To Robert Gifford
Executive Director, The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety
I’m sorry but I must persist. The power and endurance of the myth that PACTS and RoSPA have built around the seat belt law takes a lot of deconstructing. So long as belief in the efficacy of the law persists it will continue to serve as one of the principal arguments of the campaigners for compulsory cycle helmets.
Seat belts and helmets are routinely linked. Injury lawyers argue helmetless injured cyclists risk having their compensation reduced for contributory negligence in the same way that unbelted motorists would. (see also here) Earlier this year the Mississippi Senate threw out a bill to repeal the State’s mandatory cycle helmet law on the grounds that “the helmet requirement was similar to the state’s seat belt law, designed to protect people from avoidable injuries.”
You say in response to my earlier letter “While I entirely accept that the piece on our website referring to the estimate of 50,000 lives [60000 actually] could have been more appropriately worded, I cannot share the view that seat belts have not been an effective contribution to casualty reduction.”
Short of a complete public retraction I cannot imagine an “appropriate” way to refer to the 60000 claim. The claim that the seat belt law has saved 60000 lives is ludicrous. I accept that the number was not your invention, but so long as it remains on your website, it strongly implies to the reader that PACTS considers the claim to be valid.
I ask you to re-read this passage on your 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.”
As most parliamentarians, and the rest of the world, will read it, PACTS is celebrating its role in saving 60000 lives. Indeed this piece of self congratulation identifies the seat belt law as the foundation stone of your organization.
In your article five months later in Significance (June 2008, sadly available free only to those with institutional access to electronic journals) you concluded that in the first year of the law it had saved not 2400 lives but 164 net. Here (for those without access to electronic journals) is Table 1 from your article.
In your article from which this table is taken you say: “The best estimates … are that extra deaths to vulnerable road users did accompany the introduction of mandatory wearing of seat belts.”
In your response to my article advocating repeal of the seat belt law you do not comment on my point that most of the decrease in car driver deaths in 1983 consisted of drivers who were over the alcohol limit (down 14%), and that this coincided with the introduction of evidential breath testing. Do you think that this change in the law with respect to drinking and driving had no effect?
In your Significance article you are clear that you believe the law has saved the lives of people in cars at the expense of vulnerable road users: “The picture shows a clear reduction in death and injury to car occupants, appreciably offset by extra deaths among pedestrians and cyclists.”
You then proceed to defend the law as follows: “It would … be a severe constraint on the use of safety measures if any measure were to be ruled out for which the larger number of deaths and injuries saved were differently distributed among road user groups from the smaller number resulting from the measure … The wearing of seat belts is therefore not exceptional among safety measures in that extra deaths and injuries that may arise from wearing occur in part (only in part because, if wearers drive more riskily, some of the extra deaths and injuries will occur to vehicle occupants) to different road user groups than those among which deaths and injuries are prevented—though the difference is perhaps sharper for belt wearing than for many other measures.”
I take this passage to mean that you think a measure that saves the lives of motorists is OK so long as the number of vulnerable road users killed as a result is smaller.
In the light of that argument I would welcome your comment on this analogy: an Organ Harvester Lottery in which healthy people will be selected at random to “donate” organs to people in need of them. One heart and one liver could save two lives at the cost of one – slightly better than the ratio that you argue justifies keeping the seat belt law. Throw in two kidneys and you get a four to one ratio of lives saved to lives lost. This is a gruesome but not wholly inappropriate analogy given the myth circulating at the time - (and still) that the success of the seat law was responsible for increasing the shortage of donor organs.
I do hope that you will take the trouble to comment on my website. Now that the campaigners for compulsory cycle helmets are on the march again that part of their “evidence” invoking the “success” of the seat belt law needs renewed scrutiny.