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.