I beg to move,
That this House
has considered road traffic accident prevention.
It is a pleasure to introduce my debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. We are long-term colleagues and often compete for Mr Speaker’s eye, but always on a very good and familiar basis, so I am looking forward to this debate.
Some hon. Members will know that road traffic accident prevention is a long-term interest of mine. As a very young man, a very long time ago, I came into the House after having seen the deaths of two young people who were thrown from their car and who died by the side of the road. That image never left me or my imagination—it haunted me—and when I got into the House, we had tried 13 times to introduce compulsory seatbelts, and 13 times that had been defeated. On an all-party basis, a number of us organised and formed a group to campaign. As you might know, Mr Hollobone, the 14th time, the night before a royal wedding, we kept our troops here on an amendment tabled by Lord Nugent of Guildford, a Conservative peer. It bounced back to the House of Commons. We kept our troops here and the others did not. Remember that in those days Mrs Thatcher, Michael Foot and both Chief Whips were against seatbelts. We held our nerve, kept our troops here and, by a majority of 72, seatbelt legislation was introduced. How many lives have we saved since then? It was a really good fight and victory.
These days, we could all be in a nice cosy bubble, thinking, “Isn’t it wonderful? The UK, the British, are leading on road safety. We are an exemplar to the rest of the world. We sometimes vie a little bit with Sweden, but we are pretty darn good.” Well, I have to tell you, Mr Hollobone, that 1,730 people died on British roads last year. For 1,730 families, there was a knock on the door to tell them that their loved one was dead. And these are preventable accidents. This is not like a disease; it is not like getting something ghastly and wasting away. This is something that happens for all sorts of reasons, but it means that those families are devastated. If I may say a little on the financial side, it of course costs the country a great deal. Every road death costs an enormous amount of money, and that is in addition to the human tragedy.
When we organised the seatbelt legislation, a group of MPs set up something called the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Today, most people call it PACTS, and it has become one of the most influential transport safety groups in the world. We are an exemplar to many Parliaments throughout the world, and we spend a lot of time persuading other Parliaments to follow our path.
Also, after 10 years, we got together with a group of the Dutch, Germans, Belgians and Swedes to form the European Transport Safety Council, which has become the most influential group across Europe. We are very proud of that. Sometime afterwards, I had the honour of being asked to form, with the backing of the World Bank, the Global Road Safety Partnership, which operated and still operates right across the world, trying to save—this is a desperate number—the 1.3 million people in the world who die every year on the roads. Yes, some countries have much less regulation than we do. In India and China particularly, the situation is tragic, as it is in South Africa. There are dreadful accidents, deaths and serious injuries in other countries, but today I want to concentrate on the UK.
As I have said, 1,730 people died on our roads last year. I think that we are becoming a little cosy and complacent about that number of deaths. I am not saying that we are becoming too complacent. I am looking at the Minister, who is a good friend of mine. He is a very good Minister, but I will nudge him today in a kindly way. Five people are killed every day in our country. That is five families destroyed. Ahead of today’s debate, I was inundated with emails and tweets, many of which were from bereaved families who had been torn apart by the actions of drunk, drugged or distracted drivers. That is the truth of the matter: the deaths are preventable.
All the time in this Parliament we are trying to get more Members engaged in reducing the casualties on their patch, bringing the figures down home. Every year, PACTS issues to every Member of Parliament—I hope that everyone can pick this up online or through PACTS—a dashboard showing what happens in their constituency, but it does not only show that: it shows how many deaths and how many serious accidents there have been, and we rate the constituency against other similar constituencies. That is a very useful tool. Someone cannot say, “I happen to live in a very dense urban area and the roads are terrible,” or “I live near a motorway.” All that is accounted for, so if someone’s constituency is well above the norm in this regard, they as the Member of Parliament should be out there campaigning with a coalition or partnership.
That is a brilliant intervention, because it is in the later part of my speech! It is true that the very sophisticated dashboard that some models of car now have, showing drivers not only how to park—self-parking—but all the hazards and all the different information that they can log into, is becoming an area of great concern, but the reason I have kept to a good, true and relatively sane path in transport safety is that I was converted by some of the best scientists in our universities and in the Transport Research Laboratory and other places to always remember: do not go for hearts and flowers; go for good science, good evidence, and what works in countries such as ours. I have always stuck to that, and it has guided me and my colleagues very well.
