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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) on his success in securing this debate so early in this Parliament on a matter that is clearly of such importance to us. I also pay tribute to his record on the subject. I congratulate him too on being the first Member to draw me to the Dispatch Box in my new role--rent as I am from the Trappist silence of the Whips Office.
I also thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has delivered this debate and raised the subject in such a measured manner. Clearly, he has a deep understanding of the subject--that may have been gleaned either from his days as a rocker on a motor cycle, or more possibly, from his three years in the 1960s as a lorry driver.
I do not want to oversimplify my hon. Friend's speech, but I think that he was trying to tell us that, as a pay-off for lower speed limits on certain roads, we might be able to consider higher limits on others. Often, in our youth we are guided by our hearts and sometimes we seek exhilaration. As a formidable academic and a thoughtful, philosophical man, he will know that, just as we need to be ruled by our hearts, we also need often to engage our brains. I will briefly describe the wider context of the Government's road safety policy and then I will try to answer, in a general way, the important questions that my hon. Friend raised.
The Government consider road safety to be a priority. It affects everyone and plays a fundamental role in our society--in health, environment and education. I very much subscribe to my hon. Friend's view that the roads belong not only to the motorists but to pedestrians, in particular, children and elderly pedestrians--the groups that are most often injured on our roads.
During the previous Parliament, we published a road safety strategy to underpin our goal for 2010 to reduce deaths and serious injuries by 40 per cent. overall and, in the case of children, by 50 per cent.
The strategy will also help to achieve the Government's overall target to cut accidents from all causes, and to improve our child road safety record. In addition, it will contribute to wider environmental objectives by cutting carbon dioxide and other emissions and reducing noise.
The strategy will help to build stronger communities, and it will form part of measures to regenerate urban areas and marginalised communities. It will reclaim for our children streets such as Masons road, which my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech. The strategy will also tackle road crime such as dangerous driving, and thus play a key role in the wider crime reduction agenda.
Vehicle speed is a serious issue which touches us all, whether we are travelling in a vehicle, living beside a road, or engaged in other activities such as walking or cycling. Speed limits are the focus of most people's attention. My Department issues guidance, but it is the local highway authority, which in most cases is the local authority, that is responsible for setting speed limits on roads. Those highway authorities have the power to set limits between 20 mph and 70 mph, depending on the nature and function of the road.
I note my hon. Friend's comments about the speed limits in his area. If he has not already done so, he may wish to contact Hertfordshire county council to discuss the matter further in the context of some of the roads that he mentioned earlier.
Speed limits are important, but there is a common misconception that road safety could be improved simply by changing limits. That was the thrust of much of my hon. Friend's speech. Too often, however, people call for lower limits when what they want is lower vehicle speeds. Sadly, lower limits alone have little effect on the speed of traffic. Indeed, in many cases it is not the speed limit that is the problem but the fact that motorists are driving faster than they should.
If unchecked, that can result in pressure at a local level to impose lower limits where they are not needed. The risk is that that could divert resources from initiatives that would be beneficial. Moreover, the imposition of lower limits could place an unrealistic burden on the police, and bring the system into disrepute with motorists.
Clearly, if we are to have an effective speed management policy we will need to ensure that the discussion is about achieving appropriate vehicle speeds rather than simply about what the signs beside the road say. It is also essential that speeding drivers begin to think about the road conditions and the risks that they pose, especially to pedestrians, when they drive in bad weather, near schools, or on high streets or other roads with many pedestrians.
In the countries that take road safety seriously, vehicle speed is considered the biggest problem. Research has indicated that excessive and inappropriate vehicle speed is a major contributory factor in about one third of all serious accidents. In human terms, that equated to 1,100 deaths and 12,600 serious injuries last year alone. There is also evidence that higher speeds on any given road are associated with more accidents and greater injury severity--a relationship that holds for all drivers, and not only for the less experienced ones.
If speed limits are raised, vehicle speeds tend to increase. Conversely, if no other work is undertaken, a lower speed limit tends to result in very little reduction in vehicle speeds. So, if we are serious about reducing deaths and injuries on our roads that result from speed, we need to adopt measures that complement--or even mitigate the need for--changes in the speed limit. That means education, engineering and, as a last resort, enforcement.
Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Department's conference in Bristol to mark the launch of its road safety guide to good practice. I commend that publication to all local authorities, and anyone with an interest in the subject. It contains comprehensive guidance on dealing with the issue of speed management, to help local practitioners.
In urban areas, there is a high level of public acceptance of the 30 mph speed limit. Sadly, although most people think that the limit is right, they drive faster than that when they are in their cars. That leads to the conclusion that the 30 mph limit is generally correct, but that action is needed to ensure that vehicle speeds do not rise.
Speed management is the combination of engineering measures, such as road humps, traffic calming, road markings to change the nature and appearance of the road and, of course, enforcement--all of which are very effective. Where the most vulnerable, such as children,
Our home zones initiative will also be beneficial, as it aims to improve the quality of life in residential streets. In home zones, local authorities can design streets as places for people, not just for traffic--the road space is shared between drivers of motor vehicles and other road users. Home zones allow the wider needs of residents, including people who walk and cycle, and children, to be accommodated, especially the needs of those on Masons road in my hon. Friend's constituency. Although home zones are not road safety schemes per se, if properly designed, they can make a contribution to overall road safety objectives. The Prime Minister announced in April that a £30 million challenge fund for home zones in England would be created.
In rural areas the problem is different. Few people exceed the speed limit. As my hon. Friend said, the speed limits appear to be set unnaturally high. Generally, the road safety problem in rural areas is people misjudging overtaking manoeuvres and driving well within the speed limit, but at speeds which are too fast to negotiate the junctions and bends.
We have left the national speed limit unchanged, but our policy is to encourage local authorities to adopt a targeted approach to gain appropriate vehicle speeds on all rural roads, with lower speed limits where they are necessary. Work is well under way to deliver those initiatives. Only today, my officials met with representatives from the professional organisations and interest groups to discuss how best to make them a reality.
As my hon. Friend will know, evidence of such initiatives is already common in Hertfordshire, where his constituency is located. The local council is particularly active in speed management, having recently formed a new strategic road casualty reduction partnership, which includes the constabulary, the magistrates court, the Crown Prosecution Service, the health authorities and the Government office of the east. Their role is to review and update the council's speed management strategy to protect local villages and safeguard the most vulnerable through the safer routes to school project and the home zones.
My hon. Friend touched on the issue of motorways. They are our safest roads, because they are of a consistent and high standard. The vehicles travelling on them in different directions are segregated and the most vulnerable road users are prohibited. There are strong views on the motorway speed limit of 70 mph. It is not practical to enforce it everywhere, so there is pressure to raise it to 80 mph, or even as my hon. Friend said, to 100 mph or 120 mph, although I am not sure that that can be achieved in his 1.2 litre Vauxhall Corsa. However, many professional organisations, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, do not support that argument.
When considering what limit is appropriate, we obviously need to look at safety. However, there are other issues. My hon. Friend is a mathematician, and I am sure that he will have an O-level in physics or chemistry tucked away in his academic armoury. He will know that, as vehicles increase in speed, the amount of emissions that they put out per mile also increases substantially. So typically, emissions are at their lowest when a vehicle is travelling at around 50 mph, but increase sharply at higher speeds. Emissions rise on average by 30 to 35 per cent. between 70 mph and 80 mph. We also have to consider emissions of nitrous oxide. Tyre noise is yet another issue. It is a major concern for many people who live near roads and have to suffer the noise of transmission and that of tyres. Clearly, these issues are a factor in any decisions on speed limits.
This month, my Department published statistics showing the number of people killed and injured on our roads in the year 2000. I am glad to say that the downward trend is continuing. Nevertheless, the reality is that 3,409 people were killed and more than 300,000 people were injured--38,000 of them seriously--on our roads. As someone who is new to this policy area, I find it remarkable that some people consider that to be unavoidable. Behind those cold statistics are individuals, their families and friends, all of whom are directly affected. The public rightly demand high levels of safety in other modes of transport and I, for one, believe that we should strive for the same standards on our roads.
As I have explained, speed management is a key area if we are to make our roads safe. I am confident that the policies that we have adopted will deliver real benefits for all road users and I again thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter.