HL Deb 26 April 1977 vol 382 cc411-514

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The arguments in favour of the compulsory wearing of seat belts have been so thoroughly rehearsed in both Houses in the past few years that we are unlikely to discover any new ones this afternoon. But I hope that since the last time that the question was discussed in your Lordships' House, these arguments may have become more familiar, and that noble Lords who are thinking of voting against the Bill today will at least have realised that in doing so they would be sending a thousand people to their deaths each year and causing 12,000 people to suffer life-threatening injuries on our roads.

The second point I want to make by way of preparatory remarks is that I believe that it is rather unusual in your Lordships' House to vote against a Private Member's Bill; and when a Bill has received substantial support in another place in a previous Session, as this one did, with a majority of 110 when it was put to a Division in another place, I should have thought that it was even more unusual for us to be faced with opposition in the form of a Division in this House. I make no fundamental point of constitutional propriety here, but I would at least ask those who are considering supporting the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, to take that matter into consideration. I say this because I think that the least we ought to do is to afford another place the opportunity of completing the work where they left off. It is of course the 1976 Bill, as amended (which was overtaken by the pressure of time) that we are considering today.

Clause 1 of the Bill makes it an offence to drive or ride in the front seat of a motor vehicle without wearing a seat belt, subject to exceptions which will be prescribed by the Secretary of State. This offence will be a summary one, punishable by a maximum fine of £50, or a fixed penalty of £6, which may be imposed under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967. Clause 2 provides for the regulations first mentioned to be subject to Affirmative Resolution, as would be any further regulations which extend compulsion to the back seat, for instance, or to classes of vehicle in which the wearing of seat belts has been voluntary up to that point.

The crux of the matter is the enormous casualty savings which are possible as a result of the compulsory wearing of seat belts. I want to rehearse the logic by which we arrived at the estimates that have been quoted in the Department's literature and the figures that I will be giving this afternoon. What we assume, first of all, is that persons wearing seat belts are just as likely to be involved in accidents as the motoring population as a whole. We derive the percentage of drivers and front seat passengers who wear seat belts from surveys which have been carried out in the day time because it is easier in the hours of daylight to observe whether a person is wearing a seat belt.

It is believed that the wearing rates are slightly lower at night when more accidents occur, and so we calculate the effectiveness of seat belts from the day time statistics only. The figures upon which we depend are those relating to 1974, when 31 per cent. of those travelling in cars and vans where seat belts were actually fitted were wearing them. The rate of wearing has varied from time to time, and I think that the rate of 31 per cent. has probably declined since then because that was achieved as a result of fairly widespread and sustained campaigns to persuade people that they should wear seat belts voluntarily in their own interests.

During the year 1974, 651 unbelted drivers and front seat passengers were killed in the hours of daylight, and we reason that if seat belts were useless, then it would be expected that 31 per cent. of that number, or 292 persons, wearing seat belts would in fact have been killed. But we find that the actual number was 123, which indicates that the saving of lives as a result of wearing seat belts was at a rate of no less than 58 per cent. If we carry this reasoning through to the remainder of the 24 hours, it gives the estimate that if seat belts were invariably worn by the occupants of all vehicles to which they were fitted, then the total saving in that year would have been 1,157 people who were killed, and a similar calculation shows that 12,957 serious injuries might have been prevented.

My Lords, I have made inquiries about the extension of these figures to 1975 and 1976, and I am informed by the experts that there probably has not been very much change. Although the provisional figures for road accidents in 1976 were up on those of 1975, I am told that this was largely due to people abandoning their cars for motor cycles and that the accident figures relating to the occupants of cars themselves were that not much different from the two earlier years.

These estimates that I have given to the House are confirmed by abundant evidence from other countries where compulsory seat belt wearing has already been introduced, in some cases for several years. Let us take the Australian evidence, which is probably the most effective. In Victoria seat belts were compulsory for nine months during 1971 before any of the other States in Australia followed suit, and therefore we can compare the casuality and mortality rates between Victoria and the rest of Australia over that period. We find that seat belt wearing rates increased from 25 per cent. to 64 per cent. outside Melbourne, and to 75 per cent. in the city, and the result was a 17.7 per cent. drop in fatalities and a 14.8 per cent. drop in serious injuries, during a time when in the rest of Australia the rate of mortalities and serious injuries was in fact increasing.

Some figures have been given by the AA, to which I am indebted, in relation to Belgium where the compulsory wearing of seat belts became law as recently as 1st June 1975. It has been shown that deaths in road accidents there were 38.9 per cent. lower in the four months immediately after the introduction of compulsion, compared with the same period a year before, while serious injuries were down by 28.2 per cent. I will not go through the evidence from the other countries, but I can assure your Lordships that the picture is very similar in every single country where the compulsory wearing of seat belts has been introduced. As the BMJ put it in a leading article of March 5th, reviewing an international conference of the Association for Accident and Traffic Medicine: The evidence of reduction of casualties and death wherever seat belts have been made compulsory is overwhelming. All the countries at this conference which have got legislation through reported impressive reductions, and it can now be concluded that, on average, the risk of being killed in a road accident is about four times as high for the unbelted car occupant and the comparative risk of serious injury is about the same. I do not believe that very many people would argue with these figures, but they say that the civil liberties aspects of requiring someone to do an action which he is not otherwise prepared to contemplate, override the aspects of the saving of lives and the prevention of serious injury. I myself take these arguments very seriously. I was for six years chairman of the Parliamentary Civil Liberties Group and I maintain a very close connection with the National Council for Civil Liberties. I consulted the latter's General Secretary, Miss Patricia Hewitt, to find out whether the Council had considered the matter either in advance of the Second Reading of this Bill or on the previous occasions when it has been before one or other House. She told me that the Council had not once discussed the compulsory wearing of seat belts or expressed any view on the question.

Since this matter has been very much in the news in recent years I believe we can reasonably infer that, if there was any feeling at all among the members of the National Council for Civil Liberties, it must have been fairly weak, since none of them had bothered to bring forward a resolution at the annual general meeting or even, so far as I can make out, to have the matter discussed on the Executive. I am informed that, in Victoria, Australia, the local Council for Civil Liberties was, in fact, one of the first organisations to recognise that a measure similar to this one did not infringe the liberty of the individual. At the Second Reading of the Bill when the compulsory wearing of seat belts was introduced in New Zealand, there was only one speech opposed to the legislation on civil liberties grounds.

If it were the case that a person who refuses to wear a seat belt injures or kills himself alone, there would still be precedents for legislation going back to the Factories Acts and the Licensing Acts of the 19th century. Some of those imposed very considerable inconvenience and expense on persons, whereas the fastening of a seat belt takes no more than two or three seconds per journey and costs nothing. However, in practice, the failure of a driver or a front seat passenger to wear a seat belt does harm other people. The relatives and friends of the person killed or seriously injured may suffer emotionally or financially, while the seriously injured driver has of course less chance of controlling the vehicle after the collison, with the result that it may continue in motion and cause further casualties.

There is also the bad example that a driver who refuses to war a seat belt sets to his front seat passenger, who may feel that, in putting on his own seat belt when the driver is not wearing his, he is casting some reflection on the standard of the latter's driving. One quite frequently hears of passengers who say deprecatingly to the driver who is not wearing a seat belt, "I hope that you don't mind if I put mine on. I am sure you are an absolutely safe driver but I prefer always to wear the seat belt myself". People may be inhibited because they see that the driver is not wearing his seat belt and harm is therefore certainly caused to other people apart from the person who himself refuses to wear a seat belt.

The point has been made that no one has objected to the compulsory wearing of seat belts in aircraft, for take-off and landing. Parliament has accepted that crash helmets should be compulsory for motor cyclists, subject to the exemption on grounds of religious conscience for Sikhs. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 makes it possible for people to be compelled to wear protective clothing or harnesses in dangerous industrial situations.

Some people have asked, "Where is it going to end? When will you prohibit such dangerous sports as hang gliding, ski-ing and mountain climbing?" First, those are activities which are undertaken on a fairly small scale but, in any case, there is no more question of banning them than there is of prohibiting motoring itself. However, I would say that there are activities which require control. Parliament has always recognised that and there is the Misuse of Drugs Act, which we have been considering in connection with the Criminal Law Bill: I do not believe that many of us would take the extreme "Millite" point of view that a person should be allowed to indulge in any conduct whatsoever so long as it harms nobody but himself.

So much for the civil liberties arguments. I turn now to enforcement. According to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, the attempt to enforce this Bill will place unacceptable burdens on the overworked and undermanned police forces. I spoke to the Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and he told me that no formal collective view had been expressed by the Association of Chief Officers. However, looking through the debates in another place, I see that Mr. Kenneth Marks told the House on 1st March last year: At our last consultation, the majority of chief constables were in favour of such a bill." [Official Report, 1/3/1976; col. 1042.] I do not accept the proposition implied in the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, that enforcement will occupy a great deal of police time. Presumably, if the police stop a driver for some moving traffic offence and he is found not be be wearing a seat belt, he would be charged with not wearing a seat belt at the same time as he was charged with the moving traffic offence. The extra work that would be required in such cases would clearly be minimal. I believe that the prosecutions which arose in that way might in themselves be enough to secure a fairly high degree of compliance with the law.

