Open letter to Tom Mullarkey, CEO of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

Dear Tom

Following our meeting at a dinner at the RSA over six years ago I sent you an email (22 February 2007).You replied the same day saying “When I have a moment, I would like to look into this in more detail and so I will follow up on the links you have kindly provided.”

I guess you’ve been busy.

In any event RoSPA’s press release on 31 January 2013 celebrating the 30th anniversary of the seat belt law, and RoSPA’s contribution to it, have given me an excuse to revisit the issue.

At dinner I had told you about RoSPA’s dubious lobbying practices in the run-up to the Parliamentary debate in 1981 and promised to send you some chapter and verse. In my 22 February email I noted that I had already detailed some of this dubious practice in my book Risk and Freedom (p152). I quoted from my book:

“On July 7 1981 The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (president – Lord Nugent) sent a letter to every member of Parliament stating

‘Dr. Adams has recently published a paper advancing the thesis that the wearing of seatbelts may actually increase road accidents by encouraging a false sense of security. His paper [subsequently peer-reviewed and published unaltered by the American Society of Automotive Engineers]  presents road accident trends in several foreign countries to support his view. His paper requires detailed analysis with the aid of much background information from the countries concerned before an authoritative comment can be made upon it. RoSPA and the Transport and Road Research Laboratory are undertaking these studies, meantime it is relevant to record that Dr. Adams does unequivocally state that wearing seatbelts greatly improves the chance of avoiding injury.’ “

This last sentence, I noted, unequivocally misrepresented my position. As I said at dinner, the statistics demonstrate that a seat belt improves your chance of surviving a crash, but INCREASES your chances of being in one. I went on to say

“This letter throws a revealing light on the campaigning methods of RoSPA at the time. While publicly stating that much more work needed doing before they could comment authoritatively on my findings, privately they had been briefing selected members of Parliament for three months with a document which asserted confidently that my conclusions were ‘absurd’ and ‘without foundation’ and that I ‘exhibited, at best, a layman’s understanding of the situation.”

I wrote to you next on 30 September 2009 and again on17 October 2009 inviting your comments on my online contention that RoSPA, in celebrating the 25th anniversary of the seat belt law, was making ludicrous claims for its effect.

Having failed to elicit any response four years ago now, on the 30th anniversary, I renew my invitation in the form of an open letter. I invite your comments on my recent post “30 years in the jungle with RoSPA” .

I invite two comments in particular:

  1. Given that on the third anniversary of the law Lord Nugent, your former president, was claiming that the law was saving 200 lives a year, how do you justify RoSPA’s recent anniversary claims of 2400 lives a year – i.e. 60,000 lives saved over 25 years?  (Please note my answer at the time to the evidence on which Lord Nugent relied for his claim of 200 lives saved –     Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A, 149, 187-227.)
  2. In the light of the comment by Lord Nugent that RoSPA “certainly could not support any road safety measure which discriminated in favour of one section of the community rather than another” – do you think that my “Organ Harvester Lottery” is a fair characterization of the discrimination acknowledged by Allsop et al in their Significance article?

Hoping to hear from you


PS  This open letter is not an attempt to settle very old scores. It is an attempt to get RoSPA, an influential organization concerned with risk management, to confront the reality of risk compensation.

When I first became involved in the seat belt debate over 30 years ago the risk compensation hypothesis was jeered at in Parliament: it was “bogus”,  “spurious”, “eccentric”, “ludicrous” and, more politely, “unproven” and “new”. It now merits a Wikipedia entry:

Risk compensation (also Peltzman effect, risk homeostasis) is an observed effect in ethology whereby people tend to adjust their behavior in response to perceived level of risk, behaving less cautiously where they feel more protected and more cautiously where they feel a higher level of risk. The theory emerged out of road safety research after it was observed that many interventions failed to achieve the expected level of benefits but has since found application in many other fields.

That people adjust their behavior in response to changes in perceived levels of risk has now become a commonplace. Where (if) there is debate about the phenomenon it now usually focuses on whether compensation is partial, complete, or more than complete – except in the case of seat belts legislation where, for campaigners such as RoSPA, it apparently still does not exist.

Acknowledgement of the phenomenon is essential to an intelligent civilized discussion of any risk management problem. A quick Google search will show that it features in discussions ranging from flood control, anti-lock brakes, cycle helmets, sexual behavior, skydiving, and sub-prime mortgages to shared space and warship safety – amongst many others.

RoSPA’s continuing repetition of its nonsense claims for the efficacy of Britain’s seat belt law is in danger of undermining its credibility in other areas where it undertakes useful work.

No comment yet

3 pings

  1. Dr. Robert Davis says:

    What “useful work” that RoSPA undertakes would that be?

  2. Carlos says:

    Hmm let me think about it Robert……………..banning children from playing conquers??

  3. Anon says:

    Influential? Nobody I speak to has ever heard of RoSPA!

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