Labour’s roads minister interviewed on bike policy

Published: 03 June 2001

EVERY four years, something strange happens to politicians. Suddenly, their horizons broaden.

They develop keen interests in anything from farmers to bone marrow transplants, so quickly it makes people jump.

We’re no exception. At the last election, Tony Blair suddenly became so mad keen on motorcycling, he felt compelled to rush to the Ally Pally show. From the way he sat on the bikes, twiddling the switches and smiling for the cameras, you’d have been forgiven for believing he was actually thinking of buying one.

But he hasn’t. And oddly, we haven’t seen him at the show since.

In case we wondered whether it was just an act, the Labour Party also made a number of promises for motorcyclists before being elected. Apparently, they were going to put motorcycles " at the heart of transport planning, " by getting local authorities to give us access to bus lanes and improved parking facilities. Then they were going to review the driving test to make drivers more aware of motorcyclists, listen to our concerns about ridiculous proposals for airbags and leg protectors, and generally be our best mate.

But even more oddly, earlier on this year, they wouldn’t even give us an interview. The The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were more than keen to have a chat. Anyone would have thought they needed votes. But Labour was unavailable.

Until now. We finally tracked down road transport minister Lord Whitty, in a greasy spoon café in the West End of London, to find out how he feels about bikes now – and let him know how we feel about him.

MCN: What is the Government’s strategy on motorcycles?

In the integrated transport white paper, we set out the role for every form of transport. Up until that point motorcycles had not been made a dimension of transport policy. They were just a sort of add-on that was occasionally considered. We built motorcycles in and recognised that in many circumstances they are a more environmentally advantageous form of transport than cars, and while there are other environmental and safety issues that had to be resolved, we wanted to give a positive role to powered two-wheelers in the overall transport policy.

What we’ve done in looking at local transport schemes is to try to ensure that there are adequate provisions for motorcyclists, so that they’re not discriminated against. Positively, we’ve asked local authorities to look at areas where motorcycles can be used where other traffic is restricted, such as in bus lanes, and to look at whether it is advantageous to encourage motorcycle transport in very crowded inner-city areas where we want to discourage the use of cars.

How can you encourage use of motorcycles in inner city areas?

By making it cheaper than using a car in terms of parking, by providing more facilities for parking, and in certain circumstance by allowing motorcyclists to use bus lanes and other restricted parts of the roads.

This is what you want local authorities to do?

Local authorities have responsibility for drawing up their detailed plans, so the final choice is theirs, but we’ve indicated in our guidance to them that it would be positive contribution to reducing pollution and creating a better environment in inner-city areas.

How can you make local authorities take action?

It’s a question of persuasion primarily, but we pay for their final transport plans and so their final transport plans have to largely comply with what the Government want. But at the end of the day, local authorities are elected by local people to deal with their own local traffic circumstances, so we don’t instruct centrally from white hall. We give them a broad framework in which they should act if they want to get Government backing and finance for their plans.

Access to bus lanes was promised at the last election. Why has so little changed?

There are a now a number of places where motorcyclists do have access to bus lanes. The latest local transport plan, which went out last year, encourages change in that direction.

There has been a number of pilot studies to try to prove whether it actually makes a positive contribution to traffic conditions. Until we’ve proved that, some local authorities will be reluctant to allow it.

Places like Reading and Bristol have had schemes in place, and a number of London local authorities are now looking at it, and I think some in the north east as well. But we haven’t run the pilot schemes for long enough to prove there’s a net beneficial affect on congestion, which is of course what local authorities are primarily after. The reason I’m behind all this is because of the fundamental question of whether encouragement of motorcycling reduces congestion, or not. It rather depends on what the motorcyclists would be doing otherwise. There’s not enough solid, statistical evidence to prove that in all circumstances it is beneficial for the motorcyclists to be encouraged. If they weren’t on a motorcycle, they may have otherwise been walking or using public transport. If we can indicate that they would otherwise be in a car, then clearly there is an obvious congestion and environmental benefit.

How can you establish that?

Well, there are various statistical studies now checking traffic flows and asking people, basically. If people are positively saying they are moving from using a car to using a motorcycle, then there’s a clear beneficial advantage for local authorities, particularly in the congested areas.

We want to encourage people to move onto public transport, but we also want them to move out of cars onto two-wheelers of all kinds, including motorcycles.

Parking facilities were also mentioned before the last general election. Why are there now parking meters for bikes in London?

