HL Deb 22 November 1951 vol 174 cc506-32

4.16 p.m.

LORD ELTON had given notice of his intention to ask His Majesty's Government whether, seeing that the speed limit for motor vehicles in built-up areas is universally disregarded, they are prepared to take steps either to enforce or to abolish it; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not think I need detain you very long, because the main propositions I wish to submit to you are so incontrovertible that they do not really require lengthy exposition. We all know the slaughter on the roads is one of the darkest tragedies of our times, a tragedy the shadow of which reaches out to every family in the land. I do not suppose there is one of us sitting in the Chamber this afternoon who cannot at once think of some friend or relation killed or mutilated on the roads. I believe that historians of a century or two hence will look back on this monstrous mounting civilian casualty list in peace time as a social evil more scandalous, because more irrational and involving a greater aggregate of human suffering, than even unemployment, housing or any of the social problems which have filled the Party programmes for the last few decades. So far, I am sure we are all agreed.

A good many years ago now, I think it was in the year in which I had the honour to become a member of your Lordships' House, the Government of the day, creditably resolved to do what it could to reduce this terrible slaughter, decided that there should be a speed limit. I believe it is incontrovertible that if that speed limit had ever been generally enforced and generally observed, there would have been a substantial reduction in road casualties. Whoever is going to controvert that suggestion, it surely will not be a representative of His Majesty's Government, for the Minister of Transport who was responsible for first introducing the speed limit spoke of it, very rightly I think, as "the saving mercy of control of speed"; and if successive Administrations have not believed that a speed limit, if effectively enforced, would substantially reduce road casualties, why on earth have they left it on the Statute Book? It stands to reason that a car travelling at 30 m.p.h. can pull up in a shorter space of road than a car travelling at 50 m.p.h. Not long ago I saw a car which had just overtaken me in a speed limit area, travelling at somewhere about 50 m.p.h., run down a cyclist whom the driver could easily have avoided if he had been travelling at 30 m.p.h. instead of 50 m.p.h. I may add that the existence of a speed limit provides a sort of norm by which the very young and the very old, who are notoriously unreliable in these matters, can do something to judge their movements across the road. In the last year, in the Metropolitan Police area, only one pedestrian out of 250,000 between the ages of 25 and 35 was killed; but 25 children under 10 were killed, and 52 persons of 65 years of age or over. I cannot believe that His Majesty's Government will deny that a speed limit, if enforced, would substantially reduce these totals, and I very much hope that they will not seriously maintain that the speed limit is effectively enforced.

I know that in the Motion, as it stands in my name, there occurs the possibly rather questionable words "universally disregarded." Naturally, I do not mean that every car driver within the speed limit and at every moment is breaking the law. Obviously, in the traffic jams during the busy hours in Piccadilly it would be physically impossible to break the speed limit; and I suppose there is a large area in Central London in which it is physically impossible to break the speed limit, save perhaps during the small hours of the night. Obviously, also, we motorists are not criminals, and if we see a child playing on the road ahead, if we apprehend some danger from oncoming traffic, we exercise caution. What I say is that where there is a clear run ahead, where there is no apparent prospect of a child running out from behind a lorry, and no apparent danger from oncoming traffic, then nine out of ten of us proceed at whatever speed we personally consider to be safe in complete disregard of the letter of the law.

You notice, my Lords, that I have said "we motorists," because I do not for a moment wish to suggest that I myself do not frequently break the law. But I have for a great many years now, at frequent intervals, indulged in the experiment of driving at precisely 30 m.p.h. within a speed controlled area when there is a stretch of road ahead of me which is completely clear, and it has been my experience that always most cars, and almost always every car, within reach of me, even quite often including lorries limited by law to 20 m.p.h. on the open road, sweep or roar past me. That is true not merely of callow youths on motor-cycles, and not merely of what I believe are known as "cad cars": it is true of grave scholars and merchants; it is true of Justices of the Peace and Members of Parliament; and—although I have no evidence of this—I would not put it past the Bench of Bishops itself. Of course, ninety-nine times out of a hundred it is safe, and no real harm is done; the law has been broken but no citizen has been put in danger of his life. But on the hundredth time the child does run out from behind a car, or the old person does misjudge the distance, and there is another addition to the swelling casualty total.

I have been driving for, I think, thirty-eight years, and so far, by the grace of God, and solely by the grace of God, I have never hit anybody. But every time I exceed the speed limit I take my unacknowledged share of the responsibility of those of my fellow law-breakers who have been less fortunate than I. I say, then, that there is—I will not say universal disregard, but widespread and flagrant disregard, of the speed limit, wherever the speed limit can be disregarded, all over the British Isles. I beg the noble Lord who is to reply not to tell us that civil servants have leaned out of the windows of Whitehall and timed the traffic moving down Whitehall to be proceeding at a uniform rate of twenty miles per hour; or that the ministerial cars, which have recently been so creditably reduced in number, never move at more than twenty-five miles per hour. That may be entirely true, but it is also entirely irrelevant. I do not doubt that there is a large area in London where it is seldom possible to break the speed limit. But I am thinking mainly of the country towns and villages on the highways. I am not a Londoner, and I should be prepared to take the Minister to three or four controlled areas within five miles of my home where he might well have to wait a couple of hours or more before he saw a single car proceeding at thirty miles per hour.

In these disgraceful circumstances, it seems to me that there are three courses open to the Government. The first—and this is infinitely the most desirable—would be to enforce the speed limit; the second would be to abolish it; and the third—which I am inclined to think may be asking for the worst of both worlds—would be to leave things precisely as they are. I need hardly say that what I should much prefer the Government to do, and what I should entreat them to do, and, in fact, have been entreating them to do at intervals for the last seventeen years, is to enforce the limit effectively. There are no insuperable difficulties about that. At present we all know that if a glance in the driving mirror reassures us that no uniformed "speed cop" is within sight, then it is perfectly safe to put our foot on the accelerator and proceed at whatever speed we personally judge to be appropriate and safe. In fact, within the last few weeks the chairman of a bench of magistrates told me that that was precisely his practice—to glance in the driving mirror, and then proceed at whatever speed he personally judged to be safe. But if it were known that there were everywhere plain clothes speed patrols and concealed speed traps in use, there would speedily be a substantial diminution in the number of lawbreakers.

I know that there are not enough police for the jobs that they have to do at present, but the mere knowledge that plain clothes police and concealed speed traps were in use would magnify the deterrent effect out of all proportion to the actual number in use. I know that we shall be told, as we have been told often before, that it is un-English to adopt such methods: it is not un-English to use plain clothes police to protect the citizen's property against burglars, but it is un-English to use plain clothes police to protect the citizen's life against speeding motorists. That seems to me a totally illogical proposition, and one, moreover, which has more than a flavour of class prejudice about it. I should prefer to think that it is un-English to refuse to experiment with methods which might substantially reduce the total of casualties, even though to do so would for a while inconvenience and irritate a considerable number, though not necessarily a majority, of motorists. I therefore beg his Majesty's Government to think long and carefully before they decline to issue the necessary instructions to watch committees for the enforcing of the speed limit in that sort of way.

I feel that I must add just this: no mere enforcement by a method of that sort would achieve the substantial results which we should all like to see unless and until magistrates are prepared to impose adequate penalties. Many magistrates, unfortunately, are apt to follow a conviction with a derisory fine. And it is not merely that magistrates do not always use the law, but that the law itself, unfortunately, is extremely lenient towards this particular offence. The Road Traffic Act, 1934, lays it down that you have to be convicted three times for speeding before you can be disqualified. No one would wait until an engine driver on the railway had driven three times past the signals before he was warned off the line. At the annual meeting this year of the Magistrates' Association a distinguished stipendiary magistrate and K.C. complained bitterly of precisely this anomaly, He told his colleagues that this May he had had before him a motor-cyclist convicted of driving for nearly a mile inside the controlled area at a minimum speed of 65 m.p.h. and a maximum speed of 68 m.p.h., and he said—very justifiably, I think—that it was a ridiculous anomaly that he could punish that offender only with a fine.

But I do not wish to confuse the issue by asking your Lordships to consider the desirability of putting more teeth into the Road Traffic Act of 1934, desirable though I happen to think it would be for that Act to have more teeth. My point is much simpler that that: it is merely that the existing law should be enforced. I am perfectly content to accept and rest my case upon the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas—whom I am very glad to see in his place—when speaking from the Front Bench on behalf of the last Government. The noble Lord said: "The greatest single deterrent would be the greater enforcement of the existing law." That is first and foremost what I am entreating the Government to promise us this evening. If they are not prepared to promise that, and if they are determined, in effect—though they will not put it so bluntly—to leave things pretty much as they are, then I suggest that we ought at any rate seriously to consider whether we ought not to abolish the speed limit altogether. It has taken me some while to come to that paradoxical conclusion. For very nearly eighteen years now I have been doing my best, at intervals probably too frequent for your Lordships' taste, to urge the Government to enforce the speed limit more effectively.

And if I now find myself compelled to say that, rather than see it so frequently and generally disregarded, I think that we ought at least to consider whether it should not be altogether abolished, I ask your Lordships to believe that I am not speaking in any mood of mere irritation or despair. The fact is that there is a very grave danger that the law in general nowadays may fall into contempt. We are bound by so many petty rules and regulations, some of which have very little moral sanction behind them, that we are all tempted to be law-breakers in one way or another. I do not want to cast any aspersions on your Lordships' home towns or districts, but I can at least say that in my home district if a butcher offers a housewife a few pennyworth more than her meagre legal ration of meat, you do not hear a scream of rage and you do not see the housewife throwing the meat back in his face and ejaculating: "How dare you tempt me to break the law! "She puts it in her bag, thanks him warmly and walks out of the shop. In the days of petrol rationing I even heard of a small deal in petrol coupons between a magistrate and a clergyman. The fact is, that the old, invaluable, clear-cut Victorian distinction between the vast majority of law-abiding citizens and the small minority of lawbreakers is in danger of being completely effaced. The distinction nowadays is becoming more and more one of degree rather than of kind. The most respectable citizens are tempted—one might almost say compelled—in one way or another to turn a blind eye to the law. That is not only a grave moral loss, but it threatens the very foundation of the English way of life.

This is the real point. Most of these petty infringements of the law are surreptitious. For example, I do not suppose that the clergyman began his sermon the next week by saying: "Dear Brethren, we all remember the Scriptural advice that we should not only be as harmless as doves but as wise as serpents, and you will be glad to hear that last week I managed to pouch a few coupons 'on the strict Q.T.'" By contrast, the breaking of the speed limit is extremely conspicuous: and that the man in the street in his millions should see the law, of which he is reminded by signs conspicuously erected at regular intervals every few miles on every high road in the country, broken by all and sundry, broken day and night, broken year in and year out, and broken with impunity, seems to me to make a most formidable contribution to the general contempt into which the law in our time is in danger of falling.

