§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pearson.]9.22 pm
§ Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)
This week is not an especially auspicious time to have a debate on road deaths and injuries in mid-Essex. Tragically, two days ago we saw the 100th road accident in the county of Essex that involved fatality and the 110th person in that county die from such an accident. Given the concern that road safety is arousing in the county, I am delighted to see in their places the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). I know that they are as concerned as me about what is happening on our roads and to our constituents.
It is only fair to say that under both the last Conservative Government and the current Government, the Department with responsibility for transport, in whatever configuration, has been doing its utmost to try to improve road safety in this country, as well as to ensure that the roads on which we drive are safer and that drivers are of higher quality and have the ability to drive more safely.
There is some good news. As a result of the efforts of both Governments, the number of road deaths in the past 22 years has dropped dramatically. In 1979, 6,352 deaths occurred on our roads as a result of road traffic accidents. By last year—the last full year for which we have statistics—the number of deaths had dropped to 3,409. Between 1979 and 1997, deaths and serious casualties on our roads fell by 43 per cent., drink-related road deaths fell by 68 per cent. and fatal accidents involving motor cycles fell by 62 per cent.
In 1995 alone, there were fewer road deaths than in any year since 1926, when records began, despite the fact that there were 14 times as many vehicles on our roads. Any Government could be proud of that record. Since 1997. the Labour Government and successive Departments responsible for transport have worked to build on that success and to emulate it by making our roads safer and trying to reduce road deaths and accidents further.
As the Minister knows, the latest 10-year road safety strategy, "Tomorrow's Roads: Safer for Everyone", was launched with a specific aim, which is tointroduce tough new casualty reduction targets.At the same time, local authorities in mid-Essex—Essex county council, Chelmsford borough council, Maldon district council and Braintree district council—have spent considerable time and effort with the highways agencies and the police on trying to make our roads safer for our constituents and motorists.
Road safety is an important factor in the construction of new roads in the area. It is also important to consider existing roads, which have accident black spots and appalling safety records, and to try to improve the road safety on them.
§ Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)
My hon. Friend is right that there are one or two black spots in the county where road improvements could make a significant difference. The A130 is in my constituency and 950 was in my hon. Friend's. He will remember the problems on that road, especially the bypass round Howe Green, and the improvement scheme that is under way and should soon be completed, which could lead to a significant drop in the statistics. Does he agree that there are several other black spots to which such improvement schemes could make an important difference?
§ Mr. Burns
My hon. Friend is right. As he knows from his experience and from campaigning about the A130 bypass from Howe Green to the Rettendon turnpike, conditions on the existing road have been nightmarish. All too often, the most horrendous road accidents have occurred. They have led to far too many deaths. In addition, there are hazards for motorists who use the road for access to the villages of Danbury and Howe Green. Like my hon. Friend, I am confident that when the bypass opens, there will be a significant drop in road deaths and accidents because it has been specifically targeted as a route that will overcome the problems that posed such a danger to motorists. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that.
Other roads in the county have a record that is less than desirable. The A120 is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Braintree. He is doubtless reassured by the prospect of the new road that will be built towards Stansted and help to alleviate the problems.
The A12 travels up the county's spine from the M25 to Ipswich and the ports. It is a good road, but because it is more or less straight, and has three lanes in many areas, the amount of traffic, and the speed at which it travels, sometimes leads to horrendous accidents.
Those are well-known examples in the county, but for every well-known example, I suspect that there are 10 examples of smaller roads on which, because they follow old, historic routes and have not taken into account the greatly increased traffic of the past 20 or 30 years, there are accidents involving injuries and deaths. The Government, through the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the regional office, the local authorities, the Highways Agency and the police have a positive record on seeking to eliminate unsafe aspects of our roads, as resources allow.
There is evidence throughout the county of tougher speed limits being introduced in urban and residential areas to stop the rat-running boy racers and other problems associated with speeding in towns, which pose a serious threat to pedestrians and children in built-up areas. Changes are also being made to speed limits on trunk roads and main roads throughout the county, and there is increasing evidence of speed cameras being installed to help to bring down the number of accidents caused by speeding. There are mobile speed cameras, operated by Essex police, and the fixed ones with which we are all so familiar.
In recent months, my constituency of West Chelmsford has seen a noticeable increase in the activity of police with mobile speed cameras, as well as in the presence of fixed ones. If I remember correctly, until a few months ago there was only one fixed speed camera in my constituency. That is no longer the case. There are now others in areas where there are opportunities for drivers to break the law by speeding.
