George Robertson – 1986 Speech on Seatbelts

Below is the text of the speech made by George Robertson, the then Labour MP for Hamilton, in the House of Commons on 13 January 1986.

At a social occasion last summer in my constituency a young man came up to me and said that he had started to wear a seat belt because the law said that he had to do so, but that he had resisted it until then because he believed many of the arguments advanced by some hon. Members. A notable example of those arguments has been reiterated by the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). However, this young man said, “Last week I was in a road accident and there is no doubt in my mind that as a consequence of that road accident, had I not been wearing a seat belt, I should be dead or so severely injured that I would not be out and about tonight. So I suppose I have to thank you, and the likes of you, by persuading me, through the law, to wear a seat belt, for the very fact that I am here and able to speak to you this evening.” That spoke more eloquently to me than anything else that I have heard, certainly this evening, about what the general public believe has been the advantage of the law that Parliament passed three years ago.

Reference has already been made to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) and I, too would congratulate her this evening on her apparent elevation to the Foreign Office, even if the consequence of that will be that she will suffer the attacks, not of my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Stott), but of myself in another incarnation. We believe that it is being seen as promotion, and we wish her well because she has supervised this issue with great assiduousness.

I have a slight interest to declare in this debate. As chairman of the seat belt survivors club, I have been in contact with a large number of people who have had their lives saved and who have been saved from serious injury because over the years they have worn a seat belt in accidents that would otherwise have rendered them dead or infirm.

I admit that over the years I have become a zealot on this issue. I wore my seat belt for many years because I thought that it made common sense. Nine years ago this Sunday I was involved in a head-on collision with a Land Rover, and only as a consequence of wearing a seat belt was I saved from almost certain death. That certainly concentrated the mind and gave me an enthusiasm for the issue.

I have always believed, and I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House who have supported the measure have believed, that this was a matter of common sense. We are reassured by the fact that over the three years since the law came in, what was a matter of great controversy, of almost endless debate in the House and repeated votes, with large majorities in favour, is now a matter of no controversy at all. The vast majority of motorists put on their seat belts now with no more thought than they give to making sure that the doors of the car are firmly closed behind them.

Ninety four per cent. of motorists are now using seat belts. The statistics that the Minister gave are eloquent testimony to the success of the measure. The Minister is a brave man this evening to come to the Dispatch Box and admit that he was one who was not convinced but has now had conviction forced upon him. He is not alone in that. One of the most vivid speeches in all the debates on the subject that I can remember was that by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Sir E. Griffiths), who gave his personal testimony to his scepticism on the issue and the conviction that was imposed upon him by his experience as a Minister at the Department of Transport and the vivid recollections that he had of the casualty wards in hospitals and the sight of the road accident victims within them.

This is without doubt the single most successful road safety measure that Britain has ever seen. It costs nothing in civil liberty and financial terms, and it has saved so much. It has saved the suffering and the pain that goes with the road casualty figures every day of this life. It has saved our nation at least £130 million. More than that, it has saved countless numbers of maimings, blindings and cripplings, which are the real human manifestation of the road accident statistics that are represented in the savings that have been put forward over the past three years.

The hon. and learned Member for Burton made virtually the same speech tonight as we heard three years ago and in practically every other debate beforehand. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) says that the hon. and learned Member did not vote.

Some have chosen to support Dr. John Adams’s theory of risk compensation, and this is an attractive and eloquent theory, put forward by somebody whose mastery of the statistics gives him a bogus authority. Is his theory worth anything? If it works in this case, why does it not work in every other case where preventative measures have been taken in road safety? Are we to abandon all safety measures for people on the roads and in their cars simply because a questionable, flimsy, tendentious theory suggests that those who are belted have more confidence and start knocking down pedestrians, cyclists and motor cyclists? I am sure that the vast majority of the population would reject that theory, and they have shown that they have done so by the act that they continue to wear their seat belts.

Some have said that the numbers saved from death and serious injury are smaller than was suggested by the proponents of the measure when this issue was last debated in Parliament. That is so, but the estimates were never likely to be precise, any more than the statistics used this evening are precise. We know that if the usage rate were to go from 94 to 100 per cent., the chances are that the targets established on the guesses and best estimates would be met.

At least 200 more people a year are alive who would otherwise be dead, and at least 7,000 who would otherwise ​ be seriously injured are able to get around. We are told that there has been a 25 per cent. reduction in admissions to hospitals of front seat road accident victims, and a 30 per cent. reduction in hospital inpatients from road accidents. There has been a 40 per cent. reduction in major and minor brain injuries among those injured in car accidents. Are these not testimony enough to the valuable and life-preserving measure?

Three years ago, thanks to the skill and opportunity of Lord Nugent, a former Conservative Transport Minister, in the other place, this House had a chance to embrace this life-saving legislation. As it always has done, the House gave the measure its support. The evidence has been clear. People have been saved, and we must therefore consolidate that success.