I cannot believe that the speed limit, as at present disregarded, does, in fact, save many lives. My own belief—and it is only a belief—is that one value of the present speed limit is that it does establish what is probably a salutary distinction between the built-up area and the open road, so that although nine cars out of ten, when there is a clear road ahead of them, do break the speed limit, they do not drive as I seem to remember they used to at 60 and 70 m.p.h. within the controlled area. But it is difficult to be certain; and I do suggest that we should seriously consider whether it is worth our while allowing the general law to be brought into contempt by the constant disregard of this particular example of it. I hope that the Government are going to say that they will take some steps to enforce the law more effectively both by issuing the necessary instructions to watch committees—if that is the correct mode of procedure—and, possibly through the Lord Chancellor issuing some word of advice to the magistrates. Unfortunately, I cannot say that they have a mandate to do this. I cannot say that they have promised in their Election literature to do anything of the kind. I cannot even say that if they do it they will earn any easy short-term popularity. What I can say—and I hope this will be sufficient—is that if they do it, they will save lives. I beg to move for Papers.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords. I am afraid that I do not altogether agree with my noble friend who has just sat down. I think I have driven as long as he has, and I feel that it is only through not having noticed the signs that I have ever taken the responsibility of driving at over 30 m.p.h. within the prescribed area. I feel that he is right in saying that there are a considerable number of people who do not obey the law, but, on the other hand, I think a very high percentage of them do. Like the noble Lord, no doubt, I have had many cars pass me going at 50 and 60 m.p.h. within the prescribed area, and I have also seen people not pulling up at a "Halt" sign. I am sure that the speed limit is perfectly justified in perhaps 99 per cent. of the places where it is in force, but there are a number of places where it appears to be unnecessary. I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply will bear that in mind.

Let me, for a moment or two, give your Lordships instances of stupid things that are done on the road. Time and time again one sees bicyclists after dark without their rear lamps alight. Now that is just asking for trouble, and I think that when that is noticed it should lead to sonic sort of correction in the way of being brought before the court. There is another case which is perfectly maddening, and that is when a pedestrian who wishes to cross the road, instead of standing on the pavement, stands in the road. I can remember having seen two accidents which arose from that behaviour. I think that if there happens to be police supervision at such a point it would help a great deal if the policeman would go up to these people and tell them to stand back on the pavement. If there should be a second offence of that kind on the part of any person, he or she should be dealt with by the law. Those are two things that one notices continually.

My noble friend referred to the national tragedy of road accidents. I cannot understand why public opinion has not taken this matter up far more strongly. I think the public might show more interest in it; and I should like also to see the Press take far more notice of it than they have hitherto. When we see figures appearing periodically of people who have been killed in thousands and seriously injured in hundreds of thousands, we must feel that it is a disgrace to us all that we should put up with it and not do something far more drastic than is being done to-day. I think a great deal is being done in the schools by the teachers to impress upon the children the advisability of being careful. I believe some teachers even go to the extent of drilling the children on the subject. Now that is all in the right direction, but there is another aspect. In many instances the mother, as well as the father, of a family has to go out to work and she has, in addition, to look after her children and get them all to school. She returns home in the evening worn out from her work, too tired to talk to the children on this subject. I believe we have tinkered with this question far too long. Every conceivable idea has been put forward to induce people somehow or other to obey the law of the road, and we get nowhere. Casualties are not decreasing and in some periods we find them increasing.

People using the road to the danger of the public for the first time should be warned and perhaps punished with a line. If they offend a second time they should go to prison. I am sure that after that they would never do it again. We have arrived at the stage at which we must do something of that sort, otherwise we shall never get away from this terrible tragedy. I know that there is a shortage of police at the moment, but I wonder whether it would be possible to arrange for any policeman who happens to be on the spot when a motorist or anyone else is disobeying the rules of the road, to point out to the offender that he has thus disobeyed the rule of the road and offer him there and then the option of paying a fine, for which a receipt would be given; and then to warn him that if he should be seen offending again he will be reported and brought before the court. I believe that system has worked very effectively in the United States. I hope that the Minister who replies to this debate will take my suggestions into consideration and provide for a very drastic punishment for those who do not behave themselves on the road.

4.46 p.m.


My Lords, this situation has been aggravated of late by the removal of the pedestrian crossings in many places, and if the speed limit is not observed in built-up areas I am sure there will be many more serious accidents. I have a particular case in mind. It concerns the removal of a pedestrian crossing at Stamford, on the Great North Road. We have two large schools, one of them a girls' high school just a little way in the town, where there are over 600 girls. They have to cross the road several times a day, when there are cars travelling along it at 30 m.p.h. and more. Many of these girls used the pedestrian crossings, and now the pedestrian crossings are taken away something will have to be done to make people observe the law. There is another road which I am thinking of which is bringing traffic from the East. On this road there is a grammar school for over 500 boys. The school has buildings on each side of the road. There was a pedestrian crossing there, but someone came along suddenly and removed it. I believe that protests were made but by the time they were posted the pedestrian crossing had gone. Unless something is done to control motorists on this road we are bound to have accidents. You certainly cannot prevent boys from going across the stream of traffic. I hope the Minister will consider this point with regard to places where portions of road such as I have tried to indicate are concerned.