What I believe the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, may have overlooked is that, to the extent that the Bill is successful, cases which were brought in the courts following accidents would be of a less serious nature so that, therefore, police time might even be saved for, if no one was injured, there might be no proceedings at all. Also, if somebody is injured who might otherwise have been killed, the charge of causing, for instance, death by dangerous driving might be replaced by one of careless driving, driving without due care and attention or perhaps dangerous driving. So the time of the police might be considerably less taken up as a result of the Bill than if the present situation were maintained.

So far as the Police Federation is concerned, the former Minister of Transport, Dr. John Gilbert, told Standing Committee B on 11th May last year (column 139) that subject to one or two minor reservations, the Federation fully supported the compulsory wearing of seat belts.

I believe that the British are a law abiding people—that is, when they believe that laws are reasonable. There may be one or two bloody-minded motorists who would deliberately attempt to make the Bill unworkable, but the vast majority will comply as motorists have in every other country where seat belts have been made compulsory. I believe that it is worth noting that, in a survey conducted by the AA in November 1974, it was shown that 61 per cent. of motorists would accept a law on these lines, while no less than 92 per cent. recognised that seat belts were valuable in protecting them and their passengers from serious injury. So I hope and believe that the Bill would be largely self-enforcing.

I now turn to the argument that, in certain circumstances, the wearing of belts may do more harm than good. Certainly, it is not possible to say that a person wearing a seat belt invariably comes off better in an accident than if he had been unbelted. To be able to say that one would need to have made a careful technical examination of every accident that has ever occurred. But between 1974 and 1976 the Transport and Road Research Laboratory carried out a survey of the injuries sustained by 1,956 drivers and front-seat passengers who were involved in a total of 1,126 accidents, where at least one of the occupants attended the casualty department of a particular hospital.

As one would expect, the number of deaths and life-affecting injuries was much greater in this sample among the unbelted drivers and passengers; and there was not one incident where it was found that a patient who had been injured though he had been wearing a belt would have been less injured if he had been without it. The risk of being trapped inside a vehicle which catches fire or is submerged under water, which is frequently quoted as an objection, was found to be minimal. Out of this entire sample there were three cases where a vehicle burst into flames; only one occupant was trapped in one of these cars, and he was found to have been already dead before the fire started.

It is definitely not true, either, as it is sometimes alleged, that a person is safer if he is thrown entirely clear of the vehicle in an accident, because this survey shows that a quarter of those thrown out were killed, and they accounted for nearly half the deaths. Of course, we have all heard anecdotal evidence of cases where injuries are alleged to have been avoided because the driver was unrestrained, and I willingly concede that in rare cases this may be so. But I can hardly believe that opponents of this Bill expect to be taken seriously if they say that we ought not to save 1,000 lives if at the same time one death results.

Finally, I should say a word about exemptions. When this Bill was in another place the Government indicated the scope of the regulations that they had in mind in the form of a draft consultation letter, and I understand that it will be in order for us to refer to that document. I do not propose to do so myself because I hope we shall concentrate on the principle rather than get bogged down in the details of the regulations, which will in fact require to be approved by Affirmative Resolution of both Houses, so that there will be an opportunity to consider them later.

We are not talking about statistics here; we are not talking about the 1,000 lives which may be saved and the 12,000 serious injuries which may be avoided if your Lordships give this Bill a Second Reading. We are talking about a young woman who is thrown into a windscreen, and her face becoming an unrecognisable maze of scars; we are talking about a young man with compound fractures dying in agony on a cold roadside; we are thinking of the victims of a crash, desperately fighting to survive in the intensive care unit of a local hospital; we are thinking of small children being made orphans; we are thinking of wives losing husbands, and of husbands losing wives. We are thinking of the great mass of human tragedies which are absolutely certain to happen unless this Bill is passed. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Avebury.)

4.14 p.m.

Lord BALFOUR of INCHRYE rose to move, as an Amendment to the Motion for Second Reading, to leave out all the words after ("That") and insert ("this House re-affirms its decision on 25th June 1974 to reject the compulsory wearing of car seat belts and therefore declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which proposes the principle of compulsion; which would place unacceptable burdens in attempting enforcement on already overworked undermanned police forces; and which gives to the Minister wide delegated powers to restrict by order the freedom and conduct of the individual.")

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Amendment which stands in my name on the Order Paper. I think that at the very beginning of my remarks we had better get the record straight as regards the implication by the noble Lord who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill that there is constitutional impropriety in this House moving an Amendment to reject the Second Reading of it.


My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to interrupt him? That is precisely the opposite of what I said. I said that there was no constitutional impropriety.


My Lords, the noble Lord said "No", having really said that there was. That is a very old political game. The history is worth looking at for a moment. In June 1974 your Lordships rejected the principle of compulsion as regards the wearing of seat belts by voting for an Amendment which eliminated that provision which was in the Road Traffic Bill then going through Parliament. As they were perfectly entitled to do, the Government declined to accept that defeat of what they wanted, and they therefore introduced in another place a Bill which received a majority on Second Reading and then went to Committee, where there was much argument, one defeat and one concession by the Minister. Finally, the then Government of the day were unable to secure a Report and Third Reading of it, and the Bill was abandoned. Here, today, we have the same Bill coming forward again for Second Reading, in the guise of a Private Member's Bill, so I think we are entirely right in using our position to vote on the acceptance or rejection of this Second Reading.

My Lords, this issue cuts right across Party lines. In the Division in 1974 there were Members on my side of the House who voted for the Bill, and there were Members on the other side of the House who voted against it; so I do not think that, this afternoon, this is in any way a Party issue. My Lords, in my Amendment I set out three reasons for the rejection of this Bill: first, the principle of compulsion is unacceptable; secondly, the difficulties and anomalies in enforcement; and, thirdly, the powers granted to the Minister to restrict by order are far greater than we should allow any Minister to have and can affect the liberty of the subject. I propose, quite briefly—because there are many speakers today—to deal with each of these three reasons.

On the first and most important one, the principle of compulsion, let me say at once to the noble Lord and other noble Lords who may wish to support this Bill that I am all for seat belts. I am not against seat belts. I use one myself on an open road; but let me confess that I do not use one when travelling from my house to your Lordships' House. But the fact that I admit that seat belts may save lives does not justify a law that they must be worn compulsorily when it must equally be admitted that wearing them costs lives—and I am coming on to that point, with which the noble Lord dealt, in a moment. The trouble is that people from Ministers downwards overstate their case in words and in statistics. I think that probably the most absurd, erroneous statement was made in another place by the Minister ill charge of the Bill on its Second Reading, when he said: I cannot recall offhand that anyone has died as the result of wearing a seat belt, …" [Official Report, Commons, 1/3/1976; col. 929]. If the Minister will read Hansard tomorrow he will learn of at least three cases which I shall cite in a few moments, and other noble Lords may be able to cite different cases in the same way.

This afternoon we have had trotted out, under the guise of surveys and under the guise of estimates, the usual 1,000 lives saved and 10,000 injuries avoided by the wearing of seat belts. I would quote only one most impressive statistic. In Australia, in New South Wales, after seat belts were introduced, the reduction was 20 per cent. That will please the noble Lord who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill. In fact the figures were that the number of accidents per 10,000 cars went down from 5 to 4—scarcely an impressive statistic. I would say to the House: let us get away from doubtful statistics, which have not been proved, based, as the noble Lord himself said, on surveys and estimates. Let us remember at the same time that the other greatest motoring country in the world, the United States, does not compel the use of seat belts. I say, away with all these statistics! Let us admit at once that lives are saved by seat belts, but let us also admit that death and injury can be caused by belt-wearing. Does the noble Lord wish to intervene?


My Lords, if I may intervene. I must appeal to the noble Lord not to say that the statistics produced by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory are improper. This is imputing doubtful motives to a scientific organisation which I think ought not to pass unchallenged in this House. If the noble Lord does not think that 2,000 is an adequate sample, could he say what evidence would be sufficient to convince him?


My Lords, I still say that the statistics are unproven. When somebody wants them, they get the figures and they try to get the best results from them. I do not blame the noble Lord but equally I do not see why I should accept what he says under survey or under estimate. I say, "Away with the statistics!" Let us admit that lives are saved by seat belts; but I would ask the House also to admit that death or injury can result from wearing seat belts. There are quotable cases. The noble Lord in a very fine, emotive peroration said that what we must think about is the injury to women and children. I am also thinking about a report in The Times of 22nd July last year headed: "Two die in seat belt fire trap"; and another in The Times headed: "Seat belt death." I am thinking of the case that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who is unable to be here today, sent to me about someone in the area where he lives. The local paper said that the man stated that it was "curtains" for him if he had been wearing a seat belt. Fortunately, he escaped.

The House is now being asked to pass a Bill which will cause death or injury to some by Government order. I think it is a grave moral issue. The noble Lord who moved the Bill has said in effect, "What does one among a thousand matter?" One life does matter if we can avoid sacrificing it. And if it is by Government order that that one life is sacrificed, then I say it is not for the Government to do that job. It is a moral issue. We should not ask Parliament to pass a Bill which is going to bring death or injury to an unknown number of persons.

