Last Thursday (21 March 2013) I attended a conference entitled “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics? Understanding casualty trends and the causes”. It was sponsored by the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS). At the conference PACTS, the Department for Transport, and seven other organizations interested in promoting road safety launched a website called www.roadsafetyobservatory.com.

Its home page promises:

Key facts and summaries of research on road safety topics

The website proclaims:

“The Road Safety Observatory aims to provide easy access to independent road safety research and information for anyone working in road safety and for members of the public. It provides summaries and reviews of research on a wide range of road safety issues, along with links to original road safety research reports.”

Its objective, the person presenting it made clear, was to provide an authoritatively fact-checked set of statistics to inform public discussion of road safety issues. Under the heading “How is the Research Evidence Produced?” it states:

“The Programme Board commissions Research Reviews from a wide range of researchers and road safety experts. Each Review is then submitted to an independent Evidence Review Panel, who must approve it for publication on the Observatory website. The reviews are intended to be free from bias and independent of Government policies and the policies of the individual organisations on the Programme Board. They represent a summary of the best evidence readily available to the research community and will be kept under review as new evidence emerges.”

I decided to subject this new source of evidence to my standard test. Into the Home Page search bar I typed “seat belts” – do try it at home. This took me to “Road Safety Observatory Seat Belts Review, January 2013” – bang up to date and approved by the Independent Evidence Review Panel. First up came “SEAT BELTS: KEY FACTS”.

Seven bullet points down I found this “Key Fact”: “By January 2008, 25 years after the introduction of the law, front seat belts had saved over 60,000 lives in Great Britain.”

On page 5 the claim is embellished: “By January 2008, 25 years after the introduction of the law requiring car drivers and front seat passengers to wear seat belts (if fitted), it was estimated that front seat belts had saved over 60,000 lives in Great Britain.”

On page 9 the claim is repeated – twice.

And again on page 32: “Seat belt laws increase seat belt use, and so reduce death and injury. 25 years after the first law requiring seat be to be used, it was estimated that front seat belts had saved over 60,000 lives in Great Britain.”

The claim that the seat belt law saved 60,000 lives over 25 years is reiterated five times in a document approved by the Observatory’s Independent Evidence Review Panel – without any supporting citation I could find.

Citations are no longer needed. The claim has been repeated so often that it has become a “fact” that everyone knows. Typing “seat belts 60,000 lives saved” into Google yielded, at last clicking, over one million hits.

THE CLAIM IS OUTRAGEOUS NONSENSE.  According to this claim the seat belt law is, by far, the most effective road safety measure ever implemented in Britain. 60,000 divided by 25 years would equal 2400 lives saved every year since 1983 by the seat belt law.  In 1982, the year before the seat belt law came into effect there were only 2365 driver and front seat passenger fatalities! The claim is further, if less dramatically, contradicted by other claims in the same review – indeed in the same initial bullet point: “It was estimated that the seat belt law saved the lives of 241 drivers and 147 front passengers in 1983 and 270 drivers and 181 front passengers in 1984.”   The review does not provide a citation for the estimate of lives saved in 1983 and 1984 but they are similar to those provided in a June 2008 article in Significance by Richard Allsop, Oliver Carsten, Andrew Evans, and Robert Gifford (all members of PACTS). See table below.

Significantly the Significance article did not make it into the Review’s list of key references on seat belts. A significant omission because the authors, all defenders of the seat belt law, acknowledge an effect of the law of important consequence to vulnerable road users. They say “the clear reduction in death and injury to car occupants is appreciably offset by extra deaths among pedestrians and cyclists.”


This surely deserves a place in any list of “Key Facts” relating to the seat belt law.

Another Key Fact that did not make it into the review is the finding that almost all of the 1983 decrease in driver fatalities estimated by the authors of the Significance article took place between 10pm and 4am (the “drink drive hours”) and in drivers with alcohol in their blood. During the other hours of the day, and amongst alcohol-free drivers there was no detectable departure from trend (see Risk chapter 7). 1983 also happened to be the year in which evidential breath testing was introduced, and unprecedented numbers of breath tests were administered, and drink-drivers prosecuted. The modest claims (modest when compared to 2400) for lives saved in the table above can only be attributed to the seat belt law if one assumes that the measures introduced by the campaign against drink driving launched in the same year had no effect.

Who cares? Why does all this matter 30 years after the seat belt law came into effect? It matters because a new website sponsored by what might be called Britain’s road safety establishment, and promising unvarnished, unbiased, objective “Key Facts”, is telling a whopper. And not out of ignorance. The last time I looked PACTS, RoSPA and the DfT, key sponsors of the new website, all had the 60,000 claim still on their websites despite its absurdity having been called to their attention on a number of occasions.