But the parking charges for cars have gone up substantially more than the charges for motorcycles. Also, until quite recently, local authorities didn’t have the power to provide secure parking for motorcycles. As a result of the Transport Act 2000, they now do have that ability. A number of them are now doing it. You’re unlikely to see the affect of that yet, but they are now able to provide this facilities. Previously, they could only provide secure parking for cars.

What’s the justification for new motorcycle parking charges?

It costs the local authority money to administer and acquire the land. Obviously motorcycles take up a lot less space than cars, but nevertheless they do have to cover their costs.

How have they managed to offer free motorcycle parking in the past?

In some cases it has been free, in some cases in hasn’t. Parking charges in total have gone up, but parking for cars has gone up dramatically faster than parking for motorcycles.

Don’t the new charges mean that, for motorcyclists, things have got worse since the last election?

I don’t think so, no.

But I didn’t have to put money in a bike parking meter before the election.

But if you were driving a car, you’d have had a far bigger increase. In relation to London in particular, there is still the question of whether it would better for people to either use public transport or walk than use either a bike or a car. There’s not just a congestion affect to consider. There’s also a pollution affect. Although there is some benefit to using a motorcycle rather than a car, there is still a negative affect on the environment. In central London and other places, there’s quite a serious air quality problem. So, we want to encourage people to move from cars to motorcycles, but ideally we want to get more people onto improved public transport and more people walking for short distances.

So why should motorcyclists vote for you?

Because we’ve given them a better deal than they had before in relation to road space, in relation to the cost of parking motorcycles as compared to cars, and we’re giving them a greater say in the development of policy than they’ve ever had before.

Previously, there was no advisory group to the Government on motorcycles. We established that two and a half years ago. We’re beginning to come up with policies in relation to training, instruction, motorcycle standards, safety issues and so on.

Previously there was no direct relationship between the Government and motorcycle organisations at all.

What has the Motorcycle Advisory Group achieved?

Well they discuss things with local transport planners, like bus lanes and so on, and they contributed to the motorcycle dimension of road safety strategy we issued last year. They’re also involved with the officials from my department in looking at motorcycle standards. Hopefully those representatives’ input will filter through to users and trade.

The Labour Party also said it would put motorcycles " at the heart of transport planning. " Aside from letting riders use bus lanes in a couple of places and charging us more for parking, what have you actually done?

Well, it takes a bit of time to change the nature of transport planning. That’s the direction we’re moving in. And as I’ve said, the parking charges are significantly less than those for other road users.

What else have you done?

Well, there are some improvements that all road-users will benefit from. We just doubled the amount of money we’re spending on road maintenance for local roads, which probably has a particularly beneficial affect for motorcyclists.

On the training side, we’ve scrapped the old system of banning learners if they don’t pass their test within two years. We’ve also added hazard perception dimensions to motorcycle tests in response to demand from motorcycle representatives.

As you know, there’s a big accident rate for motorcycles, and a big proportion of those are caused by other road users. The argument was, I think with some validity, that training of car and lorry drivers didn’t take into account the existence of motorcyclists. That is now built in to new hazard perception tests and theory tests for them. So, we’ve had quite an input in that regard as well, an issue which has previously been ignored.

When will the hazard perception test be included in the driving test?

From March next year. There are already questions in theory test relating to motorcyclists.

What will it involve?

It’s basically a simulation. Unfortunately, not all road conditions will occur in a test on the road. It might not be foggy, and you might experience a motorcyclists approaching on your inside or outside. But the simulation will include scenarios where there’s a motorcyclist close to you.

What kind of questions are in the theory test?

Stuff like what kind of berth you should be giving motorcyclists turning left when you’re going straight on. There are about 70 questions in all, seven or eight of which relate to motorcyclists.

What can you do about drivers who’ve already passed their test?

Well, it’s been put to us that we should test everybody every five years, but we haven’t agreed to that. What we have agreed to is that where existing drivers have committed a serious offence, a retest may be required. But to retest the whole of the driving population every five years we consider would be excessive. It would apply to motorcyclists as well, which I imagine there would be considerable resistance to. And it wouldn’t necessarily have a safety benefit.

If someone has been done for careless or dangerous driving, on the other hand, there may well be a requirement for a retest.

Is that not already the case?

No, not for most offences. Only for the most serious offences, such as causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving. Even then it’s discretionary for the courts.

We’re going to look at making a retest compulsory for people who are guilty of dangerous driving or the higher levels of careless driving. The final details of this legislation have yet to be decided, but we’ll probably do the same for drink driving, and certainly for second time offenders or high alcohol content.