I particularly welcome the announcement by the Treasury of the eight pilot schemes to look into the feasibility of allowing the local authorities that install the 951 cameras to keep the revenue generated by them, so that they can plough that money back into providing more speed cameras for the local community. I am delighted, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford and the hon. Member for Braintree are, that Essex has one of those eight pilot schemes. The scheme is currently in operation there, and I have no doubt that it will be a success.
It is in the very nature of the beast that a speed camera that catches speeding motorists will generate revenue, and if the local authority can keep that revenue, it can invest in new cameras; they are not cheap. One of the alleged disadvantages in the past was that the money went immediately to the Treasury, so the local authorities that were having to lay out the capital investment for the cameras were not benefiting from the revenue that they were generating from the speeding vehicles. I hope that the pilot schemes will prove successful and that the Government will make that policy a permanent feature in the pilot scheme areas and possibly in the rest of the country so that everyone can enjoy the benefits that counties such as Essex are enjoying at the moment.
It bothers me that, despite all the efforts of the Government, local authorities and the police, and despite the targets set down in the Government's strategy, "Tomorrow's roads—safer for everyone", the appalling statistics on deaths and injuries in mid-Essex this year are bucking the national trend and seem to be impervious to the road safety initiatives. How are we going to achieve an improvement in road safety?
The new road safety targets for the next 10 years are very challenging, as I am sure the Minister will accept. By 2010, compared to the average for 1994–1998, the targets aim to reduce by 40 per cent. the number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads. The targets set a 50 per cent. reduction in the number of children killed or seriously injured in that time, and a 10 per cent. reduction in the number of slight injuries.
I do not question or challenge those figures. I hope that they will be successfully achieved in the time scale. Everybody will be delighted if that happens, because it will mean even fewer deaths and injuries on our roads nationally. The trouble is that the figures for mid-Essex over the past few years, and particularly for the 10 months of this year so far, show that it will be extraordinarily difficult to get anywhere near reaching those targets. Indeed, I wonder whether it will be possible unless something can be done.
In 1998 in mid-Essex—the Braintree and Chelmsford police divisions, which include the constituencies of all three hon. Members in the Chamber tonight—15 people were killed and 1,558 were injured on the roads. So far this year—I only have figures for the nine months up to 30 September—35 people have been killed and 1,633 have been injured. In 1998 in Essex as a whole, 84 people were killed in road accidents, and this year, up to and including this week so far, 110 people have been killed.
Mid-Essex is not a third of the size of the county of Essex and it certainly does not have a third of the population, yet it contributes to slightly more than a third of the deaths in the county. I am genuinely perplexed as to why. Are the accidents alcohol related? I welcome the initiative being tested by the pilot schemes, but perhaps 952 there is too much speeding. Is the standard of driving declining? Perhaps people are becoming immune to the dangers of driving because they drive so often. They see that 99.9 per cent. of the time they are not involved in accidents and they forget the potential dangers of losing concentration and of not always ensuring that they drive safely and within the speed limits, watching out for the actions of other drivers who cause accidents through no fault of their own.
I do not know the answers. I am worried about that because, if one does not know the cause of a problem, it is much more difficult to find a solution and to minimise the tragedies. I certainly do not have a panacea for getting back on track in reducing road accidents and deaths, although I know that it is not an easy problem to solve. I shall therefore be genuinely interested to hear what the Minister has to say. I hope that her Department has some idea of what might be done to improve the situation. It might have more up-to-date information and statistics showing why road safety has deteriorated in my part of the country, which seems to be at variance with what is happening nationwide.
§ Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)
With the Minister's leave, I hope to say a few words in support of my constituency neighbour—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)
Order. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he has the permission of the Minister and the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) to take part in the debate?
§ Mr. Hurst
I sought the permission of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and I was about to seek the Minister's permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I support most of the remarks made by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford. One can speculate about the reasons for the unusually high number of road traffic accidents in mid-Essex. For example, we have had an exceptional amount of rain in the past nine months—but then again, so have other parts of Essex and the United Kingdom. Essex has also had exceptional population growth around the constituency of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford, on the edge of the constituency of the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), and certainly around the main town in my constituency. Houses are being built at an enormous rate, creating much more traffic.
Another factor is the various road schemes to which the hon. Member for West Chelmsford referred. The Great Leighs bypass is proceeding very rapidly, and the A 130 is progressing rapidly into the southern part of Chelmsford. We are also awaiting development of the Hatfield Peverel to Witham link road, which I should like to mention very briefly, and which has featured in previous Adjournment debates.
It was announced as long ago as January 1998 that that link road would proceed. Since then, preparation for the scheme has meandered very slowly, only now to be confronted with a public inquiry. I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber would like that public inquiry 953 itself to proceed quickly, with a view to our having a road at least before the fifth anniversary of the announcement of the scheme.
§ Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Hatfield Peverel. He will be as horribly familiar with the roadworks there as I have become in the past few weeks. Does he think that it is possible that, because those roadworks are causing such huge congestion to motorists trying to use the A12, many people are leaving the A12 to seek alternative routes, causing a build-up of traffic on minor roads that were probably never designed to cope with the number of cars now using them because of the roadworks? That in itself may be contributing to the problem and is another reason why we all want those roadworks to be completed as quickly as possible.
§ Mr. Hurst
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's speculation on the issue. On a number of occasions recently I have crossed back-country lanes through his constituency and my own to avoid those roadworks.
I do not think that any of those factors alone have created the increase in road traffic accidents. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford emphasised the consequences of speeding. Another enemy to road safety that is growing apace is the practice of tailgating. In 1963, when I qualified to drive motorcars, my late father told me, "Whatever you do, son, keep back from the vehicle in front if you wish to overtake." It seems that that policy has disappeared and that the policy of other drivers is to get as close as they can to the vehicle in front so that they can overtake quickly. The practice creates a dangerous situation on many roads on which it is not possible to manoeuvre.
I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. I should like to see a concerted campaign by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to reduce the practice of tailgating and draw people's attention to its risk. It is a major hazard and is probably a major determinant of road accidents.
I think that, with the road schemes that are proceeding, the future for mid-Essex is probably brighter. At least those roads will become safer. I also agree entirely that, by its nature, dualling of the A120 west to Stansted will assist greatly. Of course, we also look forward to a sensitive scheme that creates a better carriageway through to the A12 east of Braintree. I believe that such a scheme is being considered. However, it will have to take very acute account of the villages and environment between Braintree and the A12.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble)
Let me begin by extending condolences that I am sure the whole House will wish to extend to the families of those bereaved in the most recent accident. Let me also acknowledge the depth of concern about the subject among Members representing the constituencies involved—shown, I think, by the attendance of a number of Essex Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) and the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale). The hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) is also present.
954 I do not want to go into all the figures, because the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has set them out very clearly. So far we have made good progress towards achieving what are ambitious targets for dealing with road deaths and road accidents, although of course each death is one too many, and our task will not be completed until we have made such accidents a thing of the past. I want to focus on Essex, however, and on the issues that have been raised tonight.
The local transport plan for Essex county council contains targets to reduce the number of people killed and seriously injured that are very much in line with national targets. The recently submitted annual progress report, which presents progress in the first year of the plan, shows that 1,122 people were killed and seriously injured on the roads of Essex in 2000. That is 5 per cent. less than the 1994–98 average. The number of children killed and seriously injured was already 18 per cent. below the baseline average.
Because of the hon. Gentleman's special interest, my Department also obtained more up-to-date figures for Essex from the county council. I can therefore tell him that 9 per cent. fewer people were killed or seriously injured in the 12 months ending in August 2001 than in the previous 12 months. I hope to see a further overall reduction in the number killed and seriously injured on the roads of Essex in the calendar year 2001 compared with 2000, showing that Essex is working hard to play its part in meeting the national target reductions.
However, as the hon. Gentleman said, there are some specific problems within the overall figures. He said that there had been a 10 per cent. increase in the number of people killed on the roads in the same August-to-August period. That apparent reversal of a previous downward trend is very disturbing, and I share his concern. I understand that the increase is largely due to more accidents and casualties involving motorcyclists. Indeed, over the same period non-motorcycling deaths fell by 6 per cent. 1 have asked my Department to work closely with Essex county council and the police to establish the reasons behind the increases, and to look at ways of combating the problem.
I understand that the county council has reported a significant increase in the number of motorcyclists on the roads in Essex in recent years, and that there has been a sharp increase in leisure motorcycling. That is not confined to young people; older people have returned to riding motorbikes as a leisure activity. Already a working partnership between the police and local authorities, including Chelmsford borough council, has been set up to identify why that is happening and to look at some of the profound issues that it raises, including safety issues.
The police are offering motorcyclists in Essex an opportunity to improve and develop their riding skills through a recent initiative, which seeks to reduce motorcycle injury and theft. It is called "the edge". and the hon. Gentleman may well have heard about it. I am sure that he could use his high profile on the whole issue of road safety to support the project. The county council will soon publish a motorcycling strategy setting out a number of related actions that will work together to create better motorcycling facilities in the county, and to promote safer motorcycling.