Without compulsion, you grant the citizen responsibility for his own decisions: with compulsion you take from the citizen his right of decision. There is the argument that we already restrain liberty in such ways as the wearing of crash helmets. I have never heard of anybody being hurt by wearing a crash helmet. Nobody has been hurt or injured for that reason, so far as I know.

A noble Lord: I have!


My Lords, if you accept that it is the Government's job to pass a Bill which will condemn people to death, then I would say: Why not start on fire precautions in every house? Hotels now have to go through expensive modifications in fire precautions. I have not heard anyone from any part of the House saying that we ought now to introduce legislation which will make fire precautions compulsory for every house that is built. This is just as logical. Then there is the argument that the motorist owes the community the obligation to accept compulsion. Who can say that the burdens of injury to others may be less if the motorist is belted? It depends on the circumstances.

When we debated the Bill in June 1974, the point was made that the National Health Service would have a burden placed on it by people not wearing seat belts; and that if only we wore seat belts the burden would be removed. That argument has gone, because I now gather from what the Chancellor has said that every motorist must pay to the National Health Service for all motor accidents whether "belted" or not. On the first principle of compulsion, I would summarise as follows. Do not order a citizen to do something which he may regard as dangerous; but leave it to him to decide his own way of doing what he judges best for his safety and for the safety of his dependants and his family.

I now come to the second objection, that of enforcement and its anomalies. Here we face a barrage of unanswered questions and anomalies. When, in another place, the Minister was pressed on how exemptions would be dealt with, like the famous Mr. Asquith he said "Wait and see". Then Dr. Gilbert, who, without offence, I would call the Moses of Whitehell, said "I am consulting and in due course I will bring down my tablets from the heights of ministerial power in the form of orders that no one will be able to amend." I think that on exemptions we ought to know far more. There is the matter of medical certificates by a doctor. On what grounds? Who is to pay? Are the certificates to be displayed on the car or are they to be carried like a driving licence?

Then there are pregnant women. How pregnant must a woman be in order to be exempted from wearing a seat belt? Someone may have a conscientious objection to a death order which compels him to take a risk. Is that to be allowed? The anomalies are enormous and the enforcement by the police is going to be almost impossible. I said in my Amendment that the police are overworked—they are certainly not overpaid—and they are undermanned. Surely we should hesitate before giving the police this extra task. The noble Lord quoted some police authority. I could quote the Magistrates' Association which has expressed grave misgivings about the proposal.


My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for interrupting again, but I wonder whether lie has had his attention drawn to the drafting letter of consultation which was made available in the other place and which is still in the Library, and which answers some of the questions which the noble Lord has put. If he is saying there should be cut and dried schemes of exemption on certain grounds, he is saying that the Government ought not to consult with people such as the medical experts and the police on what the exemptions ought to be.


My Lords, the draft orders have not yet been submitted to Parliament. The Minister has said that he is going to do this and going to do that. I have read every word of what went on in the other place both in Committee and when the Bill was considered by the House. I can assure the noble Lord that these questions have not been answered.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, my right honourable friend cannot submit any draft regulation until he has been given the power to do so.


My Lords, that is what I think we must limit very much. Surely it is wrong for Parliament to pass a law which is unenforceable without more duties being loaded on to our police forces at the present time. I think it is quite unacceptable to have a high penalty of £50 for anybody found guilty. The noble Lord said that the number of charges would be minimal. In another place, the Government were defeated in Committee on the £50 figure and it was reduced to £5. Now, I suppose, with the "Lib.-Lab. agreement, the proposal is put in the noble Lord's Bill to bring back the £50 on which the Government were defeated in Committee. There is also an absurd anomaly in the matter of the delivery van against the private car. A young man can drive a delivery van all round London, getting out of the van and delivering and getting back into the van; and he does not have to have a seat belt. If any noble Lord on that side of the House drove to Transport House in Smith Square without his seat belt he would be liable to be fined £50. If any noble Lord on this side of the House drove without wearing his seat belt to the Carlton Club, or to the Conservative headquarters at Smith Square, it would cost him £50. The same would apply to anybody driving to the National Liberal Club—I do not know whether anybody ever does, for I am told that the younger members arrive on tricycles. It is absurd that delivery vans can go through and out of London in that way, while any noble Lord would be fined £50 if he was bold enough to drive from here to Smith Square not belted.

Before Parliament passes a law, these and other questions and anomalies should be spelt out to Parliament, and the Minister should make quite clear what he is going to propose in his draft orders. That brings me to my third and last objection. This is delegated legislation of the worst type. The Minister is taking powers in an enabling Bill—because this is only an enabling Bill—to issue orders virtually limitless in scope. We know that there are two forms of procedure: Affirmative and Negative Resolution procedure. It is true that under pressure from the Committee in another place the Minister undertook that the first lot of orders should be under the Affirmative Resolution procedure. That means they must be submitted, debated and passed. Even so, they are not capable of amendment. After the initial orders, we have the Negative Resolution procedure. Any Parliamentarian knows quite well—


My Lords, the noble Lord earlier on outlined the difficulties of going to the Carlton Club or Smith Square. That seems to overlook completely the fact that he could go to the Carlton Club in a delivery van.


Yes, my Lords. As a Party we deliver the goods pretty well—very much better than the Party opposite. My Lords, the Negative Resolution procedure—as any Parliamentarian knows—is virtually a farce. The order is laid unless it is prayed against, and the Prayer is never given any facilities for debate. A Prayer might come on late at night. The order lays on the Table and, after a statutory period, it becomes law. This is Government by Ministerial order, and after the first lot of Affirmative Resolution orders, the Minister could decree all sorts of new restrictions to freedoms in a variety of ways and in a variety of directions, by orders which we could not amend.

I suggest that delegated power to the Executive is repellent both within and without this House. This Bill, if I had to use racing phraseology, is born of misjudgment out of bureaucracy. I do not know Mr. Rodgers, the new Secretary of State for Transport. I am told that he is a fine, broad-minded man. My hope is that he will discard the mantle of this Bill, once it is defeated, which has been left him by Dr. Gilbert. I hope that we shall not hear any more about it.

Dr. Gilbert was a parent of two stillborn political babies. The first stillborn baby was the order that he tried to introduce that we should all drive about London with the headlights of our vehicles switched on. As soon as that became public, there was an outcry and it was not proceeded with. Now he has been the parent of this Bill, which was stillborn in another place. It has been revived and someone I may call "Headlamp Gilbert" rides again in this Bill. His spirit lives on nestling in the breast of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. My Lords, I beg to move that we reject this Bill.

Moved, as an Amendment to the Motion for Second Reading, to leave out all the words after ("That") and insert ("this House re-affirms its decision on 25th June 1974 to reject the compulsory wearing of car seat belts and therefore declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which proposes the principle of compulsion; which would place unacceptable burdens in attempting enforcement on already overworked undermanned police forces; and which gives to the Minister wide delegated powers to restrict by order the freedom and conduct of the individual.").—(Lord Balfour of Inchrye.)

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Baroness Wootton of Abinger)

My Lords, the original Question was that this Bill be now read a second time, since when an Amendment has been moved to leave out all the words after "That" and insert the words as printed on the Order Paper. Therefore the Question that I have now to put is, That this Amendment be agreed to.

4.35 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I think it would be appropriate to intervene at this stage from the Government Front Bench, and I hope that I shall not be accused of overstating my case. I should first like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on introducing this Bill. I hope that we shall have an informed discussion on it. No doubt many points will be made about the implications of the proposed power to make the wearing of seat belts compulsory, and how this would work in practice. Many of these points have been made before, when similar proposals were before your Lordships' House and in another place. But I should like now to set out the Government's attitude to the principle of the Bill.

Although some of the practical considerations which flow from the Bill are complex, the principle behind it is not. We know that the benefits of wearing seat belts are very great. The main benefit is the saving of lives and the prevention of injuries. Here the effects of wearing seat belts are well established. When they are involved in accidents, drivers and front seat passengers are about twice as likely to be killed or seriously injured if they are not wearing seat belts. This means that if seat belts are worn on all journeys, instead of about one journey in three as at present, then, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has reminded us, based on the 1974 figures (which have not yet been updated) about 1,000 fewer people would be killed and something over 11,600 fewer people would be seriously injured each year. There would also be a substantial economic benefit in avoiding the loss of production, and the hospital and other costs, resulting from casualties which we estimate to amount to in the region of £64 million annually. To achieve these benefits, the cost would be a very small loss of freedom of choice, with almost no direct economic cost. Seat belts are already fitted to nearly all cars and light vans on the road today, and the MOT test now requires that they be kept in good condition.

My Lords, the Government's view is that the balance is clearly in favour of compulsory wearing, and we support the principle of this Bill. At least 17 other countries around the world have introduced compulsion, including most of those which have road and traffic conditions like our own. Indeed, within the EEC area only Eire, Italy and the United Kingdom have not yet made seat belt wearing compulsory.


My Lords, has America done it yet?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I was talking of the EEC. Ireland, Italy and the United Kingdom are the only countries in the EEC who have not yet resorted to the compulsory wearing of seat belts.

The present Bill would grant to my right honourable friend the power to make regulations requiring seat belts to be worn. It is appropriate that I should say a few words about how this power would be used. The Road Traffic Act 1972 provides for statutory consultations with interested bodies before regulations under a power like this one can be made, and the consultations on this subject would necessarily be wide. The Bill is concerned with wearing belts, not with fitting them. Thus compulsion would apply only in those vehicles and seats in which fitting is already compulsory. This covers the front seat of most cars registered since 1965 and light vans registered since 1967, and some three-wheelers.

