Gary Waller – 1986 Speech on Seatbelts

Below is the text of the speech made by Gary Waller, the then Conservative MP for Keighley, in the House of Commons on 13 January 1986.

Some believe that there is no philosophical issue involved in this matter—in other words, if any measure such as this saves lives, it is justified. There are others for whom the matter is equally simple. They argue that it is entirely a matter of individual freedom, and that expediency cannot override principle. Finally there are those—among whom I count myself—who are perhaps the majority in the country, who accept that some element of freedom is compromised, but on the whole, are prepared to put up with such an impairment of their freedom if there is a clear safety benefit.

It goes without saying that if one is involved in an accident when wearing a seat belt, one stands a better chance of avoiding death or serious injury than if one is unbelted. The statistics show clearly that following the introduction of compulsory front seat belt wearing, more drivers and front seat passengers are surviving than before. Those who are blind to argument would say, “End of story”, but those who are anxious to get at the truth will look at the position of other road users, because of the possibility that drivers will act differently if they feel more secure.

Those who want to pour scorn on such a hypothesis may do so by appealing to subjective observation. At first sight, that seems reasonable. Most people say that they do not feel that they are taking a greater risk because they are wearing a belt, and nobody has been able to detect whether drivers wearing a seat belt drive faster or more dangerously than they would if they did not. To suggest that such a difference would or could be detected is to distort the theory that driving behaviour is altered by perception of risk.

Unfortunately, fatal accidents happen every day, but every day many millions of miles are covered by motorists, and a fatality occurs once in every 1,000 million miles driven. The difference in behaviour only needs to be infinitesimal and, certainly, immeasurable to have an effect on the casualty rates.

More people may see the point of the argument, if we reverse the process. Take away a seat belt from a rally driver, and who would deny that he would drive more cautiously? If he crashes the result may be more calamitous, but is it not more likely that he will take great care to ensure that he does not crash, and will he not take a fraction of a second more when he encounters a bend, and brake a fraction of a second early to increase his chances of reaching his destination? Enough of theory. Let us see what has happened in practice.

Professors Durbin and Harvey, who were commissioned by the Department of Transport to carry out an analysis of the statistics, rely mainly on the figures for those killed and seriously injured, rather than on fatalities alone. Where the change in fatalities appears to support the risk-compensation hypothesis they fall back on the number of those killed and seriously injured. However, those figures are open to misunderstanding and misreporting.

A serious injury may require the casualty to remain in hospital for only one night. The Transport and Road Research Laboratory says that 59 per cent. of serious injuries to cyclists are never reported to the police, and the British Medical Association claims that the figure is even higher. Therefore, the figures of those seriously injured are open to extreme doubt.

What do Durbin and Harvey say when they find fatalities that are inconsistent with the view that seat belts bring about a safer environment? On page 51 of the Department’s report, they state

“The fact remains that we find the large proportionate increase in rear seat passengers killed hard to understand … We are reluctant to accept changes in driving behaviour as an explanation since these would be expected to lead to a corresponding increase in numbers seriously injured and there is no evidence of such an increase. We must therefore leave the sharp rise in the number of rear seat passengers killed as an unexplained mystery, at least until more evidence is available.”

Had the House had an opportunity to extend the experimental period, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) suggested, more such evidence could have become available. Regrettably, the House has not been granted that option.

In the two years following the introduction of compulsion, the increase in deaths among rear seat passengers was 18 per cent. Durbin and Harvey were also at a loss to explain increases in casualties among cyclists and pedestrians. When we examine the figures more carefully, we find that the increases did not occur for cyclists and pedestrians killed because they came into contact with heavy goods vehicles, but, because they were hit by cars and light vans, most of whose drivers were wearing seat belts. On page 31 of their report, Durbin and Harvey accepted that the evidence was unmistakable. They said

“There remains strong evidence of a substantial increase in numbers of cyclists killed in accidents with cars.”

