The BBC’s Today Programme is running a competition called Christmas Repeal in which listeners are invited to nominate an existing law that should be repealed.
I nominate Britain’s seat belt law.
[Update 23 December. Despite my high hopes and much encouragement, my Immodest Proposal did not succeed. It did not pass through the Today Programme’s editorial filter. It did not make it on to the long list from which the programme’s “panel of experts” was asked to choose a short list of six to be put to the vote of the listeners. It would appear that the myth of the efficacy of seat belt legislation is so deeply entrenched that it is not considered a fit subject for discussion in sensible company.]
First, despite what many people believe, it hasn’t worked. There is no country in the world that has passed a seat belt law that can demonstrate that it has saved lives. The reason is “risk compensation”; people compensate for perceived changes in the risks they face. Trapeze artists with safety nets, rock climbers with ropes, cricketers with pads and helmets all take risks that they would not take without their safety equipment. Motorists with seat belts, the road accident statistics tell us, do likewise.
Second, it is unfair. In modifying their behaviour in response to their increased sense of security, belted motorists drive in a way that puts others at greater risk. The law redistributes the burden of risk from those already best protected, in cars, to those who are most vulnerable, on foot or bicycle. Following the introduction of the law in Britain, as in most other countries, the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists who were killed increased.
Third, it has set a dangerous, liberty-threatening precedent. In criminalizing self-risk it has established a principle that licenses the state to proscribe any thing or activity of which it might disapprove because it’s not good for you – from rock-climbing, to drinking and smoking, to eating too many cream buns.
It’s a bad law. It hasn’t worked. It’s unfair. It’s based on a dangerous principle. It should be repealed.
An article supporting this nomination (pdf) has been accepted for publication by Significance, a journal of the Royal Statistical Society – to be published in March 2007.
At the time most belt laws were passed the concept of risk compensation was either unknown or simply dismissed. The fashion at the time was to seek engineering solutions to road safety problems. The phenomenon is now widely accepted – except, by some, in the case of seat belt laws.
Below are links presenting evidence in support of the repeal of Britain’s seat belt law:
The Hidden Danger of Seat Belts, Time Magazine, 30 November 2006.
The Efficacy of Seat Belt Legislation (pdf) Society of Automotive Engineers, 1982.
The Failure of Seat Belt Legislation (pdf).
Still sceptical judges and listeners are invited to visit www.John-Adams.co.uk, or to Google “seat belts” + “John Adams” for numerous other contributions to the debate