Myth Inflation

Anniversaries are convenient occasions on which to reinforce myths. Twenty five years ago, 31 January 1983, it became compulsory for occupants of the front seats of cars in the UK to wear seat belts. Today Britain’s Department for Transport has posted a press release announcing that in the 25 years since the seat belt law came into force it has saved 60000 lives – 2400 per year!

Myths are durable fictions that have wormed their way into popular belief systems. Once established they become impervious to contradicting evidence. They are self-reinforcing. People who know nothing of the evidence routinely repeat the myth to each other. The mythology surrounding the efficacy of seat belt laws belongs to a special category of myth: it is not only durable and self-reinforcing, it is inflating. In October 1985, almost three years after the law came into effect, the Department of Transport put out a press release claiming that the law was saving 200 lives a year. This claim was challenged, not least by the Isles Report (http://john-adams.co.uk/2007/01/04/seat-belt-legislation-and-the-isles-report/), a report produced within the department itself. This report was never published.

Why should the government be so assiduously promoting and inflating this myth? It has ready access to the numbers that disprove it. I offer a simple, cynical, explanation: it feeds the larger myth of the efficacy of government.

The press release can be found at. https://www.gnn.gov.uk/content/detail.asp?ReleaseID=348983&NewsAreaID=2&HUserID=878,793,895,848,780,868,866,845,786,674,677,767,684,762,718,674,708,683,706,718,674 *It is particularly recommended for the accompanying photo of the Minister for Road Safety, Jim Fitzpatrick, looking remarkably like a rabbit caught in the headlights. The claim of 60000 lives saved was released in his name, but I strongly suspect he knew nothing about how it was produced.

For some of my analyses of the myth see:





*PS (31 August 2009) This link no longer works. It appears to have been consigned to the memory hole, presumably out of embarrassment, but proof that it once existed can be found by typing “seat belt law anniversary 60000 lives saved” into Google. This will yield thousands of hits reporting it.

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8 pings

  1. Dwight Balado says:

    Hello, I found your blog in a new directory of blogs. I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, Your blog looks good. Have a nice day.

  2. Chadhurbhu says:

    Nice write up…usually I never reply to these thing but this time I will,Thanks for the great info.

  3. Victor says:

    How did it cost to start up this blog…I want to start my own.
    No idea, it was a birthday present from my daughter who did all the work. JA

  4. jessica says:

    Such a usefule blog wow !!!!

  5. Everhard says:

    John Adams was on BBC Radio 4 this evening in a programme about the seat belt law. He stated his position and the narrator, in line with the theme of the programme (titled ‘When Things Go Right’ or some such) commented that, although risk compensation is known to be a fact, in the particular instance of the seat belt law, it is not ‘main stream’. The implication is that because it is not ‘main stream’ (in other words, because it is not in the realm of popular belief) it can be ignored.

  6. Morten Lange says:

    Hello John Adams

    Here is an example of arguments against your work, taken from the Norwegian Trafikksikkerhetshåndboka, which has also been published in English by Elsevier as “The Handbook of Road Safety Measures”.
    The text of the Norwegian version is available online at http://tsh.toi.no/index.html?22457

    Here is a rough translation courtesy of google :

    It has been argued (Adams 1985, 1994) that the mandatory use of safety belts encourage motorists to drive less cautiously because they feel protected by the seatbelt. Less cautious driving has been thought to lead to more injuries among road users that are not covered by the decree on the use of safety belts, primarily pedestrians and cyclists. After the decree on the use of safety belts, the number of injured pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists turned out to be slightly up, see the figures above. A possible explanation for this increase in traffic. The assumption that the use of safety belts leads to less careful driving gets little support in the present research. A detailed study of drivers’ behaviour before and after introduction of seat belts mandatory in Newfoundland in Canada and the United Kingdom (O’Neill, Lund, Zador and Ashton 1985) found no signs of a less cautious driving behaviour. A Dutch study (Janssen 1994) found, however, a slight tendency to increase in speed among drivers who usually did not use a seat belt and took part in an experiment where they were forced to wear a seat belt.”

    References : http://tsh.toi.no/index.html?22656

    * Adams, J. G. U. Smeed’s Law, seat belts and the Emperor’s new clothes. In Evans, L; Schwing, R. C (Eds) Human Behavior and Traffic Safety, 193-257. New York, NY, Plenum Press, 1985.

    * Adams, J. G. U. Seat belt legislation: the evidence revisited. Safety Science, 18, 135-152, 1994.

    * O’Neill, B.; Lund, A. K.; Zador, P.; Ashton, S. Mandatory belt use and driver risk taking: an empirical evaluation of the risk-compensation hypothesis. In Evans, L; Schwing, R. C (Eds) Human Behavior and Traffic Safety, 93-118. New York, NY, Plenum Press, 1985.

    * Janssen, W. H. Seat-belt wearing and driving behavior: an instrumented-vehicle study. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 26, 249-261, 1994.

    I must admit I have not studied the subject enough to be able have become convinced either way. But I do not find it improbable that the positive effects of seat belts have been exaggerated.

    Best Regards,

    JA Comment. For extent of exaggeration please see most recent post -http://john-adams.co.uk/2009/09/08/yet-more-myth-inflation/

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