§ 5.25 p.m.
§ The Earl of Caithness rose to move, That the continuation in force of the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) Regulations 1982 [S.I. 1982 No. 1203] be approved.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. The purpose of this debate is to enable the House to review the achievements of the legislation providing for the compulsory wearing of seat belts and to decide whether we wish the measure to remain in force on a permanent basis.
§ Your Lordships' House is entitled to take something of a proprietorial interest in the seat belt law, since of course the actual provision originated here in the form of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Nugent to the 1981 Transport Bill. My noble friend, who I am glad to see is in his place, has been widely and justifiably acclaimed for his tireless efforts and persuasive advocacy in promoting the case for compulsory seat belt wearing over a number of years. It was indeed a major personal triumph for him when the principle for compulsion was finally accepted here and in another place.
§ Acceptance of the principle was not, however, at that stage final. The view was taken, both in your Lordships' House and in another place, that there should be an opportunity to take one further look at the compulsion question in the light of experience over an initial period; an opportunity to examine whether the claims advanced on behalf of seat belt wearing had been borne out by reality—or, alternatively, whether the fears expressed by opponents had proved justified. Such was the object underlying the provision in the Transport Act that the seat belt regulations should lapse automatically after three years unless each House had by then resolved that they should remain in force but without a time limit. It is this issue which your Lordships' House is invited to consider this afternoon.
§ Crucial to our deliberations is a proper understanding of what has actually happened in the three years since compulsory seat belt wearing took effect. It was to help provide such an understanding, both inside Parliament and among others with an interest in the subject, that the Government carried out a full-scale monitoring exercise to assess the practical effects of the seat belt legislation. The results of that exercise are contained in a major report published by the Department of Transport last October and of course placed in the Library of the House. Noble Lords who have studied the report will be aware that it provides a full statistical analysis of seat belt wearing rates and the effect of set belt wearing on casualty trends. It also contains detailed studies of the relationship between seat belt wearing and the nature and severity of injuries sustained in road accidents.
§ Because the whole issue of seat belt compulsion and its effects has in the past been such an emotive one, we also wished to have all the statistical evidence carefully scrutinised by totally independent experts. Two eminent statisticians, Professors Durbin and Harvey of 46 the London School of Economics, undertook this task and their report was included as a separate, and a very substantial, annex to the department's own report. These two reports, together with a number of additional studies carried out inside and outside Government over the three-year trial period, have examined the effect of seat belt wearing from virtually every possible angle. However, I believe that the two primary issues to which your Lordships will wish to address yourselves today are these. First, have motorists been wearing their seat belts in compliance with the law? Secondly, has the law had a measurable effect on the casualty figure; and, if so, what has this effect been?
§ The answer to the first question is very straightforward indeed. Up to the end of 1982, when seat belt wearing was voluntary, the percentage of drivers and front seat passengers wearing seat belts never rose above 40 per cent. Immediately the law came into effect the wearing rate rose to around 95 per cent., and it has stayed there ever since. These figures speak for themselves. There was originally some concern that the legislation might prove difficult to enforce and strain relations between motorists and the police. In the event nothing could have been further from the truth. The public have accepted seat belt wearing without qualm and as a result the legislation has been almost entirely self-enforcing.
§ Turning to the second issue, can we say—against the background of such unanimous compliance with the law—that seat belt wearing has had a beneficial effect on road casualties, as supporters of the legislation consistently argued? I believe we can. Since seat belt wearing became law, there has been a substantial net reduction in road casulaties—on the most pessimistic assumptions, an annual saving of 200 deaths and 7,000 serious injuries. There has been a significant reduction in the demands which road accidents place on our medical services. Studies indicated that car occupant accident victims arriving at hospital for treatment have droppped by 15 per cent. and the admission of victims to hospital wards by 25 per cent. There has been a sharp decline in brain and lung injuries and facial wounds suffered by front seat car occupants.
§ There is a great deal more that I could say but once again I think the evidence to which I have referred largely speaks for itself. The massive increase in seat belt wearing that has occurred since the law came into force has had a substantial and distinctly favourable effect on casualty trends and on the severity of injuries sustained in accidents.
§ In examining casualty trends we looked closely at the suggestion that, notwithstanding the benefits for front seat car occupants, seat belt wearing has had an adverse effect on road users outside the scope of the legislation—car rear seat passengers, pedestrians, pedal cyclists and motorcylists. I know it is claimed in some quarters that seat belt wearing has encouraged motorists to drive more aggressively and with less care, thereby putting vulnerable road users, and indeed unrestrained rear seat passengers, at greater risk than before.
§ Those advancing this theory point to two particular aspects of the casualty trends over the period since seat belt wearing became law: first, the increase in 47 casualities among rear seat passengers; secondly, the increase in pedestrians and pedal cyclists killed and seriously injured by a car or light van—and that against the background of a decline in pedestrians and cyclists killed and seriously injured in other circumstances. Any increase in casualties must naturally be a matter for concern. But the key question we must address today is whether the increases to which I have referred can reasonably be linked in any way with the wearing of seat belts. The department has examined this possibility very carefully. So too have the independent assessors, in some considerable detail. In the event, no material evidence has emerged to sustantiate an association between seat belt wearing and such casualty increases as have taken place. The indications are that the increases are more likely to be the consequence of other factors, such as a change in the distribution of car passengers between front and rear seats, and the long-term trend in the pedestrian casualty rate.
§ The outcome of this assessment is entirely consistent with earlier studies, carried out in this country and abroad, which have looked at the theory that the wearing of a seat belt encourages more aggressive driving and greater risk-taking. Despite the attention given to the theory by the press and by groups directly concerned with vulnerable road users, the fact is that it remains unsupported by any substantive evidence.
§ I believe we are entitled to conclude, in the light of three years' experience, that the seat belt law has made a very real contribution to road safety in this country. What was already a strong possibility, on the evidence of research conducted round the world, has become a virtual certainty—the wearing of a seat belt reduces considerably the chances of being killed or seriously injured in the event of a road accident.
§ The Government's view is that, given the results we have seen over the last three years, it must be right to allow the seat belt law to continue indefinitely. I well recognise that some people, including some Members of your Lordships' House, still hold to the view that a measure of this kind constitutes an unreasonable infringement of individual liberty. The present Government naturally take this argument very seriously. However, in the light of all the evidence we now have—the minimum 200 deaths and 7,000 serious injuries prevented each year; the substantially reduced burden which road accidents now place on the health services; and indeed the fact that the law has been accepted so readily by the motoring public—we believe that to allow the measure to lapse at this stage would not, on balance, be a sensible decision. The small loss of personal freedom it involves is surely more than outweighed by the substantial benefits which the use of a seat belt is now quite clearly seen to confer.
§ Our firm recommendation is that the House should keep faith with the 95 per cent. of motorists for whom seat belt wearing is already a fact of everyday life. I commend the Motion to your Lordships. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the continuation in force of the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) Regulations 1982 [S.I. 1982 No. 1203] be approved.—(The Earl of Caithness.)48
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, it would be very simple for me to say that I agree with everything that the noble Earl has said in introducing this order and then sit down. Although it is quite true that I do agree with everything he said, I think that it behoves me, on behalf of the Opposition, to say a few words. It is good that we are discussing this matter so early in European Safety Year 1986. I am glad that noble Lords are discussing the matter on this occasion. Like the noble Earl, I should like to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, whose amendment it was to the Transport Bill, which we debated in 1981, which brought about this legislation. I am certain that we shall make the order a permanent feature of our road safety law this afternoon, and it will be a permanent tribute to the noble Lord's legislative ability in this particular matter.
