Robert Goodwill has been under secretary of state for transport since October. He talks safety and road pricing with Stephen Briers.
The coalition Government has just received a bloody nose at the local and European elections from UKIP and, to a lesser extent, Labour, but when it comes to next year’s General Election, Conservative MPs are confident that a recovering economy will provide sufficient uplift to return the party to power, this time with a clear majority.
Certainly, as far as transport is concerned, ministers believe they have a solid understanding of the big issues and have put in place policies – typically investment – to tackle them. Hence the recent announcement of a major boost to the roads maintenance budget, including a pot of money set aside to deal specifically with potholes, and more resources to encourage uptake of electric vehicles.
However, the Department for Transport (DfT) has faced criticism over the frequency with which senior ministers have come and gone – eight secretaries of state over the past decade. How, ask fleets and leasing companies, can this revolving door ensure a consistency of approach to the many matters facing transport, from safety to infrastructure?
Every change potentially loses weeks, if not months, of progress as new ministers are brought up to speed. Their focus in the short term can often be dominated by other high-profile transport affairs, such as the HS2 rail link and the proposed third runway at Heathrow. Motoring can easily be shoved to the back.
While Patrick McLoughlin has held the post of secretary of state for transport since September 2012, it is two under secretaries that appear to have grasped the nettle as far as roads policy is concerned: Mike Penning (now minister of state for disabled people at the Department of Work and Pensions) and, since October last year, Robert Goodwill.
That both have a keen interest in automotive matters certainly helps. Goodwill, MP for Scarborough and Whitby, owns a collection of steam traction engines on his 250-acre family farm in North Yorkshire, and spent 18 months on the Transport Select Committee. He easily held his own at this year’s Fleet News Awards in conversation with Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders chief executive Mike Hawes about classic cars and the motor industry in general.
That Goodwill was also the first DfT minister to accept an invitation to the awards also says something about his willingness to engage with the fleet and leasing sector.
Fleet News: What are the Government’s road safety targets and what strategies are in place to achieve them?
Robert Goodwill: I suppose the short answer is zero accidents because every accident is preventable. The good news is that the UK, along with Sweden, has the best road safety record in Europe. That’s due to a combination of factors. It’s due to better car design, with safety features being incorporated, like airbags, anti-lock braking systems and electronic stability control. It’s due to better drivers – standards in this country are very good, and I think driving attitudes are also very good. What is interesting, certainly in terms of young drivers, is the way that the insurance industry is coming forward with telematics policies which are rewarding safe drivers by delivering cheaper premiums.
Fleet News: Does the DfT believe that telematics has an important role to play in road safety?
Robert Goodwill: The department is sponsoring some research to compare different types of technology and approaches. At the moment each company is doing their own thing and, for perfectly justifiable commercial reasons, they’re not sharing their data. But as a department we’re able to look at that and see what works. For example, some insurance policies charge more for driving at night, some charge more if you brake hard before a corner or if you break the speed limit, so it’ll be interesting to see what combination of factors is the most effective .
Fleet News: When are we likely to see some results?
Robert Goodwill: We only started doing it this year, so it’ll be a little while yet – it’s work in progress. If anything, we could be guilty of not waking up to the potential of telematics earlier. My view is that telematics technology can deliver safer young drivers by keeping them on the road, rather than delivering fewer accidents by taking them out of their cars.
Fleet News: Where else do you see the Government’s role in helping to improve safety on the roads?
Robert Goodwill: One thing that’s been surprising is the safety benefits of the hard shoulder running or smart motorway schemes. We’ve seen a 50% reduction in collisions on the smart motorway schemes compared to the normal three-lane running. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that where there are stationary vehicles on the road because of congestion, we can now slow the vehicles down further back by using the speed limitations on the gantries, so that as the vehicles arrive at the congestion it’s cleared and is moving again.
The other big surprise, and it’s counter-intuitive, is how removing the hard shoulder, which most people see as a safety feature of a motorway, has actually improved safety. Around 8% of deaths on motorways occur on the hard shoulder. Our research shows that 90% of stops on the hard shoulder were for non-emergency reasons. People stop to answer the call of nature, to use their telephones, to look at maps. So by having all four lanes running you’re automatically reducing by 90% the number of stops on the hard shoulder. For the remaining vehicles that need to stop, the vast majority are getting into the refuges where they’re properly safe because they’re right off the motorway.
Where vehicles do stop on the motorway and can’t get to a refuge, we can direct the traffic using the gantries. We can slow the traffic down, we can put up signs on the variable message signs saying, “vehicle stranded in road”, or “breakdown ahead”.
There’s been a 50% improvement by removing the hard shoulder and, at the same time, we’re improving the capacity of the motorway by 30%. So we’re getting better flow of traffic and improving safety.
Fleet News: Are we likely to see an expansion of the smart motorway scheme?
Robert Goodwill: Yes. We’re committed to 221 extra miles of smart motorways.
Fleet News: What about investment in the roads infrastructure and roads maintenance?
Robert Goodwill: We’re doing more than ever before. We are putting in £50 billion over the next 15 years on road investment. There is £6bn in this parliament and £12bn in the next which is enough to resurface 80% of the network and fill 19 million potholes a year on local roads. The Chancellor announced in the Budget a pothole fund that currently the local authorities are bidding for although we do understand there’s a backlog in repairs.
We have announced 26 major road projects to start in this parliament and diggers are now on the ground on 11 of them with two open to traffic. We’re consulting on the biggest project so far announced which is the new A14 Huntingdon bypass. That’s a £1.5bn scheme which was initially going to be part-funded by tolls but we’ve made the decision that we’re not going to go down the route of tolling.