In these seats, every car user would have to wear a belt, subject to certain specific exemptions. If a doctor decided that it would be better for a patient not to wear a seat belt for the time being, he could issue a certificate which would be accepted as evidence of exemption on medical grounds. People whose short stature made them unable to wear a particular belt would be exempt. There is also the question of practicality; drivers who could not operate an essential control while wearing a belt would be exempt. Other exemptions would apply to particular circumstances of driving rather than to particular drivers. For instance, a driver would be exempt while reversing, or while he was on a delivery round involving very frequent stops. Experience in other countries suggests that exemptions can be straightforward in practical operation, and will not greatly affect the achievement of a high rate of wearing.

Under the provisions of this Bill, these first regulations would be subject to the Affirmative Resolution procedure, and this House would thus have a chance to debate them. My right honourable friend would have the power to make amending regulations and, so long as these did not extend the classes of vehicles or the seating positions in which wearing was compulsory, they would be subject to the Negative Resolution procedure. This provision will allow the Government to make a quick and flexible response to any need for further exemptions: these might be necessary to alleviate unforeseen hardships, though those seem unlikely in view of the wealth of experience in operating this kind of law in other countries.

I should also like to answer specifically some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, in opposing the Bill. He has argued that the requirement to wear seat belts is unenforceable, but this is not borne out by the experience of compulsion in other countries. In Australia, for instance, wearing rates of over 80 per cent. have been achieved with only moderate enforcement, and that has generated an increase of 1 to 2 per cent. in the number of traffic cases. Contrary to what has been suggested, it is relatively easy for the police to determine whether someone is wearing a belt and, if not, whether he qualifies for an exemption. I would expect the police to enforce this requirement in the course of their normal road traffic work, as they do many other requirements which could in theory give them a lot of trouble but which are in fact obeyed by the great majority of people. I do not envisage any great problems.

The noble Lord has also argued that it is wrong to compel people to wear seat belts when there is a possibility that they will be killed or seriously injured by the belt when they might otherwise have survived unhurt. There are two points I should like to make here. First, the claim that seat belts can halve the risk of death or serious injury is supported by the accident statistics for every year since 1971. This figure, therefore, represents the performance of real seat belts, worn as they are at present, in real accidents. The saving is, moreover, net of any deaths or injuries which could conceivably have been caused by belts. But, secondly, various teams of scientists here and abroad have conducted a great deal of research into the claim that belts can cause casualties. Many thousands of accidents have been investigated, and in no case has a person wearing a belt suffered more severe injuries than he could have expected if he had not worn it. These cases may occur, but the Transport and Road Research Laboratory has calculated that there is certainly not more than one chance in a thousand of this happening. Many safety measures are accepted without question on far shorter odds, and there could be no blame attached to anyone if this one-in-a-thousand chance occurred. Using seat belts is an outstandingly good buy among life-saving precautions and no one could reasonably claim, in knowledge of the findings of research, that there is any significant disadvantage from the safety point of view in their use.


Would the noble Baroness give way for one moment? I have heard it said that the police find it very difficult to know how to get people out of a car when an accident has occurred, because the fittings of seat belts are so very different and they cannot always be sure of undoing them in a hurry. Would it not be desirable, if we were to pass a Bill of this kind, to introduce a standard form of seat belt so that everybody would know how to get out the accident cases?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, research is going on all the time into the design and manufacture of seat belts, and I would be the first to accept that not all of them are as comfortable to wear as they might be or perhaps as easy to get out of as they might be. But once something like this Bill became law, we should he given added incentive to find something that was both reasonable to wear and also comfortable and easy to operate in all conditions. I am quite sure that my right honourable friend would be aware of that and would work with enthusiasm towards it.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness just one thing: does she admit that in certain circumstances seat belts can kill?

Baroness STEDMAN

No, my Lords, we have no evidence from all the research that has been carried out of any cases where death has been caused to people wearing a seat belt which would not have been caused if they had not been wearing one.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness please forgive me, but has she not just demonstrated clearly that, certainly until the design of seat belts has been completely modified, we should not consider this Bill any further today?

Baroness STEDMAN

No, my Lords; what I said was that there is room for improvement in the design and there is room for making them more comfortable to wear. That is what we would endeavour to do and what we would encourage the manufacturers to do.

All who have at heart the saving of road casualties must applaud the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to try to keep this subject before Parliament, and would greatly welcome a vote in this House to accept the principle of this measure; but I must sound a note of caution. On 1st March last year, there was a decisive vote in another place in favour of a measure like this. It might have been supposed that the passage of such an enabling Bill would be a straightforward matter, but that is not what occurred last Session. The Bill was debated at length in Committee and at Report stage, where it lay at the end of the Session. This cannot be ascribed to any failure to give information or assurances about the Government's plans for using the powers in the Bill. The only conclusion which can be drawn from the history of this and other measures is that it is difficult for a measure which has the support of a majority, but on which all Parties have agreed on a free vote, to complete all its stages unless there is also an atmosphere of good will and co-operation.

The Government commend this Bill to your Lordships' House. We hope that the House will give it a Second Reading today. We are ready to extend the good will and co-operation that is necessary but I regret that I am not in a position, without assurances of that good will and co-operation, to guarantee its passage in the limited time available in the rest of this Session.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, could she clarify her reference to the proceedings in another place? She said that the majority who gave the Bill a Second Reading in fact represented only 388 Members of that House, which surely demonstrated the interest of the whole of that House in this matter at that time.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I believe there was also, out of that 388, a majority of 110.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for intro-during this Bill and enabling this matter to be discussed. It is of enormous importance and interest to all people in this country. I must apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and to the House for not being here for the first seven minutes of the noble Lord's speech. I explained to him that I had some other business not far away which I had to attend.

In the whole field of social policy, there is no subject which is more important than road safety. On our roads every year well over 6,000 persons are killed, most of them in the prime of life, and every year over 300,000 are injured. Many thousands of those people undergo months of suffering and misery and they survive to face only a bleak and limited future of pain and disability.

We are all used to reading Government Press statements, coldly setting forth statistics and tables. The road accident figures, like so many other indices, appear in this precisely tabulated form from month to month and year to year. But who, I would ask your Lordships, can begin to quantify the amount of anguish and tragedy behind each and every one of those statistics? I think it is highly likely that future generations will look back on our casual acquiescence in these appalling casual slaughters on our roads with the same horrified incomprehension that we constantly apply to the barbarous penal practices of previous centuries. In the light of historical retrospect, our attitude to road casualities might well appear to he one of the major moral lacunae of this era.

If I may add a personal note, I was associated with the transport side of the Department of the Environment throughout the last Conservative Government. I can assure the House that Ministerial responsibility for road accidents is an awesome duty for those concerned, and I personally stick to everything that I said when in office, when we had a debate on this subject in this House on 17th December 1973. My right honourable friend Mr. John Peyton, who was my senior colleague on transport during those years, could not possibly be accused of desiring a "nanny State", or of in any way supporting the encroachments of bureaucracy. No one who knows Mr. Peyton would support such a statement. Indeed, one of the most pleasurable aspects of working with him was the considerable stimulation to be derived from his robust and sceptical individualism. Yet Mr. Peyton, who started by being against any form of compulsion over seat belts, became convinced during his tenure of office of the necessity of a measure similar to the one which we are considering today, despite the counter-arguments which were set forward in the name of individual freedom, and to this day he still holds to the view which he then acquired.

I am sure your Lordships will agree with me that my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye set out the case against this Bill in a very forceful and eloquent manner. Indeed, when I was briefing myself for today's debate, I took my noble friend's speeches in 1974 as a locus classicus of the arguments against legislation on seat belt wearing. If I may he so presumptuous as to summarise my noble friend's arguments, I think that they can he considered—and he was kind enough to discuss his speech with me beforehand—under two general headings, which can be described as individual freedom on the one hand, and the problem of enforcement on the other.

My noble friend argued, first, that the State has no business in interfering with a citizen's right of decision in a matter which concerns only the citizen himself; and, secondy, that any law on seat belts would be unenforceable and that the law of England should not be subordinated to the propaganda apparatus of the Department of Transport. I should like to consider these arguments in order although, with your Lordships' indulgence, I should like to spend rather more time discussing the problem of enforcement than the question of free choice. On the latter issue, I think that the battle lines are, to a large extent, drawn up and the issues are fairly clear cut. One has to take a view one way or the other, and I suspect that most noble Lords here have already made up their minds which view they are going to take, and will be not much influenced by anything that I have to say.

But there are two points which I wish to make. First, I am not sure how far the noble Lord would be willing to follow his own arguments in the direction of extreme libertarianism. Would he, for instance, be willing to discard all legislation on the question of drug abuse? When a Bill similar to today's measure was considered last year in another place, Mr. Enoch Powell sought to draw a distinction between legislation on drug abuse and legislation on seat belts, in that criminal drug-taking affected the general health of the community. I think I take the view that road deaths, also, affect the general health of the community; indeed, that road accidents are an even more serious problem in this country today than criminal drug abuse.

