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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 yearthe last full year for which we have statisticsthe 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.
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
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.
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 roadssafer 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-Essexthe Braintree and Chelmsford police divisions, which include the constituencies of all three hon. Members in the Chamber tonight15 people were killed and 1,558 were injured on the roads. So far this yearI only have figures for the nine months up to 30 September35 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
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.