HC Deb 22 January 1964 vol 687 cc1080-5
Mr. Dance

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Transport if he will make a statement on the multiple accidents on the M.1 motorway, on 21st January, in which 200 vehicles were involved, as a result of which 22 people were seriously injured and northbound lanes were closed for three hours.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I was horrified at this further series of multiple accidents. I have not yet had full details. When I have received and studied these details I will make a further announcement. But it seems clear that this large number of vehicles, would not have been involved in crashes if drivers had not been travelling too fast, or too close to the vehicles ahead, in conditions of fog and low visibility.

Mr. Dance

While I fully appreciate that it is this careless and extremely selfish driving which causes many of these accidents, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend is aware that many of us feel that something positive could be done to help, namely, by having some form of early warning of pile-ups? We have tabled Questions in the past, and we were given an assurance that a pilot scheme would be tried out on the M.5. That was about 18 months ago, when the promise was given to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke). Eighteen months is along time. Can my right hon. Friend tell me when we may expect the pilot scheme to be introduced? Finally, can my right hon. Friend make a statement on antidazzle and anti-crash barriers on the motorways?

Mr. Marples

I must have notice of the last part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question, but I can say that these barriers are under consideration.

As for the first part of his question, there is to be an experiment on the M.5, and the first sign will be erected early next month. Twenty-two signs will be erected at about 2-mile intervals on both carriage ways. The legend says, "Accident", "Skid risk", "Fog", and the signs are switched on by the county police headquarters. When this happens the word "SLOW" and two flashing beacons will be switched on automatically. Tenders have been invited for the control equipment with a view to completion by 31st July, 1964.

But I must tell my hon. Friend and the House that, according to provisional reports, no early warning signs could have stopped this particular accident. If the House will bear with me, I should like to read the police report I have on this accident, which was undoubtedly a most serious one. The report reads: The following is an example of the driving that was taking place in fog. A police car containing a traffic sergeant proceeding to the scene was travelling in the centre lane at 40 m.p.h. when he was overtaken by another driver doing 65 m.p.h. The police driver, to avert further disaster, overtook this driver and slowed him down to 40 m.p.h. While this was being done another driver overtook the police car and the civilian car. During all this time the police car had the blue spinning roof light flashing. The police driver and his observer each leaned out of his window and signalled with their hands to traffic to slow down. The speed of the police car had to be reduced to 30 m.p.h. at this time, and in spite of this action traffic was still attempting to pass. As this police driver approached the scenes of collision, accident warning signs and blue revolving beacons were in operation at distances of 1 mile and ½ mile before the scene, but these were being totally disregarded. Police then placed a third set of blue spinning lights and "Police—Accident" and "Police—Slow" signs 1½ miles from the scene. It is, therefore, fairly clear that the drivers on the M.1, the M.5 and the A.1 took risks that were not justified in the circumstances.

Mr. Strauss

We will have ample time on Friday to discuss this matter. Meanwhile, does the right hon. Gentleman think it entirely fair to put the blame for these accidents entirely on the motorists? While I do not deny that some motorists apparently drove very carelessly on this occasion, is the Minister satisfied that all the warning signs that are required are on the M.1? Would it not have been possible, with the various devices that have been suggested by hon. Members at various times, to have brought about a slower speed of driving on the M.1?

Does the Minister not realise that he has some responsibility in the matter—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—which, in the opinion of many people, he has not carried out as completely as he should have done? [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] We can discuss these matters on Friday, but, at the moment, I think that it is quite wrong to put the entire responsibility on a few motorists.

Mr. Marples

The right hon. Gentleman is usually one of the fairest antagonists; there is in the House, but I think that on this occasion he is being less than fair. Three warning signs were out, at 1½ miles, 1 mile and ½ mile from the accidents—and they were ignored.

Sir G. Nicholson

Do not these accidents tend to dispel the theory that it is bad roads that are the main cause of accidents? Is not the moral to be drawn from the event that there should be much stricter lane discipline, on the American lines, on these great highways, not only in bad weather but in all weathers? Is not one of the main causes of these accidents that people have got into the habit of switching at all times from lane to lane with hardly any warning?

Mr. Marples

I think that lane discipline is one of the essential things on the motorways, and I do not think that it is as good in this country as it is in America. But I do not think that was the cause here. I only hope that we shall improve in time.

I agree that there are three causes of accidents: bad roads, bad cars, and the human factor—the driver. The major factor is the human one, and whatever we may say in this House that must remain true. This morning, at the Olympia Racing Car Show, all the racing drivers to whom I spoke agreed that it really depends on individual responsibility and the man behind the wheel.

Sir B. Janner

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a suggestion was made to him over a year ago for a system of automatic indication to drivers, with a speed limit, when conditions were dangerous, and which could be operated from a central point when fog affected parts of the motorway? Does he not think that if this system were put into operation some miles ahead of any fogbound area, with a speed limit, it would indicate to drivers that they must slow down? Do not drivers slow down, as a rule, when speed limits are on?

Mr. Marples

They did not slow down for the police on this occasion. People must learn to drive according to the distance they can see. Visibility may vary from minute to minute and from mile to mile. If I may say so with respect to the hon. Gentleman, any speed limit would be arbitrary and, most of the time, inappropriate.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

While I quite agree that drivers were crashing along at an absolutely wrong speed in this fog, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend will bear in mind that it was in April, 1962, that I drew attention to the necessity for having the advance illuminated signs on the motorways when belts of fog were present? Further, as young men of 21 years are allowed to drive 20-tonners on these roads at an unlimited speed, should we not consider again bringing into force the pre-war heavy goods vehicle licence for these drivers?

Mr. Marples

I will consider the last part of my hon. Friend's supplementary question. As for the first part, I have asked for a complete report and I shall get it. I shall find out exactly what happened in detail. I have already some provisional reports, but I must say that the drivers had the signs telling them to slow down and did not slow down. It is no good saying that this fog was in belts. It was not. It was expected and forecast. It was continuous—not patchy. It was widespread—not local. One does not need a sign telling one that there is fog when the fog is all around, any more than a sign telling one that it is raining when it is raining as one walks in the street.

Mr. Popplewell

Whilst we are satisfied with what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the responsibilities of the individual when driving in fog, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will take note that when one is driving on these roads one meets patches of fog and that no matter what restrictions are adopted by way of flashing beacons these difficulties arise?

Will not the Minister therefore realise that there is a lesson to be learned from all this and that if we want these motorways to be safe for what we planned them to be, we should take note of the American system which provides for a maximum and a minimum speed limit to be in operation? Will the Minister consult his Department and the appropriate road engineering organisations and road users to see how best this can be applied?

Mr. Marples

I have dealt with the speed limit in answer to the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Sir B. Janner). There are lessons to be learned, and they will be learned, and I shall have a great deal to say about them when we have a complete report. The real answer is that drivers must adjust their speed techniques to the prevailing weather conditions. If they are going to drive with folly then folly will be the outcome.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate the matter now.