The elementary school is in an entirely different position. The children in an elementary school do move at stated times. An official stands outside these schools holding a board, and it is possible by this means to get the children across the road. But the children in secondary schools are moving in and out continually all day, for various objects. This control is in such a case of little use. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the question of pedestrian crossings in cases of this sort. It is all very well, but the borough council were told that they should retain one-third and remove two-thirds of the pedestrian crossings in towns through the middle of which runs the Great North Road. Now the crossings have gone and there is nothing there. Councils have practically no warning at all and, by the time the protests are posted, the crossings have gone. I cannot understand a direction of that sort. You cannot make a hard and fast rule for so many crossings in every town, for each town has its different problems. I take this opportunity, though this matter is not quite relevant to the original Motion, of bringing this particular point before the Minister of Transport.

4.52 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to bring before your Lordships what is, in effect, a subsidiary although, I think, a cognate point arising out of a Question and answer given in this House on November 20. I think that on that occasion many of your Lordships, and certainly I myself, were somewhat startled to learn of the rights which, if we are pedestrians, we all apparently have in the Royal Parks. I have the OFFICIAL REPORT here—I do not know whether it is in order for me to quote another noble Lord, but perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will not mind if I refer to what he said, arising out of the Question which was put originally by the noble Earl, Lord Howe. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked this question [OFFICIAL REPORT, col. 348]: My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl whether we are to take it that, by law, every pedestrian in Royal Parks has priority over every form of vehicular traffic? The Earl of Onslow replied: … that is how I am informed at the moment, but I will certainly look into the matter. I intrude in this debate only because a point seems to arise—perhaps one can hold that it arises—out of the original Motion.

I should like to suggest to the appropriate authority, I suppose the Royal Parks Commission—I am not quite clear about that—that the public, both vehicular and pedestrian, should be told exactly (if I may use the expression) where they "get off" because otherwise they "get off" at the wrong time, with disastrous results. If your Lordships think of Hyde Park alone, and the traffic pouring north and south, east and west, between Marble Arch and Hyde Park Corner and from Hyde Park westwards, the possibility of accidents is surely infinite. Are we pedestrians to stray across the road and, when a vehicle hits us, say: "I have prior right"? It would not help us very much. I should like to suggest that, somehow or other, both the pedestrian (I am speaking as a pedestrian at the moment, because my car is laid up; and I suppose that others are in the same position) and the unfortunate motorist who is driving his car, or his chauffeur, should know where they are. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, promised that he would look into the matter. I apologise for not giving prior notice that I intended to raise this point to-day, but it arose only half an hour before I came into the Chamber.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, I understood that there was a 20 m.p.h. speed limit in the Royal Parks, but it does not seem to be observed. I have found in Hyde Park that frequently I have had to wait some four, five or six minutes before I could get across the road with any degree of safety. That may not be relevant to the present Motion, but what is relevant to the present Motion is that there has been a notable reduction in the number of uncontrolled crossings, what we call the "zebra" crossings. The fact that there has been a reduction in the number of these crossings means that there is a tendency for speed in built-up areas to be greater even than was the case before this reduction occurred. As I see it, that is the danger at present facing the pedestrian and, because the distance between the uncontrolled crossings amounts sometimes to as much as a quarter of a mile, and in other cases considerably more, the pedestrian is tempted not to make that, to him, unnecessary walk and to risk his life by crossing at a point in the road where there is no uncontrolled crossing over which he has priority. Therefore, he adds to the 166,000 injuries and deaths which take place every year.

That brings me to the last point I wish to make, which concerns the controlled crossings, by which I mean the crossings upon which there are lights or police. Regulations recently made mean that the pedestrian is now denied the legal right to complete the crossing which he has started with the light in his favour if the lights turn against him when he is halfway across the road. He is then faced with three possibilities. He may continue, in which case fast-moving traffic may catch him in the last few yards of his journey; or he may stay where he is, thus adding to the difficulty of traffic desiring to move with the green light; or he may turn back, in which case he may be killed by traffic coming—perfectly properly, under the new regulations—the other way. It was these regulations which it was hoped we should be able to modify by a Prayer, but we were prevented from doing so by reason of the procedure for the laying of Statutory Instruments for forty days in your Lordships' House. A Judicial Sitting of the House, of course, even though there is no Sitting for Public Business, counts as one of the forty days, although it affords no opportunity for discussion. I raise that matter only in passing; the real relevance of what I want to say about this Motion is that the diminution in the number of uncontrolled crossings is adding to the very danger to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has called attention.

4.59 p.m.


My Lords, after listening to the discussion, I am not quite sure whether I shall be in order in speaking this afternoon on the subject of speed limits for motor vehicles in built-up areas! I think that everybody will agree that all laws should be either enforced or repealed, and for that reason alone we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for introducing this subject this afternoon. I believe that the law relating to speed limits is, notoriously, not enforced. I personally take the view that it should be repealed, the reason for that view being that, in my opinion, on the whole this law is unenforceable—though possibly it could be nearly enforced, at vast expense. I admit at once that the main culprits are the motorists, but the fact remains that, besides the motorists, others are at fault—I to the Ministry of Transport and the local authorities, who have a part to play in the enforcement of the Road Traffic Act, 1934.

This Act has as its main theme that there shall be a speed limit in built-up areas. Those words are very important. The Act goes on to say, broadly speaking, that a street which has street lamps shall be deemed to be a built-up area. That was a fairly sensible way of doing things in the year 1934, but since then a great many things have happened. Long stretches of road now have street lamps which they did not have in 1934, and on many of those stretches of road there are no more houses than there were then. So now we have many stretches of road which have street lamps and, therefore, are deemed to be built-up, although by no stretch of the English language can they be described as built-up. I think action is required about this situation.

