Peter Bonisch has posted a comment on my RoSPA post (11 February) that merits an answer. He asks: “would you advocate now removing the seatbelt requirement? The world has changed since the law was introduced including having been changed by it. Would it now be constructive to abolish the law in the knowledge that we would not simply revert to the ex ante position?”
I would not expect to return to the ex ante position. And yes, I would repeal the law.
Over the last 30 years road accident deaths in Great Britain have fallen from 5934 to under 2000, but the clear downward trend is not a demonstrable consequence of any government “safety” interventions over that time – see Managing transport risks: what works, Figures 1, 2 and 3.
The long-term trend in the ratio of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities to car occupant fatalities has also displayed a downward trend as car traffic has increased and the number of vulnerable road users (cyclists and pedestrians) on the road has decreased – with a significant interruption to the trend in the year that that the seat belt law was implemented – see p. 10 of what works. An important contributor to this trend has been the enormous drop in the number of children allowed on the streets on foot or on bicycle without adult supervision – see Children’s independent mobility: a comparative study in England and Germany (1971-2010)
Bonisch notes that there have been technological advances in safety over the past 30 years, such as airbags, improved braking and anti-collision technology. But these changes appear to account for very little, if any, of the decline in road death rates with increasing levels of motorisation. Today motorists in poor countries in the early stages of motorisation are achieving kill rates per vehicle – driving vehicles with one hundred years of safety technology built into them – as high or higher than were achieved by Model-Ts in the early 19th century. The probable reasons for this are explored in Where and when is shared space safe?
Bonisch contends that the world has been changed by the seat belt law, and I agree. It has shifted the burden of risk on the road unfairly from the best protected in cars to the most vulnerable outside cars.
Finally, I rest my case on John Stuart Mill’s famous dictum opposing measures that would compel people to be safer than they voluntarily choose to be: “all errors which he is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good”.
I would repeal the law.