Road Safety

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 10 December 2013.

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Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham 11:00, 10 December 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, and a privilege and pleasure to see in his place the Minister, my hon. Friend Mr Goodwill, for whom I have great admiration and respect. I am delighted to have secured this debate on road safety, an issue affecting every one of us in society; all of us use the roads at some point. The issue has been raised with me by many of my constituents, by charities campaigning for safer roads and by many other organisations.

It is fair that I should declare my interest at the beginning. I was once named by Brake as a champion of road safety for my campaigning on drink-driving. It is only right that I should put that on the record. I understand that the issue of road safety is covered by two Departments: the Department for Transport and, in relation to sentencing on matters such as drink-driving, the Ministry of Justice. There is greater collaboration on that matter.

Every death on our roads is an avoidable tragedy and every injury a preventable suffering. Our roads have become safer and are among the safest in the world, but last year more than 195,000 casualties were still reported to the police. We should not lose sight of the achievements made in improving road safety. Last year, there were fewer fatalities in the UK than in most other countries in Europe and the rest of the world, and in 2012, one third as many people were killed on our roads as 20 years ago, but more can and should be done to reduce harm to road users. In November is road safety week, which since 1997 has been organised by Brake and involves schools, organisations and community groups taking action to improve road safety. It is a reminder that we can make our roads even safer and reduce tragedy if we all work together.

This is only a short debate, so I will focus on some key factors contributing to road casualties. The first are drink-driving, driving while disqualified and driver distractions. Colleagues may have other road safety issues to put to the Minister, and they should do so.

We all know the dangers posed by those who choose to drink and drive. Department for Transport figures show that the number of deaths from drinking and driving has increased by 17%, accounting for 16% of all road deaths in the UK. The latest review of drink-driving laws in 2010 by Sir Peter North noted that a minority of drivers persist in drink-driving and that many of those caught are well above the legal limit. A staggering 40% are 2.5 times over the limit. Many go on to reoffend; more than 12,000 people a year convicted of drink-driving offences have previously been convicted for such an offence.

This year, I proposed a ten-minute rule Bill to raise the maximum prison sentence for repeat drink-drivers from six months to two years, to give the courts the additional powers that they need to tackle persistent offenders.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an issue that I know he feels strongly about. Does he agree that part of the problem with the law at the moment is that magistrates are required to give a discount for a guilty plea from defendants convicted of multiple drink-driving offences while disqualified, even if the reading is high? Their powers of punishment are insufficient, which they find frustrating when they are trying to mete out justice.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that he saw that for himself when he was a solicitor and dealt with such cases. When I was a barrister, I saw that the police and all the other agencies found it frustrating that an offender could be brought to court yet given a limited—even minimal—sentence for serious offences, even taking into consideration the danger that they posed to wider society.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the combination of offences. Normally, somebody who has been drink-driving has probably also been done for driving while disqualified. I will refer in due course to driving while disqualified, but his point is valid. I thank him for supporting my ten-minute rule Bill on drink-driving and repeat offending and my private Member’s Bill on driving while disqualified.

My Bill has the support of Brake, the Royal Automobile Club and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. In today’s edition of The Times,there is an article by Julie Townsend, the deputy chief executive of Brake, saying that even one drink is now too many for most drivers, urging the Government to consider reviewing what is happening in other parts of Europe and asking that the legal alcohol limit be reduced. Undoubtedly, the Minister will comment on that in due course.

My first question to the Minister is this. What are the Government doing to address persistent drink-drivers? Secondly, will the Government support my Bill to raise the maximum sentence to two years for repeat offenders? Thirdly, will they also consider reviewing the sentencing guidelines for drink-drivers?

Those who repeatedly drive while disqualified are linked to repeat drink-driving offences, as my hon. Friend Gareth Johnson pointed out. According to a reply to my recent parliamentary questions, Government figures show that in 2012, 42% of offenders sentenced for driving while disqualified had received a conviction for the same offence within the previous 10 years, and 72% of offenders who received a custodial sentence had been convicted for the same offence within the past decade. As with drink-driving, the maximum sentence for driving while disqualified is six months’ imprisonment or a level 5 fine. The Magistrates’ Association has raised the issue with me, saying that its members are concerned by the many instances of the offence, sometimes repeated many times, and are frustrated that their powers of imprisonment are insufficient.