Understandably, there is an uprising of feeling when something dreadful happens, and recently we have seen some dreadful things—families being killed, mothers with children being killed, by distracted drivers. We know about that, but we have to bear it in mind that, overall, good science, good evidence, should be the watchword. I look at my friend Jake Berry—he is a friend on these matters particularly—and I say, “Let’s do the science. Let’s do the evaluation of the level of distraction caused by every innovation, including the new design of car interiors.” I think that that should be ongoing. I have not seen the results of research on that, but I know that it is a worrying area.
In Europe, 26,300 people died last year, and there was a slightly rising curve in our own country. I want now to mention the Twitter involvement in this debate. May I commend it, Mr Hollobone? What a wonderful innovation it is that now, when there is to be a Westminster Hall debate, we can involve the broader public by asking what they think about the debate we are to have on the following day. We had one for an hour yesterday. There was a lot of involvement and there were excellent ideas.
One of the top concerns for people was driver education. There is no doubt that young people are very vulnerable in the early years after they first learn to drive, when there are many accidents. There is evidence of young people not driving in the proper way and of that leading to pretty horrific casualties—the deaths and serious injuries of young people in their teens and early twenties.
My wife knows me extremely well—we have been married a very long time and have four children and 10 grandchildren; I do not know if that is a record among those in the Chamber, but I would not mind putting a bet on it—and always thought I had something of the Italian in my driving style, but I once amazed her by passing the test for the advanced driving certificate. I took the advanced drivers’ course possibly because I thought I was not a very good driver. A lot of evidence shows that good driving behaviour comes from good learning and good education early in a young person’s driving career, but there is also growing evidence relating to older drivers. I talked to a chief constable in one of the coastal towns in which we used to have party conferences three or four years ago, and he said, “I am not so worried these days about young people having accidents; I am worried about older people who share with younger children a diminished ability to judge distance and speech, and who drive very badly as they get older. There is no one in the family with the guts to say, ‘Mum, Dad—it’s time you stopped driving.’” We therefore need good training for both young and older people and to ensure that the Government do all that they can to ensure that both groups are well educated on this life-and-death issue.
More than 200 tweets yesterday wanted distractions to be given a top priority. One of the largest distractions that people are talking about these days is mobile phones, and I absolutely agree that there should be that level of public interest. There was the interest in the issue of drink and drugs, which we have had steady improvement on. The Minister knows that I am concerned that there is still not an effective roadside test for alcohol, so that people do not have to take up so much police time by going to the police station for testing, and so on. We have roadside testing for drugs but not for alcohol at the moment. However, the real priority for the public is the distraction caused by mobile phones.
There is no doubt that we are seeing high-profile cases in which people are being distracted by their mobile phone and causing dreadful accidents. I do not want to go into all the recent tragic cases, but many in this Chamber will know about the family killed by the lorry driver who was scrolling through songs on his phone. That was a terrible thing to have happened, and I can see why anyone who loses their lovely family, or members of their family, wants the strongest possible sentence for that sort of behaviour. I have a lot of respect for that view, although it does sometimes lead people to look for a silver-bullet solution for the problems that we face. There is no silver bullet, but there is the evaluation of all accidents backed up by good evidence. Although I have sympathy with the idea of having stiff penalties for people who use their mobile phones or who drink or take drugs and drive, it will not save all the lives that we are talking about. The situation is more complicated than that.
There is also less public knowledge about the risk of drivers with poor eyesight. Road crashes due to poor driver vision are estimated to cause 2,900 casualties in the UK every year. I am not advertising Vision Express—my glasses are not from Vision Express, by the way—but its interesting survey found that 94% of people are unaware that vision can deteriorate by up to 40% before the driver starts to notice. Leaving drivers to self-report poor eyesight seems to Vision Express—I share this view—not to be a good idea. I certainly noticed as I got older that my vision, especially at dusk and when driving at night, was not as good as it should be. I recommend that we have tighter control on tests of good vision for drivers, certainly as they get older.
I want to intervene before the hon. Gentleman gives my entire speech. Does he agree that too few people really understand about the loss of eyesight and the fact that they lose their eyesight in the way that they do? We need to do more as a nation to publicise it and get people to recognise it.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will not detain the Chamber for long with the rest of my speech, but I add that the UK is one of only five EU countries that does not legally require drivers to be tested by a medical or optical professional as part of their driving test, so she is absolutely right.