You mentioned that the budget for local roads has been doubled. When can we expect to see an improvement in quality and a reduction in the number of potholes?

Well there’s a three-year allocation that doubles the budget starting this financial year, so over the next three years. There had been quite a serious decline in the budget for local roads in the early nineties. That has resulted in a decline in standards, which has shown up in all the surveys of road standards. It will take two or three years to catch up with the backlog, but the three-year allocation should do that.

A report from the Asphalt Industry Association earlier this year said there was a £1.3 billion shortfall in funds and that the number of potholes on British roads had almost doubled in the last 10 years. Will the extra money be enough to fix the problem?

There’s a difference between different sorts of roads. By and large, the motorways are as good or better than they’ve ever been. The trunk roads are slightly below standard, but not too bad, but the local roads are in quite a poor condition. So if you look at it across the board, it’s really only the local roads that are in the worst condition they’ve been in for 20 or 30 years.

The doubling of the budget equals more than £1.3 billion, so that shortfall will be reversed in the next three years.

Beyond that, we’ve got a 10-year plan for transport as a whole, which includes £60 billion for roads in total, of which around £20 billion is for road maintenance. So there is a very big programme of improving the road maintenance system, beyond the precise allocation for the next three years.

Earlier this year, an MCN survey revealed that the number of traffic officers on patrol has dropped dramatically in the last three years, and that many forces had actually scrapped their traffic unit altogether. Are speed cameras being relied on to police the roads?

It’s not necessarily true that there are fewer police seen on the roads. The number of police cars patrolling hasn’t reduced, it’s just that specific separate traffic divisions have been abolished by a lot of forces and every officer is multi-skilled. These are decisions for chief constables, rather than the Government. It’s not something the Government directly decides.

Some traffic officers claim the standard of traffic policing is much poorer now than it was three years ago because officers are " multi-skilled. "

As I’ve said, these decisions are not matters for the Government, they’re matters for chief constables and they would say that it’s a more efficient way of policing if everybody has multi-skills. It means a patrol car can be at a traffic incident one minute and at a smash-and-gran assault the next. To have specialist traffic officer is not necessarily the most sensible approach.

That’s their view, but it’s a view on which neither I or the home office are responsible.

The police are just trying to find the most effective way to spend the budget you give them, aren’t they? Surely scrapping traffic divisions is something they’ve found they have to do because of the level of investment.

Well, yes, they are. Whatever the level of budget, they’d try to use it for the most efficient purposes, I’d hope. I don’t think it’s a question of budgets. The budgets have increased.

There is a problem in some forces with manpower levels, particularly in London. Hopefully, new recruits will address that. But with the issue of whether you have separate traffic officers, I think by and large chief constables have decided that, in general, they would rather have multi-skilled officers, and that’s an operational decision for them.

Do you deny that there are less traffic officers on patrol?

I think there is probably the equivalent amount of patrolling being done, so that anybody using the roads will see a police car just as quickly as they previously did.

But the police car will be more likely to be on its way to an armed robbery, or some other job not related to road-policing.

It might well be, but if a traffic incident occurs then it is there to deal with it. There are at least as many patrol cars around, it’s just that they’re multi-purpose.

So they’re doing a number of things, rather than just policing traffic?

Yes.

Surely that means the resources available for policing the roads have been reduced.

Dedicated resources.

Essex police force admitted that its number of dedicated traffic officers had been reduced from 200 to zeros. Surely that’s undeniably a reduction in total resources?

Well, you’d have to look at how they’ve done. If 20 per cent of the force was previously traffic officers, and now every officer spends 20 per cent of the time on traffic, then it comes to the same thing. But as I say, that is not really the Government’s responsibility. The chief constable decides the priorities, based on the best way to tackle their responsibilities. They have taken decisions which some people have criticised in relation to traffic officers. But they would claim it doesn’t actually reduce the amount of time spent on traffic.

What’s the justification for the number of speed cameras on the roads?

Speed kills. About one third of all accidents are due to speed.

What about other traffic offences?

We try to call them safety cameras, although nobody’s actually adopted that yet. They can pick up people jumping the lights and other road offences as well. The pilot studies we’ve had indicate a reduction in accidents of between 10 and 30 per cent.

What’s the justification for letting the police keep the money from speeding fines to build more cameras?

Part of the fines should be used to cover the cost of setting up the cameras and administering court proceedings. The cameras will be in areas where there is a safety problem, related to speed. And they cannot make a profit out of the fines. They’ll only cover their costs. Some people have alleged that this is a money-making exercise by local authorities and the police. It’s not. They’re only taking the amount of money which covers the cost of administering the system and installing the cameras in the first place.