Last week, I introduced two Bills to strengthen the law on driving while disqualified. The first would increase the maximum sentence that a driver can receive for causing death while disqualified from the current two years’ imprisonment to 14 years, in line with the current penalty for causing death by dangerous driving. The second would increase the maximum jail sentence to two years for repeat offenders who continue to drive even after having been banned.

My fourth question to the Minister is: will the Government consider increasing the maximum sentence for disqualified drivers and support my Bills? Fifthly, will they consider reverting driving while disqualified to an either-way offence, as it was prior to 1988? I understand that such issues are dealt with predominantly by the Ministry of Justice, but their implications for road safety are immense.

On alcolocks, existing measures’ contribution to reducing drink-driving seems to have decreased due to a hard core of heavy drinkers who are not susceptible to them. We therefore need to consider new ways to reduce drinking and driving. Several EU countries, including Sweden, France and Holland, have introduced alcohol ignition interlocks, commonly referred to as alcolocks, which are alcohol testers connected to the car’s start-up mechanism. They have been found to help reduce repeat offending, especially when used as part of a rehabilitation programme. Various international studies have shown that alcolock users had 65% to 95% fewer repeat offences than drivers whose driving licence was suspended or revoked. The previous Government conducted a trial programme in 2005, but there was never any follow-up.

The North report in 2010 discussed the use of alcolocks and said that trials had shown that there are merits in such initiatives, because when alcolocks are in use they prevent people from drink-driving. There are also existing powers in place, although not in force, under the Road Safety Act 2006, for offenders to be referred to an alcohol ignition programme.

Recently the European Commission has been working on developing a common road safety enforcement strategy, which could include making use of alcolocks in certain cases. So, my sixth question to the Minister is this: what recent assessment have the Government made of the effectiveness of introducing alcolocks in the UK? Seventhly, will the Minister consider the evidence from other European countries on the potential benefits of introducing alcolocks? Eighthly, what discussions have been taking place to introduce alcolocks across the European Union?

I move on to the next category that I wish to discuss. This year, the Government made a welcome move to tighten up the rules for high-risk offenders—those offenders who have been caught more than two-and-a-half times over the legal limit, who have two or more convictions for drink-driving within two years or who refuse to provide a sample. The rule changes mean that high-risk offenders must pass a medical examination to prove that they are fit to drive before they can do so.

Although the scheme has been shown to help reduce reoffending, there are concerns that a fifth of high-risk offenders have been on the register before. Evidence shows that a driver at two times the legal limit is at least 50 times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident. So my ninth question to the Minister is this: what consideration has been given to lowering the level for high-risk offenders to two times the alcohol limit? Tenthly, how effective has the scheme been in ensuring that those people who should not be driving are not on the road?

I move on to my final category, which is distractions. The theme for this year’s road safety week was, “Tune in”, asking people to “tune in” to road safety and give it their full attention. Driver distraction is a major cause of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Research shows that although it is now illegal to use mobile phones at the wheel, around a third of drivers continue to flout the law.

Other distractions can include eating and smoking at the wheel, which have been shown to increase the risk of a crash. Furthermore, evidence suggests that talking on a phone while driving can be worse than drinking alcohol, with reaction times 30% slower for people using a hands-free phone than for those driving with a blood alcohol level of 80 mg per 100 ml of blood. So, my final question to the Minister is this: will he review the evidence on the dangers of hands-free mobile phone use when driving?

In conclusion, further measures are needed if we are to remain a world leader on road safety, and we must consider ways to reduce deaths and injuries on our roads. I look forward to hearing the Minister respond to the questions that I have put to him.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

Before I call Sir Peter Bottomley to speak, I want to inquire whether he has permission to do so from the Member who secured the debate.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West 11:12, 10 December 2013

I am grateful to the Minister and to my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this debate as part of his battery of attention.

