who could’ve guessed?

Hansard, 5 July 1939, in full, without comment.

Mr William Leach (Bradford Central)

I would add my congratulations to those which other hon. Members have addressed to the Minister on his accession to his present office. He starts with very considerable advantages in that his two predecessors were neither of them brilliant successes. If he will forgive my striking the personal note I would say also that he is regarded as a favourite in this House. I was very sorry indeed to hear him admit, in his opening remarks to-day, that he is a motorist, and has been for 30 years. It is true that he qualified the statement by saying that he was also a pedestrian, but in point of fact that is a meaningless qualification, because, once the pedestrian becomes a motorist, in 99?? per cent. of the cases the pedestrian side of him becomes from that time totally submerged. I do not envy the Minister in the work that lies ahead of him. He is faced, as many Members have already pointed out, with a very tragic problem of road fatalities, against which the whole of the measures employed by his Department up to now have completely failed. And he has a lot of very bad and false advisers seeking his ear. They include, in far too many instances, Members on the back benches on his own side; and they include the swagger Automobile Club, who want a paradise for the motorist. They include county surveyors, and a number of chief constables who have wrong ideas about winding roads and the sins of pedestrians and the sins of children. Probably the worst of all his advisers, and the most mischievous, are the seven peers who have issued a report on the prevention of road accidents.

The Minister has promised us to-day that he will produce a paper giving the Government's opinions on the Alness Report, and he even went to the length of paying tribute to the thoroughness of the way in which the Committee have done their work. I want to present another side to that glowing testimonial, and to the belief, which the Minister clearly holds, that this report is a document which is very seriously worth his attention. Many newspapers are pressing very hard that legal effect shall be given to the findings of this Select Committee; I hope the Minister will pause for quite a long time before he obliges them. There may be in this document, among the 231 recommendations???I understand that the Minister counted 250, but I have counted 231???there may be, among that lot, a few minor ones that are worthy of consideration. I think the Minister will have no difficulty in spotting those, but I want to deal with the key recommendations contained in this document.

According to their Lordships, there are no road-hogs in this country, but only so-called road-hogs. Nowhere is it admitted that speed has anything to do with. road fatalities; and I was gravely concerned to note that, when the Minister himself was discussing this tragic problem a little while ago, he never used the word "speed" either. It is significant. So their Lordships want a lessened imposition of the speed limit, with a view to its ultimate elimination. They want restricted speed areas to be reduced in number or extent; they want the complete segregation of motorists, cyclists and pedestrians; and it is to be noted that several Members of the House have agreed quite warmly with that recommendation this evening. On the sins of cyclists, pedestrians and children, my Lords waxed really eloquent. I ask hon. Members to listen to this: "Children under seven cause 23.9 per cent. of the accidents to pedestrians." So we are led to suppose, from this statement, that the responsibility of infants and tiny children for avoiding accidents is exactly the same as that of the motorist. Any legislation passed on that supposition would be a wicked innovation in British law. Having let go on the sins of babies, their Lordships say, on the shortcomings of pedestrians and cyclists: "It would seem???that many pedestrians are unwilling to sacrifice any of their rights to the common cause of safety.???There is much thoughtless conduct amongst cyclists which is responsible for many accidents." There you have the key-note to all the recommendations which follow in this report. They go on to make them. They recommend that no cycling under 10 years of age should be allowed. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I hear approval of that recommendation in the Committee, and I ask the Minister to note it. The Committee recommend that all child cyclists should be banned. They also recommend that all cyclists should be registered and compulsorily insured. It might be thought, of course, from that recommendation in regard to insurance, that their Lordships meant a life insurance for the benefit of the widows or relatives of the cyclists. They do not. They specify third party risks, so that, if the cyclist should run down and kill a motorist, he should be made to pay.

Mr Samuel Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

Has my hon. Friend ever heard of a cyclist running down and killing a pedestrian? It must be very rare.

Mr William Leach (Bradford Central)

Other recommendations are that cyclists must carry white patches, and red reflectors or red rear lamps, as well as two brakes and a bell. All these things are imposed upon the cyclist in order to enable the motorist to drive as fast in the dark as in daylight. Further, cyclists must not carry bulky luggage, or ride more than two abreast, and, if there is a cycle track, they must come off the highway.

