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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th July 1979.

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Photo of Sir Ronald Bell Sir Ronald Bell , Beaconsfield 12:00 am, 20th July 1979

This is not the first time that the wearing of seat belts has been debated by the House or the first time that I have taken part in such debates.

However, I have not before had the pleasure of congratulating two of my hon. Friends on outstanding maiden speeches. I have the greatest pleasure in doing that today. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) deployed his arguments against the Bill with a clarity and force which I may have appreciated more than most since I agree with every word he said. However, even his opponents must have felt the force and influence of his arguments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Waller) advanced arguments which I have long entertained as valid and he did so with a vigour and clarity of exposition which showed—as did my hon. Friend the member for Putney—that our new Members are much better than those of 20 years ago.

The arguments on the matter are complex. I remember that during the Second Reading of the previous Bill an hon. Member who supported the measure said that it ought to go to a Select Committee. That was an opinion with which I emphatically agreed. We are arguing about the balance between personal freedom and the alleged detriment that may flow from people exercising that freedom by not wearing seat belts. One can take the absolute view—to which I am attracted, in a way—that one has to defend freedom and pay its price whatever it may be.

There are, after all, a great many people in the middle who are prepared to pay a certain price for freedom, but not to go beyond it. For all of them some quantification of the price is an essential part of the argument. When one starts to quantify the price one has to examine the statistics and the arguments derived from the statistics which the supporters of a Bill such as this produce.

It is very difficult, when hon. Members are asked to limit their speeches—this applies on this occasion but it applied even more so on the last occasion when hon. Members were asked to limit their speeches if possible to six minutes —because one is faced with the utter impossibility of analysing the statistics and questioning the validity of the conclusions that are drawn from them, or even examining the very nature of those conclusions.

I therefore find this a most unsatisfactory procedure. If this Bill gets a Second Reading and goes to Standing Committee there will be a somewhat adversarial approach to the subject there by people who are fairly strongly committed on each side.

I take this Bill fairly seriously. My concern with personal freedom I take very seriously indeed, as hon. Members will know, in every context in which it arises. However, I do not brush aside the feelings of hon. Members such as my hon. Friends the Members for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) and Faversham (Mr. Moate) or the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvingrove (Mr. Carmichael), who are appalled by what they believe to be avoidable deaths and injuries which result from people not wearing seat belts. We are, therefore, in this unsatisfactory state of affairs.

This issue has always been based, at least chronologically, upon the Australian experience, especially the Victorian experience. That is a good point at which to start one's examination because it illustrates most strikingly the bogus nature of some of the statistics from which conclusions have been drawn. It was said that there was a tremendous saving of life and avoidance of injury when Victoria made the wearing of seat belts compulsory in 1971. In fact, the wearing rate in Victoria before that happened was 15 per cent. It was reputed to go up to about 85 or 90 per cent. It would not therefore in any case be a typical example because in this country the wearing rate is already 30 per cent. However, the interesting feature is this—and one does not hear about it from those who argue for the Bill—that there was not a diminution in deaths or serious injuries in Victoria or Australia when the wearing of seat belts was made compulsory.

In some of the following years more people were killed and injured in relevant accidents. What is alleged is that if one attached a straight line to certain selected points on the pre-existing experience, and extrapolated from that, one could claim that more people would have been killed and injured than were. That is a different proposition. It is based upon an assumption that trends for the past two, three or four years may be treated as permanent and that if the line is extrapolated we may say that anything falling below it is a saving and may be attributable to a certain piece of legislation that we happen to like. That is statistically an unsound operation.

At the same time as introducing compulsory seat belt wearing in Victoria a speed limit was introduced. I think that the limit was 60 mph but it may have been 50 mph. It was some such figure. Our experience in 1973, when we had the oil crisis and we introduced 50 mph and 60 mph limits, was that there was a sharp reduction in road accidents. I think that the number of deaths resulting from road accidents fell by about 1,200. That is because speed is an important factor in road accidents.

What are we to say of the Victorian figures when they are, first, an extrapolation and, secondly, they coincide with the imposition of a speed limit? Lastly, the death rate from road accidents in Victoria was twice as high as in the United Kingdom, in spite of the much sparser population. In the same period, from 1971 to 1976, from which the arguments that we hear about Australia are derived, the accident rate in Britain decreased by 15 per cent. In Victoria after the seat belt law had been put into effect the rate decreased by 0.2 per cent. How can anyone mount elaborate arguments about the importance of seat belts against that statistical background?