Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Exmination of Witnesses (Questions 80-99)



Mr O'Brien

  80. On the issue of statistics, what do you think the government should need to respond to the advertisements of cars which do promote speeds?
  (Mr Delaney) The simple fact is that the statistics are available; they must be available because the West Midlands road accident review is based upon police statistics, and they do not keep any special data in the West Midlands. This data is available and really what we should be seeing are similar statistics produced in the "Road Accidents, Great Britain" document. Effectively what we have is two documents, one for the West Midlands—which is extremely useful—and one for the whole of the country—which does not address these fundamental issues.

  81. But if the editorials in the newspaper are promoting speed in some of their advertisements, how would this impact upon those statistics?
  (Mr King) I have done a study of motor manufacturers' advertisements in the press, in fact, for a seminar for the Advertising Standards Agency, and there is no doubt some car manufacturers still put speed up there but, in the last 2.5 years, there has been a slight change of emphasis to emphasise safety of vehicles, and I think the European new car assessment programme, the crash testing programme, has helped that. We see in TV adverts that the Renault Laguna is the only car to achieve five stars in safety, but I think you are right: we need to continue to encourage the manufacturers to put out the safety message rather than the speed message.

Mrs Ellman

  82. I wonder if the RAC could clarify the position in relation to speed. Mr King, you question whether speed kills, and Mr Delaney then said that only a fool would ignore speed—
  (Mr King) I did not question whether speed kills. Obviously in a collision speed can make the severity of the collision more serious; that is a fundamental. What we are questioning are the actual speed limits and if the majority of motorists abide by an 80 mph limit - and I think there is evidence to suggest that it depends how you drive; it all comes down to appropriate speed. On the same motorway, in clear weather conditions, in a modern car, doing 80 mph at a safe distance from the car in front is probably safe. On the same motorway, in rain, in fog or snow, doing 50 mph may be too fast, and I think that is what we have to get through to the public. I think just bland statements saying making speeding as socially unacceptable as drink driving is not the way to do it.

  83. So what you are just suggesting is not that speed does not matter but that speed changes with circumstances. How in a practical sense do you think that could be applied on our roads?
  (Mr King) I think it could, and I gave the example of the French motorways that have lower speed limits in the rain, but also on our motorways we are getting more and more variable message signs. They are used on the M25 on the western section in order to reduce speeds to alleviate congestion, but there is no reason why a similar system could not be used in bad weather to lower the speeds, and I think that would be more acceptable to the public. But we must face it: at the moment, in effect, the common law on a motorway in good weather conditions is 80 mph. People pass police cars at 80 mph. They might be breaking the law but that is the reality

Mr Stevenson

  84. On reality, could I ask a question on the French experience? As lay people, the information we see indicates that French have a far worse road safety record than us—in fact, many times worse. How can you then relate the French experience, given that reality to a situation you are advocating here?
  (Mr King) The French do have a far worse safety record but, if we analyse it, it is rather consistent with our own: the majority of accidents in France happen in urban areas and on rural roads due to bad road design as a factor, but not necessarily on the autoroutes.

  85. But taking all those factors into account, Mr King, comparing like with like, it is a fact that we have a far better record in this country, and we have reduced accidents and deaths on our roads in this country, compared with France?
  (Mr King) Yes. Absolutely.

Mrs Ellman

  86. What is the AA view?
  (Mr Dawson) It comes back to my central point about risk: we are in the business of putting our money where our mouth is and measuring risk across the roads of Europe through a new European roads assessment programme. We believe that, if you can measure the risks on roads and understand what they are, then you can get the design and the speed limits right and communicate to the public that that is the reason for the speed limit on a particular stretch of road. It is a fact that motorways are four times safer than single carriageway roads, yet the public perception, for example, is that motorways are the most dangerous roads and this is just one of the many misperceptions in this whole equation. Traffic travelling above 30 mph in a 30 mph limit, where there are people about, is dangerous because the human body cannot withstand impacts uncushioned at more than about 25 miles an hour, so if you hit someone the results can be disastrous. And it is one of the successes of policy that those of us working in the field are beginning to communicate the physics of death so that people understand risks and understand the consequences of impacts. On motorways you do not get these uncushioned impacts. The problems on motorway safety, apart from the rare and unusual and unpredictable, are the hard shoulders where people are killed, and accidents at roadworks where people have not yet understood adequately that the accident rate at roadworks doubles.