The PACTS conference was well attended by people with a common interest in making roads safer. There was a detectable, and welcome, shift in emphasis from previous conferences I have attended from a focus on legal and engineering approaches to the problem, to an interest in changing attitudes and behaviour. As I have noted in   Managing transport risks: what works?  :

 “There are two different kinds of manager involved in the management of transport risks: there are the “official”, institutional, risk managers who strive incessantly to make the systems for which they are responsible safer, and there are the billions of individual fallible human users of the systems, each balancing the rewards of risk against the potential accident risks associated with their behaviour.”

 Understanding the attitudes of the latter to risk, and influencing their consequent behavior, represents the most important and challenging part of the institutional risk manager’s job.

 Seat belts have acquired iconic status in common parlance. “Fasten your seat belts” is a phrase commonly invoked to introduce any exciting or threatening idea into a discussion. It is routinely used as a comparator for the postulated benefits of other forms of safety legislation such as cycle helmets. It reinforces legislator hubris – “look what we have achieved!” they marvel as they pat themselves on the back. The Road Safety Observatory by virtue of its endorsement of the 60,000-lives-saved claim is further entrenching the iconic status of the seat belt law and energizing legislators keen to pass further well-meaning but misguided legislation.

 To undo this damage PACTS, RoSPA and the DfT need not just quietly remove the claim from their websites, but prominently explain why.  Likely to happen? Don’t think so.

 Recent posts and comments on this subject are on my website at http://www.john-adams.co.uk/category/seat-belts/


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  1. Idris Francis says:

    Dear Professor Adams,

    I sat next to you at the Conference, and have been aware for some time of your views on the effectiveness of seat belts – and in general I agree. When the DfT published TRL’s assessment of 60,000 lives saved. on the 25th anniversary of the 1983 law, I wrote to them to say that I found it impossible t believe the numbers, and referred them to your “Risky Business” assessment, as in your article here.

    TRL provided more detailed statistical analysis that, being complex, I was not able to rebut and so I went moved on to other matters. I should however have that correspondence on file if you would like to see their explanation of their assessment.

    Al Gullon, the Canadian researcher whose work (“it’s the economy, stupid” to coin a phrase) on the close relationship between fatalities and boom/bust I referred you to via my web site http://www.fightbakwithfacts.com, has also looked closely at the 1983 onwards data. It is his view that the effect of the jump from 40% to 90% wearing of front seat belts cancelled out what would otherwise have been a significant rise due to the start of the 1980’s boom. I will copy this to him.

    I share your concerns about “the usual suspects” being in control of the information shown on this new web site. These are by and large the same people who have been telling us for years that:

    Speed cameras cut 10 times as many accidents as ever involve speeding in the first place – despite nowhere near eliminating all speeding.

    There are no adverse effects of speed cameras – despite many deaths and injuries having clearly been due to their presence.

    (in the 4th Report) 100 deaths and corresponding SI eliminated by cameras without reducing those figures by the 75% contribution THE SAME REPORT, in Appendix H, indicated as being due to regression to the mean and perhaps more due to driver diversion.

    there is a 2.7 to 1 benefit to cost ratio of camera operation – not only by ignoring the knock-on costs to defendants in terms of legal fees, lost time, lost licenses, lost jobs and businesses, but also on the clearly fatuous DfT estimates of the “values” of accidents supposedly prevented.

    the cost of a fatal accident to the State is, according to the DfT, now around £1.9m. However some £1m of that is the purely theoretical value of pain and suffering avoided – which is not cash in any form and cannot therefore be “saved” in any State ledger by preventing the accident. Eqially, some £700m is the “lost output” of the person killed. This too is abject nonsense because

    (a) that person’s consumption also disappears, leaving little net change

    (b) the iron law “output = demand under all circumanstances” ensure that no output would be lost in any case as others step forward (more overtime, replacement employee, or work lost to competitors)- to ensure that output IS NOT LOST. The same applie to work lost to injuries – others step in to do it, none is lost.

    In fact the real cost to the State of a fatal accident is of the order of £20,000 not £2m

    I currently have a complaint at Ministerial level against the DfT including

    i/ why their 2005 handbook to camera parfnerships instucted that all recorded reductions in casualties at sites were to be to be assumed to have been due to the cameras, with no adjustment even for long term trend, let alone regression to the mean or driver diversion to avoid cameras.