I want particularly to refer to subsection (4) of Section 1 of this Act. To paraphrase the subsection, it says that a direction that a length of road shall be deemed to be a road in a built-up area may be given by the local authority, with the consent of the Minister. It is the action that has been taken on that subsection about which I want to complain especially this afternoon. I have no hesitation in saying that the spirit of that subsection has not been carried out. All your Lordships will know of hundreds of roads, long and short, which are restricted and which, under the letter, and certainly under the spirit of the Act, should not be restricted. At present, there is a flagrant temptation to motorists to break the law. Moreover, if a motorist has some knowledge of the law, he may say to himself as he drives along, "If only these people would carry out their part of this bargain I would carry out mine." Therefore, I suggest that the authorities should study this Act closely and enforce it if, indeed, the decision is taken that it can be enforced. Clearly, there is a lack of some supervision somewhere: there is nobody going round the country, as I think there should be, to find these stretches of road, of which we all know, which are restricted but which clearly ought not to be. I do ask that if this law is to be enforced, that should be done. If the Government will play their part—and when I say "the Government," of course I mean the Ministry—the motorist in his car is likely to play his part.

I have ventured to raise this matter in your Lordships' House before, and on the last occasion I sent to the Parliamentary Secretary a list of fifty such lengths of road in my own part of the country alone. There must be thousands of such lengths altogether. I should like to take this opportunity of thanking the then Parliamentary Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for his interest in the matter and for the help which he gave. To my knowledge there is one particular stretch of a trunk road which has been restricted since 1934. This year action was taken by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, and the restriction has now been removed. The point I want to make here is that for seventeen years that stretch of trunk road was wrongly restricted. There has been no change whatever in the number of buildings on it. It was wrongly restricted for seventeen years, and nobody did anything at all about it until the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, at my request, acted. That state of affairs is palpably wrong. Why should it be necessary for a member of your Lordships' House to approach the Parliamentary Secretary before this Act is carried out? As I say, my view is that this speed limit cannot be enforced, but if it can be, it should be enforced on both sides, not only on the motorists but on the authorities, who, I think, are very much to blame.

In case I am accused of not being constructive in my criticism, may I add that we are all appalled at the death roll on the roads, and it is up to us to provide a remedy if we can. If the speed limit is abolished, as I think it ought to be. I am entirely in favour of increasing the number of prosecutions, by having police patrols in uniform and in plain clothes. I am entirely in favour of greater severity in penalties. After all, let it be remembered that anybody who drives too fast on a road when it is dangerous to do so can be prosecuted and can be disqualified for driving at a speed dangerous to the public. That can be, and is, done. That is a serious offence. I know that there is no one simple solution to the present problem, but if there is one thing more than any other which will reduce the casualties on the roads, I believe that it is the segregation of the various kinds of traffic. I believe that before we can substantially reduce the death roll we shall have to separate the pedestrians from the cyclists, the cyclists from the motorists, the motorists going from the motorists coming, and all the motorists from the motorists crossing. I know that it is easy to say that, but if there were no signals on the railways, and if a driver were able to drive his train just where he liked, we should have the same situation there as we now have on the roads. The noble Lord who is to reply will probably tell us that the money is not available to segregate the traffic. That may be true—and no doubt is, if the noble Lord says so. But it is also the fact that until this money is available, these casualties on the roads will go on, speed limit or no speed limit.

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to address the House for just two or three minutes. For the last five years or more I happen to have been President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. I believe that my noble friend Lord Leathers, whom I should like to congratulate on his appointment, was indirectly and to a large measure responsible for my being in that position, because he made me the first chairman of the Road Safety Committee. Whether the Parliamentary Secretary is still chairman or not I do not know. It was a function which was certainly ably performed by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, whom I now see sitting on the Opposition Benches. I should greatly deplore the abolition of the 30 m.p.h. speed limit in built-up areas. I think that it is generally accepted, and that, in general, it works. Of course, there are a number of people who ignore it. It is true—as the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, has pointed out—that there are a certain number of roads which are classified as being in built-up areas but which ought not to be. I believe that a fairly continuous survey goes on to see which areas should be excluded and which should be kept in. Certainly, I hope that the divisional road engineers will be prompted to go into these matters.

We all know of a certain number of roads in respect of which there is no need for the 30 m.p.h. speed limit. One finds sometimes that although such a road happens to have street lighting upon it, from the safety point of view that road, with many others in our country, could well be exempted from the limit. I believe that once only dangerous roads are included in the 30 m.p.h. speed limit areas—the process should be continuous, and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, will see that it is intensified—all motorists, and not only the majority as is now the case, will observe this 30 m.p.h. speed limit without the need for a great number of extra police patrols. I do not believe in abolishing a law merely because it does not work in all cases. If that were right, we should abolish the law that prohibits people breaking and entering houses and stealing goods, for the courts of this country are employed for a great part of their time in dealing with the cases of persons who have broken into houses, despite the fact that it is against the law to do so. So I hope that we shall retain the 30 m.p.h. speed limit in properly built-up areas.

Whether or not the time has come to alter the 20 m.p.h. speed limit for lorries is a different matter. The 20 m.p.h. speed limit for heavy lorries was imposed when the brakes of vehicles of that class were not so good as they are at the present time. It may be that the limit for lorries could be raised to 30 m.p.h. without endangering the safety of other road users. I think that any of your Lordships who has ever had occasion to drive a car along our roads will realise that to pass a lorry you have always to go considerably over 30 m.p.h.