Secondly, my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye would have us believe that in passing this measure we are assenting to nothing less than the thin end of the wedge; that we shall be hastening on the totalitarian State; that as soon as this Bill is on the Statute Book a host of measures will be revealed to prohibit the most harmless and pleasurable of recreational pursuits, on the grounds that they may involve real or imagined dangers to those participating in them. I personally can assure my noble friend that, if and when such proposals appear, I will join him in the last ditch to resist them. I would wholeheartedly concur with my noble friend in his dislike of bureaucracy and over-government. I would agree with his view that the power of Government has increased, is increasing, and must as a matter of urgency be diminished if we are to survive as a free nation. I agree with all those points. But I do not believe that a motor car is a suitable vehicle for the more anarchistic forms of self-expression.

Motoring is an activity which is already bounded and circumscribed with restrictions—and necessarily so. A motorist, after all, is in charge of a projectile weighing about a ton and capable of travelling at speeds up to, and even in excess of, 100 mph. It is essential that a framework of rules be devised to guide him. These rules no more inhibit or render unnecessary the exercise of responsible judgment than do the far more stringent rules and regulations governing the conduct of airline pilots. In the context of such a regulatory framework, it seems to me only reasonable to take steps to protect the driver's own safety, as well as that of his passengers and of other road users—to protect the driver from the consequences of his own indolence and inertia.

The present desperate consequences of this indolence and inertia were, I know, well described by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and also by the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman. Although one might quibble about 5 per cent. here or there, there can be no doubt that the Government's estimate of 1,000 lives saved every year and 10,000 serious injuries, if 90 per cent. of drivers and front seat passengers were to wear their seat belts, is substantially correct. The experience of every country which has introduced compulsion bears this out. Indeed, there is no single measure in the field of road safety which could yield such large benefits so quickly as the introduction of compulsory seat belt wearing. If it were passed into law on a Monday, it would save lives on the Tuesday.

Also, even though motoring must necessarily be highly regulated, none of these regulations in any way diminishes the real and lasting contribution which the motor car has made to modern society—the possibility of vastly increased individual freedom of movement for millions of persons. That contribution we must cherish and maintain, but any steps towards a safer motor car and safer driving can only help towards that end. As long as the present casualty rate continues, we cannot say with any confidence that we have learned to live with the motor car. We cannot even confidently rebut the criticism that we are paying too high a price for its services. We have not yet learned to live with the motor car. Legislation to make seat belt wearing compulsory, by ensuring that fewer people die in motor cars, will help us to accommodate it more properly into our society.

To turn to enforcement, there can be no doubt that any candid examination of this question throws up very serious problems. Our police are already over-burdened; indeed, many of them are already quite as resentful as the motorists whom they have to "book", of the waste of time and effort on trivia that traffic duties involve. Like the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I, too, have talked to senior police officers involved with traffic and I found them very "cagey" indeed; they did not wish to give an answer. But from talking to others further down the line, there is obvious reluctance. It would therefore seem that to heap yet further burdens on to the police, at a time when establishments are under strength and courts are clogged up with traffic offences, is to try their patience to an unreasonable limit. Also, I do not think there is much doubt that this proposed law would be both difficult to enforce and unenforced.

Even in Germany where, as the noble Baroness said, it is compulsory, there are very few prosecutions for failure to wear a seat belt—even in Germany, where, one remembers from Three Men on the Bummel, the German student could work out exactly in advance the cost of a riotous evening: so much per stein of beer, so much of a fine for pulling a policeman's moustache, so much of a fine for each window he broke, and so on. The tariff for his disorderly actions is fixed, as is the tariff in an inn or an hotel, but the German police are reluctant to prosecute for this offence. If that is the case, how much more reluctant will be the English police!

However, I will offer a few suggestions to the Government which might help to overcome these problems of enforcement and make the Bill more generally acceptable. The noble Baroness the Minister made a point about the EEC countries. France has seat belt legislation, but in France there is no compulsion to wear seat belts in built-up areas. I would therefore ask, would it not be possible to distinguish between built-up areas and non-built-up areas? The number of exemptions which would have to be granted to certain categories of drivers in built-up areas is so great, anyway, and the difficulties which the police will face in determining whether a given driver is or is not legitimately exempted are so considerable, so would it not be simpler and much more straight-forward to have the law apply only outside the 30 mph limit, as in France?

I have a theory, and I should be grateful if the Government or the Transport and Road Research Laboratory would let me know whether they have any evidence to support or refute my view that many accidents in built-up areas occur to motorists on through journeys, or to motorists who are about to begin a slightly longer journey, and that far fewer accidents occur to those drivers on short journeys within the built-up area itself. It would be interesting if we could be told about that. If one could find a way of ensuring that this legislation applied only to those on longer journeys, I believe that this, first of all, might ensure that the most vulnerable category of motorists was protected and, secondly, might obviate the resentment of the chap who just wants to nip round the corner.

Secondly, are the Government at present commissioning any studies on mechanical means of enforcing seat belt wearing—warning devices, flashing lights, even ignition locks? Several motor cars already have such devices and the cost of building in such devices to new models would be negligible. If these warning mechanisms could be adjusted so as not to operate within, say, the first 200 yards, much frustration and exasperation on the part of those who wish to move their cars from the roadway to, say, their garages would be avoided. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey. There is a great deal to be said for seat belt fastening and, far more important, for seat belt unfastening to be made simpler. There have been occasions when people have been involved in car accidents and the police, firemen, or other rescuers have found it hard to get them out because of tricky seat belt fastening. If there were a simple, easy way of fastening and unfastening seat belts, it would go a long way towards satisfying many noble Lords and members of the public.

Thirdly, if the Bill is passed it seems to me that it would be much more sensible to administer the penalty on a ticket basis, similar to the parking ticket system. This would relieve the burden on the courts. Indeed, I am of the opinion that routine traffic offences should be dealt with by a fixed penalty, wherever possible. Fourthly, there are obvious dangers that in passing the Bill it will produce annoyance and exasperation among motorists. An exasperated driver is a dangerous driver, so we must avoid this, if possible. This makes it all the more important that the Government should seek to remove other unnecessary sources of annoyance. The confused position regarding speed limits is now to be remedied, and not before time. However, it is easy to exaggerate the damaging consequences of the Bill as regards motorists' tempers. Most drivers will recognise that this legislation is probably in their own interests and that they should at least overcome the slightly lazy habit of not wearing their belts.

After the debate I should be interested to hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, thinks of my suggestions. I should also be very interested to hear the views of the mover of the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye. Also, I give notice that I shall very probably seek to amend the Bill in Committee so as to embody at least some of these proposals.

I should like to conclude by saying a few words about the form of the Bill itself. Here I can to some extent agree with the criticisms of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye. This is in no way the responsibility of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The form of his Bill merely follows the Government's precedent. However, we have been considering the matter now for four years. Therefore it is perhaps time for the Government to fill out the basic bones of the Bill by publishing the regulations which they consider desirable. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, said that the Minister could not do this until he was empowered to do so. I am sure that I shall be given many reasons, but why should not the regulations be put into a Schedule? As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, suggestions were made last time and the form in which they were made leaked out. I have no doubt that what he said is totally correct and I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree. Why should we not know that this is a fact by incorporating them in a Schedule? This is a point for discussion later, for it would greatly aid our deliberations in Committee. I do not believe that the existing regulations cannot be put into draft form so that we know exactly what we are letting ourselves in for.

It is possible that my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye and other noble Lords of like mind will feel that I have not done justice to their objections to the Bill. I am afraid that I shall have to leave them unsatisfied. As I said earlier, when I consider the question of seat belts, I cannot see beyond the safety implications. If regulations under this Bill came into force on a Monday, lives would be saved on the Tuesday, tragedies would be averted, pain and misery would be diminished, families would be spared bereavement and young wives and husbands would be spared agonies of grief. Few actions that we can take will have such immediate, wholly beneficial consequences. For that reason, I strongly urge your Lordships to accept this Bill in principle and to give it a Second Reading.

5.7 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for introducing this very important subject. I should like to congratulate in particular the last speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, on a very interesting and balanced address. Having put before us most of the objections to the Bill as well as the advantages, I gather that he is still going to vote, if a vote is taken, for its Second Reading. Although I agree with most of what the noble Lord has said, it puts me a little bit into the other camp, in that we are not ready yet for this legislation—certainly not in its present form. Therefore, if the Second Reading is put to a vote I shall probably be on the other side. However, the differences between us are very small.

I should like to take up one point that the noble Lord made, that in France—1 have heard this argument before and no doubt it is true—seat belt regulations do not apply in built-up areas. Yet I believe that police and other statistics show that a large number of accidents occur within about a quarter of a mile of one's home. I believe this to be true. It may be that one says that these accidents are not very serious because people are not then driving at great speed. However, if two cars which are both travelling at 30 mph have a head-on collision, it is like running into a brick wall at 60 mph. I am quite certain that the most dangerous motoring which I do every day—and it is more than once on most days—is when I try, with a cold engine, to get out of my suburban road on to the A3, which I believe is the most dangerous road in England. Usually I have to turn to the right, which means that I have to cross one lane of traffic in order to get into the other lane. I have to do this jolly quickly because I am left with only a split second for the manoeuvre; otherwise, one stands there for the rest of the day. I am quite sure that this is the most dangerous thing that I ever do. It is not simply a question that I might hit somebody who is going equally slowly but that my engine might let me down just as an enormous lorry is accelerating, with a view to keeping me back in my suburban road. So I am not sure that I am "sold" on this idea. However, no doubt careful statistics should give us the answers. It may be they are already known, and that I should know them.