I wish to add a few words that go beyond the law and away from enforcement. I had responsibility for road casualty reduction from 1986 to 1989. We set out a plan to reduce the fatalities and serious injuries by mistake and slight injuries by a third by the year 2000. Since then, successive generations—both of Ministers and of road users—have reduced the deaths from about 5,600 a year to about 1,750 a year. The numbers will fluctuate: the year before last, there was a slight increase, then last year there was a significant reduction. Part of that fluctuation is due to chance; part of it is due to factors beyond what we actually do.

What is clear is that it is what road users themselves do that makes the biggest difference. Safer roads, yes; safer vehicles, yes; better medicine, yes. However, the biggest change, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, has been in the consequences of over-the-limit drink-driving. Deaths in that category have come down from 1,200 a year to about 200 a year; there has been a reduction of more than four-fifths in the number of deaths caused by people driving after drinking the equivalent of a bottle of wine or more.

That reduction was not achieved by enforcement—there has been no change of law, no change of sentencing and no change of penalties. It has come about because more hosts have provided alcohol-free drinks and expected people to take them; because more passengers have picked alcohol-free drivers; and because more people, like me, decide in advance, “Is it going to be drinking tonight or is it going to be driving?”

I would argue that learning those lessons would probably do as much good, if not more, as some of the proposals that have been put forward by some groups. More than 20 years ago, I received constant demands for a lower alcohol limit—automatic conviction for people with lower limits of alcohol in their bodies. However, those are not the prime people we are discussing today; as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham rightly said, it is the people who are at twice the legal limit or above. I support his suggestion that bringing down the measurement for being excessively over-the-limit from two-and-a-half times the limit to two times the limit would work.

We also ought to consider introducing sureties, so that people who have been convicted for being well above the legal limit should have to pay money into a fund during the months when they are disqualified from driving, which they will get back if they are not caught reoffending by drink-driving during, say, the next five years. Instead of suddenly trying to impose a fine on them at the end of a period, there would be money in the bank that they would get back if they showed that their alcoholism, or other behaviour, could be controlled.

I will end my brief contribution by saying to the Minister that I intend today to put down some written questions on one part of the road environment that I know he is familiar with. I do not ask him to answer these questions now, but I shall be asking about the contrast between pelican and puffin crossings, and particularly whether it is right to allow any local highway authority to maintain and keep any pelican crossing with multi-lane approaches.

We have only to look at some of the pelican crossings around Westminster to see the dangers of such crossings. I will ask the Minister whether any highway authority is installing pelican crossings now and, if they are, whether they should be required to obtain his permission to put in a pelican crossing rather than a puffin crossing.

We all know that most of us are doing the things that we learned 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Well, 10, 20 or 30 years ago, we were not aware of the dangers of pelican crossings compared with puffin crossings. The Safer Roads Foundation, with Michael Woodford, which has the support of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, has raised this issue. It has used research from the Transport Research Laboratory, and I think that it is time that we in Parliament put pressure on local highway authorities, through the Minister, and say to them, “No more pelican crossings, and those that do exist should not be renewed as pelican crossings. And if you intend to put in a pelican crossing, explain why you think that it is going to be safer than putting in a puffin crossing.” It is time that we took this automatic way of reducing risks and reducing the casualties associated with those risks.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 11:17, 10 December 2013

Thank you very much for calling me to speak, Mr Dobbin. You seem to have drawn the short straw again in having me in one of these debates.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti on securing this debate. Road safety is an issue that has long been close to my heart. The UK is a world leader in road safety. Our statistics show fewer road deaths per million population than in almost any other EU country. Road deaths in the UK are lower by almost a factor of four than in the United States, and they are also lower than in Germany or France. From 2011 to 2012, the number of people killed in road accidents reported to the police decreased by 7.7% to 1,754, which is the lowest figure on record. The number of casualties also fell by 4%, including a reduction in the number of people seriously injured on our roads. However, there is no room for complacency. Every death and serious injury is a tragedy, and it remains vital to reduce the number of people who are killed or seriously injured on the UK’s roads. Even one death on our roads is too many.

Many of the issues that my hon. Friend raised about sentencing and penalties are matters for the Ministry of Justice; it would probably expect me not to encroach too far on to its territory, but I hope that there can be an engagement between the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Transport and my hon. Friend, to consider how we can review some of these sentences and penalties. I am assured that all penalties are constantly under review in the light of experience.

