audience. My predecessor, my hon. Friend Norman Baker, attended and spoke at its reception in June, and my officials have advised me that his speech was well received.

Susan Elan Jones said that many Members had expressed their opinions, but opinions are not a sufficient basis for Government action; we need firm evidence. Although the number of plug-in electric vehicles on our roads is still relatively small, it is growing. By the end of September, we had received more than 6,000 claims for plug-in car and van grants. More than 1,200 such claims were made in the last quarter, which makes it the best quarter to date, being 25% higher than the previous best quarter.

The Government are committed to establishing the UK as a leading market for ultra-low emission vehicles. We expect the uptake to continue to grow significantly as more and more vehicles—particularly those produced in the UK, I hope—come on to market. The Department for Transport is committed to promoting safety systems and new technologies wherever there is evidence that they help to reduce injuries and there is clear justification.

The European Commission has produced a proposal to permit the fitting of added noise systems to electric and hybrid vehicles, and separate steps are being taken at international level to agree standards for added noise systems and to ensure that they are effective without being intrusive. Once complete, those agreements should be incorporated into EU legislation. Factors to be discussed include the speed at which systems should be active, the type of noise and the sound levels, all of which have yet to be decided internationally.

On mandatory sound alerts for ultra-low emission vehicles, our position is based on an assessment of the risk that those vehicles pose to pedestrians. The Government sponsored research into that question, because research carried out in the United States had raised understandable concerns about the safety implications of quiet road vehicles.

Our research has suggested that there is no increased pedestrian risk associated with electric or hybrid vehicles in the United Kingdom. The published report has shown that although quieter vehicles are harder to hear approaching, as would be expected, the accident rates for electric and hybrid vehicles are broadly similar to those for conventional vehicles. The contradictory research in the US had suggested that there may be a higher rate of accidents for electric and hybrid vehicles, but we should be cautious about applying those results to the UK, where infrastructure and driver behaviour are different.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley Labour, Worsley and Eccles South

We do not have many such vehicles, although their number is increasing, as Members have said. Should not the caution be about not waiting till there have been lots of accidents? I just think that the Minister is approaching this the wrong way round.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

In introducing the debate, the hon. Member for North Tyneside said that the number of accidents involving such vehicles had tripled, but that is almost entirely attributable to the increased number of vehicles. The statistics show that although there is a slightly higher number of accidents per 10,000 cars for electric and hybrid vehicles, the increase is certainly not of the magnitude she mentioned.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport), Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

Is the Minister aware of the research from the TAS Partnership indicating that quiet vehicles were involved in 25% more collisions in which pedestrians were injured between 2010 and 2012 compared with the overall vehicle population? That surely cannot just be down to the increase in electric vehicles.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I accept that there is a slightly higher level for such vehicles, but that may be down to other factors, such as the amount they are used. We certainly need more research and data before that point can be recognised as valid.

We are aware of recent research carried out by Guide Dogs, which indicates a slight increase in the rate of pedestrian accidents involving electric and hybrid vehicles over the past three years, as has been said. Most of the recent difference between the figures for conventional vehicles and those with electric drives is due to a welcome, but unexplained, drop in the rate of pedestrian accidents involving conventional vehicles.

The lack of robust data is problematic. Before we decide to require the fitment of acoustic vehicle alerting systems, we should first undertake work to identify the real issues and decide whether they should be addressed through vehicle technology or by influencing the behaviour of road users. One of our main challenges is to decide when regulation is appropriate. We do not want to stifle innovation, but nor do we want to miss the opportunity to deliver real safety benefits. We are committed to a “better regulation” approach, which means that we will avoid the use of legislation in cases where market forces and industry standards can provide an outcome that is as good, or better, and we need to be clear about the costs and benefits before we consider a legislative approach.

Photo of Andrew Smith Andrew Smith Labour, Oxford East

If the Minister does not think that the information is there now to take that decision, when does he think that it will be there?

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Certainly, we will be keen to look at research as soon as it becomes available. Funnily enough, as a former MEP, I know that the issue was discussed in Europe more than seven years ago, but there was not sufficient research on which to move forward. Much of the work that we carried out in the European Parliament was about how to make vehicles quieter. We looked at how to make tyres quieter and how to improve our urban environment by having quieter vehicles. After all noise has an impact on us all.

Photo of Tracey Crouch Tracey Crouch Conservative, Chatham and Aylesford

Is the Minister aware that research from the European Union found that 93% of blind and partially sighted people have already experienced difficulties with electric vehicles? In the Department’s research, are the figures broken down by groups of people? For example, do we know whether the instances that he has highlighted involved other vehicles or pedestrians and whether those pedestrians were partially sighted or blind?

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I shall certainly mine into that information to see whether I can give my hon. Friend a bit more detail. As there is a relatively small number of hybrid and electric vehicles, and a small proportion of people affected because of sight problems, it is difficult to get statistically valid information.