I would remind noble Lords that the amendment was carried by a substantial majority in your Lordships' House; it was approved by 132 votes to 92. It was carried on a free vote both by the Opposition and the Government. I was privileged to have the opportunity to support the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, in his amendment. I can recall that the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, was very good in putting both sides of the case, although he personally came down in favour of the amendment, which brought about the compulsory wearing of seat belts.
The noble Earl has referred to the report of the Department of Transport on this matter, which was published only recently, in October 1985. I hope that as I have done, noble Lords have read it very carefully. As the noble Earl said, it is based on three surveys: the monitoring programme by the department, the analysis of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, and the work of these two independent assessors. As the noble Earl has done, I should like to pay tribute to the section of the report by the assessors which covers no fewer than 55 pages, excluding their detailed appendices. Not being a mathematician, I shall not claim that I understood the appendices, but I did understand the 55 pages of their report.
Like the noble Earl, I should like to pay tribute to the fact that motorists have accepted this law. Many noble Lords would not have expected a figure of 95 per cent. for the wearing of seat belts to be the position so long after the introduction of the new law. Apart from the department, the AA and the GLC have conducted their own independent surveys on seat belt wearing, and as recently as last November the AA came up with the same figure—I think that its figure was 94 per cent.—based on its analysis of monitoring.
As the noble Earl said, the important point is whether or not the compulsory wearing of seat belts has been successful. I know there will be some who say that, after certain compensatory factors and certain allowances, the saving of 200 lives is minimal compared with some of the claims that were made when we considered this law. However, that figure of 200 is an assessment after making all sorts of allowances. In addition, there is the figure of 7,000 serious injuries per annum that have been prevented. I was about to say that serious injuries are as important as deaths, but that would be a foolish statement to make. We must not overlook the fact that some of 49 these serious injuries could have been for life, and no fewer than 7,000 people have been saved from suffering serious injury each year. Any legislation which secures that sort of result must surely deserve renewal.
The noble Earl referred to the position in hospitals. I shall not weary the House by going through all the statistics again. However, I can recall noble Lords who are more conversant with the position in hospitals than I am graphically telling the House of the sad circumstances which they had encountered in hospitals when dealing with road accident cases. The figures cannot be denied. The TRRL digest states that both the belted status and the seating position were known for about 85 per cent. of the accident patients who came into the hospitals which were the subject of this study. That gives us a sound foundation for the facts which are brought out in the conclusions of this study.
Dr. William Rutherford has communicated with a number of noble Lords. He has written me a letter in which he gives additional figures to those quoted by the noble Earl. He mentions that severe eye injuries have been reduced by no less than 82 per cent. and many other injuries by as much as 50 per cent. These are figures that we cannot put on one side.
The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS) estimates—this is an important point which must be considered when we discuss the question of individual freedom—that the economic saving to the community as a result of the seat belt law has been no less than £130 million.
§ Lord Bruce-Gardyne
My Lords, will the noble Lord give way for a moment on this point? On the question of the overall saving to the health service, to what extent do we have to weigh on the other side the likely consequence that the more we go down the road of this type of legislation, and if it is successful in ensuring that people live to a longer age, the costs of that to the community are liable to be far greater?
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, I hope that any law that is passed will enable me to live beyond my present age of 71; and I shall not regard that as a dismal piece of legislation. Obviously the saving to the National Health Service is important to us, and the saving to the community is important to us, but they are not the main factors. The main factor is the saving of human suffering, and that is what this seat belt legislation has secured.
What are the arguments against continuation likely to be? There is the argument for freedom; that if I want to drive around, and I risk getting killed, that is my responsibility. But it is the responsibility of the National Health Service; it is the responsibility of the police service; it is the responsibility of everyone else who has to deal with road accidents, and that is something which again we cannot set on one side.
I read carefully, as did other noble Lords, the sections in the department's report and the assessors' report on the suggestion of increased casualties among rear seat passengers, pedestrians and cyclists, and what has been called the risk compensation theory which has arisen. No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, who was the president of RoSPA at the time he 50 introduced his amendment, will have something to say about RoSPA, but I should like to draw attention to one statement in the communication sent out by RoSPA.If this theory"—that is, the risk compensation theory—stood up to scrutiny RoSPA could not possibly support legislation which aids one group—car occupants—to the detriment of others".That is something which I at least would accept, along with other noble Lords.
RoSPA emphasises that this theory has failed to stand up to scrutiny by the Government's Transport and Road Research Laboratory, independent researchers, and the World Health Organisation. The independent assessors have said that they can see nothing whatever in this theory.
Dr. William Rutherford, who assisted in the study of the hospital patients coming in as a result of road accidents, referred to his attendance in November last at a working party of OECD countries held in Washington, where experts examined the effectiveness of seat belt legislation in some 30 legislative areas. He reports that in only one country was there no resulting improvement, and that on the other hand Australia, West Germany and the United Kingdom were accepted as the countries with the largest effect from seat belt wearing and the greatest reduction of casualties. Dr. Rutherford also states that the risk compensation theory was also considered, and that not one of the experts present believed that there was any evidence to support that theory.
The list of organisations which support the continuation of seat belt wearing and the purpose behind this order is extensive. It includes the Association of Chief Police Officers and both the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club. Perhaps I may draw attention to the conclusion of the AA. It says:The Automobile Association has no doubts that the overwhelming factual evidence of reductions in car driver and passenger fatalities and serious injury brought about by compulsory seat belt wearing justifies not only the renewal of the regulations but their permanent retention".That is the point of the order. Therefore, from this Dispatch Box I give full support to the order. I hope it will not be divided upon, but if it is I shall recommend all my noble friends and all noble Lords in this House to support the order.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, perhaps I may also begin by noting that the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, must at the end of today be a happy man, having started this process. I am sure that by the end of this evening he will see it completed. One should also congratulate the right honourable lady, Mrs. Chalker, on this her final act in the Ministry of Transport, as she has moved on to other things. It is probably fair to say that many of us regret her passing from the Ministry of Transport. With the exception of persons here present, she is one of the more enlightened members of that department. If this is something that she can have in her curriculum vitae for a long time to come, then she is to be congratulated for putting this forward.
51 Support for this principle has been given by your Lordships both in relation to the Nugent amendment and also when the temporary order was brought into effect less than three years ago. The principle has been accepted by your Lordships subject only to the possibility of evidence being brought forward to suggest that that principle was incorrect. Therefore it is surely only possible for your Lordships to change your minds if you believe that the balance of evidence is such that seat belts should not be made compulsory. Clearly, from what we have heard, already the balance of evidence is in favour of the retention of compulsory seat belts.
I understand the objections. I understand the objections of those who oppose this type of legislation as a matter of libertarian principle. But I must say that it seems to me that that sort of argument went out in the last century when Liberals agonised over whether or not there should be compulsory education. We managed to work our way through that one, and once we had overcome that hurdle compulsory seat belts are a much easier problem to get round. The question is whether the state has the right to safeguard people from their own follies. I think that when the state itself is having to pay part of the price then clearly it has that right and indeed that duty.
As has been said already, there is the increase in cyclists' accidents and in pedestrian accidents which has been alleged by some of the opponents of the order. That has already been dealt with in some detail by both the noble Lord the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill. Even if that argument were true, which I beg leave to doubt, we ought to deal with it in different ways. For instance, my noble friend Lord Tanlaw has many times from these Benches called upon the Government to improve cycle tracks and to make provision for cyclists to move about, particularly within our cities, in conditions of greater safety.
