Clause 20 - Breach of requirements relating to children and seat belts

Road Safety Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:00 am on 27th January 2005.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I should be grateful if the Minister explained a bit more about clause 20. There is an assertion by the Government that not wearing a seat belt in the rear seats should be subject to the same maximum penalty as not wearing one in the front   seats. Does he not accept that a child sitting in the front of a car, whether with a seat belt or not, is much more vulnerable than a child sitting in the rear? It is therefore much more important that a child sitting in the front seat should be wearing a seat belt—or preferably, for a very young child, a safety seat. That higher risk was the reason for the differentiation in maximum penalties.

Fortunately, notwithstanding the differing penalties, compliance with front-seatbelt laws is high. The problem with rear seatbelts is that it is more difficult to supervise children in the back of the car, as you probably know, Mr. Pike. Often, there are more children in the back of a car than there are seatbelt fittings, and children can therefore get used to travelling in the back without additional seatbelt anchorage.

The clause would put the wearing of seatbelts in the back and front of cars on a level footing. I should think that it is better that children travel in the back of cars, rather than the front, because they are less exposed to danger. We should not create the impression that the risk of travelling without a seatbelt in the back is equal to that in the front. The front is and always has been a more dangerous place in which to travel. Can the Minister justify the assertion underlying the clause that there is equal risk and should therefore be equal culpability and maximum penalties?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 10:15 am, 27th January 2005

The clause amends part 1 of schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 so as to increase the punishment for an offence under section 15(4) of the Road Traffic Act 1988, which concerns driving a motor vehicle in contravention of seat belt requirements in respect of a child carried in the rear seat of a vehicle, from a level 1 fine on the standard scale of £200 to a level 2 fine of £500. This means that the penalty on conviction for a seatbelt-wearing offence in respect of a child in a rear seat will be the same as that in respect of a child occupying a front seat.

I refer briefly to our previous debate. The law will never be able to get rid of human error, but we can take action to reduce its effect in a crash. That is why we have taken measures such as those concerning airbags, seatbelts, front-end crumple zones and improved engineering of cars and roads: so that when somebody inadvertently makes an error, it does not result in death or injury. We have been moving toward that approach in recent years. We have to accept that human beings are all frail and will still make errors when driving cars, whereas, these days, the likelihood that the mechanical failure of a vehicle will cause a crash is low.

It is important that we concentrate on issues such as the wearing of seatbelts, which has gradually gone up in this country since they were introduced. That has had a substantial effect on the number of casualties inside vehicles, particularly with children. We could have a long argument and do some academic research   of great import as to whether it is more dangerous for a child to be in the front or the back of a vehicle, but what purpose would that debate have?

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour/Co-operative, Loughborough

I agree. I speak from a parental point of view. We are strict about seatbelts for the two children in the back, but, on an anecdotal basis, all too often we see children walking around and standing up in back seats. If the hon. Member for Christchurch was suggesting that we send out a signal that either the front or back was safer or less safe than the other, the danger would be that we would encourage people to feel safer in the back and that they do not need to belt up. Those of us who are really concerned want all children to be belted up, whether they are in the front or the rear.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

My hon. Friend makes the point far better than I could have done. It is just dangerous for a child to be unrestrained. Even sharp braking, which one might have to do occasionally, could injure a child.

To return to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Christchurch about the front or the rear, in recent years we have become more aware that if a person or object is in the rear of the car and circumstances involve severe braking or a collision, the child, adult or object can become a missile inside the car that can injure those in the front. Even a dog could cause injury in those circumstances. The hon. Gentleman may have seen the advert that we occasionally bring back. The story is that the mother, who is driving the car, is about to meet her killer. Of course, he turns out to be the son in the back of the car, whose head flies forward, hits the mother and kills her because he was not restrained in the back of the vehicle.

The issue is important. Children do not make choices in such things, particularly young children. They are not in a position to make a choice; the parents are, and the person who is driving the car and is responsible for those children is. The penalty for not wearing seatbelts in the rear and front of cars should be the same.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am familiar with the figures for compliance with front seatbelt wearing, which I think are between 94 and 98 per cent. Can the Minister tell us the figures for compliance with rear seatbelt wearing for children?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I probably can give the hon. Gentleman those figures, if he will give me a moment. Perhaps we can come back to it later, but the compliance rate for rear seatbelts is lower. In the case of both front and rear seatbelts, the numbers are increasing. Inspiration is coming to me as we speak. If we take the latest figures that we have, those from October 2004, the compliance rate for car drivers—who are obviously in the front seat—is 93 per cent. For front seat passengers, it is 94 per cent. For adults in the rear seat—adults meaning those who are 14 years and over—the figure is 65 per cent. and for children in the rear seat it is 93 per cent. The overall figure for rear seat passengers is 83 per cent. It is amazing how my memory can suddenly be jogged.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

In conclusion, the figures show the success that has resulted from the introduction of rear seatbelt wearing, which was something that I was proud to be associated with as a Minister. I am glad that we have forced the Minister to justify the change that he is proposing.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.