Britain’s seat belt law should be repealed

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running a competition called Christmas Repeal in which listeners are invited to nominate an existing law that should be repealed.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 It should be repealed.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

No comment yet

8 pings

  1. Duke Maskell says:

    What about drink-driving, then, eh?

  2. johnadams says:

    Laws against drinking and driving criminalize behaviour that puts others at risk.

  3. Roger Viggers says:

    It’s good to learn that my long held gut instinct is supported by competent research.

    Thanks for publishing.

    I fear that efforts to have the law repealed will be long and frustrating since most people, including our legislators, are incapable of thinking about anything or anyone except themselves. Thus their decisions and responses will be based on a knee-jerk “I’m all right” attitude.

    I recall a comment by one of the newspaper’s motoring journalists when driving a pre-war car (obviously no seat belts) in which she said that she felt unsafe.

    That, to me, is how every driver should feel, all the time.

  4. johnadams says:

    Further reply to Maskell (20 December 2006)on the subject of drinking and driving. I last visited this subject in “Risk and Freedom” (http://john-adams.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2007/10/risk%20and%20freedom.pdf (pp 119 – 122)). My conclusion then was that when legal sanctions run ahead of public opinion there is a conspiracy involving police, judges, juries and motorists to settle for a level of enforcement that accords with the public view of the seriousness of the offence. This appears to remain the case. The decline in drinking and driving in Britain since the early 1980s has mostly been achieved without any change in the law; it has become much less socially acceptable to drink and drive.

  5. rodjames says:

    You have a right to decide for yourselves. There is no such thing as a law that implements this. If you want to wear one thats fine, if you do’nt want to wear one thats also fine. We have to stop this silly mentality of allowing the nanny state to force us to do something we dont want to do. If you dont want to wear your seat belt then dont! and dont comply with the nonsense, its time to get out of the playpen and make decisions based on what we think is right for us, instead of some dark suit with a head dictating our lives for us, im so sick of all this nonsense.

  6. rodjames says:

    And the sad fact is john that it will never be debated among consenting adults because we are treated like children and are not allowed to decide our own safety levels, of course its a conspiracy, its what the agenda wants to see, visual compliance.

  7. yngndrw says:

    I think the decision whether to wear a seatbelt or not does affect others in two ways:
    1) If I witness a crash, I don’t want to see people who have been splattered across the road.

    2) Peer pressure may make other passengers in the car not use their seat belt when really they want to.

  8. Adam Young says:

    Why risk losing your license driving without a seatbelt?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>