The noble Lord puts it at sixty; I do not believe that it is quite so high as that. But certainly one often finds it necessary to accelerate up to 50 m.p.h. to get past a lorry which is being driven on the open road. It is clear that all, or nearly all, of these lorry drivers—and some of them are among the best drivers in this country, and the most courteous to fellow-users of the roads—drive for most of the time at speeds over 20 m.p.h. And if any of us had to drive a lorry, say, from here to Newcastle and were restricted to 20 m.p.h. up the Great North Road, I am sure we should realise, in our own inner consciousness, that we should exceed that limit, at any rate on the open stretches of the road. So the raising of the 20 m.p.h. limit for lorries may well be a question into which the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, should look. With regard to the suggestion for abolishing the 30 m.p.h. speed limit in built-up areas, I think that any step of the kind would be a retrograde one. In my opinion one of its effects would be—for, as many of your Lordships know, it is not always easy to prove a charge of dangerous driving—even to add to the appallingly high rate of casualties which, unfortunately, are occurring on the roads at the present time.

5.16 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words in support of the Motion which has been so ably moved by my noble friend Lord Elton. I should like also to say that I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, has just said. I hope that there will not be a reduction of the 30 m.p.h. speed limit in built-up areas. It may not be a perfect system, but I think it has greatly enhanced safety on the roads in the ten or fifteen years that it has been in force. The point I want to make is one of which I am afraid I have given only very short notice to the noble Lord who is to reply, and I do not, therefore, expect him to give me an answer to-day. It relates to the reduction in the number of uncontrolled crossings. As your Lordships well know, a regulation was made when the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport for a reduction in the number of uncontrolled crossings. I, for one, was in favour of it. I thought that there were probably too many crossings inadequately marked and inadequately lighted, and that by improving the marking—putting on zebra stripes, for instance—and by having better lighting we could secure safer crossings.

Unfortunately, the experience which has followed the change has not always been too happy. There has been a rigid reduction of two-thirds in, the number of uncontrolled crossings. I understand that some cities are more or less satisfied with that reduction of two-thirds, while others are not at all satisfied. I have been asked to speak here this afternoon on behalf of the Association of Municipal Corporations, who are very much perturbed about this matter. They say they have not had adequate warnings or sufficient consultation, and that, in many cases, they feel considerable anxiety regarding the extent of the arbitrary reduction of these uncontrolled crossings. I hope that the Minister will be able to look into this matter and give the local authorities more flexibility, because I feel that they know their own business in their own cities probably better than the divisional engineer, however good he may be. It is, I submit, a point of great importance. As we shall probably not have another opportunity of discussing this question for at least another two months, I thought it well to raise the matter this afternoon.

5.20 p.m.


My Lords, I feel something like the character in the Beggar's Opera, who said: How happy could I be with either, were t'other dear charmer away. My sympathies are divided between the noble Lord who moved this Motion and the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, who makes his first appearance—and a very welcome appearance it is—on the Front Bench to-day, in his present rôle as a member of His Majesty's Government. My sympathies go out to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, because of the way he put his case; they go out to the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, because he is entirely the wrong Minister to reply to this indictment. The Ministers who should be at that Despatch Box this afternoon, listening to the indictment of noble Lords, linked together, I will not say in a loving embrace, but in corresponding culpability, are those representing the Home Office and the Treasury. The noble Lord, Lord Leathers, has no power whatever to enforce one law relating to the subject that has been raised or one regulation that he makes.

I would suggest seriously to the noble Marquess the Leader of the House that the next time the question of road accidents is debated we should have to answer the debate the Ministers chiefly responsible for the disregard of the law and the number of accidents, and those are the spokesmen of the Home Office and the Treasury. I speak feelingly on this matter, because I had to stand at that Box for two years and be answerable for this question. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Leathers, will not take it that we shall not listen to him this afternoon with the greatest of interest, and I sincerely trust that in his difficult task of co-ordination he will be able to spare some time to consider this terrible problem, one of the greatest social scourges which exist to-day.

I do not agree with the premises of the noble Lord, Lord Elton. I have said before in your Lordships' House and deliberately say again, that speed, qua speed, is not a major contributory factor in road accidents. It is speed in the wrong place at the wrong time by the wrong people that is wrong. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, this afternoon one could not escape the feeling that he feels that if only we could restrict every vehicle to 30 m.p.h. in built-up areas, road accidents would largely disappear. That is just not true. Many of the major accidents in built-up areas are not caused by speed, and a motor vehicle travelling at 10 m.p.h. can be as dangerous as and more lethal in the hands of some people than it can be in the hands of others at a far greater speed. But I am not in favour of doing away with the speed limit, because it is at least a deterrent.

The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, put his finger on the point when he said that the cause of road accidents is the stupidity of people. That is what it is. It is stupidity, carelessness, selfishness and lack of consideration for others. Every section of road users is to blame, and I should not attempt to apportion that blame. The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, mentioned the pedestrian who will stand in the road. The pedestrian is almost above the law. There is no law to compel a pedestrian to do anything; he can do what he likes. In my view, the great need is the enforcement of the existing law, which is quite severe enough. If noble Lords will take the trouble to read the Road Traffic Act of 1934, they will see that it is very severe on vehicle drivers. But it is not enforced, and the reason why it is not enforced is that we have not adequate police; and we have not adequate police because of the lethargic methods of the Home Office and the Treasury's grip of the purse strings. I can say that now, from my comfortable position at this Box. If we could increase the number of traffic police, if we could have "courtesy cops" to play on the inherent respect of the British public for a policeman's uniform, if we could have more wardens for school children crossing the road (local education authorities have clone good work in this) and if we could have better lighting in our streets, then I think we could do a great deal to solve the problem. We do not want to treat motorists as criminals—they are foolish, not criminal.

