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Jan
04
2007

Seat belt legislation and the Isles Report

In most countries arguments about seat belt legislation are dead. But it remains a live issue in the United States where such laws are a matter for individual states. As a consequence there exists in the United States a variety of laws and levels of enforcement, and considerable debate about their effectiveness and moral legitimacy.

A recent article on the subject in Time Magazine (“The Hidden Danger of Seat Belts”, 30 November 2006) cited research of mine done many years ago that concluded that seat belt laws had been ineffective in all jurisdictions that had implemented them. It provoked a number of hits on my blog and inquiring emails – hence this blog which attempts to answer some of them.

Why, if I was right, did so few people know that seat belt laws were ineffective? And why had so many legislators ignored this evidence?

Before Britain’s seat belt law was passed there had been eight debates in Parliament about it over the previous ten years. The main debate that resulted in the passing of Britain’s law was held on 28 July 1981. In this debate, a research report of mine, published earlier in the year, was much discussed, and much derided. It had a few eloquent libertarian supporters who liked its conclusions, but they were outnumbered by paternalistic health and safety enthusiasts who didn’t. Most of the parliamentarians queuing up to praise me or denounce me appeared not to have read my report – only my conclusions, which they liked or disliked. All of those who praised me, and my denouncers, were already established opponents or supporters of a seat belt law – no minds were changed by my evidence.

However within the Department of Transport, the promoters of the seat belt bill, my study had raised concerns. The Department commissioned a critique of my report by J E Isles. His report examined evidence from eight European countries (a subset of the 18 examined in my report) that had passed seat belt laws. He concluded that a law making the wearing of seat belts compulsory “has not led to a detectable change in road death rates”. For promoters of the bill this was an inconvenient truth. The Isles report was dated April 1981, more than three months before the parliamentary debate that led to the passage of the legislation. But it was suppressed. It was not published, and was not allowed to inform that debate. The Isles Report did not see the light of day until its existence was disclosed by New Scientist in an article published on 7 February 1985 – more than three years too late.

In the 1981 Parliamentary debate opponents of the law described my report variously as “bogus”, “riddled with inaccuracies”, “eccentric”, “preposterous”, “spurious”, and “wrong”. One supporter of the law (Austin Mitchell MP) described my report as “the only one that the hon. and learned Gentleman [Ivan Lawrence MP] can dredge up.” The Secretary of State for Transport in his contribution to the debate described my risk compensation hypothesis as “dubious and not proven”, but made no mention of his own department’s study whose conclusions supported mine. And my principal champion (Ivan Lawrence) described my findings as “astonishing and unexpected”. Such, at the time was the response to explanations of road accident statistics that invoked the risk compensation hypothesis.

A year later, too late for the parliamentary debate, I was invited to present my report to a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. It subsequently achieved peer-review status and was published as an SAE publication. To date, 25 years later, I am aware of no critique that has refuted its evidence, or conclusion – no country that has passed a seat belt law can demonstrate that it has saved lives. And “risk compensation” – is now widely accepted, and at the time of posting this blog registered 93,000 Google hits.

Since interest in the subject has revived, at least in the United States, and for historians of the role of statistical skulduggery in the formation of policy, I have scanned my scribbled-over copy of the Isles Report and put it on my website as a PDF file.

6 comments

4 pings

  1. Martin Parkinson says:

    Your write, re your seatbelt report:
    ” It had a few eloquent right-wing libertarian supporters who liked its conclusions, but they were outnumbered by left-wing health and safety enthusiasts who didn’t”

    I’m curious to know if you think the left-right division is significant or acccidental. Does a “health & safety mindset” tend to correlate with left wing views?

    I don’t have a left-right axe to grind here – I’m genuinely curious about that you think on this. I found your book “Risk”, which I read in 2005, to be one of those rare books which noticeably changes the way one sees the world. Quite a compliment, I know, but there we are, so I make sure I drop in to your webpage from time to time.

  2. johnadams says:

    Martin
    You got me thinking. The division was largely left-right, but not entirely so. The opposition included a number of prominent left-wingers, such as Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner. The more important distinction was between libertarians opposed to criminalizing self-risk, and paternalists who believed that people should be compelled to do what was good for them if they weren\’t sensible enough to do it voluntarily.

    I\’ve modified the passage to read:
    \”It had a few eloquent libertarian supporters who liked its conclusions, but they were outnumbered by paternalistic health and safety enthusiasts who didn’t.\”

    Thanks for pointing this out.
    John

  3. suzanne says:

    Mr. Adams,

    I just want to thank you for all your hard work. I live in New Hampshire USA and for the 2nd time in as many years am going before the transportation committee to testify in opposition to a proposed compulsory seatbelt law. Your work has been a cornerstone in facilitating my argument into a cohesive testimony.
    2 years ago the bill was voted down along with a red light camera bill that was voted down by a super majority. With a democratic majority in power, I don’t know how this will turn out this time. We’re the last state in the Union to fight for this splinter of freedom.
    Hope for the best, brace for the worst!

    Cheers,
    Suzanne

  4. Dan Goebel says:

    To all those interested in the truth!