I turn now to drink-driving and repeat offenders. I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the impact of drink-driving. My hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley outlined his own involvement in dealing with this issue. I must admit that I have not thought about it for very long, but his idea of a surety that could be built up before being returned to a driver if they are successful in not drinking and in meeting the medical requirements imposed on them seems—at the outset—to be a sensible idea. I also note the points that he made about puffin crossings. I have had a meeting with him and with those who have produced a very useful video that shows some of the dangers faced by people using the old pelican crossings with multi-lane approaches.

We have a proven strategy for tackling drink-driving and repeat offenders, which combines legislation, enforcement, engineering and communications. We work closely with the police and other organisations on education, and on communicating drink-drive messages in a consistent way. As a result, there has been a step change in public attitudes to drink-driving. Indeed, the current generation of young people regard drinking and driving as a complete no-no.

Since 1979, drink-driving casualties, deaths and serious injuries have fallen dramatically. There has been an almost sixfold reduction in the number of people killed in drink-drive related accidents and a similar drop in seriously injured casualties. In 2011, we saw the lowest level of drink-driving fatalities since detailed reporting began. Provisional figures suggest that the number of people killed in drink-drive accidents in 2012 increased by 17% on the previous year, from 240 to 280. However, that estimate is provisional; it is based on a limited sample of data and will be finalised next year when a more complete sample is available. The provisional sample is based on a large degree of uncertainty and there have been significant revisions in previous years.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

This extra, helpful suggestion is probably more for the Department of Justice than the courts. When there is an inquest into or a prosecution resulting from a death through over-the-limit drink-driving, might I suggest that inquiries should be made and presented to the court about where the person was drinking, who knew they were drinking, who knew they were driving and whether those people did anything to dissuade the person from driving after heavy drinking?

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

I am sure that those listening to this debate in the Justice Department will have taken heed of my hon. Friend’s point. That is part of our campaign over Christmas. One police force has been encouraging people to shop their mates who insist on drinking and driving. Often, people try to remove keys from the driver but they still insist on driving.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham mentioned the drink-drive limit. My current view is that we should not reduce the drink-drive limit; we have a gold standard limit and a gold standard penalty. Although other countries in the European Union have a lower limit, they also have lower penalties. I would not want to demote the offence of drink-driving and for it to be in a similar bracket with speeding or other motoring offences. It is right to stick with the decision made in a review some years ago about our drink-drive limit and to stick with disqualification, which is the penalty that really makes people sit up and take notice.

On campaigns and communication, just last week I launched the Think! drink-drive campaign, highlighting the snowball effect that a drink-driving conviction can have on one’s future job prospects. Up to 1 million people work in jobs that they could lose as a result of a drink-drive conviction, and almost a third of people would have to give up their job as a result of such a conviction because they rely on a car to get to work. Additionally, it could affect a person’s chance of getting another job, because any employer can ask to see unspent criminal convictions. Drink-driving is a criminal offence. A drink-driving conviction can have a devastating impact on people’s personal life, leading to a driving ban, criminal record, job loss and even imprisonment. That is the message we are giving this Christmas. The Think! drink-drive campaign has been running for more than three decades and last week it was awarded a Prince Michael international road safety award for the part it has played in helping to reduce drink-drive casualties.

Last week, the sixth annual Coca-Cola designated driver campaign was launched, in partnership with Think! This allows drivers to benefit from a “Buy one, get one free” offer on Coca-Cola products over the festive season. I must point out that other carbonated beverages are also available.

What new measures are being introduced? We are also introducing new legislation, through the Deregulation Bill, to close the loopholes on drink-drive enforcement. One of these loopholes is the so-called statutory option. If the lower of the driver’s breath readings is below 50 micrograms per 100 ml of breath, they are entitled to have their breath sample replaced by a specimen of blood or urine. This measure has been in place since 1981 and was included due to concerns about the reliability of evidential breath-testing devices at the time. But the process can lead to delays in obtaining the specimen where there is not a resident health care professional at the police station, which can result in a negative blood or urine test. Roadside breath-testing machines have been developed extensively and there are no longer concerns about reliability. More than 30 years on, it is time that the statutory option is removed.