I think that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, as a former cyclist—although in his early days he might have objected to separate cycle tracks—has now come round to the view that they are essential, and that if people are going to travel on cycles they ought to do so in conditions which are far better than driving on the main roads of our cities. The pedestrian statistics may cause worry, and they may need to be investigated further, but at the end of the day if the problem is that motorists are driving too fast then one should tackle that problem and not put at risk those people who are sitting in the front seats of cars in order to save pedestrian lives.
There is the argument about people who are caught in motor cars which catch fire, and the difficulty of escaping from them. Here the Government might look at two possibilities. First, there is the question of standardisation of the release mechanism for seat belts. I know that this is not altogether easy, and I know that the Government may say that it is required now that there should be a button which is coloured red in a prominent position; but it is the ability to be able to feel for that button rather than to see it in a crisis that is important. If there were some way of standardising the position and the mechanism of the release button, that might assist to deal with this problem.
52 I think also that the standardisation of door handles would be a useful step forward. On a number of occasions, even when there has not been an emergency, I have had great difficulty in getting out of other people's motor cars when the door handle is hidden under an arm rest or is tucked away somewhere behind my left hip. I believe that those kinds of steps might overcome this difficulty.
May I ask the Government when they intend to proceed on the compulsory wearing of rear seat belts? There is what is coming to be known as the mother-in-law syndrome; that is to say, people being killed by their mother-in-law flying through from the back seat when the car stops. I say that rather flippantly, but it is not a matter for hilarity at all. On a number of occasions in accidents, unrestrained rear seat passengers have been thrown forward and have caused serious injury or death to the front seat passengers.
I cannot add anything further to what the noble Lord the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, have said, save that this order has warm support from these Benches. Like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I hope it will not go to a Division, but if it does I shall advise my colleagues to support the Government.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Hylton-Foster
My Lords, I start, like other speakers, by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, on pioneering this important piece of legislation. I support the Motion to approve the continuation of the wearing of seat belts.
I should be glad if the Minister could use his influence to encourage the standardisation of seat belts, not only in this country but overseas, so as to make them more adaptable and, as a result, more comfortable. When I raised this point on the introduction of this Bill some years ago I was told that to do so would be too expensive. Nevertheless, I still feel that there is a need not only to make it easier to put seat belts on, especially in the dark, but, even more important, to make it easier to release them in the event of an accident when the driver and the passenger are both trapped. Could not some sort of quick release be considered? If we are to have rear seat belts could we not from the start have standardisation?
Perhaps I should declare an interest as I was trapped by a seat belt in an aeroplane which crashed. I should not be here taking up a little of your Lordships' time if the aeroplane had burst into flames.
§ 5.52 p.m.
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
My Lords, I am happy to say a brief word on this order. I start by thanking noble Lords very much for their much too generous tributes to me for initiating the last campaign and the amendment. Here I should especially thank the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for the stalwart support which he gave me throughout, leading from the Front Bench opposite. The fact is that we were divided throughout the House and many of my fiercest opponents were my noble friends behind me. However, I am glad to say that most of those who were fighting me then have either moved on or are now happy to accept the position we have reached.
53 I warmly thank noble Lords and the noble Baroness for their generous tributes to me. After the lucid introduction by my noble friend Lord Caithness and his most convincing exposition of the case, it is not necessary for me to go into any detail. It struck me that when we took the decision four years ago we made it, as my noble friend said, in the light of theory and other people's experience. We had seen compulsory seat belts introduced in other countries and the great saving of life and limb which followed. But that did not convince many noble Lords here, and had not done for years. The "liberty of the subject" argument was immensely strong. After all, parliamentarians, especially those of us who have been in the other place, elected by the votes of the people, are very well aware that if we did not fight for the liberty of the subject we should not have a Parliament at all. My sympathies are very much with those who fight against compulsory orders, but in this case I felt we had a good argument which should be made a special case. Fortunately, after some very tense debates we carried the day, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, reminded us, by some 131 votes to 90. So the matter went back to the Commons and on the Floor of the House, where I was sure there would be a majority—despite the cunning arrangement, to which the two Whips between them agreed, to put it on the night before the Royal Wedding in the hope that the Members would not be there—the majority carried the day and it became law.
This time it is easy because we have had our own experience, as noble Lords have said, in the last three years. The most satisfactory aspect has been the raising of the level of wearing belts from 40 per cent. to 95 per cent. This is tremendous and clearly there were no enforcement problems. It is evident that our people have recognised this. When they were told it was the law they put on the belt and discovered that it is no trouble. When one gets into a car one fixes the belt quite instinctively and it is no trouble at all. People have recognised that it is a useful measure simply to protect themselves.
Now we know the immediate benefits that have occurred. As has already been said, some minimum of 200 lives per annum are saved, with this enormous figure mentioned, of 7,000 serious injuries. As the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has said, most of these injuries are to the head and face. They are terrible injuries. My noble friend on the Back Bench made the point that if we all live longer this will prove even more expensive to the National Health Service. Most of the serious injuries are injuries and handicaps for life, and many of them involve such serious brain damage that the individual has no life left and becomes an enormous permanent cost to the whole community.
I do not think there is much in that argument. We have had this wonderful result, and we also know that there is a saving of some 130 million a year on the hospital bill as a result of fewer injuries from accidents.
Kind tributes have been paid to me. In the 35 years that I have been in the Palace of Westminster, either here or down the corridor, I have taken part in many campaigns. I have never taken part in any campaign which has ended so successfully, which has given such tremendous immediate benefit to humanity. Who could ask for more? I am tremendously grateful to all 54 those who have helped me, noble Lords on all sides here, honourable Members in another place, people both inside and outside the House. It was a campaign which concluded in 1981, but it had been going on for years before. I wish to thank especially my friends RoSPA who have played such an important part. I should like to say that it has been a happy experience for me, and I feel that all those who have taken part have the right to be just as happy as I am.
There are two brief points with which I should like to conclude. One is on the Adams' theory. This has been very carefully examined by this admirable report. I thank my noble friend for this report which is really a magnificent one. I applaud the wisdom of calling in these two independent professors from the London School of Economics to make the report. It confirms the complete independence of the analysis of the material. This makes it perfectly clear that there really is no statistical basis for Dr. Adams' argument, although it is an interesting idea and obviously should be watched. But the point was very effectively made, I think by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that RoSPA made the statement that they certainly could not support any road safety measure which discriminated in favour of one section of the community rather than another. I hope that noble Lords who still do not feel all that happy with compulsory seat belts will recognise that this important idea has been very seriously looked at and found not to have statistical weight in it.
The other brief point that I should like to make is the same point as that made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hylton-Foster, and the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. That concerns the standardisation of seat belt fittings. The report tells us that considerable improvements in design have been made with seat belts in the last few years and continue to be made. This is most welcome news, but it is all the more important that this question of standardisation, both of location and operation of the fixing, should be watched so that it is absolutely certain. This is most important both for the safety of the driver and the passenger when they get in and, particularly in an emergency, when they want to get out. So I ask my noble friend whether he will have this particular point watched very carefully. I have great pleasure in giving this order my firm support.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I wonder whether, if 95 per cent. of people use their seat belts, I may ask what happens to the other 5 per cent? Have there been any charges made by the police?
§ Lord Nugent of Guildford
Yes, my Lords. There have been a few, as this admirable report tells us. I think that there were 8,000 in the first year. In the main, it is a very remarkable achievement to get a 95 per cent. enforcement rate. We can conceive of a good many other laws for which we would like to have similar success. It really is negligible in the total content.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, despite the habitually mollifying words of the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, he will not, I know, expect me to agree with 55 very much of what he has said. Considering that the other place was only able to debate this important measure shortly before midnight a week ago for less than an hour and a half, at a time when attendance was understandably extremely thin after a hard, exhausting day debating, first, the Westland affair and then the Public Order Bill, it is fortunate that this House can give the matter the attention it deserves. It is particularly important that we should do so given public concern over the decision. A recent opinion poll shows that 62 per cent. of the population oppose compulsion, with only 32 per cent. supporting it.