The vast bulk of road accidents occur in built-up areas where speed is negligible. The average speed of vehicles crossing London has come down from 10 m.p.h. to 8 m.p.h., and if our present congestion goes on much longer it will be less than that. It is congestion that causes impatience, it is impatience that causes annoyance; discretion goes and accidents happen. We shall go on having this problem of road accidents and we shall go on debating the question until we get a Government that will take this problem really seriously. It has not been taken seriously and it is not being taken seriously now. It is one of the biggest indictments against our modern civilisation that we put up with this tremendous toll of road accidents without turning a hair. And we shall not get a political Party to turn a hair until it impinges upon votes and elections. We must face up to that. There are no votes in road accidents, one way or another.

The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, spoke about public opinion and the Press. When I was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport I made heavy and insistent calls on the Press, and they answered them generously. We even went to scare headlines in an effort to stir up public opinion. We took the population figures and the number of road accidents in certain areas and showed how, over a certain period of time, if the road accidents continued at the rate at which they stood, the area would be entirely depopulated. What we have to do is to curtail the liberty of many people to inflict harm and damage on other road users, and the Government must face this problem. Take cyclists, for instance; there is only one conviction that can be brought against a cyclist and that is for riding furiously.


No, the cyclist can be prosecuted for passing a traffic light on his bicycle.


I am speaking about riding offences.


The offence I mentioned is a riding offence.


My noble friend behind me has just said that a cyclist can be summoned for riding on the footpath.


I thought the noble Lord was dealing with my interruption. I said a cyclist could be prosecuted for riding past a traffic light.


But then he only falls into the category of all vehicular traffic. He cannot be summoned by the police for having ineffective brakes, or any other of those things. And the pedestrian is practically scot free. That is the position which confronts the Government. When we turn to speed limits, it is hard to realise that the law of this country says that there is no vehicle on the road, with the exception of what we know as private motor cars, that can travel at over thirty miles per hour. That is hard to appreciate when one sees some long distance coaches on the move.

The enforcement of the law depends upon adequate police and the attitude of the magistrates. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, so I am advised, has no power at all in this matter. The noble and learned Lord appoints magistrates, and he can dismiss magistrates; but while they are magistrates, unless they are, what I think is called, perverse, he cannot instruct them how to carry out their duties. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chief Justice, who gave up a great deal of his time during the last twelve months to try and bring home to magistrates all over the country the tragedy of these road accidents. The Home Secretary can do a lot in that direction. But in addition to all that, we need to augment the traffic police of this country, and to do as was done in the great Lancashire experiment by the Chief Constable of Lancashire. But the noble Lord will have to talk seriously to the Treasury and the Home Office before ever we shall impinge upon this problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Killearn, will be interested to know that I have put down a Question, so that the position can be clarified as regards traffic in the Royal Parks, as I am apt at the present time to hold a somewhat different view from the noble Lord who answered for His Majesty's Government the other day.

I have tried to outline to your Lordships the things that are going to improve this position. I do not agree with the abolition of the speed limit. I do not think it is the panacea of the whole problem. There are in this country, as the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, said, a great many speed limits which should never be there, and which are put there only to placate local pressure and public opinion, not because they will prevent accidents. I have had the opportunity of inspecting certain lengths of road and the police records in respect of them, and there is not one case in the accident history of those stretches of road in which speed ever played a part in the accidents. But local opinion is: "If only we can have a 30 m.p.h. limit, everything will be very fine in future." But the reverse is the case. That is my view on this question. I hope that the noble Lord will address himself seriously to this problem because it is one of the most serious we have to face, and it is something that we, as humane people, should not tolerate. But do not blame only one class of the community: all classes are to blame; they are all careless and selfish. The man who is the most potent source of danger is not the man who exceeds 30 m.p.h. in a built-up area, but the one who has not the patience to take his place in the queue but must cut in and do all those senseless things which cause accidents in built-up areas. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to address himself to this problem on the lines I have indicated.

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, before I reply to the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, may I be permitted to tell your Lordships how much I regret that the pressure of business which has been forced upon me since I took up my appointment has prevented me, until to-day, from being in this House for your Lordships' deliberations? I was very sorry indeed that I was unable to be present when the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, spoke on the Address. I did, in fact inform the noble Lord that I should not be able to be here and the reason was quite an exceptional one. I just could not omit to attend to a particular meeting at that moment and it had to be that way. I assure your Lordships that I know what I owe to this House and indeed. I am going to live up to that. But just at that immediate time I was overwhelmed with the other business that prevented me from being here