In many other ways I feel we have not yet got all the answers that we need. I accept absolutely that seat belts can and will save lives, but I was distressed at the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that some of the statistics he quoted—and I must look at Hansard to make sure that I have this right—were based on the assumption that you are no more and no less likely to have an accident whether or not you are wearing a seat belt; the whole point is that if you have an accident it is not likely to be fatal or so severe if you are wearing a seat belt. I think that is a quite unjustifiable assumption and, although most of what we do in medicine and in our daily lives is based on statistical calculations, often done very quickly by the human computer, nevertheless we always have to seek out and test the premises on which the statistics are based. I very much doubt whether the number of accidents per unit motorist is the same among those who wear seat belts and those who do not. Observations are notoriously inaccurate, but my own observations would lead me to believe that the large number of people I see wearing seat belts are usually driving in a very restrained manner. They are careful people, but a number of people who flash by me, usually on the wrong side of the road, are not as a rule wearing seat belts.

So again I very much question the basis of some of these statistics. Nevertheless, I am impressed by the fact that in countries where seat belts have been made obligatory the accident rate has significantly fallen. But I should like to see those statistics and to analyse them a little further. Again I was a little surprised when the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, said that in Australia about 80 per cent. of people now wear seat belts. What happens to the other 20 per cent.? Are they all "had up" and put into prison or fined £50? Are the police spending the whole of their time catching up with the other 20 per cent? It seems to me to be a very poor thing if we really are looking for enforcement of seat belts.

I seem to have said most of what I intended to say without using my notes, which is probably a great advantage, but I have missed one or two points as to other matters in which we could intervene. Drugs have been mentioned. I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, would go so far as to say that in no case must the freedom of the individual be interfered with if he was not doing any harm to somebody else. I do not think he would want us to take away the heroin regulations, and so on, but that is only my assumption.

Then, as to what action we take and why we do not take it and whether this is not a case in which action should be taken; I hesitate to mention cigarettes in this House, but of course the number of premature deaths from cigarette smoking is at least three times the number of deaths from road accidents, and we do not have any enforcement of non-smoking, not even in public places. I do not say that I approve of that, but I do say that we are not being consistent if we do nothing about that and we make seat belts compulsory.

I am worried about the question of escaping from a burning car. It is all very well to say that cars on fire are a great rarity compared with cars in collision, but personally I would so much rather be knocked out by a head injury than burnt alive that I think we cannot compare the two and say that one is much less common so we should forget about the people who are burnt alive and save all those who might otherwise be knocked out by a head injury. I do not think that is a good answer. At the risk of boring the House I should like to quote my own practice with regard to seat belts. Almost every day I start the day by taking three young ladies to school. It is a journey of about five miles and I am always worried about the danger of a burning car.

The reason I am worried is because my car has only two doors. It is a hatch back car which makes it easier to carry musical instruments around, but it has only two doors and, in the event of an accident, if I were tied up with a seat belt how would they get out? The girl who sits next to me always has a seat belt on, but I never do. My idea is that I shall be thrown out of the car and possibly the others will escape. I think that is a reasonable thing to do and I believe it is a decision I ought to be capable of making and that I ought to be allowed to make. For these reasons I do not like the compulsory element. When I drive home from this House, as I do every night, I always wear my seat belt because I am by myself and it is a different matter. I think a certain amount of interpretation should he allowed to the user.

Finally, there are the matters of enforcement. I consider this is a bad Bill. I do not like it in its present form even if I were completely convinced that the time had come for compulsory seat belts. I think the police have enough to do without adding further burdens to them and I question the part of the Bill which says that the fees of medical men who are going to give certificates of exemption will be agreed upon by the Secretary of State. I do not mind the fees being agreed between the medical profession and the Secretary of State provided they are reviewed every three months with the present rate of inflation that is going on. But it is the only indication in the whole Bill—which is not very long—that medical men come into it at all. There is now a burden being put not only on the police but also on medical men and it is usually an unwelcome burden. Most good doctors like treating patients and getting them better; they do not like being pressed into giving a certificate by, often, a rather unreasonable patient who feels that he has a right to it and is aggrieved against the doctor if he does not immediately get it. I think there will be a lot of poor certification arising from this. So for all these reasons I feel that at the present time I cannot support this Bill.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I should like to ask him one question. If people themselves deliberately choose to risk the possibility of death by not wearing seat belts or by smoking cigarettes, why should they not do so?


My Lords, that is not one of the arguments which most impress me. That is the only answer I can give the noble Lord. There should not be too much compulsion, but I think people should be coerced into doing socially acceptable things—not lighting cigarettes when I am just about to have a meal.

5.20 p.m.


My Lords, I submit that under any Government the people of this country have a right to expect that the laws which are passed in their name will be just. It is on the question of whether this law, if passed, would be just that I want to address your Lordships briefly today. Is it just that a wife, now a widow, who was unable to extract her husband from a burning car and who had to watch him burn to death, should be compelled to wear a seat belt? Is it just, considering the case of a police constable who was shot by a maniac shortly after we debated a similar Bill in this House in 1974? The police constable died as the result of a shot by a maniac; witness said that she could probably have saved him if she could have got him out of his seat belt. Take the case of a doctor, whom I happen to know myself, who has two daughters; he will confirm they would be dead if they had been wearing seat belts. Would it he just that the daughters and the doctor would be forced by this Bill to wear seat belts?

I was talking to two long-distance lorry drivers on a train recently. One had come down a hill, heavily laden, in a narrow street, round a bend, to meet his colleague coming up in an empty lorry. The one coming down realised coming round the bend that he was out of control. They both realised that the offsides of their lorries were going to collide, and it would be quite inevitable that they would both be killed. Because they were not wearing seat belts—because it is not enforceable that they should have seat belts in their lorries—they threw themselves across to the nearside seats of their lorries, and they were both in the train that day. In the course of conversation I asked them what they would do in their own private cars, and they said no power on earth would ever make them wear seat belts in their own private cars after that experience.

Also, my Lords, would it be just to the parents of a young boy whom I also know? He was very nearly garrotted by a seat belt that came up and was strangling him in an open car; lie was saved because a surgeon was following him in another car, had an offensive weapon with him in the shape of a scalpel, dashed to his bag, and saved that young man's life, although he was purple at that time. Is it just that that young man and his parents and all his friends would be compelled by this law to wear seat belts in the future? These are some of the many instances known to me involving the wearing of seat belts, and I ask if a law would be just which made wearing a seat belt compulsory.

I turn briefly to exemptions. We have been told by various Ministers in various Governments of their various thoughts on various possibilities of various exemptions. Governments come and Governments go; Ministers of Transport come and Ministers of Transport go, and others succeed them. Would it be just to allow any Minister carte blanche to make exceptions as and when he or she directs? Would it be just, as we have been told is thought by the Ministry to be a good idea, to exempt the police. I went to a very large police motor vehicle station quite recently and asked the question, "How many of your motorised police wear seat belts?", and the answer was "Fifty-fifty", which I thought was interesting; there was no law and no regulation laid down by the Home Office, and they, I gathered, were most grateful to the Home Office for that. One gathers that the reason why the police might be exempted is that they might be in a hurry to get out of their cars. My Lords, a doctor at the scene of an accident might also be in a hurry to get out of his car. If a doctor and the police are in a hurry, why should not other members of the public also on occasion be in a hurry for various reasons to get out of their cars. If they are in a hurry, as everybody knows, it takes an extra second or two if one is wearing a seat belt.

Would it be just to exempt taxi drivers? I have spoken, as I am sure other noble Lords have, to many taxi drivers. They say it would be quite impossible for them to wear a seat belt because they could not stretch across to the nearside of the vehicle to ring down the flag. But why taxi drivers? Why not milk-float drivers? Why not perhaps van drivers, who have been alluded to today? Would it be right—and it has been suggested—to exempt elderly people, on the grounds apparently that they are not used to wearing them and why should they have to wear them? I do not like to say anything about the elderly people, although I am certainly one myself, but I have had for 47 years a clean driving licence, of which I am rather proud. I think very often the reactions of elderly people are slower. Medical men will be able to tell us that, but I gather that is often the case. Therefore, why should they be exempted? We are also told that it is possible that a Minister will exempt people on the grounds of obesity. My Lords, who is going to judge who is obese? Who would decide the question about somebody who was going before his doctor to claim a certificate on these grounds?

A noble Lord: Cyril Smith.


Yes, my Lords: I happen to know him, and I am sure he would be exempted, perhaps twice, on various grounds. Would a 6ft. person who was well proportioned but weighed 16 stone get a certificate? Would it go to a person of 5ft. 4 ins. Who also weighed 16 stone? Would it be the tape measure, would it be the height, would it be the avoirdupois? There are many members of the medical profession who will know that it is very difficult to lay down rules and regulations for all members of the population; indeed, they hardly ever agree one with another.


