HC Deb 14 March 1979 vol 964 cc472-5

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Grimsby)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the better safety of children in cars by prohibiting the carriage of children under thirteen years of age in the front seat of motor cars, providing for the fitting of rear seat safety belts adjustable for children on all new cars, and facilitating the use of rear seat child safety seats for children under three. The aim of this simple Bill is to provide for the greater safety of a section of society—our children—who are so easily exposed to danger when travelling in that most lethal of instruments, the motor car. Its protective mechanisms and interior are designed for adults, not children. The Bill is to protect a section of society all too innocent and unaware of the proper dictates of safety and their own best interests in a motor car. Each year about 2,400 children under the age of 15 are killed or seriously injured when travelling in cars. A further 7,000 are slightly injured. About one out of three preschool children who are injured or killed on our roads are passengers in motor cars. Of these, all too many travel in the front seat. In recent years about 25 children a year have been killed in the front seat of motor cars and about 3,000 injured. That is a terrible toll of accident and injury.

A proportion, and probably a considerable proportion, of these accidents could have been avoided if the proper dictates of safety had been followed. Common sense dictates and research confirms that a child is safer in the back seat of a car. In most common types of accident the front seat passenger is in the greatest danger. He is in the front line in the battle of the roads. In an accident, a child sitting in the front seat is in great danger of being slung against the windscreen or dashboard.

Common sense again dictates and research confirms that a child is better off and safer when properly restrained, whether in a fastened-down carry-cot, a moulded child's safety seat or wearing a seat belt. But it should be emphasised that children are not necessarily safe in an adult seat belt. In a crash, the legs can pull the pelvis forward and under the belt. That is technically called"submarining ". The belt can bite into the softer parts of a child's abdomen causing internal damage. The pelvis of an adult is formed, his feet are on the floor and his knees are often wedged against part of the car, and that prevents such action.

My Bill is based on children being safer in the rear of a car and safer restrained than unrestrained. It bans children under 13 from travelling in the front seat of a car. That age is chosen because of responsibility and physical size. It requires manufacturers to fit rear seat belts, which will be adjustable for children or which can be used with a special support to raise the child sufficiently to prevent pulling underneath the belt. It facilitates the fitting of approved child safety seats by requiring manufacturers to design seats that will accept, hold and firmly anchor British Standards-approved safety seats. That will bring us into line with the practice in Australia, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, which all ban children from the front seats of cars.

The Bill will also stop some of the more alarming practices. As Members of Parliament, we do more driving than any sane person should. I sometimes wonder whether I was elected to a seat in this honourable House or in the front of a car. With all that driving, we see many examples of bad practices in cars. Children use the front seat of a car as a trampoline, gymnasium or climbing frame. Mothers sit in the front seats with children or babies on their knees. They might cushion the mothers from impact against the windscreen but would almost certainly be killed or seriously injured in a collision. All these practices are horrifying in the event of a collision, when a child's effective weight is increased up to 15 times by the force of impact. In a collision at 20 m.p.h., even a small child increases in weight to a quarter of a ton. There is no possibility of holding that child back, restraining it, grabbing it or protecting it. Sense and logic underline the case for the Bill.

The libertarian argument may be invoked against the Bill, but it does not apply to children. It is not the basic right of a child to make a considered decision to go head first through a windscreen. My Bill will compel people to do what safety-conscious drivers do already. It is necessary to have a degree of compulsion, and all too few drivers and passengers are aware of the dangers. It is also necessary to put responsibility where it essentially belongs—on the driver. He should ensure that children in his car are carried as passengers in the safest way possible, which can be difficult. Parents have to face arguments with their children as to who will sit in the front seat of the car. The easy way out is to relegate them compulsorily to the back seat.

The Bill will not impose a major extra burden on the police, nor will it produce a wave of prosecutions for a new offence. We are a law-abiding country. Once the measure becomes law, it will remind a driver every time that he has children in his car and every time that he sees a policeman or police car to provide for the best safety of the children.

I am proposing a measure that is simple, straightforward, and supported by RoSPA and the British Medical Association. It does no more than enforce the dictates of common sense and social responsibility. It will produce an improvement in the death and injury figures for those whose only crime is innocence. It is a small step in the struggle for greater road safety. I hope that the House will support me in giving a First Reading to my proposed Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mrs. Margaret Bain, Mr. Robin Corbett, Mr. Clement Freud, Mr. Toby Jessel, Dr. Oonagh McDonald, Mr. Roger Moate, Mr. Mike Noble, Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, Mr. John Sever and Mr. Giles Shaw.