Open letter to Executive Director of PACTS

To Robert Gifford

Executive Director, The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety

Dear Rob

This claim made over a year ago is still on the PACTS website:

“On the 31st January 2008, the 25th anniversary of the law change which made front seatbelt wearing compulsory was celebrated. PACTS itself was set up by Barry Sheerman MP as part of the fight to get mandatory seatbelt wearing turned into legislation. Eight years later it became compulsory for all backseat passengers to use seatbelts and it is estimated that since the introduction of the first law change in 1983, seatbelts have prevented 60,000 deaths and over 670,000 serious injuries.”

I have demonstrated the claim to be nonsense: click here and here. A while ago I invited you to post a comment on this demonstration of nonsense on my website. You have declined to do so, so I now issue a more public invitation.

Borrowing from Churchill – the lie has got all way round the world before truth has got its pants on. If you Google the claim you get thousands of hits. Legislators like to believe their laws make a difference. If the BBC, the DfT, PACTS, RoSPA and Google all tell them their seat belt law has saved 60000 lives they will be inclined to believe it.

Why does it matter? The Association of Paediatric Emergency Medicine and the College of Emergency Medicine are now lobbying vigorously for a law that would make cycle helmets compulsory for children, and ultimately for all cyclists . Campaigners for cycle helmet laws routinely cite the “success” of the seat belt law. Their argument is seductively simple: seat belts and helmets reduce injuries in crashes; seat belt laws have saved lives and so would a helmet law.

The PACTS website is one of the ways in which your advisory council conveys advice to parliament. On this issue it has misled parliament. If parliamentarians are misled about the “success” of their seat belt law they are in danger of making the same mistake with a helmet law. I suggest that if you cannot refute my demonstration that the claim that the seat belt law saved 60000 lives is false, you should not just quietly remove it from your website, but retract it in a highly public manner.

The PACTS 2004 Parliamentary Briefing on cycle helmet use and effectiveness presents the case against compulsion in a clear, balanced and convincing way. It would be a great pity if it were to be undermined by pro-compulsion campaigners citing other PACTS “evidence” for the efficacy of the seat belt law.

I know it is difficult to admit to a clanger. But if you had devoted a moment’s thought to it you would have noticed that the DfT’s claim that the seat belt law had saved 60000 lives was preposterous. If you and RoSPA persist in endorsing the DfT’s claim you will assist in the promotion of a further nonsense that will inhibit efforts to increase cycling.

Best wishes


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  1. Mayer Hillman says:

    Rob Gifford has replied to John Adams’ challenge in an email to a small number of people including me. I think his reply deserves a wider readership. Here it is.
    “Dear John
    I have no wish to appear disingenuous but I suspect that you may treat this
    answer as such.
    The link that you have placed in your letter is to an estimate by the DfT.
    This estimate is also repeated in paragraph 4.6 of the recent consultation
    on compliance with road traffic law, published in November 2008.
    Elsewhere on the PACTS’ website, we refer to the work undertaken by Jeremy
    Broughton in 1990 comparing the contributions to casualty reduction that
    arose from the three measures in the 1981 Transport Act focusing on seat
    belt wearing, drink driving and motorcycling. This concluded that 370 lives
    a year had been saved through the compulsory wearing of seat belts. You will
    recall that this was also cited in the response to your earlier piece in
    While I entirely accept that the piece on our website referring to the
    estimate of 50,000 lives could have been more appropriately worded, I cannot
    share the view that seat belts have not been an effective contribution to
    casualty reduction.
    Best wishes

    On reading it, I find it difficult to know where to begin?
    In this reply, the 60,000 lives (not 50,000) that he claims have been saved by seat belt legislation amount to an average of 2,400 lives each year. But he also cites Broughton’s much lower estimate of 370 lives a year, and refers to his own estimate in Significance (June 2008) in which a “net” saving of 164 lives a year ” is calculated to take account of the fact that the saving has to be “appreciably offset by extra deaths among pedestrians and cyclists”.
    Even if we were to accept Broughton’s estimate and Gifford’s calculation of a net annual rate of 164 lives saved, that adds up to just over 4,000 for the 25-year period, that is less than 7% of the 60,000 cited!.
    Moreover, John Adams’ graph, on which remarkably no comment is made –
    http://john-adams.co.uk/2009/09/16/seat-belts-again-2/ casts doubt on Gifford’s contention that the law has saved the lives of any motorists. Furthermore, if it were true that shifting the burden of risk from car occupants to cyclists and pedestrians saved more motorists’ lives than were lost in dead pedestrians and cyclists, I would be intrigued to know whether he would still support such legislation particularly in the light of the fact that pedestrians and cyclists are at far more risk from the carelessness of drivers than the reverse?
    As the Director of PACTS, a body highly influential in the political domain, I feel Rob Gifford must put the record straight on this aspect of road safety if we are to avoid running the risk of further damaging legislation being introduced on the back of fallacious evidence.