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness would agree that since these problems have not caused major difficulties in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Canada and so on, and since we are not noticeably less intelligent that our allies in those countries, it is not beyond the wit of the British people to find solutions similar to those which have been followed in so many other countries?


My Lords, I have been in Australia, I have been in most Common Market countries; I have driven in most of those countries, except Australia. This is a hypothetical question. I cannot see than I can prove it any more than the noble Lord can.

I am not surprised there was so little enthusiasm for this Bill in another place. One can only infer, and I hope it is correct, that the Members of Parliament had actually been listening to their constituents. In 1974 this House threw out a similar measure during the Report stage. By law seat belts are fitted to all cars; we can all wear them and many of us do. I have tried to put before the House the fact that the Bill would not be just. I hope that the House will reject the Bill by supporting the Amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, at twenty minutes past eight on the evening of 28th August, 1965, I was the front seat passenger in a saloon car and was travelling, unbelted, down Arnolds Hill at Haverfordwest. The driver of that car was later adjudged to have made a mistake. He accelerated out of the column in which we were travelling and at 60 mph met, head on, another car in which an innocent driver was travelling up the hill. We struck that car which in turn struck another one and, in the multiple pile-up that followed, I and others were very badly injured indeed. My injuries included two broken legs and a fractured femur; the rib cage down my left side was crushed; I had a collapsed lung and my jaw was broken—perhaps shortly noble Lords will wish that I was still suffering from the impediment of a broken jaw! Nevertheless, had I been wearing a seat belt I should not now walk lamely or be limited in a physical capacity so that I have to do certain things; in fact, I would be, as are many noble Lords, considerably fitter than I am at my age.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, 7th September, 1965 my father was travelling to visit me in the hospital where I was fighting back from a condition in which I was very close indeed to death. He was in the front passenger scat travelling, unbelted, in a family saloon car when that car, travelling at only 25 mph, was struck from the side by a car which had accidentally moved from a standing start out of a junction. He was hurled forward against the dashboard of the car by the impetus, the inertia, the force of the passenger behind hitting against the hinged seat in front, and his lungs collapsed. Instead of visiting me at the hospital he was carried into the same ward, to die beside me on the following morning.

On the afternoon of Saturday, 3rd June 1972 I was in a car sitting beside my niece. We were in a major accident when a powerful car driven by an inexperienced driver suffered a mechanical failure. We might have been unbelted but, from experience, we were belted. We overturned and the car travelled on its roof for 38 feet. When we were taken from that car none of us was injured.

The facts are incontravertible. Noble Lords have had evidence put before them. Although noble Lords might question some of the nuances and interpretations, and although one noble Lord has gone so far as to suggest—I am sure inadvertently—that some of the figures are either irrelevant or even untrustworthy, it cannot be gainsaid that people who wear belts in major accidents suffer fewer injuries. Those who are in cars, unbelted, from which it is said they might have escaped if they were not belted, are more likely to be dead than alive in a major collision.

The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, eloquently and sincerely asked the question: is this law just? She postulated certain situations in which it might appear to be unjust. However, she was forgetting that in those circumstances, had the people in those vehicles not been wearing seat belts, they might very well be dead. She was forgetting—and she will forgive me for personalising because I do not do so in a personal sense—that lorries which collide with each other are vehicles of totally different geometry and construction. They are driven by professional drivers who are taught how to move away from the steering column and to throw themselves to the left or right in such an emergency.


My Lords, I was drawing the analogy of a lorry colliding with an ordinary car. The majority of accidents are offside wing to offside wing. If a lorry or car driver is tied in, he cannot throw himself across the the nearside and save his life.


My Lords, I take the point made by the noble Baroness and accept it. I gave way in order that she might make it because I still believe it is a wholly different matter for someone to be in a strongly constructed commercial vehicle, with the freedom that the cab gives, rather than sitting with a passenger beside one in a saloon car or in the limited interior of a small vehicle. The internal geometry and the physical stresses of the vehicle count in all the tests that are carried out, and these are counted in the balance. The myriads of tests that have already been undertaken in the field by the agencies prove over and over again that, even when the geometry and the physical rules are taken into account, bodies go through a series of movements which inevitably produce accidents of the nature that I have described.

When a car impacts with another car the feet are driven forward. As the impetus takes force the head and shoulders come forward. Because of the construction of earlier vehicles, which in many cases has now been amended, the individual driving the car or sitting in the front passenger seat turns up and over and the thighs impact with the superstructure of the facia of the car, and are almost inevitably broken. In those circumstances, do we create freedom? Was I free to move away from the vehicle in which I was travelling? Was I free to run if that vehicle was on fire? Was there any sense in which I was free? Is there any sense in which it is justice to say because there were no straps in those cars for me to use that I would not have used them had they been there?

I wish to underline the evidence of inertia presented by my noble friend. Please do not think that I am detracting from any concern of any noble Lord or Baroness who has taken part in the debate. Noble Lords realise that we are all concerned to save slaughter and lives and to prevent folly. In those accidents to which I have referred there was no such thing as freedom to move for someone who was unconscious and who had been broken by the physics of the moment.

I wish to underline that there was a circumstance in the third accident in which I was involved, in which the young lady who was driving the car was in fact trapped. The car was upside down; she was trapped and hanging in the straps of the car, but she was not trapped by those straps. I support the argument that safety straps should be improved. I am saying that she was trapped because the car was crushed and she was so limited in movement that those who quickly came to rescue us could not get to her in order to get to the straps. When they were able to press the release button of the strap the girl was freed almost instantly, but it was still a long time before she was removed.

Noble Lords will forgive the emotion, which I did not intend to introduce into the debate. The Bill must be debated on its value as a Bill, on its place in the democratic constitution and on the arguments which the noble Lord introduced when he criticised it so severely. I happen to believe that when he reads his speech tomorrow morning in Hansard he might feel that he over-stressed some of those areas that are in conflict. Some comments became almost ribald, although that was not his intention. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, may live to be a very old noble Peer of this House—I hope he does. I do not believe that he will ever make a better speech; nor will he be more proud of any speech that he has made than of the one he made this afternoon.

It is my duty—not my pleasure because these are circumstances in which no one can take pleasure—to support the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in presenting this Bill. It is my duty to urge this House to consider it very carefully before it dares reject it. I believe that there is much work to be done in Committee. I believe that many Amendments are possible. I give all my personal experiences, my energy, and my support to this Bill, and ask your Lordships to treat it in the tradition of this House at its very best, carefully, and finally to pass it.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, may I add my thanks to the introducer of this Bill for what is a very worthwhile measure and one which I would strongly support on personal grounds. I would also add my support from the point of view of being the chairman of the Automobile Association, which has consistently campaigned for the compulsory wearing of seat belts. Some three years ago an extensive survey was carried out of the membership and over 60 per cent. of the members canvassed said that they would favour compulsory wearing of seat belts if the voluntary campaign and publicity campaign were found to be unsuccessful. It is clear that they have been unsuccessful. We have taken a further survey of members and the percentage is slightly greater than it was three years ago. In my remarks to the House this afternoon it will be a mixture both of my own convictions and also of what I have learned at the headquarters of the Automobile Association.

May I begin by saying how much I was impressed, as I am sure were noble Lords in all parts of the House, by the moving description of the personal experiences of the noble Lord, Lord Parry. I hope that those who speak so glibly about freedom and the freedom to die will bear in mind what they have just heard from the noble Lord of the tragic and terrible experiences which he has suffered. Perhaps I could supplement this, not by any personal reminiscence, but to say that whenever you have met a man or a woman whose life has been saved by wearing a seat belt you will find that they are wholly on the side of compulsory wearing. Indeed, if the noble Lord, Lord Platt, were still here I would mention to him that it was a distinguished physician who told me that twice his life had been saved by wearing a seat belt and his wife, twice as well. This perhaps shows that the medical profession are not very good drivers. I am sorry he is not here to comment, but of course one should never come out of a suburban driveway into a main road with a cold engine in front of an approaching lorry. But that is another matter.

My noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye, who takes the opposite point of view from mine, is an expert at political gamesmanship. He regaled us with a fascinating political speech in which he accused the mover of the Bill of a certain amount of politicking, and then quite blandly said, if I may paraphrase, "Let us forget the statistics". Of course he wanted us to forget the statistics because the statistics are all against his case. He said, "Let us forget the statistics that seat belts save lives; let us remember that wearing seat belts costs lives". But he very carefully did not indicate how many seat belt wearers have lost their lives through wearing seat belts. If any, it is probably one or two per thousand.


My Lords, I gave one very effective lot of statistics from Australia where accidents per 10,000 were reduced from five to four. That was a genuine statistic.


My Lords, if I may say so, that is highly selective, as all good political speeches should be. I was not very much impressed with my noble friend's arguments, because in fact there are very few injuries resulting from the wearing of seat belts which would not be caused in an even more aggravated form if the seat belt was not being worn.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Platt, who talked about the problem of being burned in a car, and that he has a particular fear of being burned. The point is that it is not a case of, as he said, head injuries or being burned; it is a case of head injuries and being burned, because if the accident is such that the car is likely to go on fire the driver, or the front seat passenger, will probably be severely injured in the accident before the vehicle goes on fire, whereas if the driver and front seat passenger are wearing seat belts they will probably be uninjured at the moment of impact and will have a chance to get out before the vehicle goes on fire. It is important that we should deal with this fire menace realistically and accurately. If you wear your seat belt the chances are that you will be able to get yourself out. Indeed, a similar point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Parry, about his own particular province.