Another issue that is becomingly increasingly evident—with this I will upset the Minister—is the lack of police officers making sure that our roads are safe. The number of road traffic officers is down 23% from 2010. I raised this issue on Monday in Home Office questions, which you were there for, Mr Hollobone. The night before, I was coming back from Cambridge, with my wife driving, and on the M11 an enormous rescue van—a lorry—with another lorry on top was proceeding at over 65 miles an hour where there was a 50-mile-an-hour limit. The size and weight of that in an accident would have killed a lot of people. Road traffic technology is able to detect such drivers. There are those who drive—I said “like maniacs”, but perhaps that was a bit harsh—in a very dangerous fashion with no fear that there will a flashing blue light and that they will be pulled over, and I have to say there is a relationship between proper policing on the roads and good detection. I go to many conferences on transport safety and have spoken at a number of big conferences this summer. I see wonderful technology there, but that will not replace the police—in cars and on motorbikes—on our roads. That point will upset the Minister most; he and I usually get on quite well.
The Government have said that they are serious about making our roads safer, but I will ask the Minister about another thing that will upset him—that is, targets. For some reason, both the coalition and the present Governments believed that targets are not the sort of thing that they should have. They do not like them, and there is a kind of ideological resistance to them. However, all the research across the world—he knows I believe in research—shows that if there are no targets for road casualty reduction, we will not see the reduction. There has to be a road casualty reduction programme—that is very valuable. I do not know of any leading expert, in or out of the Government, who honestly disagrees with that view. We need targets in order to get a reduction.
I was taken by the people who got involved with us on Twitter yesterday and said that we need to have that wonderful, but perhaps unrealistic, target of zero casualties and zero deaths on our roads. That is visionary and optimistic, but we know that targets work. We all know that we do not get casualty reduction in any country, or any part of a country, without a partnership and a team that have passion and leadership and care about this useless waste of life.
Mr Hollobone, you know that I am passionate about this issue. I know that not enough of our colleagues in the House of Commons are still interested enough in transport safety. It is a bit unfashionable and not sexy enough for some, but it is vital to the people that we represent.
I thought that my hon. Friend might be perorating towards a conclusion. [Interruption.] No, there is much more to come. I commend him for his passion and all his work over the years on this important subject. Will he say something about cyclists’ safety in particular? I am sure that a number of the tweets he mentioned would have referred to that. Does he agree that we all have an obligation, whether as cyclists or as motorists, to promote cycling safety? He referred to the Netherlands: do we not have a lot to learn from the success of its dedicated provision for cyclists in the interests of safety?
My right hon. Friend makes a very fair point. I made a decision that I would not cover everything in this discussion but, yes, increasingly there are vulnerable road users including cyclists and pedestrians, both children and adults. There is also an increasing concern—I am sure the Minister is listening—about the number of really horrid, terrible, tragic accidents involving heavy goods vehicles. All the conferences and presentations I saw this summer mentioned the increasing relationship between horrible accidents in places like London and HGVs. But, to be honest, I have to say—I am not a London MP, but a Yorkshire one—there has actually been more improvement in road safety standards and casualty reduction in London than in many places outside. We can get carried away by the passion and enthusiasm, but my message is that these are avoidable deaths, and we should use good science, good evidence and practical work done in other places to learn and improve.
The debate finishes at no later than 5.30 pm. The guideline speech limits for the three Front Benchers are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. That means that I need to call the Front Benchers no later than seven minutes past 5. It is now nine minutes to 5, which means that we basically have 15 minutes, and there are four people who want to speak. If hon. Members limit themselves voluntarily to four minutes, I will not have to impose a time limit. If you go over four minutes, somebody is not going to be able to speak. Rebecca Harris will show us how she can make all the points she wants to within four minutes.
Thank you very much for calling me in this important debate, Mr Hollobone. As the Minister is well aware, I have been campaigning for a long time to raise awareness of the issue of drivers being medically fit to drive, particularly focusing on drivers having regular eye tests to prevent unnecessary casualties on our roads. I have been doing so ever since I met one of my constituents, Rev. Brenda Gutberlet, who told me the tragic story of her niece, Natalie, who, at the age of 28 and using a pedestrian crossing properly, was knocked down by a driver who knew he was unfit to drive because his eyes were too poor. He killed Natalie and she died on Valentine’s day 2006. Her death was entirely preventable and the family have been campaigning tirelessly ever since to try to make improvements.
There have been improvements—in particular, the introduction in 2013 of Cassie’s law, giving the police the power immediately to ban from driving anyone who fails a roadside test. The law was particularly welcome and I have seen it in action myself. I went out with my road safety reduction partnership in Essex, led by the superb Adam Pipe. I was in a car with a road safety traffic officer who pulled over a gentleman driving at 20 mph on a dual carriageway. When tested at the roadside, he failed the number plate test at five metres. He was a very nice elderly gentleman who did not realise how bad his eyesight was and reported to us that he had not has his eyes tested since he was in the Army. We were able to take his licence off him, get him home and refer him to get a prescription.