It’s an easy way for them to get convictions, isn’t it?

Yes. But as more of are put up, people actually obey the speed limits. Which is why accidents go down.

Wouldn’t be a good idea to make them more visible?

Yes it probably would. Usually where there are new speed cameras put up, there is a sign to indicate they’re there. The whole purpose is to have a deterrent affect, not to raise money or maximise convictions.

Why not paint them bright orange?

Well they are painted yellow. I mean the signs are painted yellow and black. They’re pretty visible in most lights.

Speed cameras are grey and they’re not by any means always signposted.

Most of them are now signposted. There’s usually a warning. By the time you actually come up to a speed camera it’s too late. You need to know there’s a speed cameras there if you’re going to alter your speed. If you’re still doing 95mph by the time you see the camera, you’re going to be caught.

But they’d be more visible if they were bright orange, wouldn’t they?

Well they would, but it would be too late. You want a sign that’s yellow or orange. But most of the new signs are yellow and black, and therefore visible in most lights.

The only thing those signs indicate is that they’re speed cameras within a particular local authority.

Yes, and on that stretch of road.

Not according to the police.

Anywhere where there’s a notice saying speed cameras, it’s on that stretch of road that there are speed cameras. Within a city area it might be on a different road, but it would be within the immediate vicinity. You’d be entering an area where speed cameras operate.

And the new generation of speed cameras will be operating all the time. You don’t have to change the film because they’re digital.

You’re obviously more likely to get caught speeding today than you were three years ago. Are you as likely to get caught careless driving or drink driving?

I think you’re more likely to get caught drink driving than before. The number of offences for drink driving has come dramatically down.

Careless driving is obviously more difficult to pick up, but nevertheless I don’t think there’s been a reduction in the number of careless drivers picked up.

Cameras can only pick up very specific things. They can pick up speed, which can be measured, and they can pick up people jumping lights. They can’t follow you for a period, which is where, presumably, you’re going to say we need more patrol cars.

You’ve struck upon exactly what many motorcyclists object to. On what basis do you claim you’re now more likely to get caught drink driving?

There are random tests occasionally, and the proportion of those stopped who are found to be drink driving has gone down. And at the same time, the proportion of the number of drink drivers who are caught has gone up.

The proportion of drink drivers on the road was something like 20 per cent 20 years ago. It’s now four or five per cent, and of that a higher proportion are caught and convicted.

What about compared to five years ago?

There’s been a continuous decline. And the proportion of drink drivers caught has gone up.

You said drink driving is difficult to pick up. And the number of careless driving convictions has gone down. Do you think you’re now as likely to get caught for that?

In a sense, it must be true that the standard of driving has improved. The total number of accidents has gone down and the total number of road casualties has gone down.

That could be to do with vehicle design.

Yes. It’s true that the number of pedestrian and cycle casualties hasn’t gone down quite so much. And absolute term, the number of motorcycle casualties hasn’t gone down, but it has gone down as a proportion of mileage. The number of pedestrian injuries has also gone down, albeit not as fast as the number of in-car casualties. And you can only establish the standard of driving from the number of serious accidents.

The standard of driving has gone up, but not by enough, and it’s still the case that there’s too much careless and sub-standard driving on the roads.

But even when you take away speeding offences, the total number of convictions has gone up, with the exception of drink driving.

What do you think about dark visors?

I’m not convinced either way. We’re still looking at it. The original scientific advice was that they impaired vision seriously. A lot of people say that’s not true, so we’ve got a research project underway to see which side of the argument is right.

Where did the original scientific advice come from?

I don’t know. It’s from before my time. Your talking 10 years ago now.

Have you ever looked through a dark visor?

Yes.

Is it not as simple as that?

No. You have to measure different angles in the visual field, and in different types of daylight – a thorough test.

People wear them in bright sunlight, just the same as a driver wears sunglasses.

Well, no, a car driver can put on dark glasses but some dark glasses impair vision as well. Anyway, I mean, it’s an open question as far as I’m concerned. I’m not convinced the old argument is correct. But I need to be convinced on the basis of technical advice whether or not we should change the situation.

Surely it’s ridiculous that you can wear dark glasses but not use a dark visor.

I think if there was a danger, and we knew about it, then it would be sensible to regulate it. But if there’s an argument as to whether that information was correct, then we ought to research it properly, which is what we’re doing.