    Billions of dollars in tax money has been spent on propaganda to promote seat belt use by the U.S. Government. We have been trained to think that if seat belt use can reduce the chance of death in an accident, then increasing seat belt use through unconstitutional laws that disregard individual “Free Will” will reduce traffic deaths. The problem is that the number of accidents has increased drastically as a result of mandatory seat belt laws and/or the enforcement there of.

    This drastic increase in traffic accidents, increased overall traffic deaths to the point where the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had to separate out the non-occupant deaths from the overall traffic deaths in their statistics, or admit that these mandatory seat belt laws were causing more deaths. The NHTSA is a government agency with an agenda to push seat belt use through propaganda and government grants to states for the enforcement seat belt laws. They do this to the point of distorting the facts and spend billions of tax dollars doing it.

    Despite the manipulation of data by the NHTSA to make seat belt laws appear to be saving lives, the data does show that increased seat belt use has come at the cost of drastic increases in traffic accidents and traffic injuries. What is harder to find is that the number of deaths and injuries caused by drivers using seat belts to the more vulnerable of road users has gone up drastically with increased seat belt use. Thus, the enforcement of seat belt laws has put the general public more at risk. The enforcement of these laws has promoted careless driving at the cost of pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists.

    By disregarding the basic human right to “Free Will” with the enforcement of mandatory seat belt use laws, the government has put the non-occupant, or general population, far more at risk. In 2001, before the big push by the federal government to make seat belt use Laws a primary offense in all states, motorcyclists were 21 times as likely to be killed in a traffic accident (per mile) as a vehicle occupant. The fact that this ratio has gotten even more lopsided with increased seat belt use from enforcement of mandatory seat belt laws, demonstrates the absurdity of spending Billions of dollars in tax payer’s money pushing these laws.

    Thank You John Adams for keeping up the fight to expose the truth about seat belt laws.
    Dan Goebel

  5. bonnie frye says:

    I am glad to know that others feel the way I do.

  6. Kate Carpenter says:

    The word missing from the issue of personal responsibility for their own safety and their dependents, versus state intervention, is Darwin (yes, I know there are still creationists who’ll hang me from a tree for this).

    As a road safety engineer I am increasingly of the opinion that we get what we deserve – if we understand (even vaguely) the laws of physics (the laws no-one can break) then we are destined for the Darwin Award for self-removal from the gene pool (hopefully before procreation).

    I am uncertain about whether this means we should not assist those who struggle with physics – we strap our children in for their safety, so why stand by and allow less diligent adults to kill themselves or their dependents.

    I suppose it’s all down to free will (the right to kill ourselves and our dependents if we wish) versus the state as benevolent parent (highway and police authorities using the naughty step!)

    I am sure the debate will outlive me, but meanwhile I’ll keep belting up (and making double sure the person behind me does the same – for my sake as much as theirs!)

    On the political issue, I have observed the UK political dimension to highway management, at parish, town, county and national level: Conservatives want free flow driver-uber-alles regardless of child and elderly pedestrian risk i.e. all roundabouts and free-flow traffic. Labour members favour public safety even if it means some delay for car drivers – public net benefit concept – and libdems want whatever might gain local support!

    Congratulations John for intelligent, informed debate and thought-provoking articles. I like to be challenged!

  1. quickrelease.tv » Blog Archive » Want safer streets for cycling? Make cars crashier says:

    […] save lives? What heresy is this? Read Adams’ views on this hoary topic for yourself here, and think about this when well-meaning cycle helmet compulsionists cite the efficacy of seat-belt […]

  2. Average (non-racing) cycling speeds | hilpers says:

    […] is very > plausible. > > > Regards, > Nick Maclaren. V interesting. Try looking at http://john-adams.co.uk/2007/01/04/s…-isles-report/ The government knew that seat belt laws would increase deaths to peds, cyclists and car […]

  3. Blogseeks.com says:

    Mexican Seat Belt Regulations…

    Mexican Seat Belt Regulations – Mexican law requires the use of seat belts, and the refusal to use a seat belt can result in a fine. Mexican seat belt regulations require that passenger vehicles and some commercial vehicles like tour vans and tax…

  4. Seat Belt Laws: For or Against?? (Post Initial Thread Re-Vote) - Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Conservatives, Liberals, Third Parties, Left-Wing, Right-Wing, Congress, President - Page 30 - City-Data Forum says:

    […] Seat belt legislation and the Isles Report | John Adams "In most countries arguments about seat belt legislation are dead. But it remains a live issue in the United States where such laws are a matter for individual states. As a consequence there exists in the United States a variety of laws and levels of enforcement, and considerable debate about their effectiveness and moral legitimacy. A recent article on the subject in Time Magazine (“The Hidden Danger of Seat Belts”, 30 November 2006) cited research of mine done many years ago that concluded that seat belt laws had been ineffective in all jurisdictions that had implemented them. It provoked a number of hits on my blog and inquiring emails – hence this blog which attempts to answer some of them. Why, if I was right, did so few people know that seat belt laws were ineffective? And why had so many legislators ignored this evidence?" […]

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