David Mitchell – 1986 Statement on Seatbelts

Below is the text of the speech made by David Mitchell, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 13 January 1986.

I beg to move, That the continuance in force of the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) Regulations 1982 (S.I., 1982, No. 1203) be approved.

The purpose of this evening’s debate is to enable the House to consider whether it wishes to continue the decision taken by Parliament in 1981 that drivers and front seat passengers in cars and light vans should be required by law to wear their seat belts.

The background, as the House will recall, is that the decision to make belt wearing compulsory was taken only after years of argument, both inside and outside Parliament, over the case for such a measure. As the controversy had raged so fiercely and had continued for so long, Parliament took the view that there should be one further opportunity to consider the entire issue again after an initial period and decide in the light of experience whether compulsory seat belt wearing should continue indefinitely. Hence the provision in the Transport Act 1981 that the regulations, under which compulsion took effect, would lapse automatically after three years unless this House and another place resolve that they remain in force. The three years expire at the end of this month and the time has therefore now come to take a decision. Just in case there is any misunderstanding, let me make it quite clear that the issue is simply whether to make the regulations permanent or allow them to lapse; there is no provision for modifying the regulations or renewing them only for a further limited period. I remind the House also that the law on the restraining of children in cars is not subject to the review procedure. It is not covered by tonight’s debate and will continue in any event.

Although we are returning to an issue which has been discussed many times before in this House, there is, of course, one important difference between tonight’s proceedings and all the earlier debates. On those occasions we could look at the issue only in terms of what people thought would or would not happen in the event of seat belt wearing becoming law. Tonight we can consider what actually has happened. Instead of merely speculating, we have moved into the business of observing and recording. Rather than relying on endless hypotheses, we have real facts to work on.

To ensure that all the relevant information is available to Parliament, the Government have conducted, as we promised, a comprehensive monitoring programme, ​ designed to study the practical effects of the belt legislation from every possible angle. The results are set out in our report published last October, which I trust all hon. Members will have studied. The report provides a full statistical analysis—carried out by departmental statisticians and the Transport and Road Research Laboratory—of seat belt wearing rates and the effect of seat belt wearing on casualty trends. It also includes detailed studies by hospitals and universities on the consequences of seat belt wearing in terms of the nature and severity of road accident injuries.

As seat belt compulsion continues to arouse strong feelings in many quarters, with particular attention focusing on the interpretation of all the statistical evidence, the Government thought it right that, in addition to our own monitoring exercise, there should be an entirely independent analysis of all the statistics carried out by expert assessors from outside the Government. We are most grateful to Professors Durbin and Harvey of the London School of Economics for undertaking this task. Their report was published as a clearly separated annex to the Department’s own report.

What does the evidence tell us? First, it tells us that there has been instant and wholehearted acceptance of the seat belt law on the part of motorists. Up to the end of 1982 the proportion of drivers and front-seat passengers wearing belts never exceeded 40 per cent. Immediately the law came in, the wearing rate rose to around 95 per cent. and has remained consistently at that level, with no sign whatever of any fall off. This is a remarkable achievement, especially when we consider that in no other country with a seat belt law has the overall wearing rate even begun to approach the sort of level that we have here. Our own observations have been confirmed by the police, who report that the law has been almost entirely self-enforcing.

Why should the public adapt so readily to the seat belt law, when their previous attitude was no more than halfhearted? The most likely answer must surely be that the seat belt law came just at the right time to catch the tide of public opinion. The majority of people had, I believe, all but decided for themselves that wearing a seat belt was a sensible thing to do to reduce the risk of death or injury in the event of an accident. All the legislation did was clinch that decision for them. The law was accepted because it equated with what people judged to be in their own interests.

The next question must be whether people’s faith in seat belt wearing has been justified in the light of experience. I will say straight out that in our view, the answer has to be an unequivocal yes. This is the opinion, not just of the Department of Transport, but of all those who have been directly involved in research on seat belt wearing. It is a view shared by virtually the entire medical profession, the police and all those working in road safety.

The evidence to support this conclusion is set out for all to see in the Department’s report, backed up by the independent assessment of Professors Durbin and Harvey. The most striking facts are surely these: since the seat belt law took effect, there has been a substantial net reduction in road casualties—at the very minimum, an annual saving of 200 deaths and a further saving of 7,000 serious injuries. On a large sample of some 14 hospitals which are generally recognised as representative by the medical ​ profession, there has been a reduction of no less than 25 per cent. in the admission of car accident victims to wards, with a comparable fall in bed occupancy.

The 200 deaths and 7,000 serious injuries prevented are net figures which take account of changes in the number of rear seat passengers and pedestrians involved in accidents. No one making a proper study of the evidence could seriously argue that trends as clear as these are merely a coincidence. They can only be a direct result of the massive increase in the use of seat belts.

Some people, I know, are worried that there is a debit as well as a credit to seat belt wearing. The notion that seat belts encourage drivers to take risks they would not otherwise take has had a lot of attention from the media and from groups concerned with the safety of vulnerable road users, but, despite exhaustive analysis inside and outside the Government, there is no material evidence to support this allegation. The theory has been studied in this country—it has been studied throughout the world—but nowhere has it been in any way substantiated by the facts.

In any case, let me make it quite clear that the annual saving of 200 deaths and 7,000 injuries to which I referred earlier are net figures, arrived at after allowing for every possible relevant factor, including increases in casualties among certain road users. Seat belt wearing has to be seen as an outstanding success in terms of reducing casualties. Experience since the law took effect has confirmed the results of the earlier research conducted here and abroad. Wearing a seat belt substantially reduces the chances of death or serious injury in the event of an accident.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mitchell

I was hoping to speak briefly, as I know that many hon. Members wish to speak. If there are questions to which I must reply, I shall ask leave of the House to do so.

With the case for seat belt wearing demonstrated so emphatically, the Government’s view is that the right course must be to establish the law permanently. Given the evidence that we have, to abandon compulsion at this stage would make no sense from any angle.

There is still, of course, the argument that, however strong the case for wearing a seat belt may be, the decision should remain a matter of individual choice, rather than be enforced by law. I do not lightly dismiss that point of view. This Government are, after all, fully committed to minimising the regulation of people’s lives, but I hope that even those for whom this argument had force earlier will be ready to reconsider their view in the light of experience over the past three years. I originally had considerable doubts about the principle of compulsion, but, in the light of the evidence that I have studied, I am persuaded that the law should be allowed to stand.

The House needs no reminder from me of the possible consequences of road accidents for the victim, his family, his friends and colleagues and the community at large. Experience over the past three years has shown that one way of minimising the risk is by the simple act of putting on a seat belt. Ninety five per cent. of drivers and front seat passengers are taking advantage of that facility. I hope that their decision to do so will be endorsed by the House on our first sitting day in European Road Safety Year.