Interestingly, the same poll revealed that in the absence of compulsion, 56 per cent. of motorists would still wear their seat belts on a voluntary basis while only 37 per cent. would decline to do so—which demonstrates perhaps that what the British people object to is not so much seat belts themselves as being dicated to, in their private lives, by the gentlemen in Whitehall or, perhaps one should say, the nanny in Whitehall.
In the Sunday Telegraph of December 1st, the widely read and much respected columnist, Mary Kenny, wrote about what the Americans, it appears, have dubbed "health fascism"—not my phrase, nor Miss Kenny's, but a phrase used in America. She describes health fascism as the totalitarianism concept that the state, like some bossy nanny, should manipulate individual citizens' private behaviour. She was referring not to seat belt compulsion but to the virulent anti-smoking campaign being carried on on both sides of the Atlantic. But the principle is the same, the only difference being that smoking is not yet, luckily, a criminal offence; although, according to the Government's own figures produced by the DHSS and the Department of Transport respectively, 500 times as many people die annually from cigarette smoking as died from driving without seat belts.
I mention this only to point out the inconsistencies and illogicalities in this whole business. The noble Earl the Minister has told us of the reductions in casualties among car drivers and passengers since 31st January 1983. We acknowledge this, although of course the reductions are very much less than were originally forecast when this whole legislation was being debated. The original estimate was 1,000 lives a year being saved. That was later reduced to 800 and then to 700. What we have now is very much less than that. The noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, speaking for the Government on 30th July 1982, told the House (in col. 487) that the Government believe that the law will reduce the chances of death and injury by 50 per cent. when an accident occurs. This has not happened either; unless accidents themselves have risen by a substantial amount which, of course, is possible in view of the theory which I am going to come to later.
Although I intend to challenge the noble Earl's interpretation of the figures, let me say straight away that nobody in Parliament has ever denied, so far as I know, that if more drivers and passengers were to wear seat belts, then fewer of them would, on balance, be fatally or seriously injured in most types of collision, other things being equal. The distinguished Front-Benchers in both Houses who at various times have voted against compulsion were well aware of this, it 56 goes without saying. One thinks of Mr. Nigel Lawson, Sir Keith Joseph, Sir Patrick Mayhew, Mr. Francis Pym and Mr. Norman Tebbit as well as a former Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party and two former Leaders of the Parliamentary Liberal Party, if I may emphasise this to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff; and, of course, the former Labour Chief Whip who, unhappily, has just been de-selected in Bristol South, together with others now in your Lordships' House, such as the noble Viscount the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon. As highly intelligent men, they were all well aware that compulsion would undoubtedly save the lives of some motorists. Nevertheless, it is clear that they must have considered that the various practical and moral objections outweighed the probable benefits.
Unhappily, a vast philosophical gulf appears to separate the two sides on this issue. On the one hand, there are those who have adopted what one might (I think without impoliteness) term the Swedish attitude—an attitude which I concede is in the ascendant at the moment. People who take this view believe in all sincerity that those in positions of influence and authority have not only the right but the duty to do good to their fellow adults—against their will, if need be—and to utilise the criminal law to prevent their fellow adults from taking unnecessary risks with their health and safety; or, rather, some aspects of health and safety, because there are many anomalies and inconsistencies in their attitudes. One wonders what they feel now about the 1961 Suicide Act and the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
On the other hand, there are those who retain what I like to think of, perhaps optimistically, as the traditional British attitude, roughly echoing the philosphy of John Stuart Mill, although perhaps the attitude is more instinctive than cerebral, and who consider it insulting and unthinkable to use the criminal law to override their fellow adults' judgment on matters concerning their personal health and safety, however strongly we may feel about their drinking too much, smoking too many cigarettes, declining to have their children vaccinated against whooping cough (despite the urgent protestations of the medical profession), refusing to have the dangerously worn flex on their electrical implements replaced and indulging in dangerous sports in poor weather conditions without adequate preparation. Despite all this, it would not occur to us to interfere in their lives, however much one feels they are taking the wrong course of action. (This is not to say that one would rule out fiscal penalties if their behaviour imposed burdens on their fellow taxpayers.) The gap, therefore, as I said, is a very wide one.
However, there is a different moral aspect upon which I would hope that both sides might find common ground. I would hope that we all would agree on the absolute necessity of examining provisional legislation extremely carefully to see whether it has produced unfortunate and wholly unintended adverse side effects. To his credit, the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, never denied during our debates in 1981 that some people would die as a direct result of being compelled to wear seat belts, though he contended that the numbers would be extremely small. The noble 57 Baroness, Lady Birk, who I concede is paradoxically in favour of compulsion, had earlier told the House that her life was saved specifically because she was not wearing a seat belt, when the front of the car in which she was travelling was squashed completely flat and she had been thrown out safely onto the the grass verge. There are several similar cases on record.
In France recently it has been found that deaths from broken necks as a result of "whip lash" injuries have risen by 267 per cent. following the introduction of seat belt compulsion in that country. Nor must one forget the unfortunate persons trapped in their blazing or submerged cars by seat belts they could not release despite having been fully conscious, as confirmed by coroner's inquests and not merely by press reports. One thinks of the 25-year-old Norfolk woman whose car ran into a dyke in June 1983, and who drowned. There was a 22-year-old nurse and her 21-year-old friend who died through being trapped by their seat belts when their car ran into the River Wey near Weybridge in October 1984; the back seat pasengers managed to swim to safety. There was the I 9-year-old Wolverhampton man who died from burns in Chepstow in April 1984. his unreleasable belt having actually burned right through. His three passengers managed to escape. In what the press described as Britain's worst motorway accident on the 21st October last year, witnesses recalled seeing a man and a woman screaming as they tried to release their seat belts in a blazing car, without success. These people may not be very numerous in relation to the total but I think your Lordships would agree that their cases are poignant nevertheless.
So far we have been considering car and van drivers and their passengers, who after all account for less than 40 per cent. of those killed and less than 45 per cent. of those injured on our roads. What about motor cyclists, cyclists and pedestrians, who account for no less than 56.per cent. of deaths and over 48 per cent. of injuries? Some 6.3 per cent. more pedestrians and 18.4 per cent. more cyclists were killed or seriously injured by cars or vans in the period of two years since compulsion than in the two years preceding compulsion. Against this, 10.7 per cent. fewer pedestrians and only 0.5 per cent. more cyclists were killed or seriously injured by vehicles in which the wearing of seat belts was not compulsory.
Professor Durbin and Professor Harvey of the London School of Economics, who have been referred to by by the noble Earl and who were appointed by the Government as independent assessors, reported that since compulsion there has been an increase of 27 per cent. in rear seat passenger deaths, 14 per cent. in pedestrian deaths and no less than 40 per cent. in pedal cyclists' deaths over what prevailing trends would have suggested. The two professors suggested that although no link could be at present proven, there was none the less the possibility of some change in driving behaviour by the drivers of some cars and light goods vehicles after the introduction of the seat belt law.
On a different occasion Professor Harvey ascribed the rise in pedestrian deaths as "worrying and inexplicable". Some of us did not find it in any way inexplicable. May I briefly quote to your Lordships something which I wrote in the Motor? I forecast that if seat belt wearing became compulsory the main 58 sufferers would be motor cyclists, cyclists and, above all, pedestrians. That appeared in the Motor published on 2nd November 1977. I wrote something published elsewhere in a similar vein about 18 months previously: in other words, about 10 years ago.