Just to clarify, do you think the current situation is ridiculous?

No.

So shouldn’t you also regulate dark glasses?

Possibly, but that’s not an argument for saying that, if dark visors were proved to be dangerous, and sun glasses are also dangerous, you should let dark visors off. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Doesn’t common sense tell you the situation is ridiculous?

No. Why?

Because you can wear sunglasses but not a dark visor.

Anyway, we’re looking at the situation to see whether we need to change the regulations.

The Government has recently invested half a million in developing a remote speed control system for bikes, hasn’t it?

It’s part of a wider project looking at cars and all vehicles, including motorcycles. Half a million might have been earmarked for motorcycles.

What do you think of the idea of remote speed control for motorcycles?

Well, for anybody.

For motorcycles…

No, for anybody. I wouldn’t want to regulate for motorcycles and not for anybody else. I think there is a case for examining whether remote speed control would contribute to safety. For all vehicles.

What do you think about the idea specifically in relation to motorcycles?

I don’t think anything in relation specifically to motorcycles. I think, if we were to go down that road, we would be looking at it for all vehicles, either on a voluntary basis or a regulatory basis. I don’t think there’s any chance that we would regulate for motorcycles on their own.

But couldn’t you regulate for all vehicles except motorcycles?

Well that is possible, but it would be a long way off, and at the moment people are looking at the technical feasibility and the way in which drivers and riders would be react, as well as what affect it would have on traffic flow and safety and so on.

There’s an awful long way to go. Motorcycles are part of it, but they’re not the prime area being looked at. It’s a matter of looking at looking at whether there is scope for a more positive view of remote speed control.

But obviously, it would be a completely new approach to speed control and it would have to apply equally to all vehicles which aren’t subject to current motorcycles.

Have you ever ridden a motorcycle?

No.

Well, steering one is something you don’t just do by operating the handlebars. It’s something you also do by adjusting power with the throttle.

Well, the same argument applies to cars, actually, and it’s something we’ll have to look at. If it’s actually reducing your control, and your ability to react to situations, then obviously that is one of the safety implications we need to look at.

If you’re driving a car around a corner, and you take your foot off the throttle, it will continue on the same course around that bend. Do the same thing on a bike, and it won’t.

I see what you mean.

Does that not make it potentially hazardous for motorcyclists?

Well, I think that’s one of the things the project will have to look at. Some people would argue it has the same affect for cars, although maybe not in quite the same way.

But it affects motorcycles in quite a crucial way, really?

If that is the case, then that will come out in the study. The Government has no commitment to introducing these things, we just want to see whether they’ll work or not. There’s no regulation on the horizon.

It’s so far off that we don’t have a report yet, we haven’t got the details of the research yet, and the Government certainly has no intention of legislating it yet. It’s very theoretical.

One argument that the Labour Government has revived is the one concerning leg protectors. Have you got an opinion on them?

There are some arguments for introducing leg protectors. We don’t regard it as a priority, but there are some European-level discussion which may get into that field fairly soon.

It will be some time before any decision is taken on it. We’re not pressing it.

But the issue’s been raised by the Government.

Yes.

Is there any evidence they’ll be effective?

Well, it’s being looked at in the first instance in Europe, with some research projects going on. But it’s no an immediate prospect.

I know it’s not very among motorcyclists, so I imagine there’ll be some serious debate on the subject before there’s a decision of which way to go at a British level, but there is some European discussion going on.

It makes wonder whether the people behind the idea have ever seen a motorcycle.

Well, I’m not suggesting it. It has been suggested at various levels and there are injuries to motorcyclists, which involve very serious damage to legs, which some people say could be reduced by leg protectors. We need to get the facts, and they’re not their yet. Certainly, we’re not proposing legislation in this field.

Isn’t the idea that bars in front of the legs will help protect them absurd?

If that’s the case, it will come out in the research.

So, for motorcyclists, the Labour Government represents the possibility of leg protectors and the possibility of remote speed control devices on their bikes.

No, that’s crap. We see motorcyclists as part of the solution to integrated transport, given encouragement in certain situations. We’re also concerned about the safety of motorcyclists and will look at anything people say might help them. Whether leg protectors will or not is another question.

The Conservative party has promised to review the 70mph speed limit on motorways if elected. Does the Labour party have any plans to do that?

No. We think the 70mph speed is about the appropriate level.

So, summing up, why should motorcyclists vote for you?

For a better deal on road space and parking costs and a greater say in the development of policy than they’ve ever had before.