As they pointed to an increase of about 40 per cent., that conclusion was unavoidable.

Even for those who accept all the arguments favouring compulsion, the fatality statistics for motorists must be a serious disappointment. In 1977 the then Labour Minister, Mr. William Rodgers, forecast that 1,000 lives a year would be saved. By 1982 the Department of Transport suggested a figure of 700 or fewer, and on this morning’s radio a spokesman for the BMA was talking about 200. The Lancet admitted

“There will be regret that the evidence on deaths is not more one-sided and disappointment that the measure has fallen short of its promise.”

The fact that the Department’s chosen statisticians, Durbin and Harvey, neglected to take into account was the concerted effort against drink-driving which also began in the first part of the same year, 1983, with the introduction of the evidential breath testing machine and the jump in prosecutions. There was a significant drop in the number of drivers killed who were found to be over the limit and ​ 160—curiously close to 200—fewer drunken drivers died in 1983 than in 1982. Most significant of all, the number killed between 10 pm and 4 am, often described as the drink-drive hours, fell by 23 per cent. compared with a drop of only 3 per cent. at all other times of day. The Department’s statisticians attributed all the savings to seat belts but the evidence points in a very different direction.

The Lancet said, referring to Dr. Adams, that it was

“unhelpful of the Department of Transport to have suppressed an evaluation supporting his doubts.”

More charitably, I would say that the 1981 evaluation of the experience of compulsion in other countries was not intended for publication. Nevertheless, it accepted Adam’s finding of an increase in pedestrian injuries in every one of the eight countries which had introduced compulsion and described the statistical odds against achieving eight such positive results as one in 256. It also warned that the predominance of increased casualty rates for pedestrians was “alarming” and noted that

“since pedestrians account for 20 per cent. of casualties in Britain and the law effect seems positive for them”

in other words, casualties increased—

“closer scrutiny is called for.”

That seems to be a serious understatement.

Given that the evidence points to a seriously increased risk for non-motorists, it is not surprising that alarm has been expressed by representatives of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. Motorcycle organisations noted that despite new safety legislation passed by the House and despite a proven reduction in drinking and riding, casualties among motorcyclists did not fall.

The representative of the Pedestrians’ Association on the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety drew attention to the fact that the organisation had ignored some of Durbin and Harvey’s findings and the representatives of the Cyclists Touring Club and Friends of the Earth, who had originally favoured compulsion, also changed their minds when they saw the effects.

Mr. Sheerman

Does the hon. Gentleman admit that those three organisations did not change their stance to one of anti-compulsion but merely said that they would be neutral and that they are only three out of 48 members of PACTS?

Mr. Waller

The three representatives to whom I have referred are now decidely against compulsion, having previously supported it.

One major motoring organisation quotes as fact figures for casualty savings which the most ardent pro-compulsion lobbyists would not dare to claim as proven. Another claims that at least the net effect is probably positive. In effect, an increase in casualties among pedestrians and two-wheelers is regarded as acceptable if there is a sufficient reduction in driver and passenger casualties. I hope that Ministers disagree with that attitude, but if some of the evidence produced by the Department itself is to be accepted the conclusion that in endorsing the regulations we accept a transfer of the burden of risk from the best protected to the most vulnerable is inescapable. If one examines the department’s own evidence fairly it points, regrettably, in that direction.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, whom I, too, congratulate on her new appointment, said in defence of compulsion—and the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) made the ​ same point—that she had received a number of letters of thanks from motorists saved by seat belts. The graves of those who died because some drivers took greater risks bear no distinguishing signs and my hon Friend the Minister will not be receiving any letters from them. Nevertheless, if one takes the fatality statistics as the only ones with which one cannot argue, if one considers the effects of drink-drive legislation which were ignored by the statisticians, and if one considers the international evidence, and if one asks why more pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists have died than one would have expected, only one conclusion is possible—that we should not approve the regulations today.