The nub of the matter is that there are people out there who do not appreciate how much their eyesight has deteriorated because the brain adjusts and they get used to it. They start saying, “Well, it’s a bit blurry, but I can kind of see and I am only doing local journeys.” We really need to get the message across to people who knowingly drive with poor eyesight and to those who, frankly, do not realise that they are driving with insufficient eyesight to be safely behind the wheel of a car.
Mr Sheerman mentioned the statistics in recent research by Vision Express. It thinks that about 3,000 casualties a year are caused by poor eyesight, but it is hard to know because they are not all recorded and it is not always obvious that they were due to poor eyesight, so there could be many more. We need statistics, but we also need to ensure that drivers understand their responsibility, particularly when they get to about 40 and their sight problems start to fall off the edge of a cliff. An awful lot of people simply have not had their eyes tested since they took their driving test, which was, on average, 15 or so years ago, and for many a great deal longer.
To be honest, I am not calling for compulsory sight testing. I do not think we necessarily need to legislate, but we could do things such as using electronic motorway displays to remind people of the need to take tests, as Brake and Vision Express have been calling for. They would like to see gantry signs saying, “Eye tests save lives.” Perhaps we could also do something like asking people, when they renew their licence, not just, “Are you fit to drive?”—that is easy to tick and say yes to—but, “Have you had an eye test within the last couple of years?” It is much harder for someone to prove that they have had an eye test.
We take our cars for an MOT every year to ensure they are roadworthy. Why should we not do the same thing for our eyes, which are equally important when it comes to driving? Many opticians offer free tests and many groups are eligible for them. Even if people are not eligible for a free test, the cost of an eye test is considerably less than a full tank of petrol. The cost of even the most expensive prescription is a fraction of what it costs for the privilege of staying on the road. I call for more awareness of the need for eye testing. I would very much like to ensure that it is a necessity for people’s sight to be sufficient for them to be fit to be behind the wheel, and for driving with poor eyesight to be as socially unacceptable as drink and drug-driving is today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Mr Sheerman on introducing this important subject and speaking so passionately about it more than 35 years down the road, for want of a pun.
It is amazing that the number of road accident fatalities today is roughly a quarter of the number in the 1920s and 1930s when there were far fewer cars on the road. That is testament to the improvements in vehicle design, road engineering and driver behaviour, including attitudes towards drink-driving and wearing seatbelts. I commend the hon. Member for Huddersfield for outlining the passionate campaign and the hard work that went into making seatbelts compulsory. It is amazing to think that that was resisted so much within Parliament as it is accepted as normal behaviour now.
It is welcome that the UK has the third lowest accident fatality rate among OECD member states, and there has been a recent decrease in the number of fatalities compared with 2014 but, as we have heard, 1,730 deaths still mean 1,730 families getting a tap at the door. To that end, I was happy to serve today on a Delegated Legislation Committee that agreed to double the penalty points for the use of mobile phones when driving, but I was a bit disappointed by the response from the Minister when I challenged him on the drink-driving limits over which the UK Government. He reverted to the standard Tory argument of not targeting those who have a glass of wine on a Sunday. For me, as I have said, that is nonsense.
In the Scottish Parliament, Tory MSPs were particularly vexed about a wee granny having a gin and tonic, but it is a simple fact that alcohol impairs judgment and reaction time, and the UK Government are out of step with the rest of Europe. In Scotland, a lower drink-driving level has been introduced—50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood—and there has been an 8% decrease in the number of people with drink-driving convictions. That is proof that it is further changing driver behaviour. Given that incremental changes make a difference to the number of road deaths, may I suggest that is one way we can go forward?
It will come as no surprise to Members that, as a Scottish MP, I think Scotland is leading the way on the reduction in deaths. If we look at the PACTS map and statistics, to which the hon. Member for Huddersfield referred, almost all constituencies in Scotland have low or very low indices. My constituency ranks 611 out of 650, which is very welcome—well within the top 10%. I was a local councillor before I became an MP, so I know full well the local investment by the council in junction redesigns, the roll-out of 20 mph zones and speed bumps. Another welcome change in behaviour that I have noticed is that people now actually request speed bumps, whereas there seemed to be a bit of resistance when they were first introduced.
