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Mr. Gray: I am told that it is improper for a Bill to cover more than one Department of State and therefore the enforcement of speed limits may not properly be part of this measure. Therefore, I regret that it would not be sensible to include that provision, but perhaps we shall discuss it in Committee.
Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have made my point and I hope that in his reply to the debate my hon. Friend the Minister will give me some assurances that the Government intend to take rapid action to deal with the problem.
Consultation has also been mentioned in respect of clause 2. It is extremely important that local residents are consulted for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Garston. I shall not go into any more detail although I regret the hon. Gentleman's rather dismissive approach to consultation with local residents because they often have better ideas than traffic engineers.
Other groups should also be consulted, including the police and emergency services. The fire and ambulance services often have strong views about traffic-calming measures. We do not want to run the risk of preventing road accidents and then allowing people to burn to death because the fire engine cannot get to them in time. That would surely be throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Clause 4 is concerned with mobile telephones. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire said that we all use them. I make no admission one way or the other, but in respect of our earlier exchange, if it is of any comfort to him, I can admit to eating a banana while I was stuck in traffic last week--so perhaps bananas are relevant to the debate after all.
If just hand-held--or under-the-chin--mobile phones are made illegal because of safety concerns, people may think that hands-free phones are safe. I am concerned that the provision may be sending a mixed message.
We should further consider that issue. First, however, we should have more research on the precise impact of mobile phones on drivers. We could also consider banning the use of mobile phones in moving vehicles. The Library's brief on the Bill states:
Mr. Syms: I suffer from stress when I have to be at a meeting but am stuck in traffic and running late. I can use a mobile phone to inform someone that I may be late. Subsequently, I can calm down. Mobile phones are not all bad. People can use one--preferably a hands-free one, rather than breaking the law with a hand-held one--to leave a message or to make a quick reply. One advantage of mobile phones is that they can help people to calm down.
Perhaps we need to know a little more about mobile phone use. We could address the issue either by banning the use of mobile phones while driving or by accepting the conclusion of the Association of Chief Police Officers that current law is sufficiently flexible to address it. I fully accept the point made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that the Bill will send motorists a clear message not to use hand-held phones. As I said, however, I think that it could send a mixed message. As the Bill's current provision is better than nothing, I would support it. However, perhaps we can examine the provision in more detail in Committee and tidy it up a little.
Clause 5 deals with a matter close to my heart--seat belts. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that I have long been corresponding with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on the issue of children's seat belts. I shall deal with that issue in more detail later, when I speak to clause 6. First, however, I should like to deal with a matter dealt with in clause 5--the white-van-man exemption. We need to probe the wording of that clause in Committee, because "prescribed distance" can mean many things. I would hate to see such a seat belt exemption imposed without proper debate and the possibility of amendment.
The House of Commons Library paper refers to fire fighters, who are exempt from wearing seat belts's while putting on their equipment. I know that the Fire Brigades Union is unhappy about that. It issues clear advice that its members should put on their seat belts before the fire engine leaves the station. There is little point in a fire engine leaving the station a minute or two or a few seconds sooner if it then has a crash on the way to the fire, with the result that the firemen are injured and do not reach the fire at all.
I know that that happens from my previous work as a lawyer. I dealt with many cases of fire fighters who were injured when they were thrown about in the back of fire engines because the driver had to brake suddenly on the way to an emergency call. The net result was that the fire engine did not get to the fire because the crew were hurt.
We must recognise the importance of wearing a seat belt. I have some doubts about whether there should be an exemption for van drivers, although I can see the practicality. Let me give an example by describing what happened to me just before Christmas last year. I had been attending a constituency function and was parked in an enormous car park at Brent Cross, with which I was
Mr. Dismore: I thought that I would sue the lamp post, but I was not sure that it was insured. Unfortunately, not every accident results in a claim. Never has my advice to disappointed customers in my former profession been more apposite than when applied to myself in those circumstances.
I take full responsibility for what occurred. At the same time, I make the point that slow-speed accidents can cause quite nasty injuries. Van drivers ought to bear that in mind, even when they are hopping from delivery to delivery. The statistics show that light van seat belt-wearing rates are very low--64 per cent. for drivers and 53 per cent. for passengers. I can see no excuse for van passengers not wearing seat belts, compared with car passengers. If seat belt-wearing rates could be increased to those observed in the front seats of cars--91 per cent. and 94 per cent. respectively--it has been calculated, by the Transport Research Laboratory that some 20 fatalities and 270 serious injuries a year could be avoided. Many more white-van men would be alive today if they had worn seat belts, and a lot of serious injuries could have been avoided.
I am concerned that although it is very important that seat belts are worn by children, there is no exemption in clause 6 in relation to an incorrectly fitted seat belt. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire raises his eyebrows. About 15 months ago, I was taking my car in for its MOT--I know that it was more than a year ago because I have had another one since--and my mechanic, who is a very public-spirited chap, said, "Did you know that child seat belts are not tested as part of the MOT?". I think that that will come as a surprise to most people in the House except my hon. Friend the Minister, with whom I have corresponded on the subject. Most people would expect that if they took their car in for its MOT, the child seat belts would be tested along with the driver and passenger seat belts. They are not.
British Standards Institution statistics show that more than 50 per cent. of child restraints are fitted incorrectly. Some 88 per cent. are fitted by the child's parents. They think that they are doing the right thing for their children, but not fitting the seat belt properly probably puts their children in greater danger than not having one at all.
In 1997, 74 children under the age of 15 were killed, nearly 16,000 were injured and more than 1,200 were seriously injured. RoSPA--the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents--estimates that two thirds of those deaths and injuries could have been prevented by proper use of child restraints. The proposal of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire is absolutely on-message, but we must ensure that the seat belts are properly fitted.