Turning now to the Motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, while I do not quarrel at all with its subject matter. I must say, right away, that I entirely dispute and reject the noble Lord's premise. The speed limit for motor vehicles in built-up areas is not universally disregarded. That is really too much to say, and quite unfair. What I think we might all agree is that it is not observed as much-as it ought to be. We have to rely in this matter, as in many others, on the good sense and co-operation of everyone, but when this co-operation is not forthcoming we must do our best to see that the law is enforced. This, as your Lordships know, is the responsibility of the police, and I can assure your Lordships that the enforcement of this particu- lar measure is a prominent feature of police policy. I should not like the impression to go abroad that the police are not co-operating 100 per cent. It would be unfair to leave unchallenged any view of that sort. The work is carried out mainly by the mobile police patrols which have proved most effective and useful generally in the campaign for road safety.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I bring to my support at this point a few figures. In 1949 the number of prosecutions for speeding in built-up areas was nearly 24,000; and in over 2,000 other cases written warnings were issued. There were, in addition, nearly 26,000 prosecutions for speed limit offences by goods vehicles, and further prosecutions against public service vehicles, though goods and passenger vehicle offences are not necessarily committed in built-up areas, since, as your Lordships will know, each class of vehicle is restricted to a particular speed, wherever it may be. In 1950, due to the abolition of petrol rationing and also, partly, because it was possible to strengthen the police on traffic duties, the number of prosecutions for offences in built-up areas rose by nearly a half to 34,000; and the number of written warnings given increased even more. The figures for the Metropolitan Police District alone are particularly illuminating. In 1950, over 14,000 drivers were summoned for speeding. In addition, over 23,000 drivers were warned of the need for scrupulous observance of the limit. This year up to the end of October, there have so far been 13,000 summonses and over 24,000 warnings. Your Lordships will therefore understand that, despite the pressure of duties weighing upon the police, especially upon the traffic patrols while the Festival of Britain has been on, the work of enforcing the speed limit has been fully maintained.

All this, surely, is evidence of a formidable character that the law is, as one would expect, being enforced. I think it is only fair that we should have these figures firmly in our minds, because what we have heard this afternoon rather indicated that there is less and less enforcement of the law as we go along week by week. I may add that I wish only that the speed limits could be enforced even more than is done already, but your Lordships will realise that, with the difficulty of sparing policemen for this work, there is a limit to what can be achieved. Again, I must emphasise that whatever it is possible to do, that we shall certainly do. I will say here that this is not the first time that I have had a responsibility for the Ministry of Transport, and on previous times, during those war years, I was always greatly interested in the response given from all sides of the House to any Motion which was put down on this subject, because of the serious loss of life. I was deeply impressed, and I always worked during that time in order to secure improvement. But then, as distinct from now, the police scarcity was very serious and very little could be done. We had to endure the hardship and the very bad lists of fatal results.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, also asked whether the Government are prepared to abolish the speed limit. I must say that we are certainly not in favour of abolishing this measure. Section 1 of the Road Traffic Act, 1934, the legislation in question, is probably the most successful single provision which has been introduced in this country for reducing the toll of death on the roads. It is the best instrument we have had, and we intend to preserve it. In 1935, the first year of the 30 m.p.h. limit, the number of deaths through road accidents declined immediately by over 10 per cent., and the number of injuries also came down sharply. In fact, the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, in his Annual Report for 1935, said: The statistics for the second quarter of the year, when the general speed limit was in force and was generally respected, showed that the… fatalities caused by private cars were brought down by 50 per cent. as compared with the previous quarter. Your Lordships may say, "But what happened after 1935?" I can tell you that the sharp improvement of 1935 was maintained. Death on the roads increased seriously during the war period, due to the blackout, but, apart from that sad interlude, progress has been maintained. In fact, the position is still better than it was in 1934, in spite of the greater number of vehicles now on the road. I am not trying to pretend that it is satisfactory, and there is a great deal in this important and heart-rending sphere of our activities that I should like to see better done; and in due time I hope that we shall achieve it. That will be our aim. But to-day I hope that I have said enough to convince the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that we are not for one moment considering removing from our armoury this vital weapon which has proved its worth over and over again in the battle for road safety.

As is customary on occasions of a Motion on this subject, many questions outside the Motion have been touched upon. I am rather glad, because it provides an opportunity for us to hear views from which, although they are not strictly within the lines of the Motion, we can benefit. I should like noble Lords to excuse me from replying separately to each of those subjects which has been mentioned. I have taken note of them. I could begin to do it now, but I think it would be far better that at a later stage we should assemble the whole thing together, when I could make a full and adequate reply. For the time being, we do not propose to change the law in respect of the speed limit, as is suggested in the Motion, and although for quite a while noble Lords rather departed from the Motion I am glad that we were brought back to it firmly by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, by the noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, and, indeed, still more so by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

5.45 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord who has just replied complained of my use of the words "universally disregarded." No doubt that was in his brief, and very likely he did not hear that in my speech I explained more than once that by "universal" I really meant widespread and flagrant disregard. The noble Lord's own substitute—that the speed limit is "not observed as much as it ought to be"—does not seem to me any more accurate than my own reference to "universally disregarded." I must say that I was profoundly disappointed at the noble Lord's reply. We have heard once more the brief which has been put into the mouths of so many Ministers. There was no suggestion that the noble Lord has any sense whatever of the urgency of this tragedy—nothing like the sense which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for example, showed in his remarks from the other side of the House. The noble Lord even seemed to think that I was asking only for the abolition of the speed limit, whereas, of course, your Lordships realise that time and time again I attempted to make it clear that what I was entreating the Government to do was to enforce the existing limit more effectively. I am indeed sorry to have derived from the remarks of the Minister an impression that he thinks that on the whole, although there is no doubt something to be done, all is reasonably satisfactory. But this is not a matter which we can pursue now, and I thank all noble Lords who have supported me. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.