I have never seen a rhinoceros or kangaroo on the A9. So what is the point of bull bars fitted to vehicles, other than as some crass fashion statement. 4x4 vehicles have become far more popular in urban settings. Twenty to 30 years ago, they were broadly found where they were designed to be used - in the countryside - and by their very design tended to be suited for that use. But since then, they have been developed as vehicles that are comfortable to drive on motorways and in towns, and have become vehicles of choice for use in urban areas. When in London, as I walk to the House of Commons, I pass a school. At 9am, the streets are bumper-to-bumper with 4x4 vehicles, none of which, I suspect, has seen mud in anger. When living at home in the Scottish countryside, I have never seen any working 4x4 that has bull bars. Some have protective grilles - I understand why those are in place - but none has a full set of chrome bull bars of the kind which the "Chelsea tractor" set are so keen on.
The problem is that bull bars are bad for pedestrians. The European Safety Council has estimated that 2,000 people die and 18,000 serious injuries are caused every year in Europe because of the use of bull bars. Yet in Britain, more then 600,000 vehicles have them, despite being little more than fashion accessories. Put simply, as the Department for Transport acknowledges, the majority of bull bars fitted are of a shape and hardness which research shows makes them more likely to injure pedestrians in collisions than if the vehicle was not fitted with a bull bar. In fact, the most recent consultation document said: "The Government, therefore, believes that action is needed against aggressive bull bars."
Work in the European Parliament resulted in a voluntary agreement with the car industry, in which it agreed to stop fitting bull bars as original equipment on new cars, and there is a proposal for a new directive, which would make this a legislative ban and would also cover bull bars supplied as independent items for the after-sales market. But the Government could take action now in Britain and not wait on decisions within Europe. I made this point at the Report Stage of the Road Safety Bill in the House of Commons last week, with my amendment to give the Secretary of State for Transport the power to prohibit the retrofitment of equipment on to vehicles which he deemed unsafe, such as bull bars. Sadly, my amendment was rejected by Tory and Labour MPs.
The Liberal Democrats have argued the case for additional legislation for road safety measures since the last General Election, and it would be a shame if the Road Safety Bill was not able, as seems likely, to complete its passage through Parliament before it prorogues for the expected General Election on 5 May.
Yet there are a number of other areas of concerns. For example, there is deep unease about the question of graduated fixed penalties - not about the concept of graduation and the overall principle of different punishments to fit the varying severity of the crime, but about the reduction in points in the 30mph to 40mph range. This sends the wrong message to speeding motorists, particularly when so many casualties are pedestrians in urban areas. I hope that the Minister for Transport keeps his word to have taken this on board and there will be no relaxation on the matter. And a Tory amendment to remove speed bumps appears to have been drawn up on the back of an envelope. Decisions on whether to build speed bumps should be made by local councils in conjunction with local people, who know how dangerous roads are. To try to impose this policy on the country from Whitehall is a crazy idea. Road safety is too important an issue to play politics with.
The writer is the Liberal Democrat shadow Transport SecretaryReuse content