Barry Sheerman: No room for complacency over safety on our roads

Barry Sheerman was instrumental in the campaign to make the wearing of car seatbelts compulsory.
Barry Sheerman was instrumental in the campaign to make the wearing of car seatbelts compulsory.
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ROAD traffic accident prevention is a long-term interest of mine. As a very young man, I came into Parliament after having seen the deaths of two young people who were thrown from their car and who died by the side of the road.

That image never left me or my imagination – it haunted me – and when I got into the House of Commons, we tried 13 times to introduce compulsory seatbelts, and were defeated 13 times. On an all-party basis, a number of us organised and formed a group to campaign.

The 14th time, the night before a Royal wedding, we kept our troops here on an amendment tabled by Lord Nugent of Guildford, a Conservative peer. It bounced back to the House of Commons. We kept our troops here and the others did not. Remember that in those days Mrs Thatcher, Michael Foot and both Chief Whips were against seatbelts. We held our nerve, kept our troops here and, by a majority of 72, seatbelt legislation was introduced. How many lives have we saved since then?

These days, we could all be in a nice cosy bubble, thinking “Isn’t it wonderful? The UK, the British, are leading on road safety”. Well, I have to tell you, 1,730 people died on British roads last year.

For 1,730 families, there was a knock on the door to tell them that their loved one was dead. And these are preventable accidents. This is not like a disease; it is not like getting something ghastly and wasting away. This is something that happens for all sorts of reasons, but it means that those families are devastated.

When we organised the seatbelt legislation, a group of MPs set up something called the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Today, most people call it PACTS, and it has become one of the most influential transport safety groups in the world, Also, after 10 years, we got together with a group of the Dutch, Germans, Belgians and Swedes to form the European Transport Safety Council, which has become ​the most influential group across Europe. We are very proud of that.

However we are becoming a little cosy and complacent. Five people are killed every day in our country. That is five families destroyed by the actions of drunk, drugged or distracted drivers.

One of the top concerns is driver education. There is no doubt that young people are very vulnerable in the early years after they first learn to drive, when there are many accidents. There is evidence of young people not driving in the proper way and of that leading to pretty horrific casualties – the deaths and serious injuries of young people in their teens and early twenties.

My wife knows me extremely well – we have been married a very long time and have four children and 10 grandchildren – and always thought I had something of the Italian in my driving style, but I once amazed her by passing the test for the advanced driving certificate. I took the advanced drivers’ course possibly because I thought I was not a very good driver. A lot of evidence shows that good driving behaviour comes from good learning and good education early in a young person’s driving career, but there is also growing evidence relating to older drivers.

I talked to a chief constable in one of the coastal towns in which we used to have party conferences three or four years ago, and he said: “I am not so worried these days about young people having accidents; I am worried about older people who share with younger children a diminished ability to judge distance and speech, and who drive very badly as they get older. There is no one in the family with the guts to say ‘Mum, Dad – it’s time you stopped driving’.” We therefore need good training for both young and older people and to ensure that the Government do all that they can to ensure that both groups are well educated on this life-and-death issue.

There is also less public knowledge about the risk of drivers with poor eyesight. Road crashes due to poor driver vision are estimated to cause 2,900 casualties in the UK every year. I certainly noticed as I got older that my vision, especially at dusk and when driving at night, was not as good as it should be. I recommend that we have tighter control on tests of good vision for drivers, certainly as they get older.

Another issue that is becomingly increasingly evident is the lack of police officers making sure that our roads are safe. The number of road traffic officers is down 23 per cent from 2010. On Sunday night, I was coming back from Cambridge, with my wife driving, and on the M11 an enormous rescue van – a lorry with another lorry on top – was proceeding at over 65mph where there was a 50mph limit. The size and weight of that in an accident would have killed a lot of people.

I have to say there ​is a relationship between proper policing on the roads and good detection. I see wonderful technology, but that will not replace the police – in cars and on motorbikes on our roads.

Barry Sheerman is the Labour MP for Huddersfield who led a Parliamentary debate on road safety. This is an edited version.