We are improving devices further. Roadside evidential breath-testing devices are currently being type-approved by the Home Office. Once that process is complete, police officers will be able to collect evidential specimens at the time the offence is committed. We are supporting that by removing the requirement for a preliminary breath test where a roadside evidential breath test is performed. This means that in difficult operational scenarios, police officers will only need to take two breath specimens instead of three. Another measure is to allow registered health care professionals to take blood specimens in hospitals. This makes blood collection consistent with that in police stations, streamlining the process.

Drink-drivers pose a grave risk to other road users. Repeat offenders are a particular cause for concern, because previous contact with the criminal justice system has evidently done little to change their behaviour. I appreciate why my hon. Friend is keen to ensure that appropriate maximum penalties are available to the courts when dealing with these cases. The Ministry of Justice is looking at this issue. I do not wish to pre-empt the outcome of that work, but I assure the House that the Government agree that these are important issues and we are considering them carefully. In the meantime, we will continue to work to improve preventive and enforcement measures, to deter drink-drivers and communicate the implications of drink-driving convictions.

On drug-driving—

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

Recently, I was made aware of a campaign in some parts of the country where people are given £1,000 to shop an individual they think is susceptible of drinking and driving. Does the Minister agree that it is completely unacceptable to use taxpayers’ money for that purpose? We should be doing the good thing regardless, because it is right to make the authorities aware when somebody is about to commit a crime, rather than having incentives for reporting a susceptibility to crime.

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

I wondered when I saw that campaign by Derbyshire police—I think—whether it was more about getting headlines than getting people to shop their mates, so to speak, but I am interested in its effects. It has certainly publicised this issue and, hopefully, will deter even more people from drink-driving.

Alcohol interlocks, or alcolocks, are a relatively recent development in drink-driving, which prevent operation of the vehicle engine if the driver provides a breath sample that is above a specified alcohol limit. The provision for introducing them was included in the Road Safety Act 2006. These devices are used in some countries to manage some people with drink-driving convictions. Experience suggests that they are effective while in use, but that drivers revert to offending once the interlock is removed. Better results have been experienced where a programme is closely supervised and supplemented by education and counselling. However, the driver can get around the alcolock in other ways—for example, by changing the car they drive.

The Department undertook research in 2009 into the practicalities of a judicial programme. That concluded that the costs of implementing and enforcing a scheme are likely to be disproportionate. A scheme might also give those who could afford to take part the benefit of a discounted disqualification, without evidence that this achieves a long-term change in a drink-driver’s behaviour.

Therefore, there are no plans to implement the use of alcohol interlock devices. However, I understand that some bus and lorry fleet operators use these devices.

My hon. Friend asked what discussions are going on in the European Union. There have been some informal official-level discussions on the pros and cons of the use of alcohol interlocks in EU member states. The European Commission consultation on the issue closed on 15 August. We have not yet received notification of the outcome. However, no formal proposals have been received from the EC in this regard.

As with repeat drink-drivers, drivers who flout driving bans are a significant risk to road users and repeat offenders are obviously a concern. In tragic cases where a driver causes a death, not only has a life been cut short, but it can also have a devastating effect on the victim’s family.

High-risk offenders are drink-driving offenders disqualified from driving for a number of reasons. A person is a high-risk offender if they are more than two and a half times over the legal limit for alcohol in breath, blood or urine. I am not aware of any plans to change that, but I hear my hon. Friend’s representations. People also fall into that category if they fail to provide a specimen for testing or if they refuse consent for a sample taken when they were incapacitated to be analysed. Repeat offenders are also high-risk offenders. If someone has been disqualified twice or more within 10 years for being over the legal limit or unfit to drive, they are a high-risk offender. We are considering the parameters in that regard. If correspondence from frustrated drivers who find it increasingly difficult to get their licence back is anything to go by, the system is working.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his hard work raising awareness and promoting the aims of road safety, and for this opportunity to speak on the subject. I hope that I have demonstrated our degree of commitment to road safety issues. The UK has one of the best road safety records in the world and we are working to ensure continued reductions in the numbers of people killed and seriously injured.

Sitting suspended