Fleet News: Are you ruling out road pricing as a 2015 election pledge for this Government?
Robert Goodwill: Yes. People are resigned to the fact that they have to pay tolls to cross rivers and bridges but apart from that, there are no plans to introduce tolls on the Highways Agency network in this country. The fact that we abandoned the planned tolls on the A14 sends a very clear message that this decision is one we’re going to stick with.
Fleet News: Are there any plans to incorporate vehicles into the reporting of at-work accidents under RIDDOR?
Robert Goodwill: The short answer to that is no, but there are some situations where you would have to report .
But we’re not looking at incorporating the sort of road traffic accidents into RIDDOR. We already get police force statistics fed into the DfT and I think we could be in danger of some double-counting if we were also including that type of accident as accidents at work and as road traffic accidents.
Fleet News: So, the police stats are robust enough to build a picture about the proportion of at-work accidents…
Robert Goodwill: Well, we know how many people are killed and injured in accidents involving HGVs and we know that 99% of those are in relation to work. I’m not sure what we would learn from the guy who is a sales rep had an accident on Monday morning driving as part of his work. What is the difference between that and an accident driving back from his weekend in Scarborough?
I’ve not heard any compelling arguments as to why this would give us any better information of what’s happening.
Fleet News: You’ve introduced a new drug-driving policy. What level of responsibility do employers have over staff driving on business under the influence of drink or drugs?
Robert Goodwill: It’s something that employers need to be aware of primarily it’s the individual’s responsibility that they’re fit to drive. When I was in opposition as shadow transport minister, was one of the policies that I put in our manifesto. Mike Penning, my predecessor, has done all the hard work and I will be here hopefully to see the equipment being made available which will mean that police officers at the side of the road will have a saliva test to give an indication that that person has taken illegal drugs.
We’re going to start with cannabis and cocaine. Equipment in the police station will be able to provide a more accurate measurement which will mean we can prosecute.
We’re currently going through the validation of the equipment and hopefully by the end of the year we should have all that equipment licensed.
Fleet News: You say that primarily it’s the individual’s responsibility, but a lot of employers are concerned about where they stand and how proactive they need to be in terms of monitoring and even testing employees for drugs.
Robert Goodwill: Some employers do. Police forces have introduced random testing in some areas. I think it’s up to an employer to take a view as to what they should do, but the law is clear: one should not drive under the influence of alcohol and one should not drive after having taken either illegal drugs or prescription drugs for which there is a recommendation that you shouldn’t drive after taking them.
Fleet News: You mentioned earlier about the safety technology available in cars now, but for most it is an expensive option. One way to encourage uptake and improve safety would be to have tax breaks on the cost of this equipment.
Robert Goodwill: I understand the arguments but the Treasury is keen to make sure that the tax system in this country is simple and introducing this would be making it more complex. It might also be difficult to know the true cost of that particular bit of technology added to the car.
Previously technologies, such as airbags and electronic stability control, tended to become available on the top-of-the-range version of a car. When that model came to the end of its run, manufacturers loaded all the extras on it, and then when the new model came out, hey presto, the safety technology was a standard feature. In 10 years’ time, people will assume that every car is fitted with the technology so I don’t think we need to do anything to make that happen.
Also, I’m not supportive of mandating technology. Certainly the automatic braking systems; it is quite an expensive option and if you were to make it mandatory then it would have to be fitted on the bottom-of-the-range Vauxhall Corsa or Ford Ka, which would have quite an effect .
Fleet News: Given that the Chancellor has announced BIK bands for the next four years, can we assume the Government is wedded to CO2-based company car taxation?
Robert Goodwill: Yes. We’ve announced company car tax rates and bands for the years up to 2018/19 in order to provide tax certainty for car manufacturers, employers and employees. The Government does keep all areas of tax legislation under review, but there are currently no plans to change the underlying structure of car tax legislation.
What I would say is – and I’ve had conversations with the motor industry – I have some disquiet about the published figures for CO2 which have been produced through the test cycles. I used to work in the European parliament and we’d spend a lot of our time discussing test cycles and the actual in-service performance of vehicles and that’s one reason why we’re not seeing the predicted falls in some pollutants such as nitrogen oxide.
Fleet News: Of course, there is a risk that a more realistic figures means everyone’s BIK will jump a few bands, making company cars more expensive.
Robert Goodwill: Yes. We need to see if the current test cycles are representative, because a lot is down to driver behaviour. I did an experiment just before Christmas when I drove to Oldham and by driving very carefully I managed to get 44mpg, whereas in normal driving conditions it’s usually about 38mpg, so there is quite a lot that can be done.
While Goodwill declined to elaborate on concerns that realistic test cycles will result in BIK tax rises, he appears more in tune with the issues facing the automotive sector than many of his predecessors, not least the pressure on fleet budgets.
Prior to the 2010 General Election, he was tasked by then leader of the opposition David Cameron with cutting £6m from the Whitehall budget through reducing use of ministerial cars if the Conservatives came to power.
Many of those cars have now gone; Goodwill himself often pedals around London on his Brompton folding bike.
Meanwhile, the recent announcements on funding for roads maintenance suggests that the DfT is able to successfully argue its case for investment at a time when most departments are facing cuts.
This can only have been helped by ministers’ improved understanding of the issues facing transport. It augers well for future transport policy – as long as the DfT can slow down the ministerial merry-go-round.