The issue at stake is the fitting of reflective markings to the side and rear of heavy trucks, which – at a cost of little more than £100 per vehicle - have been shown to reduce accidents involving trucks and passenger cars in poor visibility conditions by 95 percent.
In the UK each year, it is estimated that 30 to 34 occupants of cars are killed in collisions with the tail end of HGVs and that another 40 to 44 people are killed in side collisions. Many more are injured, some very seriously.
Research has since demonstrated that some 45 percent of all fatalities caused by road accidents occur in darkness and pioneering research by the Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany has shown that 37 percent of all side collisions with trucks at night occurred because the trucks were seen too late.
It was with that in mind, there is a provision within the Road Safety Bill, currently in its Committee Stage in the Commons to permit the secretary of state for transport to make regulations requiring the fitting of these makings to all new HGVs, as a measure designed to reduce the number of collisions.
However, during the second reading of the Bill it emerged that the secretary of state was not proposing to introduce regulations until at least 2011, some five years hence.
This was despite the government itself having commissioned its own research in 2005 from Loughborough university, which concluded that there was a cost benefit for fitting line or contour markings to newly registered HGVs. The government then launched a consultation, and of the responses, the vast majority were in favour.
On Thursday last, therefore, Labour MP for Bolton West, Dr Brian Iddon, supported by Owen Paterson, Conservative shadow transport minister, tabled an amendment compelling the introduction of regulations that would require all new trucks to be fitted with markings from 1 January 2007.
Nevertheless, despite the overwhelming case made during the debate, the transport minister, Dr Stephen Ladyman, was not going to be moved. We cannot make retro-reflective marking a requirement, he said,
…because of obligations under United Nations Economic Commission for Europe measures and EU directives, which mean that we are unable to make any unilateral requirement of vehicles in this country. Were we try to change the legislation in the way suggested, our partners in the European Union would certainly object and take infraction proceedings against us… the amendment and the clause are redundant and perhaps illegal.On the face of it, therefore, this was yet another example of the dead hand of the Brussels bureaucracy holding up a measure, this time with potentially fatal consequences. Owen Paterson estimated that, should the present position remain until 2011, there will be 1,540 avoidable collisions.
As always, though, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. Subsequently, it was learned that, in 2003, the Italian government brought out a law making such markings a mandatory requirement. It notified the EU commission and received no objections, whence the law went into force in November 2003. Both Iddon and Paterson then tried to raise this at the committee meeting yesterday, only to be ruled out of order.
Thus we remain in a state of fatal confusion. Evidenced by the Italian government's action, there is nothing to stop regulations on this life-saving measure being introduced immediately, yet according to our own minister, the EU prevents him from so doing until 2011.
Just who is in charge here?