Now as to the unfortunate pedestrian. If the pedestrian steps heedlessly off the causeway, he is to be prosecuted. That is, of course, supposing he is still alive. The motorist who is driving a silent car at 50 close to the kerb to avoid the road camber, is relieved of all responsibility; presumably no prosecution will lie if the heedless pedestrian is killed, whether he is a full-grown man or a baby of two. Their lordships do not define the term "pedestrian," and it necessarily follows, I think, that it would be open for the courts to punish a child of seven or under for heedlessly stepping off the kerb. Where an accident occurs to a pedestrian who is on the highway where a footpath is available, his right to damages is to be denied. He is to be forced to use pedestrian crossings only at dangerous places, but wherever there is a pedestrian crossing and he fails to use it, his right to damages in the event of accident to himself is to be taken away. One sees from this report that it is the view of their lordships that the chief menaces, indeed almost the only menaces, to road safety, are children, pedestrians and cyclists. In other words, the principal sinners are the victims themselves. For every motorist killed on the highways, 20 other people die on the highways, and their lordships blame the 20 others.

Let us leave for a while this tale of deaths and manglings, and the extraordinary conclusions reached in the Alness Report, and turn to what the Committee have to say in regard to roads and road improvements. They recommend that no main roads should be less than 300 feet wide, and that a vast new construction programme should be undertaken, that bridges and tunnels should be provided for pedestrians to take them off the roads altogether, and cycle tracks to take the cyclists off as well. They recommend multitudes of traffic lights and road signs, and bars and barrier rails in the streets of towns. They want more arcaded streets, as at Chester, a permanent army of road inspectors and accident officers, and greatly improved road surfaces. They want lay-bys and draw-ins every few miles, and the removal of telephone and telegraph poles and electricity standards wherever they are by the side of the road

I have in mind a road made by the Manchester Corporation by Lake Thirlmere, on its western side. It is the most beautiful road in England. It is only a few miles long. On one side are over-hanging rocks and steeply rising hills and forests, and on the other side is the Lake, with magnificent views of Helvellyn. The road winds and twists so that you can rarely see more than 30 yards ahead of you. It contains no pedestrian paths, no cycle tracks and no Belisha crossings. It contains all the defects which the seven peers point out in this report, and of which they seek to get rid. But nobody gets killed on it. It would cost at least ??10,000,000, I estimate, to put it right in accordance with the terms of this report. Further, these gentlemen want roadside trees removed. No doubt that would provide a lot of work for the unemployed, because there are millions of roadside trees. They want humps taken out of bridges. The practical difficulties in the way of doing that are not mentioned???

Mr Frederick Macquisten (Argyll)

They are not great.

Mr William Leach (Bradford Central)

There is a great deal of difficulty. Then they want more roads that are exclusively for the use of motorists, on the German plan. They demand service roads for lorries and vans and more ring roads and hundred-yard-wide by-passes. Suddenly it seems to have occurred to these gentlemen that the proposals they are making in regard to road safety, as they see it, are going to be a trifle costly. What do they say about that? They put in a naive little after-thought paragraph, which is, I think, the gem of the whole report. Here it is: "The Committee have not carefully considered the question of the cost of giving effect to their recommendations." That appears to be the truest and most uncontrovertible statement in the whole document. I ask the Minister to envisage the prospect of all the recommendations of this report being put into law and practice. Thousands of millions of pounds will have been expended in the process. A vast network of broad, straight highways with surfaces like billiard tables will cover the land, with tunnels and bridges every 200 or 300 yards, at which will cower the unfortunate pedestrians. A few million acres of agricultural land will have totally disappeared. Cycling paths will be empty, because cycling will then have become too hazardous for anyone to undertake. The nation's beauty spots will have become things of horror, advertised by flaming petrol stations and gorgeous hotels. All the main streets of the principal cities will be railed off by steel and wooden barriers. The reign of the motorist will have become supreme. What trees and vegetation are still left will be away from the ordinary means of communication. Our water supplies will have become seriously menaced; an arid wilderness of roads will ensure that.

Will road fatalities have been prevented by these???what the seven Lords think are improvements? Of course not. It is along the highways that death most commonly occurs in its worst form. The winding village street may entail a few bumps, but no deaths. The seven Lords envisage the complete disappearance of all speed limits, and that traffic on the roads will have become faster than on the railways. [Laughter] If that appears amusing, I recommend hon. Members to read advertisements which appear in the motoring journals as to the capacity of up-to-date motor cars on a free highway. They are commonly advertised to do 100 miles an hour, and up to now no trains are doing that. Fewer pedestrians will be killed, because they will not be there to be killed; the motorists will kill one another. [An HON. MEMBER: "Why not?"] Do not lead me into temptation. The motorists will kill one another, as they do in America and on the autobahnen of the German State. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman, who begins his office under such auspicious conditions, will see that precious few of these mischievous recommendations are adopted by him.

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