The SNP has also invested massively in motorway upgrades and other infrastructure that helps to take people off the road, which is another way of reducing the risk of road accidents. The SNP Government have invested in rail infrastructure with the new borders railway and, as was touched on in an intervention, are investing heavily in segregation lanes for cyclists, which is to be welcomed. The SNP Government are spending £1 billion on public and sustainable transport, which is reflected in the record number of people who went to work by public or active transport in 2015. So much is being done, which is welcome. The UK Government have been undertaking similar schemes, but I urge the Minister to think again on drink-driving limits.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank Mr Sheerman for his passionate speech and for all his work over the years, which is good to see.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate as a follow-up to national road safety week a couple of weeks ago. The debate is also timely, with the announcement of a consultation on sentencing for those who cause death or serious injury. Those are issues of vital concern to my constituents, because there is a worrying number of injuries each year in Portsmouth. The trend is downwards, but for one group in particular—cyclists—we have one of the worst records in the country. Portsmouth is a compact, flat city, and it should be a cyclist’s dream, but our congested roads, poor driving and, it must be said, bad cycling habits make it a much more dangerous place to ride in than it should be. The latest reported figures show that Portsmouth has by far the worst cyclist casualty rate outside London at almost 90 per 100,000 of population. The rate for the south-east region is just 36 per 100,000 of population.
I hope the Government’s progress on the cycling and walking strategy will continue, but it must be backed up by investment if my constituents are to feel safe on the streets. I am concerned that there may be some drift on the strategy as financial pressures change, and I look forward to hearing confirmation that cycling safety is still a Government priority.
I welcome the consultation on sentencing for dangerous and careless driving, because one of the biggest causes of public concern is that drivers can kill, wrecking the lives of victims and their families, but end up with sentences that feel like neither a punishment nor a deterrent. Although the number of deaths in accidents has fallen dramatically, we should recognise that that is largely down to the improved safety features built into modern vehicles and that driver behaviour has not necessarily improved at quite the same rate.
Far too often, we hear of people being killed or seriously injured by drivers distracted by mobile devices. Our always-online society can tempt drivers to fiddle with gadgets while they drive but, as we have seen recently, the consequences can be lethal. Although we have not recently had a fatality in Portsmouth because of such distractions, the risk is apparent to anyone standing on a busy road. It is not good enough for drivers to argue that they are stationary in a jam or in slow-moving traffic in a city centre. If they are not concentrating on what is happening around them, they are a danger to everyone.
The action that has been taken legally and socially against drink-driving has gradually driven down the incidence of such offences. In 1979, 1,600 people were killed in drink-driving accidents; by 2014, the figure had been reduced to 240. That is still 240 too many, but it is a good example of what can be done with determined enforcement and social pressure. We need to make it just as socially unacceptable to use a mobile phone while driving as it is to drink and drive.
In the long term, I would like us all to move to more sustainable modes of transport, because that is the best way to improve road safety. In modern cities, the use of diesel and petrol vehicles to get around is becoming unsustainable because of the hazards it imposes, the threat of pollution, the difficulty of parking and the gridlock caused by the sheer weight of traffic. Those are all particular threats in Portsmouth, a densely populated area with poor road access and public transport that is in serious need of investment—I am not shy about lobbying Ministers on that. In an urban environment, a change in travelling behaviour will get people from A to B quicker than sitting in a car.
Road safety is everyone’s business and, as we have seen in our efforts to address the drink-drive menace, it is important that social pressure against bad habits is constant and backed up by Government action.
I congratulate Mr Sheerman on securing this hugely important debate.
There are 2.7 million horse riders in this country—I am occasionally one of them—and 1.3 million ride regularly on our roads. Back in 2010, the British Horse Society launched a website so that horse riders who regularly use the roads can record accidents. Since the website was launched just six years ago, there have been 2,374 reported incidents involving horses coming into contact with cars on the road. Thirty-eight riders have been killed, and well over 200 horses have been killed by vehicles or euthanised at the roadside.
Riders coming into contact with other road users, particularly those driving cars, is an issue because there is no proper education system to teach learner drivers how to pass horses. The British Horse Society launched its “dead slow” campaign earlier this year, and it is about educating drivers so they know not to pass a horse, either with a rider or drawing a vehicle, at more than 15 miles an hour and to give at least one car’s width. In this debate on preventing road traffic accidents, I hope the Government will consider what they can do to educate learner drivers and other road users on the dangers of passing a horse.
Horses are flight animals, so when they panic, such as when a vehicle passes too close, their first reaction is to run away. They then often come into contact with such vehicles, doing a lot of damage to the vehicle, to the horse rider and to the horse. As we have heard, 200 horses and 38 riders have been lost. This issue was brought to my attention by a constituent, Joanne Heys, who fell off her horse in November 2015 and suffered severe injuries—the horse suffered injuries, too—on a stretch of road between Bolton and Blackburn. The road is a bit of a hotspot for horse riders because it links two of our main bridle paths. We have run a campaign in Tockholes to ensure that local road users in east Lancashire are aware of our huge network of bridleways, many of which intersect with main roads. Horse riders do not want to go on the roads—they want to be on bridleways—but they often come into contact with lorries, heavy goods vehicles and other road users. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity in his summation to say a bit more about what the Government can do to consider further protections and education for horse riders.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield said that this debate is no longer sexy. Well, those of us who remember that wonderful film “Notting Hill” will remember that the sexy Hugh Grant claimed to work for Horse & Hound as he interviewed the beautiful actress with whom he was trying to start a relationship, so I thought I would quote my own appearance in Horse & Hound, which may be regarded as sexy, but not as sexy as Hugh Grant. This is from
“I want people to have horse safety in their mind when they get in their car in East Lancashire.”
And, for that matter, in every other part of our country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Mr Sheerman on securing this important debate. My only regret is that we do not have more time to discuss these issues today—obviously that is no fault of anyone here. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the human tragedy and the fact that we must work towards no lives being lost—a zero target. No one would disagree with his comprehensive review of what needs to be undertaken.
Rebecca Harris mentioned the importance of eye tests. When people go for an eye test, they get a subsequent reminder. Everyone should get involved so that they can keep their eyesight up to scratch for driving. Jake Berry spoke about how horses can go into flight and the additional damage that this can cause. These are all important issues, and we all agree that road safety should concern us all, regardless of party colour or of where we live, work and do our business.
The Scottish Government are committed to addressing the public health issue of road traffic accidents, and they go further than the UK Government on measures to curb drink-driving and to promote safe cycling and active transport. The SNP Scottish Government have taken a wide range of actions to reduce traffic accidents in Scotland, including cutting the blood alcohol limit. We welcome figures showing a decrease in road accident injuries in 2015 in Scotland. My hon. Friend Alan Brown mentioned that in December 2014 the Scottish Government cut the limit from 80 mg per 100 ml to 50 mg per 100 ml, which is lower than the rest of the UK. There has been a reduction in drink-driving compared with the previous year. England, Wales and Northern Ireland still have the 80 mg limit, which is the joint highest in Europe. We are disappointed that the UK Government are not following suit. I look forward to hearing how the Minister will proceed.
My hon. Friend and Mrs Drummond mentioned mobile phone use at the wheel. The SNP has backed the UK Government in doubling fines for drivers who use mobiles while driving, and we call on the UK Government to take further action to prevent accidents. We welcome figures in Scotland showing a decrease in road accident injuries in 2015. More than £250 million is spent annually in Scotland on the maintenance and safe operation of the trunk road network. In 2014, road death figures were 31% lower than the 2004 to 2008 baseline, but, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield said, we know that one fatality is too many. We are pleased that casualties in Scotland have fallen to their lowest number since records began. Car casualties fell by 1.1%, pedestrian casualties by 3.4%, motorcycle casualties by 11.4% and cyclist casualties by 11.1%.
We are investing in public and sustainable transport, because we know that it can be effective in reducing road traffic accidents. As the hon. Member for Portsmouth South mentioned, it is an important subject. On
Finally, on safety, many people are unaware that they are committing an offence by driving with expired MOT certificates. There is currently no automatic reminder for MOTs like the one for tax discs, for example. As a result, people drive vehicles that they may be unaware are unsafe, and they may also be committing a road traffic offence. The onus should always be on them, but I am pleased to see that an idea I put to the motor insurance industry has been picked up by Aviva insurance, which I am told will issue reminders about MOT expiry dates to its customers as of next year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman on securing this debate. I pay tribute to the several decades that he has committed to the campaign. While he was doing so in this place, I was on the outside looking after the families of those who had been bereaved and injured. We share that passion. This debate is particularly apposite given that we have just had road safety week.
As we have heard, the UK has a proud record of some of the safest roads in the world—I pay tribute to the work of RoadPeace, Brake and other charities committed to the cause—but of late, we have hit a standstill. Sadly, over the past three years, the number of deaths on our roads has increased; the Department for Transport estimates that there were 710,000 road casualties last year alone. The Government say that road safety is a top priority, but so far their legacy has been one of disappointment and frustration. In the last Parliament, they scrapped the road targets introduced by Labour, which successfully reduced by one third the number of those killed or seriously injured. Some argue that targets do not achieve anything, but I disagree; they focus minds and attention and hold the Government accountable.