My Department is examining the disproportionately high casualty rate among motorcyclists. We are working closely with organisations in the industry, riders, 955 manufacturers, retailers and instructors to develop better training and testing programmes, to consider the need for extra protection for both vehicle and rider, and to raise awareness of the vulnerability of motorcyclists among all road users.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of speed in accidents. It is believed that excessive speed is probably one of the main contributory factors in road traffic accidents. In Essex, about 26 per cent. of all road accidents are related to speeding. That is a reduction from 32 per cent. five years ago. For accidents involving fatalities, the figure rises to a quite staggering 90 per cent. Research evidence shows that 70 per cent. of vehicles exceed the 30 mph speed limit.
We are committed to reducing excessive speeding on all our roads. It is one of the highest priorities for accident reduction. We have a number of programmes involving education, training, highway engineering and enforcement, as well as speed cameras, of course.
As far back as 1996, Essex county council launched a speed commitment campaign to encourage local drivers to sign a commitment to drive within the speed limit at all times, which has been very successful. Thousands of organisations and individual motorists have signed up.
The local transport plan for Essex sets out some new initiatives. Particular emphasis is being placed on the need to change attitudes to speed among the young and among inexperienced drivers, who remain one of the largest groups in the casualty statistics. I am very encouraged by the work that is being done to train and educate our motorists about the antisocial dangers of speeding, as well of course as the problem of tailgating.
We are also encouraging all local authorities to improve the standards of their road network and to apply accident reduction engineering measures to accident clusters. Essex has about 200 sites that are receiving attention, with many grouped together in a whole route action plan. I understand that this year's programme includes the implementation of action plans for the A1060 Chelmsford to Bishop's Stortford road and the B1018 Braintree to Witham road. The construction of the new A131 Great Leighs bypass and the A 130 improvements are also well under way.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems on the A12 and the improvements there, so he may want some more information about the progress that is being made. The improvements to the A12 are currently being considered as part of the London to Ipswich multi-modal study, which started in October 2000 and will report to the regional planning body in June 2002. The highway authorities are undertaking a route management strategy along the A12, to include measures over the next 10 years. Although, unfortunately, it will not happen straight away, there will be steady and progressive improvements along that route.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the role of safety cameras. In April 2000, we launched the trial scheme that allows the funding of speed and red light safety cameras by "netting off', with money collected from fixed penalty speeding fines being reinvested into more cameras. The Essex partnership was one of the first to join the scheme, as indeed was my own local authority.
956 Results from the first year of operation have been very encouraging, and hon. Members will recall that the Minister for Transport announced in August this year that the scheme would be rolled out nationally. Across the eight areas that made up the initial trial there has been a 47 per cent. reduction in the number killed and seriously injured at camera sites and an 18 per cent. reduction elsewhere in the pilot areas.
Quite often, the cameras are not the most popular things, because they have produced quite a lot of speeding tickets, but if one considers the number of people who are alive now who would not have been otherwise, it is easy to see that they have been extremely worth while. In Essex, before the introduction of the scheme, 68 per cent. of motorists exceeded the speed limit at camera sites. That has now fallen to 11 per cent
I want to touch on issues of local transport funding, because the importance of local authorities and the police working together to reduce deaths and injuries on our roads cannot be overstated. The introduction of the local transport plans means that authorities must now have clear strategies for road safety in their areas. The draft road safety strategy for Essex has been out to consultation and I understand that it will be published shortly.
In December last year we allocated Essex £13 million for integrated transport, including road safety, in its local transport plan. That was more than double the allocation for integrated transport in the previous year. It will enable Essex to make real progress in meeting the challenging targets that have been set. I cannot comment today on the allocation to Essex for next year, but the announcement will be made shortly—we expect it to be made next month. However, I can say that Essex can proceed with some confidence on the basis of the indicative allocations for the rest of the five-year plan period.
We are committed to working with all local authorities to see a significant reduction in road deaths and injuries and to make road safety a high priority. I know that much work remains to be done and I agree that any death or injury on our roads is an unnecessary tragedy. I am. however, convinced that we can see a significant reduction in the accident statistics in the future. Given the problems that Essex has experienced, I am sure that that will be very welcome to the constituents of those hon. Members present for this debate.
The hon. Member for West Chelmsford has done well to raise several important issues regarding road deaths and injuries in mid-Essex. I know that he has kept a consistently high profile on the issue and ensured that it is at the forefront of the public debate. The Government, through the road safety strategy, have already begun to tackle many of those issues on a national level, but we will continue to rely heavily on the direct help of local authorities and the police in striving to achieve our road casualty reduction figures. Further effort on all our parts will bring about the improvements in road safety that we all seek, and will protect lives and reduce some of the horrendous injuries that too many people in Essex and elsewhere have suffered over the years.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Ten o'clock.