An internal Department of Transport report of April 1981 took much the same view. This report was quite disgracefully suppressed, and I should like to hear the reason for that from the noble Earl, because I have no doubt it would have been an embarrassing bombshell had it appeared at the time the original seat belt legislation was going through. But it was deliberately suppressed, although, happily, some years later it was leaked to the New Scientist. No action was taken against the civil servant responsible, no doubt because the government do not wish the report to obtain widespread currency.
This internal report forecast that following compulsion deaths among other road users could climb by about 150 per annum and that injuries to pedestrians and other road users might rise by between 11 and 13 per cent. Actually this secret forecast seems to have been remarkably accurate, bearing in mind that unfortunately there has been no monitoring of motor cycle deaths caused by belted motorists.
In the 24 months following compulsion deaths among car and van drivers and front seat passengers fell by 723, compared with the preceding 24 months. Against this, deaths among rear seat passengers, pedestrians and cyclists killed by belted drivers rose by fully 275—a ratio of just over three to eight: in other words, for every eight drivers whose lives have been saved just over three rear seat passengers, pedestrians and pedal cyclists have lost their lives. This takes no account of motor cyclists killed by drivers wearing belts.
But worse is to come. For some inexplicable reason the Department of Transport ascribes the entire saving of driver and front seat passenger lives since February 1983 to seat belt compulsion. No credit whatsoever is given to the much stricter enforcement of existing drink and driving laws—prosecutions were up by almost 31 per cent. in 1983—nor to the introduction of the evidential breath test during the same year. Reduction in drunken drivers' deaths was 34.8 per cent. between 1982 and 1984, whereas deaths among sober drivers fell by only 5.5 per cent. I apologise for telling your Lordships on the 12th December last that the fall was slightly smaller, at 4.4 per cent.; but in view of the fact that this excellent publication of the noble Earl's department contains at least three mathematical errors, I hope that I may be forgiven.
Incidentally, in 1983 in the report entitled Road Accidents in Great Britain 1983, it was suggested by the department that the new measures on drinking and driving could also have had a beneficial effect. It is curious that, for some reason, this was not repeated in their 1984 report. If therefore only half the saving of motorists' deaths is attributable to less drink and driving rather than to the seat belt law, we have a situation where the cons almost outweight the pros, even if one assumes (as I certainly cannot) that there is no immorality in deciding the matter by a simple counting of heads. Incidentally, The Lancet—hardly a journal your Lordships would expect to be biased 59 against compulsion—agrees to some extent with Dr. John Adams, in its issued dated 11th February this year, on the need to take full account of legislation on drinking and driving. Hence, by implication, it disagrees with the Department of Transport in its interpretation of the statistics. The Lancet goes on to say that there will be regret that the evidence on deaths is not more one-sided and there will be disappointment that the measure has fallen short of its promise. I feel this is a straw in the wind.
Why have more pedestrians and cyclists been killed since compulsion? One must look both to physical and psychological causes and to combinations of the two. As an illustration of the latter, let me highlight a speech given in March 1983 to an RAC conference on road safety by an eminent psychologist, in which he revealed that 28 per cent. of drivers doze off on journeys of three hours or more, and that 35 per cent. of fatal accidents involved a driver falling partially or wholly asleep. I do not suppose that these figures appear in official statistics, simply because people are highly reluctant to admit to police that they may have fallen asleep, for fear of losing their licence—understandably so. I fear that seat belts may accentuate this tendency, either by inducing complacency or by restricting deep breathing or the blood circulation, however slightly. A difference of only 2 or 3 per cent. could have a positive adverse effect.
Purely physical causes include cases where a driver is prevented from leaning forward at intersections or T-junctions, to see whether a cyclist or a motorcyclist is coming, and is stopped from doing so by the locking of the inertia reel. Your Lordships will know how this occurs quite frequently, when one is least expecting it. There are also difficulties that many people have with reversing. In theory, one is permitted to remove one's seat belt while engaged in a reversing manoeuvre. But in practice, as a great many people tell me, they cannot be bothered to do it, with the result that instead of turning round 180 degrees to see where they are going, they turn round between 45 and 90 degrees only, sometimes with dangerous results.
Purely psychological causes include the risk/compensation theory of Dr. Adams, which has been so widely misinterpreted. It is not a question—or only very rarely—of a belted motorist consciously putting his foot down and driving 10 or 20 mph faster. That does not happen very often. It is much more a question of him "dropping his guard", so to speak, at quite normal driving speeds, the feeling of extra security sub-consciously contributing to inattentiveness.
The same phenomenon can he observed in many other spheres of human activity, especially sporting ones. Just look, my Lords, at the way American footballers go into each other at full tilt in a way which rugby footballers, devoid of all the protective padding, would never dare do. One item of information that reinforces this theory is the report by the General Accident Fire and Life Assurance Corporation, that motorists' accidental damage claims have risen by 20 per cent. since compulsion.
It is significant that a number of those who are either in the neutral camp or in the pro-compulsion camp now admit that the risk/compensation theory cannot 60 necessarily be written off. The Lancet has already been mentioned. Professor Durbin and Professor Harvey seem to have indicated qualified acceptance. Scott and Willis, in a Transport and Road Research Laboratory Report produced in 1985, admit that while their results do not support risk/compensation, neither do they permit the suggestion to be entirely refuted.
Where does this leave us? What most certainly cannot be accepted, in my view, is the Department of Transport's contention in paragraph 3.24 of their report on Road Accidents Great Britain 1983, that,even if drivers are driving more dangerously as a result of seat belt wearing, it is already clear that casualty savings among car and van occupants far outweigh any increases in casualties among other road users".This may well be so, but it is a very immoral argument. Those who choose to drive without seat belts are taking a statistically small, but fully conscious, risk with their own safety. If by some mischance they die in consequence, it is tantamount to suicide.
The same cannot be said of those trapped unwillingly by their belts in a blazing or submerged car, nor of the much greater number of pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists who are now at greater risk of death or injury. If the non-seat belt wearer's death is the equivalent of suicide, the deaths of pedestrians, cyclists and others is the equivalent of manslaughter. There is no other comparison that one can make.
You cannot resolve this matter by simple head counting. You cannot, in all conscience, maintain—and I am sure that the right reverend Prelate would agree with me on this—that 150 extra cases of manslaughter per annum is a price worth paying, if 200, 250 or even 500 cases of suicide are thereby avoided. For this reason, I hope that noble Lords will oppose this Motion in the Division Lobby.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Lord Porritt
My Lords, I am fully aware that, in all courtesy, I should make some definite reply to my noble friend Lord Monson, particularly after that very detailed, very well thought out and delightful speech that he has just made. But if your Lordships look at the list of speakers, you will realise that I am in a very invidious position. I am, as it were, like a simple nut between the two very strong jaws of a rather potent nutcracker, because after I have said my few words I am to be followed by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye, who holds very similar views to those of the noble Lord, Lord Monson.
I do not intend to try to deal in any detail with the statements that we have just heard, although I should be most interested to hear the sources of some of the statistics, because there are some that I at any rate have not seen. However, I think I can in all fairness say to both of them—one who has spoken and one who has not spoken—that there seems to be some indication that, as is so often the case, that wonderful healer, the healer of time, will solve the difficulties between us without much more trouble.