    Mayer Hillman
    Policy Studies Institute

  2. Jim Tubman says:

    I would like to add to Prof. Ian Walker’s observations in the email thread associated with this blog entry.

    It might be unpopular to say so, but we in the developed world are very safe. Injuries kill a rather small percentage of us; most of us escape a violent end and die of heart disease or cancer. Could it be that the low-hanging fruit in the world of safety has all been picked?

    Perhaps Prof. Adams’ observations about the ineffectiveness of seat belt legislation may have been the first sign that this point had been reached. That legislation seemed to be a reasonable measure to implement. I thought so too, until I looked at what happened in my own province of Alberta, the last jurisdiction in Canada to pass such a law (and one not included in Prof. Adams’ publications). Following the passage of the law, the crash rate jumped by about 25% and the fatality rate for motor vehicle occupants had no significant change, which appears to be evidence for the risk compensation hypothesis.

    What is troubling is that it now seems to be the case that little or no risk assessment is done before imposing safety regulations on some activity, and no assessment of effectiveness is done afterwards. (Or the assessment does not take into account changes in exposure to risk, like reduced cycling levels after a helmet law, or the assessment is focused entirely on measuring compliance with the law, rather than measuring any benefit.)

    In Canada, there have been recent safety regulations and campaigns for compulsory ice hockey helmets for recreational ice skating, compulsory 4-sided fencing and life jackets for children in private swimming pools, and banning of book shelves over 5 feet tall. Taken together, and assuming the measures were 100% successful, they would save about 25 lives a year. But you would not know that from the materials used to promote them.

    The measures that Prof. Walker recommends for improved road safety (mobile phone bans, better street design, restrictions on younger drivers) sound reasonable, but I hope that we would not make the same mistake made by those who (in good conscience, I believe) promoted seat belt legislation. We should see if they really do make a significant difference, and if they do not, they should be repealed. It is a pity that it is so politically difficult to admit that reasonable-sounding legislation was ineffective and ought to be undone.

  3. Mayer Hillman says:

    Dear Rob,

    As a further contribution to the debate on the justification for mandatory legislation on wearing seat belts and cycle helmets, I would like to up-date those reading Comments on John Adams blog on the subject to the latest exchange of emails with Rob Gifford, Director of PACTS.

    I have emailed him today as follows:
    “I do not apologise for pressing you to respond to the challenges to PACTS’ position on the consequences of mandatory seat belt wearing (and its relevance to decisions on the desirability of making cycle helmet wearing mandatory). In view of the need for policy to be based on reliable evidence, in this instance owing to its implications for the future role of cycling and walking, it is very much in the public interest that this debate is brought to a satisfactory conclusion. It is for this reason that I am posting this as a further comment on John Adams’ blog on the subject and assume that you agree on the desirability of, and support for this procedure.

    I hope that I am right in anticipating that your immediate reply to my email of 24 September below which simply states

    “Thanks for your reply. Perhaps I did not make myself clear enough. PACTS is not claiming the 50,000 lives saved. That figure is taken from the Department for Transport”,

    I assume that this is the precursor to a fuller reply. Failure to provide that could be interpreted as reflecting an inability to do so.


  4. Chris Law says:

    I’m sorry but after 45 years of driving I cannot agree with penalty points (or fines) for not wearing a seatbelt as that is just draconian. YES I do know it’ll save my life and YES I do know it may save me from serious injury BUT wearing a seatbelt should be my choice and not yours. Children should obviously be forced to use seatbelts but for adults it should be a personal choice and NOT an offence.

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