Sadly, the Government are also failing on enforcement. A majority of police forces have recorded year-on-year falls in full-time road policing officers. There were 1,437 fewer designated officers outside London in 2015 than there were in 2010. I am sure that the Minister will take heed of this year’s road safety week campaign, which centred on the important six-point pledge that everyone here will have signed, as I did. The pledge committed both drivers and other road users to the importance of slower, sober, secure, silent, sharp and sustainable driving. We need the Government to act in all those areas.
Serious questions remain about drink and drug driving. Since 2010, progress has ground to a halt, with no reduction in the number of road traffic collisions involving drink-driving. Each year, it causes around 240 deaths. Over half of those are not the drunk drivers but passengers or other road users in the wrong place at the wrong time. We welcome the Christmas advertising campaign, but what else is being done? What discussions has the Minister had with police and crime commissioners about existing limits and enforcement?
We take seriously the success in Scotland, and we want that evidence base to inform us. That is exactly the right direction to be going in, but let us see the evidence rolled out. I am sure that the Minister will wish to comment on that as well. Sadly, the Government seem oblivious to the impact of their substantial cuts to road police numbers. It is worrying that a majority of forces have recorded year-on-year falls in the number of full-time road policing officers.
Many of us will have seen the consequences of mobile phone use by drivers, such as the terrible crash that killed Tracy Houghton and her children. Department for Transport figures show that in 2015, drivers impaired or distracted by their phones were a contributory factor in 440 road accidents in Britain. Although we welcome this morning’s statutory instrument increasing the number of points on a driving licence for mobile phone use, once again it is not possible to police the issue if there are no police present to enforce the law. We cannot leave that work to tabloid newspaper photographers whose campaigning we have seen in recent weeks. The Government must take the initiative and invest in roadside policing, not cut it, so that accidents can be prevented and lives saved.
When accidents do occur on our roads, it is crucial that the vehicles involved have been designed to be as safe as possible. Given that 90% of road accidents are caused by human error, the introduction of autonomous vehicles on our roads in the not-too-distant future could be an opportunity to transform road safety.
In closing, I note that the Government stated in their manifesto that they would reduce the number of cyclists and other road users killed on our roads every year. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the genuine concerns about police numbers, enforcement, penalties and awareness. Without action, it is projected that a third of a million people will be killed or seriously injured on the roads in Britain over the two decades ending in 2030.
I will have to go at quite some pace to respond to all the points made. I congratulate Mr Sheerman, whose long and distinguished record of campaigning on this issue speaks for itself. It is impressive. This issue is a priority for all of us here; it is certainly a priority for me and the Government. We have a good record by international standards, but that does not mean that we should not work harder to go further. He mentioned the devastation that a knock on the door can bring to a family, as it was brought to 1,770 families last year. I never forget that behind each statistic is a shattered family. It spurs me on, as I am sure it spurs on all of us.
To make improvements, we need to draw on the best evidence and analysis available so that our efforts can be targeted where we can make the biggest impact in reducing road deaths and injuries. I welcome and strongly support the excellent work being done by Highways England, which is leading the way in adopting and championing a safe systems approach. It is absolutely essential that our strategic road network is as safe as possible, given that it carries such an astonishing amount of traffic. Equally important is improving safety standards for the rest of our road network. In the last few days we have published an assessment of local authorities’ most improved roads, and I congratulate all those who have made the biggest improvements.
Since I took responsibility for the road safety brief last May, one statistic has struck me vividly: 60% of road deaths take place on country roads. That proportion rises to 80% for young drivers, so it is crucial that we do more to improve the safety of our country roads. In October, we relaunched the THINK! country roads campaign, which is aimed at getting motorists, particularly younger males, to slow down, be more vigilant and brake before reaching bends rather than at them. Last year’s campaign was successful in changing behaviour and raising awareness of the unexpected hazards that can be found in rural areas.
I am pleased to be supporting the Road Safety Foundation and the Royal Automobile Club Foundation in their forthcoming work with local authorities to identify safety problems through the star rating approach, and to identify cost-effective solutions for the most high-risk roads. I hope that work can provide a model for wider adoption by local authorities.
I want to go further in investigating what more my Department can do to offer tangible support to those areas with the most dangerous roads. In the autumn statement on
We published our road safety statement in December last year, and I would like to update the House on the hard work we are doing to carry out its priorities. Drug-driving has been a growing problem. We have provided £1 million to police forces in England and Wales to support drug-driving enforcement. As a result, nearly 5,000 drug-drivers were convicted in the first eight months of this year, compared with just 879 in the whole of 2014. In March, we launched a THINK! campaign to educate people on the dangers of drug-driving and to send a clear message that it is unacceptable and that the consequences of doing it are very serious. Figures show that a fifth of convicted drug-drivers have previously been banned for drink-driving, so just last month I announced the launch of a new pilot impairment course, with drug-driving education being added to the existing drink-drive offenders courses in England and Wales. Around 1,000 drink-drive offenders will participate in the pilot courses and we will consult on the results next year.