Those difficulties, as we have heard very amply in the last few minutes, really rest on the facts of compulsion and the consequent lack of individual freedom. Mention has been made several times already of the extraordinary and very pleasing fact that 61 one of the results of this three-year experiment has been the extraordinary acceptance of the law. The figure rose from 40 per cent. to 90 or 95 per cent. and it has not changed since. This is a quite remarkable fact. If you accept this fact, which has happened in three years—and it seems that the very definite high level has been maintained—then, if we give it another two or three years so that it has become an automatic reflex, that will remove the necessity for any compulsion and we shall therefore be quite happy.
I just want to say a very few words in support of the noble Lord the Minister, as president of the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention. This body has been mentioned before in these debates and, as your Lordships will probably remember, it was one of the first protagonists of compulsory seat belt wearing. Also, after our last debate four years ago, it was made responsible for the guidelines on exemptions from the regulations. I note in passing that those exemptions have been relatively very few in number and most of them have been for relatively short periods of time. So it does not seem that from that angle we have got into any trouble. The commission has therefore in the last three years watched very interestedly and very carefully what has been happening. As we have heard already—and I do not intend to go into all these points again—it has been a very satisfactory and steady progress and, although the Question was perhaps rather rushed in the other place a week or two ago, it was almost unopposed.
I have been interested—as I expect has every other noble Lord in the House—in the mass of statements from various bodies, practically all of which support the Motion and want to go on with seat belt wearing. One can understand that a lot of these bodies would feel in that way—the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the British Medical Association and the Automobile Association. Obviously they are going to support it. But I have noticed—and your Lordships have probably done the same—one or two other papers which intrigued me quite a lot.
One body, which has been mentioned tonight by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is the Casualty Surgeons Association. They are the people who arc in the firing line and who really know what is happening. If they support the Motion—and they support it very strongly—it would be very wrong for us to consider doing anything else. Another body which I want to mention is an expression of my ignorance, because I did not know very much about the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety, of which my noble friend Lord Nugent is at present chairman. If that body considers that this is all very much on the positive side it is surely a great support to us. Its simple summary of the position was that this has been a highly successful experiment.
It is quite obvious from what little we have heard already that we are getting from the stage of statistics to the stage of facts. Most of us here know what statistics can do if we want them to. Nearly all the bodies which have considered the problem and have investigated it and experimented with it have come to an extraordinary consensus of opinion. It is quite amazing that the figures one gets are almost the same, whoever produces them. I refer to the 200 to 250 lives 62 that are saved each year and to the 7,000 or so serious injuries that are prevented. All the bodies say very much the same thing, which is quite interesting.
Those significant figures do not tell us what enormous benefit accrues on the human side in terms of preventing human suffering, family upset and children being left alone. Those factors do not come into the figures at all but they are by far the most important part of the balance sheet. It is right that we should consider the effect on the National Health Service. The Casualty Surgeons Association mentions that there have been anything up to 25 per cent. fewer admissions since seat belts came in. That is an enormous number and represents a great saving in the time of medical and surgical personnel. One cannot neglect the figure, however much one may query it, of £130 million. Whether it is right or wrong or less or more, it is still a significant figure. One way or another, everything seems to point to the fact that this has been a good experiment.
We have heard a good deal this evening about risk compensation. I find that an extraordinarily odd term. I should be awfully interested to know how many Members of this noble House have felt so much happier and so much safer that they could drive much more joyously and buzz along and knock everybody over. I have never had anything like that feeling. I have never felt it. It is an amazing thought. I think the idea has been pretty well disproved. Everybody has had a go at it, with the net result that it has practically nil support even among independent bodies. The WHO has had a go at it and simply cannot find a connection. I do not think we should bother about risk compensation, and I hope that no noble Lord gets it.
So much has been said already that I do not want to take up any more of your Lordships' time. One more thought crosses my mind with regard to risk compensation. For more than two years the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention has been working closely with the Transport and Road Research Laboratory on a study of perception in driving, a very difficult subject on which it has not yet produced a report but has produced quite a number of interesting facts. This is getting quite near the idea of risk compensation. To date, it has found no connection between the wearing of seat belts and the degree of perception in different drivers in different circumstances.
I want to make just one more point to try to be courteous to my noble friend Lord Monson. My noble friend has mentioned, as he always does, blazing cars and submerged cars. Those are tragedies but they are relatively rare. Most of them are automatically fatal whether or not seat belts are worn, but I should like to put the thought in his mind that if they are not fatal and the driver is belted he will probably still be alive. Therefore he might just be able to do something for himself or be able to help somebody who is trying to do something for him. That is just a thought by the way.
I should like to say personally and on behalf of the Medical Commission on Accident Prevention that I am thoroughly in favour of this Motion, and I only wish that the Motion had somewhere in it the word "permanently". This is only a continuation and not at 63 the moment a continuation in permanence, as noble Lords can see from their papers. I wish to support the Motion very actively.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ Lord Balfour of Inchrye
My Lords, the way the debate has gone so far gives me little comfort for the point of view I wish to put forward. The only support I have is from the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and from the Bench in front of me if noble Lords will permit me to lean upon it.
I do not take issue very much with the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, except on the question of compulsion. I believe in seat belts intensely. I admit that they have saved many lives and prevented much injury and suffering—I admit all that—but, when it comes to belts and medical points, there is another side to balance the benefits about which the noble Lords, Lord Porritt and Lord Nugent, have spoken. Not many but some deaths by fire and by drowning do occur. It is no good anybody arguing about that because it is said in many government publications. The seat belt can be a killer under certain circumstances. I ask the question: is it morally justified for the state to compel by law certain citizens to suffer accidental death through obeying the law? Noble Lords will reply, "Think of the great benefit and think of the saving of life". I submit there is a clear difference here. In one case the belt is a preventive against further damage, against death; whereas in the other case a life is lost as a result of obedience to the law.
It is also said that seat belts have saved so many lives that one must accept that some must die so that others may live. That is a terrible doctrine and I have never heard it put forward by any Minister. On the other hand, I have not heard much sympathy extended to those who have suffered and died only because they obeyed the law. To me, state-directed death, whether it is one death or 50, is terrible. We should all regret having a law which, if obeyed, brings death to a certain number of people. I say, not many, but to me one death is enough.
I believe that the question of state responsibility has not been touched on in this debate. It was certainly not touched upon in the debate in the other place. I do not think we should avoid it. Are those responsible for the law satisfied that a stain is not left on those who have ordered compulsion? I believe that the decision should not rest with the state but with the citizen, who should make his decision himself.
We have come a long way in five years and we are now a belt-wearing nation. I do not believe that there would be any great increase in the number of casualties if we now removed the compulsion and admitted the freedom that we have denied to the citizen. The decision should be with the citizen. If I am on the losing side tonight should there be a Division, and I quite expect to be, then I shall comfort myself with the thought that in every Parliament we all become accustomed to defeat. There is not one noble Lord or noble Baroness here who is not accustomed to defeat.
This is my final appeal. These are my last wishes, and they are the last words that I intend to speak in this House. For me, in the vernacular, there ain't going to 64 be any more at all. At 88 years of age, having spent 57 consecutive years in Parliament, and being jolly deaf, it is time I kept my trap shut, which I now intend to do.
§ Lord Somers
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, would he not admit that the moment one starts driving a car the world is full of compulsion? One is forced to drive on the left; one is not allowed to stop in certain places; one is not allowed to park in other places; one is not allowed to cross a double white line. There are all sorts of compulsions. If compulsion adds to safety on the road, then surely it is no bad thing.
§ 6.42 p.m.
§ Lord Smith
My Lords, as a doctor and as a surgeon I am very anxious to support the Minister. I am very conscious that your Lordships will have been subjected on numerous occasions to all the arguments in favour of seat belts and all the arguments against them. I do not propose to repeat any of the old arguments. It is a very dangerous thing to put forward a new argument on an old topic, but I believe that the public have ignored one of the most important of the reasons for wearing seat belts. I doubt whether this medical reason has ever properly been described in this House. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will forgive me while I tell briefly a true story by way of illustration—and I can vouch for its truth in every particular.
