Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd March 1979.

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Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield 12:00 am, 22nd March 1979

If the hon. Gentleman considers that that is a substantial element in the statistical evaluation, I must pass on. I regard that theory as ridiculous. We are talking about a Bill that refers to the wearing of seat belts in motor cars, and by the front seat occupants of motor cars. Each year about 2,550 people are killed in motor cars. The exempted categories, whatever they are to be, cannot be fewer than 550. I imagine that even those in the back seats would add up to that, apart from all the other categories.

The Bill will affect 2,000 people every year. The Government's statistics show that of those killed 235 were wearing seat belts anyway. Therefore, we must subtract that figure. There is a further category. It was not known whether people in that category were wearing seat belts. They amounted to 103. We are left with 1,650 people per annum whom the Bill might affect. These are Government figures. It is suggested that we may save 1,000 lives every year out of the total of 1,650. On the broadest approach to the subject, that is highly improbable.

In recent months there has been controversy on this matter. The medical people, who supplied the pressure behind this move, reduced the figure to 800 and then to 600. I do not say that seat belts do not work to some extent. However, I suggest that the correct figure is about 250. The Government's statistically based justification is weak. It is based on the difference between those who were and those who were not wearing seat belts when killed. That is a dangerous extrapolation. The Government's figures overlooked the fact that those wearing seat belts were voluntary wearers. It is reasonable to assume that they wore seat belts efficiently and did so in the hours of darkness.

I come to the compulsory wearing of seat belts in the hours of darkness, when the accident rate is twice as high as in the hours of daylight. We shall not find the reluctant or compelled person wearing seat belts then. I shall not do so because the police will not see me and because I am against the measure. That is easy. Therefore, we cannot extrapolate the saving rate even if we accept the Government's figures.

The Government justified the figures by a reference to the Victoria statistics. Victoria was the only place in the world that showed a 50 per cent. reduction in injuries when compulsory belt wearing was introduced. There were material distinctions. In Victoria the wearing rate was 15 per cent. when the law was introduced. Therefore, the comparison must be between 15 per cent. belt wearing and 90 per cent., which was ultimately achieved. That is different from the British figure of an increase from 33 per cent. to 85 per cent. At the same time, a 60 mph speed limit was introduced in Victoria. If that factor did not falsify the statistics, I do not know what did.

When there was a fuel crisis in the United Kingdom a 50 mph speed limit was introduced. The number of deaths on the roads dropped by 1,400. There is nothing like a speed limit for reducing the numbers of deaths. If we introduced a 50 mph speed limit we should unquestionably save the lives of 1,200 people every year who would otherwise be killed on the roads. In that case we should be dealing with pedestrians, motor cyclists and others. How can we derive any sensible analogy from the statistics?

In the other states of Australia the savings ranged from nil to 30 per cent. In Sweden, when compulsory seat belt wearing was introduced the saving was nil. Every country has its own statistics. If, in Britain, we start with 33 per cent. and take account of the difference between voluntary and compulsory wearing, and the difference between day and night for frequency of accidents, we arrive at a probable saving of deaths of about 15 per cent. That is what we are talking about. It is a matter for each Member of Parliament to decide for himself.

Serious injuries are said to amount to 10,000 per year. That figure is based on the same calculation to which I apply the same qualifications. Let us start by remembering that the definition of serious injuries is absurd in this context. It applies to someone who stays in hospital for an hour. I am told by my medical advisers that the true figure of serious injuries is about half that mentioned in the departmental statistics. We are in fact starting from 5,000, and to that figure we apply all the considerations that I have been applying to deaths.

It is impossible to do justice to the arguments in the number of minutes available to speakers in the debate tonight, if one is to be fair to other hon. Members who are waiting to speak. All I can say is that if it is a question of balancing magnitude against intrusion into the realm of personal decision, I cannot accept for a moment that this kind of advantage in any way justifies what it is proposed to do. It is a very serious intrusion into people's liberty.

We have heard much argument today about precedent, but this liberty has been encroached on already. In any State in the modern world, freedom is never lost to people who preach dictatorship. It is lost to pressure groups whose purposes are benevolent in every respect. It is erosion by balancing the tangible advantage against the intangible advantage of not accumulating restraints upon the individual until he has been weakened. We cannot have a strong society made up of weak individuals. If the people in that society are constantly prevented from making unwise decisions, they become weak individuals.

We cannot look at seat belts in isolation. That is just where the latest push has come from the medicos. The risk is a very remote one. The risk of serious injury to a driver in this country, if he is doing an average annual mileage, is once in 800 years. The risk of death to a driver of an average mileage is once in 10,000 years. If he is over 25, it is once in 25,000 years. But when we are dealing with a population of 55 million or 60 million, obviously there is a steady trickle of a few a day, and they are all channelled into the accident and casualty departments of hospitals.

The medicos who write to us watch this wretched procession of damaged human frames and they say"This is terrible, it has got to stop ". But who are they to advise us on the balance between freedom and restraint? By definition, they are people whose minds have lost their balance because of the narrow and intense experience they have.

I must stop, in fairness to others, but I hope that hon. Members, when they vote at 10 p.m., will bear in mind that this argument from my side of the question is not one that can be brushed aside. It is one of the greatest gravity and of the greatest significance for the future of a free society.