Lots of colleagues mentioned mobile phones. We have consulted on increasing the penalties for those who drive while using a handheld mobile phone. In line with the view of the majority of the more than 4,000 people who responded to the consultation, we are going further than the original proposals. Only this morning an order was approved for higher penalties for people using their mobile phones while driving, whether they are texting, calling or using an app. In future, motorists will receive a fixed penalty notice of six penalty points plus a £200 fine. That is a significant change that will make a difference. Once Parliament has approved the order—it has to go to the upper House next—we expect the new regime to take effect on
Handheld mobile phone use was a contributory factor in 22 fatal crashes in 2015, each one of which was a needless tragedy. We must bring that number down. One of the most challenging parts of my role is meeting some of the devastated families whose loved one has been killed by someone using a mobile phone while driving. Such families are obviously incredibly upset and angry—there is a sense of frustration, which leads to anger that they have lost a loved one because of something that could have been prevented so easily. Drivers of large goods vehicles and passenger service vehicles who commit the offence will continue to face the traffic commissioners, who regulate their conduct and have the power to review and suspend their vocational licence entitlement to drive such vehicles. Given the damage that can be done, that is proportionate; we are all aware of cases that have made the news.
When the law changes, we will be supporting it with a THINK! campaign to leave people in no doubt at all of the seriousness of the issue. It is appropriate to view this as going in the same social direction as we have managed to go in with drink-driving. We want it to be as socially unacceptable to use a mobile phone while driving as it is to drink and drive.
Several colleagues have mentioned some of the things we can do to ensure that new drivers can take the freedoms of the road equipped with the skills and knowledge to be safe. We are piloting a new driving test to reflect today’s driving conditions. It will include longer periods of independent driving, more realistic manoeuvres and a requirement for the driver to follow directions from a sat-nav. It is basically about improving the driver’s road awareness when they get the freedom ticket that a driving licence can provide.
My hon. Friend Mrs Drummond asked whether cycling safety was still a priority. Yes, it is. The Bikeability scheme is secure, and we will be training 1 million children through it. My hon. Friend Jake Berry asked about horse awareness. We have supported the British Horse Society’s campaign and look forward to working with it more in future because I do recognise the problem. I held a meeting with my hon. Friend Rebecca Harris and her constituent on the issue she raised, as a result of which the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency amended the licence renewal form to encourage older drivers to get their eyesight checked.
There are currently no plans to change the drink-drive limit. The key priority for us is to target those who are causing drink-driving problems, and they are not in the 50 mg to 80 mg per 100 ml category; they are in the 140 mg to 150 mg category, because that is the average blood alcohol content of people arrested for drink-driving. It is no good targeting a small group but missing the elephant in the room, which is what would happen if the legislation was changed. We have no reason to introduce targets; I do not need a target to tell me that this issue is a priority and to feel spurred on to take more action.
We want to make our roads as safe as we can. We are building on the good work of campaigners throughout the country over many years and on the work delivered by Governments of all colours. We have a good record and plans to improve on that further. It is through targeted interventions in the most difficult areas that we will make the progress we need.
Thank you so much, Mr Hollobone, for letting me sum up the debate. I shall say only a few things. I have the greatest respect for the Minister and will continue to nudge him on targets, because the Scots have it right on alcohol. There is a worrying upward trend in women drink-drivers that we should all be aware of.
I want to finish with a bit more passion. The research into transport safety has declined over the years. Internationally, university research is not as strong as it used to be, so we have to be careful about the quality of research available worldwide. Local councils also now have much less money for road safety matters. There are some really great individuals, such as Michael Woodford, who are very interested in road safety, as is the UN now. There is increasing interest in the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association helping us to educate other parliamentarians about what can be achieved in places like China and India. We should be making the CPA and IPU into something useful. They should not be about just going there and shaking hands and smiling at people—I have been on those trips. Let us make them more positive. We should be corresponding with those parliamentarians and saying, “This is what we’ve done in the UK. Can we help you to do something similar?”
The fact is that if someone does not have a passion for this rather unusual subject, they should not be in Parliament, because it is about our constituents and families. Let us get more people involved in pacts and in the campaign, and let us make sure that Britain is a safer place to ride on horses, on bicycles, on motorcycles and in cars. Most of all, let us make sure it is safer for families enjoying themselves and for those getting to work.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered road traffic accident prevention.