Repeal the Seat Belt Law

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?”

Good questions.

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.


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  1. Peter Bonisch says:


    Interesting and, as I suspect, motivated by the traditional liberal perspective (which I largely share).

    Now, how about something more conceptually challenging, say, smoking. Not banned but with clearly demonstrated long-term health impacts, thereby reversing the balance from the seat-belts debate. Also, many of the costs of these effects are, at least in a socialised cost environment such as the UK, externalised to the taxpayer. And what about in the home where there are children present?

    I can understand if you do not wish to engage with these as they are a different topic from road safety. But the principles you raised may apply across both.

    EIther way, most interesting and enjoyable.

    Best, Peter

  2. Dick Puddlecote says:

    Peter, costs of smoking are not externalised to the taxpayer simply because sin duties amply cover them. Any hyperbolic examples you may have read to say the opposite rely on adding in costs which are NOT borne by the taxpayer and ignore costs which DO such as reduced pension liability and later life long-term care.

  3. Jonathan Bagley says:

    Early seat belts were difficult to adjust, got trapped in the door, dragged on the road and the car floor, got filthy. Fat people and people wearing smart clothes wouldn’t wear them. Seat belt use increased gradually way before the law was brought in. It was the inertia reel belt which made the big difference. They became comfortable and easy to put on and didn’t get dirty. By 1982, just about everyone wore them. The people who still refuse aren’t bothered by the law. The fine is small and there is little chance of getting caught – like mobile phone use. If the law were repealed, the vast majority would always wear seat belts.

    I’ve seen graphs of road deaths for various developed countries. They all look the same, regardless of when any laws were brought in

    The anti tobacco industry often compares the smoking ban to the seat belt law as a good reason for state interference, but this isn’t a meaningful comparison. The only reason the smoking ban succeeds is because the business owner can be fined £2500 and have his livelihood taken away. If the fine was the same as the seatbelt fine and was levied only on the smoker, there would be plenty of places to smoke and plenty of smokers in them. If the smoking ban were repealed there would be a mixture of smoking and non smoking pubs and cafes. If the seatbelt ban were repealed, absolutely nothing would change. The seatbelt law was pointless. It achieved nothing. The man who invented the inertia reel belt was responsible for almost universal seatbelt use.

    I find the whole seatbelt issue fascinating. Wasn’t the law brought in at the same time as the breathalyser, so confusing things further?

  4. Art Peel says:

    Hello John,

    There are striking parallels to the “safety” programs applied to motorcycles. The Hurt Report(1985) showed that errors by drivers of cars and trucks posed as great a danger to motorcyclists and riders’ “excess” speed, intoxication and lack of riding skill combined. Of course, just like bicyclists and pedestrians, motorcycle riders are more vulnerable and suffer the greatest risk of injury and death in any collision with any larger vehicle.

    As a new comer to this “debate”, I just wanted to thank you for carrying on “in the jungle” until I stumbled across your refreshingly thought-provoking work.


    I’m guessing you are a motorcyclist. You might be interested in this account of helmet legislation in the United States – http://john-adams.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2006/motorcycle%20helmets.pdf . JA

  5. paul carter says:

    The argument that although deaths have fallen -but that cannot be attributed to seat-belt laws- and that therefore they should be repealed, is fallacious.

    Preventing death was not the only, or even paramount reason for seat-belt legislation.

    At least as, and possibly more, important is the reduction in the severity of injury, primarily as a result of being thrown forward towards the windscreen and dashboard. Also the elimination of the likelihood of people being thrown clear of the vehicle and suffer injury on impact with road furniture or other vehicles.

    I doubt that the good sense in using a belt is not really ingrained. See how many people who might normally use them who don’t when they are rear-seat passengers, or travel by bus or taxi where it is also mandatory but widely ignored.

    You may remember Gordon Banks , possibly our best-ever goalkeeper, who lost an eye in a car accident when thrown forward on impact.

    New comment on your post “Repeal the Seat Belt Law”
    Author: Pugilist (IP:, s118n090.csun.edu)
    Email: pulchtirude@yahoo.com

    Re: Paul Carter

    It is not fallacious to examine a law that has had no impact on aggregate numbers and suggest it should be repealed. Please name the fallacy that you are referring to.

    If the seat belt law is suppose to prevent severe injuries instead of deaths, please provide your data and research or else you have just given a good example of fallacy by anecdotal evidence.

    Regardless if seat belts have efficiently and effectively decreased deaths and severe injuries, there is still the philosophical view point that it should not be the governments power to force safety upon you when you know the risks and choose to take them any more than it should be their responsibility to wage a war on drugs to protect you from you.

  6. Chuck McDaniel says:

    The seat belt law needs to be repealed for adults over 18 years old. Seat belt should be a choice like wearing a helmet riding a motorcycle in Kansas is a choice. It just gives Anglo American (white) Officers an avenue to harass especially people of Color. White Officers cite people of Color not because of their concern for their Safety. It’s an avenue of harassment. I have never been cited by an Officer of Color, Black or Hispanic. They have passed me on the streets riding their motorcycles and have spoke loud enough for me to hear to put my seat belt on. I have been driving fifty years. Before seat belts were installed in personal vehicles. I have been involved in a few accidents during my life time and never thrown from my vehicle. I’ve been driving commercial combination vehicles for thirty-four years, and when I’m stopped by a White Officer I never get the courtesy and respect I’m due. They are rude and arrogant. Twice I have been called on my personal phone being solicited for money for City and State Police Officers and their families to contribute to a fund for them in the event they get hurt performing their duties. Personally I don’t care about them or their families in view of what they have cost me in money and disrespect to me personally. If they get injured on the job their employer and insurance needs to foot the bill. I say again, they have no concern for me and my family. Children younger than age 18 should be strapped onto the seat. I’m suppose to be free to do as I please as long as my actions don’t cause anyone else harm or discomfort. You want to harass and fine people to illustrate your power with a badge and a weapon of death with no accountability for your actions.

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