In the late 1970s a collision occurred at Hyde Park Corner. A 30 year-old lady confused by the density of traffic drove her car into the side of a bus and sustained very serious injuries—the classic injuries in such cases before the seat belt legislation was passed. The car was not badly damaged, but she was thrown on to the steering wheel and suffered an appalling injury to her liver, which bled catastrophically.
In retrospect, there were three very fortunate elements in her favour. The first was that her injuries were sustained smack in front of a hospital. St. George's Hospital was still there but under notice to close from the DHSS despite all the arguments of the medical staff. The second element in the lady's favour was that the emergency consultant surgeon on duty at the hospital that day was a specialist in surgery of the liver. The third element in her favour was a little more difficult to explain. To survive, the lady in question needed successful surgery and, most of all, she needed blood transfusion on a massive scale. However, examination of her blood type showed that she belonged to a very rare blood group. One is talking about the transfusion of 30, 40, 50 or 60 pints of blood to keep that particular lady alive before and during her operation.
The blood transfusion service cannot provide blood of a very rare group in such quantities straight away. The third element in the lady's favour was, by coincidence, at work. A young girl of 20 was already in the same hospital awaiting a very serious heart operation the next morning. In preparation for that major surgery the blood fridge was full of blood that had been provided for that girl. Lo and behold!, those two patients were of the same very rare blood group.
Doctors and surgeons are interested in one thing only; that is, the recovery of the patient. Although the fridge was full of blood prepared for a different patient 65 the next day, we could not let the lady with the liver injuries die. I spoke to the cardiac surgeon on the phone and the injured motorist immediately received a transfusion of more than 50 pints of blood. She underwent successful surgery and made a good recovery. However, the next morning the girl with the cardiac complaint was still in St. George's. The cardiac consultant was there but there was no blood. The young girl's operation had to be postponed. In the interval she developed one of the complications of her complaint and was not fully fit for the operation before six weeks had passed. Fortunately, there is a happy end to this story. The young girl underwent a successful cardiac operation eventually, and she is well.
Think what is implied in that true story. The young girl admitted for a cardiac operation, as an innocent party, had her life seriously threatened by another lady who should have worn, but did not wear, her seat belt. Every patient who is admitted to hospital with a preventable injury uses up hospital resources, sometimes, very scarce resources, even including blood that can make the difference between life or death in a quite separate patient.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hylton-Foster, have touched on the importance of standardising the release mechanisms of seat belts. I pressed the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, to do this at the time when the 1981 Transport Act was being considered in this House, and I was told that it was not desirable because it would impede improvements in design. The release mechanism of aircraft seat belts is not continually being changed, nor is it different on different makes or models of commercial aircraft—at least not on those in which I have travelled. It always seems to be the same and it has been the same for very many years, so everyone knows how to release the seat belt and can do so quickly in an emergency. I do not think that it should be beyond the ability of the manufacturers of car seat belts to emulate the manufacturers of aircraft seat belts and as soon as possible produce some good, reliable design and then keep it, so that if you travel in someone else's car or if you hire a car you know exactly what you are in for.
Only last week I was given a lift to a dinner by a noble Lord and when we reached our destination I tried for what seemed like ages to undo my seat belt. I could not do it and he had to come to my rescue. I could not help wondering what would have happened had we been in an accident and the car had caught fire. I still say that this sort of thing is not good enough and, if aircraft manufacturers can do it, then car seat belt manufacturers can do it; and, if they do not, then they should be made to do it, just as people are being made to wear their seat belts.
I must say that I was not quite clear at the beginning of this debate whether we were debating carrying on the regulations for another three years or making them permanent. I understood—I hope I am right—that we are extending them for another three years.
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lady, and say, no, it is on a permanent basis. I tried to make this clear in my opening remarks, and I apologise if I did not do so.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl. I must say, however, that, much as I should like to give a permanent memorial to the noble Lord, Lord Nugent—nothing could possibly give me greater pleasure—I am sorry that this is to be permanent this time, for the reason that it seems to me it will be very difficult to alter details in the regulations which changing circumstances or experience may make advisable. I have in mind particularly the exemptions in Regulation No. 5, which is perhaps the most difficult and controversial regulation. I wonder whether the Minister could tell us what the procedure would be if it should become necessary or desirable to alter any of the regulations? If it is rather difficult and complicated, as I suspect it is, I think it is a pity if we do not carry on these regulations for another three years and scrutinise them very carefully during that period with a view to making them permanent at the end of the three years.
Finally, I wonder whether the noble Earl can give the House an assurance that making this order permanent is not just the prelude to making compulsory the wearing of seat belts in the rear seats, because there are very considerable arguments against doing that. I do not propose to go into them now but I should certainly have to oppose it very strongly were that to be the case. I shall be very interested to hear what the noble Earl has to say in answer to my points, but I shall support the Motion.
§ 6.54 p.m.
My Lords, at this late stage of this debate, I shall try to be very short, two minutes or less if necessary. My main point is that a great deal has happened during the three or four years since we had our previous debate in this House. I think great credit is due here to the British public for understanding and accepting the new rules. They have done a lot, enforcing their own discipline. There could have been friction between heavy vehicles, private transport and police. There could have been considerable bandying of words, but there has been very little. If a police constable is on his feet and the cab of a heavy vehicle is right above him, it is impossible for him to see and check whether there is a seat belt in use or not.
There are prosecution statistics which we have been given in the AA memorandum and in the departmental programmes, but I shall not pursue them at this stage. Nevertheless, the figures that we have been given are not exactly the same.
My second point, which is really the second part of the first one, is the question of consistency in different police force areas. Cautions, oral or written, are given in some areas—I think we have been told differently in the big pamphlet with the yellow cover. On the other hand I have been told by a senior officer in another force that where there is a clear case then they follow up automatically with a charge.
We may need a little more discretion even at the end of the three or four years which we have been working, I think that we need a certain amount of guidance, and I hope that this will come from the two Government departments which are most interested in this subject, because we do not wish to give any cause for friction to enter and spoil the good situation which we have seen develop here.
§ 6.56 p.m.
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, we have had a very interesting and useful discussion on seat belts, and I would only comment to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that though the press seemed to think that it was a foregone conclusion when last week the House of Commons decided the issue on a vote with a very large majority, I have never ceased to remind people that there is a second Chamber which does give these matters detailed and long consideration.
I am grateful for the welcome that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, gave from the Opposition Front Bench. Like him, I should like to see an increase in the use of seat belts above the figure that we have, as this is European Road Safety Year, and I was in the Hague when the Year was officially opened at the informal Council of Ministers. During his speech the noble Lord got into the discussion about the restriction of individual freedom and liberty. It was a point which was also taken up by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford and Lord Balfour of Inchrye, and also by the noble Lord, Lord Porritt. We have to strike a balance between what is desirable to reduce road casualties and the amount of increased interference that the public will accept. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, supports the Government on this issue. The fact that the number of people wearing seat belts has been so consistently high, at around 95 per cent., seems to suggest that the majority of people have accepted the need for compulsion. I would hope we could all agree that reductions in casualties following compulsion are worth the small loss of freedom that is involved.
The noble Lord also referred to the immense saving in human suffering, which is unquantifiable, as did the noble Lord, Lord Porritt, and I should like to support both of them in what they said about that matter. I think this is a factor which is very often underrated.