    2/ why they allow Partnerships across the country to make those false claims – and often to make them even more absurd by using the DfT’s bizarree estimates

    3/ The above DfT value estimates

    4/ How and why the DfT fabricated figures for Transcom purporting to show than cameras are marginally more cost effective than vehicle activated signs when in reality they are about 50 times LESS cost effective (similar results from £1kpa sign as from £50k pa cameras.

    5/ How and why, after admitting in 2007 that signs were 9 times more cost effective they ignored that massive potential benefit and carried on with cameras!

    and many more.

    Most of these issues are reviewed in detail, including relevant correspondence on my web site, including the dangerous nonsense of 20mph area, the misleading and skewed analysis by 20’s Plenty and others and the scandalous misrepresentation of cameras v signs..

    In the 12 years and many thousand of hours I have spent studying these issues I have come across more gross incompetence, more absurd errors, more weasel words, more (clearly deliberate) lies and more bare-faced refusal to face facts in the road safety world (excluding real engineering of road and vehicles) than I came across in 30 years in the electronics industry.

    And unfortunately many who directly involved in or responsible for the above failures will, it seems, now be in control of what information is provided on the new web site. Like giving the Governorship of the Bank of England to one of the architects of the euro or of the Boy Scouts to Fred West. Except that Fred West killed far fewer people.

    Why is it that revelving doors at Establishment level invariably direct the elite to higher levels and worse failures without ejecting any of them?


    Idris, I have already found the (not-so-complex) TRL Report you refer to – discussed here – http://www.john-adams.co.uk/2009/10/06/third-open-letter-to-executive-director-of-pacts/ . But I would be fascinated to see the accompanying correspondence. Sorry could not find the Gullon work on your website. JA

  2. Richard Johns says:

    The http://www.roadsafetyobservatory.com/ site has apparently been scrubbed clean of all references to the 60,000 figure. (They’re present in Google’s cached version, but not the present version.

    Perhaps you’re having some impact, at least?

  3. Richard McNay says:

    Hi John, Idris, and any other interested parties..
    Could you PLEASE come to Australia and just give some push against the authorities here, who seems to be lost in the idea that more enforcement and draconian speed limits (etc) are the answer to all and every road safety problem ..
    We are hurtling further and further down the “speed camera / nanny state / we’ll get ya, you dangerous drivers” freeway, with no voice of reason to put the other view…
    We need people like you here, desperately!
    Hope you will have a look into it!
    Richard McNay

  4. John Lambert says:

    The best information suggests that without a compulsory law, with little public education expenditure, and with 100% fitting of seatbelts in vehicles the wearing rate for the driver population would be 60%-70%. Note further that it is my belief that the primary reason for the increase in seat belt wearing since the 1970-85 period is that since that time people have recognised the benefits of seat belts when they have commenced being vehicle occupants (encouraged by adults and laws) so that without any significant enforcement and with all seats fitted with seatbelts the wearing rate would naturally increase to 80% or more because 80% of drivers and occupants are responsible citizens.
    In USA there are still 19 states without a primary seatbelt law – that is where you cannot be pulled over and booked simply for not wearing a seatbelt, though you can be booked after being pulled over for another offence. The median wearing rates in states with a primary law is 90% (range 78%-98%); for those without a primary law the median is 82% (range 73%-94%). Of course there is significant influence across state borders so it is not possible to accurately determine the law impact. Note fines in USA are low ranging from $10 – $90 with a median of $25 (45% of fines are $25).
    In contrast in my state of Victoria the fines on a driver for not wearing a seatbely or failing to ensure children are wearing seatbelts are AU $295 (US$230) plus 3 demerit points (at 12 in any 3 year period you lose your licence for 3months). With heavy enforcement and high level road safety advertising the seatbelt wearing rate is around 98.5%. Yet 20% of those killed each year are occupants not wearing seatbelts, reflecting the significant safety benefit of seatbelts in reducing deaths (though not necessarily total injuries).
    I have modelled the UK fatalities from 1983 allowing for seatbelts potentially reducing deaths by 30% in the absence of other significant road safety initiatives (as happened in Victoria in the 1970 – 1980 period), allowing for airbags taking over from seatbelts to a significant degree, allowing for increased travel, and allowing for the cumulative effect of other general impacts on road fatalities including reductions in average vehicle occupancy, reduction in pedestrian exposure to risk (travelling in cars instead of walking), improvements to roads and congestion (reduces deaths though not crashes). The total lives saved could be around 18,000, and of that 2000-3000 might be the additional impact of compulsory seatbelt wearing laws.

  1. T is for Totalitarianism | A child can see ... says:

    […] Citations are no longer needed. The claim has been repeated so often that it has become a “fact” that everyone knows. Typing “seat belts 60,000 lives saved” into Google yielded, at last clicking, over one million hits.” […]

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