  87. What about the environmental impacts of speed which may not kill but perhaps in terms of pollution, or upsetting people in local areas who want to walk around and feel deterred from doing so?
  (Mr Dawson) I think there has been great pressure recently to get speeds reduced through things like traffic calming schemes. What the AA is most concerned about is the mismatch between the way resources have tended to follow the socially articulate and not the accident problem which is more prevalent in the more deprived areas. You will find, for example—and I will not mention the two cities—that one city well known for its articulate behaviour is spending 10 to 100 times more on traffic calming schemes than the one which is just concerned about the basic safety problems, and that expenditure is going into making the safety improvements also environmentally attractive and pleasant.

  Chairman: I will have to ask for much briefer answers, please.

Mrs Ellman

  88. What about the RAC?
  (Mr Delaney) Clearly there is an environmental aspect to speed. It probably relates to the kind of road—

  89. But what do you think should be done about it?
  (Mr Delaney) I think the level of speeds on roads should reflect the sort of environment through which they pass, but clearly there has to be a balance. If a motorway passes a village there would be a difficulty in reducing the speed limit on the motorway much more so than if an ordinary road passes through the middle of a village. In those cases, then clearly reducing the speed limit is much more logical. A great many local authorities throughout the country are doing just that by a wide variety of quite imaginative methods that do not necessarily involve road humps or anything else.

  90. In such circumstances, are the interests of the motorists taken into account as opposed to the interests of pedestrians?
  (Mr Delaney) I would suggest that is a matter for government.

  91. What is your view?
  (Mr Dawson) My own view is that it depends on the road. Motorways are the arteries of this country.

  92. I am talking about local roads now.
  (Mr Dawson) Clearly, if a local road passes through the middle of a community it should do so with a speed limit which is appropriate to the fact that it is going past peoples' front doors.

Mr Donohoe

  93. Technology is such now that every car in the country would be able to be governed and the speed limits would be monitored at 70, 60, 50—whatever. What are the views of both organisations on that idea?
  (Mr Dawson) The technology is certainly there so that, in twenty years' time, you could have the ultimate big brother; facial recognition; everybody's movements could be monitored; and you could cut in with electronic devices to reduce speed. Those in the thinking classes who have considered the problem are planning that it may be possible within about five years to offer drivers what is called a speed alert system, so drivers can have the vehicle tell them that they are exceeding a speed limit if they choose to switch it on. What one finds with technological development is that the smart thing is not to hypothesise about what might happen 20 years' hence if you get the quality assurance in Greece to match that in Britain, for example, in terms of speed limits, but actually think about practical developments so we know what we are talking about before we go to the next stage.

  94. So there is an international association that ties up all your agencies across the globe. What is your evidence from, say, the US where the speed limits are 55 in terms of the number of road deaths per thousand miles driven, against Europe, with your sister organisations there?
  (Mr Dawson) We effectively do talk about these things a lot and regularly do try and keep tabs on best practice across the world. In fact, in a few months' time we shall be having an assessment with our American sister organisation on rural accidents. It is one of the issues we shall be looking at.

  95. But is there evidence there for you to see today that the speed limits being at 55 mph in the US save lives?
  (Mr Dawson) The speed limits in the US are back up to 75 mph on many of the roads and it is interesting that the speed limits—


  96. Yes, but there are clearly statistics which show what happened when the speed limit was lower.
  (Mr Dawson) Can I give a crisp answer to that which is this: just as we debate statistics and facts in this country so there is not one view elsewhere.

  97. I see. So it is not just the British that are wrong, but everybody?
  (Mr Dawson) No. There are arguments of this nature going on in the United States.

Mr Donohoe

  98. But logic must follow that, the lower the speed limit, the less number of people are going to be killed. Is that not common sense? Is that the case? As people are advocating the possibility of higher speed limits on motorways which were built for 100 mph, surely it is possible that others will advocate that the speed limit be reduced?
  (Mr Dawson) I think the issue that you have touched on is that it is about the road and its protection system as well as the driven speed. Why are motorways four times safer than single carriageways when the speeds are higher? Why do Formula One drivers walk out of 160 mph smashes? Because the protection systems built around the track and the motorway allow those higher speeds, so there is an interaction between the speed and the protection system, and that is what should lead to the setting of the speed limit. That is why motorway speed limits are higher. To turn to the motorway speed limits specifically, the driven speeds on our motorway system are around about 80 mph with most drivers exceeding limits, and what we find in our research is that less than one in five would want the speed limit enforced rigorously to 70 mph but there is no agreement among motorists at large to what they would want to happen next. If the speed limit were raised to 80 mph and then everybody just drove at 90 mph, that is something that people would—


  99. Yes. I think, Mr Dawson, we will not need to detain either of you very much longer. What about the European road assessment programme?
  (Mr Dawson) That will be announced fairly shortly.

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