The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, congratulated my honourable friend Mrs. Chalker, and I, too, should like to pay tribute to her. She spent some five years in the department and really did care for road safety. The noble Lord was concerned about drivers and front seat passengers not being thrown clear if a vehicle should catch fire or become submerged in water and they were wearing a seat belt. The department's report on the monitoring looked at the suggestion that wearing seat belts could increase the risk of being trapped inside a vehicle which catches fire or becomes submerged in water, but there is no evidence of any increase in deaths due to drowning or burning following the introduction of the compulsory wearing of seat belts. Indeed, by wearing a seat belt an occupant is more likely to be conscious after an accident and therefore in a position to unfasten the belt and get out of the vehicle, which was a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Porritt. I hope that explanation goes some way to answering the queries that my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye and the noble Lord, Lord Monson, had on that point.
A number of noble Lords raised the question of the standardisation of seat belts and fittings. There is already a high degree of standardisation among seat belts and seat belt release mechanisms. All belts and their fittings already have to meet an approved British standard, as well as meeting an approved European 68 standard. I can think of nobody nicer with whom to be trapped in a car than the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, should she not be able to release her seat belt in a hurry!
All the release buttons must be coloured red and be capable of easy release. I appreciate that that means that the release mechanisms are not completely identical. However, I support my noble friend Lord Bellwin in what he said. If too great a uniformity results due to the imposition of standardisation, that could well lead to restriction of innovation in the future. My noble friend Lord Nugent also commented upon standardisation. He said that the reports show that there has been a great improvement. That is due to the fact that there has been competition and continual research into seat belts by a number of firms. I wonder whether such improvements would have been made had we had standardisation. Notwithstanding what I have said, I shall look into the matter because of the concern of so many noble Lords.
That leads me to the compulsory wearing of rear seat belts—a point which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, and the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun. The Government have no plans at present to make the compulsory wearing of seat belts in the rear seats of cars a legal requirement. Nonetheless, the introduction of compulsory fitting should encourage people to wear rear seat belts on a more voluntary basis.
I see that my noble friend Lady Faithfull has left us. I was going to tell her about the 5 per cent. who do not wear seat belts, but I shall not as I have a number of more important answers to give, particularly to my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford. I can inform him that in 1983 there were 6,826 prosecutions for failing to wear a seat belt. I think that he said 7,000. He is, as usual, accurate in his figures. The points that I have made on the standardisation of seat belts and rear seat belts I hope answer the questions that the noble Baroness, Lady Hylton-Foster, raised.
The Adams theory, which my noble friend Lord Nugent raised, and which was also dealt with at some length by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, has been rigorously examined by the department's experts and by the independent statistical assessors, Professors Durbin and Harvey. The studies have produced not a single piece of hard evidence that would substantiate the notion that wearing seat belts has encouraged more reckless driver behaviour. In so far as there have been increases in casualties among certain categories, there are no grounds for associating those with changes in driver behaviour. The explanation is much more likely to be found in other factors, such as changes in distribution of car passengers between front and rear seats and long-term changes in the pedestrian casualty rates.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that what those eminent professors say is that they cannot lend their support to the theory but nor can they rule it our entirely? There is a possibility that it may be correct.
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, I would not disagree with the noble Lord. I was just saying that it is not proven. The studies undertaken are consistent 69 with research conducted throughout the world. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, gave the example of the OECD seminar in Washington. We must not read too much into the risk compensation theory, although as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, says we must not discount it because there might be something in it, but nothing has been proven yet.
The noble Lord also referred to injuries caused by seat belts, and strangulation. We accept that a few types of injury, such as injury to the sternum and sprained necks, have increased due to seat belts, but overall the numbers of injuries have declined following compulsion.
I move on to the figures, which the noble Lord seemed to criticise as not being the same as those that we projected in 1981. Of course they would not be, because we were only making projections then. But the figures that I gave of the saving of 200 deaths per year, 7,000 serious injuries and, I add, 13,000 slight injuries, are the very minimum, taking all the factors, including drinking, into account. If the noble Lord re-reads the reports with the diligence with which he appears to have read them, he will notice that Professors Harvey and Durbin say that the saving in deaths could be anything between 200 and 500. We have taken the minimum figure.
The noble Lord referred to a report that he claims was suppressed by my department. The report was not suppressed: it was not published because it was based on evidence of some European countries that was out of date because we were undertaking our own studies at the time. Now that we have the results of those studies and the independent studies, speculation on what the effects might be is no longer relevant. We must look at the hard facts, and the hard facts show the advantages of wearing seat belts.
The noble Lord also referred to a fall in the number of casualties in 1983 being due to the drink and drive campaign and evidential breath-testing machines rather than to seat belt wearing. But I must point out to him that the reduction became apparent in February 1983, whereas the evidential breath-testing machines were not introduced till May, so the reduction had already taken place. I do not think that his argument is as strong as he would like to believe.
The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, wondered whether we were extending the regulations for a further three-year period or permanently. When I interrupted her I explained that it was on a permanent basis because it is not possible under the 1981 Act to extend them for a further three years. I apologise to the House if I did not make that clear. I shall check in Hansard, but I felt that I had used the word "indefinitely", certainly at one stage. That also deals with the point that the noble Lord, Lord Porritt, asked about. Although the word "permanent" is not on the Order Paper, the regulations will now be on a permanent basis unless changed by Parliament at any stage in the future.
I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Smith, for his speech, as a doctor with great experience. He showed the necessity in one case of a seat belt and how much damage and suffering could have been saved.
I turn finally to my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye. He said on 30th July 1982 when we were debating these regulations that he remembered Noel 70 Coward's Bitter-Sweet and in particular a lovely song by Peggy Wood, "I'll see you again". If he means that he is not coming to grace your Lordships' House with his detailed knowledge, particularly as there is a Salmon Bill before us and I know that that is one of his interests, we shall miss him very sincerely. Fifty-seven continuous years in Parliament is tremendous, and he has given an awful lot of his life to his country. Even if he does not speak, I hope that nonetheless we shall see him.
The time has come to make up our minds. I was a waverer some years ago; I did not vote because I was not sure. There is no doubt in my mind now. The statistics in front of us have proved the necessity of wearing a seat belt. Under the 1981 Act, as I said in my opening speech, we are faced either with dropping the matter completely or making the regulations compulsory until changed by Parliament. I am sure that we ought to adopt the latter course. I commend to your Lordships the Motion in my name.
§ Lord Taylor of Blackburn
My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, can he say whether, when experiments and innovations have occurred, if it is necessary to standardise the release mechanism at a later stage it will be possible to introduce legislation at that time?
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, that could be covered, I believe, by a construction and use regulation, which would be simpler than bringing it to the House.
§ Lord Balfour of Inchrye
My Lords, with thanks to the Minister for what he has said about me, can I ask just one question deserving, I believe, a definite answer? In the case of someone who obeys the law, goes out in his car and is killed through no fault of his own because he cannot get out of the vehicle—he may be burned or he may be drowned—who is responsible for the order that made him put on his belt? Is it necessary and wise that this should always be so?
The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, it is a matter for Parliament to decide these regulations in front of us. As the noble Lord, Lord Somers, I believe, said, there are a number of things that we have to face in everyday existence that are controlled by Parliament. The wearing of seat belts could be another of those if we agree the Motion in my name, which I hope the House will support.
§ The Deputy Speaker (Lord Aberdare)
My Lords, the Question is, That this Motion be agreed to? As many as are of that opinion will say, "Content".
§ The Deputy Speaker
Clear the Bar.
My Lords, tellers for the Not-Contents have not been appointed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 51. A Division therefore cannot take place, and I declare that the "Contents" have it.
§ Motion agreed to accordingly.