We should recognise that drivers are responsible for driving with consideration and for avoiding accidents, and we need to be cautious about taking any position that might be seen as shifting responsibility for accident avoidance further towards the pedestrian. We should also avoid confusion with, for example, alerts that sound at pedestrian light controlled crossings. Bearing in mind that people travel extensively around the world, any confusion over that is something of which we should be aware. That is why we support an international agreement on that, and hopefully we can move forward in that way. Drivers should be paying attention, and they should not rely on the noise of their vehicles to warn pedestrians of their approach, or that they are about to move off.

We are keen to continue to work with Guide Dogs and its partners on this issue. We have forged a valuable relationship with them, and ministerial colleagues and I remain committed to finding a solution that continues to help its members enjoy their use of the road. Equally, we must be wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We should not forget that vehicle noise is a major blight on our towns and cities. A significant proportion of UK citizens are regularly exposed to road traffic noise above the level that the World Health Organisation considers a serious risk to public health. Quieter vehicles have the potential to transform our towns and cities, making them far more pleasant places in which to live and work.

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Labour, North Tyneside

I rise in relation to the perception that we all have of danger. Some 80% of it comes from our hearing, so sound plays a significant role in orientation for all pedestrians. Does the Minister not think that that is important? It affects everybody. If we are talking about 80% of our perception, it is a massive factor in avoiding danger, so we need sound to help us.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Certainly any pedestrian who relies solely on not hearing a vehicle coming would have problems given the number of cycles on our roads.

Let me briefly touch on one or two points that have been made in the debate. Mr McKenzie said that there was a genuine debate to be had over the type, volume and direction of the sound. That underlines the fact that we still do not have an absolutely clear way forward. What is the best sound and at what speed should that sound come into action? Indeed, should we have sounds coming out of the back of the vehicle when it is reversing, as many lorries already have, or out of the front?

A number of Members talked about their experience of wearing blacked-out spectacles. I also had that experience but without the guide dog. I found that there were many hazards with which people with impaired vision had to contend, including cars parking on paths and all the pavement clutter, such as tables and chairs at cafes, which most of us take for granted.

Mr Weir talked about rural areas. It is certainly the case that in towns, there are often pedestrian light controlled crossings or traffic lights with crossings at them, which make it much easier for blind and partially sighted people. He also referred to the concept of shared space, which a number of towns in the Netherlands have developed. A few tentative approaches have been made in this country as well. He said that, for a person with limited vision, it was a terrifying experience going on to a shared space area. However, in general, the evidence is that towns with such areas are safer than the ones with conventional traffic and pedestrian segregation. He also made the point that we introduced seatbelts to make the car safer, but there was very clear and real evidence that safety belts did improve safety.

I will briefly outline our commitment to ultra-low emission vehicles and why they offer a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support our growth ambitions and environmental commitments. Last month, we published an ultra-low emission vehicle strategy, “Driving the future today”, which set out our ambition to establish the UK as a leading market for such vehicles, with UK industry at the forefront of their design, development and manufacture. That included a commitment to launch a call for evidence later this year to help shape our package of support and to inform us on how best to utilise an additional £500 million of funding, which we are making available between 2015 and 2020 to support the growing market for low-emission vehicles.

We will launch the call for evidence shortly and welcome any views of vulnerable road users’ representative groups, and we will ensure that they are on the distribution list. The strategy and funding announcement together with the Budget 2013 commitments to maintaining a favourable tax regime for ultra-low emission vehicles to 2020 was specifically designed to give certainty to the market. We have already seen our policies bear fruit—for example, by attracting production of the Nissan Euro Leaf and battery in Sunderland, the Toyota Auris at Burnaston in Derbyshire, and BMW’s i8 powertrain at Hams Hall in Warwickshire.

We also recognise the importance and excellence of the UK’s automotive research and development sector, with £1.5 billion of annual investment by the industry. In support of that, the Government have provided more than £80 million of targeted funding for low-carbon vehicle technologies through the Office for Low Emission Vehicles. By channelling that money through the Technology Strategy Board, and working closely with industry, we have helped generate more than £350 million of total investment in nearly 200 collaborative projects that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from road vehicles. Following publication of our new strategy, I am proud to say that the UK now has one of the most long-term and comprehensive packages of support for ultra-low emission vehicles in the world.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Shadow Minister (Transport), Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, Chair, International Development Sub-Committee on the Work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact

The Minister is giving the Chamber some impressive statistics about investment. Will he say how much is being invested in the safety of quiet vehicles? If he is not able to tell us today, will he write to us about that?

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

All manufacturers have to produce vehicles, including ultra-low emission ones, to safe standards. I shall ask my officials to find out what specific research and development funding has gone into that.

We recognise that there is a balance to be struck between the growth opportunity and the concerns of the vulnerable road users. We welcome any evidence that will help us refine our policy so that the switch to ultra-low emission vehicles will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people while maintaining the paramount importance of safety considerations for all road and pavement users, including those with limited sight. I will certainly pass on the comments that were made today to my noble Friend, Baroness Kramer.

Sitting suspended.