Orders of the Day — Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st March 1976.

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Photo of Dr John Gilbert Dr John Gilbert , Dudley East 12:00 am, 1st March 1976

These would all be matters for discussion when we carry out the consultation, but I envisage, for example, that where it is an obvious case of a delivery vehicle there will be no need for a certificate. Again, when someone is driving in reverse, it being a simple matter of observation, the same would be true. For cases on medical grounds, I envisage that people would obtain for themselves medical certificates of exemption.

The fundamental justification for the Bill reposes in the number of deaths and serious injuries which we estimate will be saved by its enactment. I think that it may be helpful for to the House if, before I go into detail, I set out the basis on which our calculations are made. Surveys of seat belt-wearing carried out by the Department of the Environment show that belts are worn for about one-third of the distance travelled in the front seats of cars. Thus, for every mile travelled belted, about two miles are travelled unbelted.

If belt-wearing made no difference, we could expect to find one belted person killed or injured for every two unbelted persons killed or injured, since this is the proportion in which they are exposed to the risk of accident. But we know from police reports whether people killed or injured in the front seats of cars were or were not wearing belts, and we find that serious injuries among belted people are only about half the number which this reasoning would lead us to expect, and deaths are a little less than half. I have simplified the argument, and it makes certain assumptions—in particular, that belted and unbelted travellers are equally at risk of accident.

If that were the only evidence that seat belts save lives and serious injury, we should, of course, be right to treat the evidence with caution. But it is not the only evidence. Apart from experience in Australia, on which I shall give the House some figures in a minute, the French authorities have calculated the savings from compulsory belt-wearing on a method quite different from ours and have reached almost exactly the same conclusions. Moreover, the calculations on the British figures have now been carried out in respect of 1972, 1973 and 1974 and they give closely corresponding results for the reduction in risk of injury conferred by belt-wearing, despite the increase in the proportion of belts actually worn and the change in accident patterns due to the fuel crisis.

Thus, our estimate is that by wearing a seat belt anyone riding in the front seat of a car reduces by at least half the chance that he or she will be killed or seriously injured in an accident.

I emphasise that that is not the opinion of my Department alone or of any single group of experts but is the corroborated conclusion of many careful studies in several countries. It is really no longer debatable, and if those figures are accepted the figures for expected savings in this country which I am about to give follow as night follows day.

We estimate that if the wearing rate rises from its present level of just over 30 per cent. to 90 per cent. in vehicles which are fitted with belts, which is not an unreasonable objective in the light of other countries' experience, we should prevent 1,000 deaths and about 11,000 serious injuries every year—a serious injury being defined as an injury for which the victim has a stay in hospital or suffers a broken limb. Moreover, according to the somewhat gruesome statistics which we are compelled to work on in the Department, we should save some £60 million a year in health service costs, police time and production lost to the national economy.