Another aspect of compulsion which ought to be remembered is that every passenger in a commercial aircraft has to wear a seat belt, but nobody seems to regard that as a restriction on freedom; and you can die very easily in an airplane even if you have a seat belt on if there should be an unfortunate accident.


You die anyhow.


I am sure that my noble friend, an intrepid pilot, always wore his own seat belt.


For different reasons. It was in order to get to the controls in bumpy weather.


My Lords, compulsion to wear crash helmets for motor cyclists is accepted for very good safety reasons, so why not seat belts for motorists? Other noble Lords have referred to experiences from other countries, so I shall not weary your Lordships by repeating points which have already been made. If those who are against statistics will accept instead personal examples, may I say that I invited the officials of the Automobile Association to look up one or two examples which they thought might be of interest to noble Lords in the course of this debate. Out of a large number, I have selected one or two which are of particular interest as illustrating the importance of wearing seat belts.

One accident was on the A74 in July last year. An articulated lorry sustained a puncture, and in trying to gain the hard shoulder was struck in the rear by a Rover 2000. The driver of the Rover 2000, who was seat belted, sustained no injury; a Fiat car then collided with the wreckage. The belted passenger in the Fiat received no injury, while the unrestrained driver was thrown through the windscreen and received multiple and serious injuries. So one lorry and two cars: those wearing seat belts escaped, the one person not wearing a seat belt seriously and perhaps permanently injured.

There was another spectacular accident in October following a blow-out on the MI. The vehicle turned over at least four times and finally came to rest on its roof, but neither the driver nor his passenger, who were both wearing seat belts, sustained any injury whatsoever. It is not only collisions at high speeds. Very often it is collisions at low speeds, particularly when they are head on, that can cause a great deal of personal injury. As the noble Lord, Lord Platt, said, two cars in a built-up area, travelling at 30 mph, each have a closing speed of 60 mph and come to rest in about two feet from the point of impact. A single car travelling at 30 mph, driving straight into a telegraph pole, or a street lamp in a built-up area, can cause, if not death, very serious injuries to the unbelted driver and his passengers. I know of a case where a woman was driving into a shopping centre in Woking. She swerved to avoid a dog, and as a result she died a fortnight later from terrible and painful injuries, even though she was travelling at under 30 mph in a built-up area. If she had been wearing a seat belt she would be alive today.

May I give another example of a minor collision; an accident in March of this year. In this accident, a relatively low speed collision burst open the drivers door ejecting the unbelted driver on to the carriageway and he died from his injuries. I mention this example because it is often said that you are better off if you are ejected from the car as a result of the impact rather than tied up inside with your seat belt. All the evidence, and all the statistics, I say to my noble friend, are against that point of view. You have a much better chance if you are still in the car rather than thrown out on to the highway or ejected through the air to land in a heap on the concrete perhaps several or many yards away. Those are just some of the examples which I wanted to mention to noble Lords to indicate my strong belief in the importance of the compulsory wearing of seat belts.

Much has been said about enforcement and the way in which the police are already overworked. This is a moral question, as my noble friend said; this is a question relating to the general moral standards of the people of this country and, generally speaking, we are a very law abiding society. When Parliament passes a law, by and large we obey it. I think I hear my noble friend Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone saying, "Sometimes."


My Lords, I said, "For a time".


Perhaps, my Lords, but that is typical of the British way of pretending to be restless, disloyal and not law abiding, when in fact we really are a very law abiding people. If this law is passed, the great majority of drivers and front seat passengers will wear seat belts because that will be the law and it will not be very necessary for the police to have to enforce the provisions. People will obey the law, and there will be what I would call a good deal of family enforcement; if the husband is not wearing his seat belt either his wife or children will say, "Daddy, you are not wearing your seat belt; you are breaking the law", and that can have a powerful effect.


Or they will get a clip over the ear.


My Lords, I hear my noble friend's intervention, but I do not think that would be the result in this day of the enlightened family society.


Don't you believe it!


My Lords, there are drivers who feel that it is a sign of timidity or caution to be seen wearing a seat belt, whereas the reverse is the truth. If it is compulsory, that apparent stigma of being cautious or excessively careful will be removed by the law, whereupon it will become the natural and sensible thing to belt up before driving off.

Let us not forget that 40 per cent. of all road accidents occur in built-up areas, many of the nasty ones only a few hundred yards from home. It is therefore just as important to clunk-clink as you leave the driveway as it is on motorways. That is why I believe the French are wrong to have the enforcement of seat belts only outside built-up areas. The hard fact of the matter is that two or three lives a day are being lost through the absence of the enforcement of wearing seat belts. If the Bill is lost today, those who vote against it will carry the responsibility for a form of death that need be quite unnecessary.

5.53 p.m.


My Lords, speaking as an erstwhile surgeon, I am amazed and slightly saddened by the overall tone of the debate so far. It has been fascinating, and it was obviously going to be fascinating, but there has been too much emotion, although that was bound to happen. It has been contentious, but, then, it always will be contentious. It has been most enjoyable to listen to the entirely specious arguments of certain noble Lords who have put their case very well, although I cannot help but believe that their tongues must be in their cheeks when one remembers the underlying principles that we are considering in the Bill.

That brings me to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, who in my view made the only remark that needs our attention this afternoon when she said that we should be dealing with the principles of the Bill and not with its detail. There will be plenty of time to deal with the details in the ordinary course of the Bill, whereas the principles are cast-iron and I must put them, as I say, as an ex-medical man because, as the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, said, we have heard the figures time and again: 1,000 killed and 7,000 seriously injured every year. The Bill is attempting to get rid of that ghastly and unnecessary toll. It is as simple as that.

All the little side points that noble Lords have made are fascinating, very arguable and show that the Bill is capable of improvement, but if we turn down the Bill on Second Reading—on an Amendment about which I shall speak later because, sadly, we are discussing the Amendment and not the Bill—we shall be sentencing a large number of people to death and, almost worse, sentencing many others to serious injury and deformity for the rest of their lives, affecting not only those concerned but their families and relations.

Lady Stedman spoke of the economic side of the matter; the figure of £64 million which she quoted is colossal. It is of itself an enormous consideration, though I am sure she will agree that it is secondary compared with the personal and human costs, and it is in that context that we must consider the Amendment. I am glad that we shall have a legal opinion later because I believe that what is proposed in the Bill is entirely legal. To put it another way, I do not believe that it is illegal in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye. In any event, I find his argument completely illogical, quite inequitable and utterly inhuman, and if that is not enough to damage it then I do not know what is.

I am sure that Lord Balfour's principles are as good as those of Lady Stedman and myself, but I cannot understand the logic of his case as he put it. He says that we must not compulsorily control the wearing of seat belts because that would be limiting our freedom. Are not the restrictions on the parking of cars affecting our freedom? Are we allowed to drive without a licence, without insurance and without a Ministry of Transport test certificate? These, every one of them, are limitations on our personal freedom. What do we and those in another place do day in and day out except impose restrictions on personal freedoms? This restriction, on the other hand, will save thousands of lives and prevent countless injuries. If any limitation on personal freedom is worth allowing, it must be this one.

So much has been said that I will not delay the House, though I must add a few simple points. We have heard that this country is dragging its feet in a big way worldwide. In other words, we are one of the only three countries in the EEC that have not done something about this problem and we are one of the few countries in the world that have not taken action on it. Why are we so sticky? Why cannot we take this chance? Let us admit quite frankly that it would limit our personal freedom, but surely the purpose makes it worthwhile a thousand times.

Consider the bodies and institutions which have considered this problem in detail. With all the evidence available in the world, they have come to the conclusion that the compulsory wearing of seat belts is worthwhile. We must therefore be very well-informed or else implacable in our beliefs if we are to deny them. We have heard that the AA and, more important, the medical branch of the Ministry of Transport approve of this proposal entirely. The Medical Commission on Accident Prevention, of which I happen to be president, supports 100 per cent. the compulsory wearing of seat belts. The Company of Veteran Motorists, to which many noble Lords will belong, a highly eminent and worthwhile body which believes in courtesy as well as care on the roads—in other words, "anti-agro"—believes entirely in the compulsory wearing of seat belts. One could go on naming the organisations in favour of this proposal. All the bodies which have something to do with and have thought about the subject believe that this should be done.

Even in today's world I believe that compulsion over the wearing of seat belts would be a temporary phase. While America does not have compulsory seat belt wearing at the moment, it has all sorts of variations of it, and at one time one could not start one's car unless the seat belt was fastened. If that is not compulsion I do not know what is. The compulsion aspect of it there has been dropped because people got so much into the habit of using seat belts that the Americans could afford to stop using silly gadgets. I hope there are enough people in this country who believe in saving lives that the stage of compulsion here would be limited. However, we have already seen that, without some preliminary compulsion, that ideal stage will not be reached.

Referring to my original remarks about the profession, the noble Lord, Lord Platt, said that doctors would have an increased burden of certification. I regard this as a tiny burden compared with the burden which they have been carrying over the years with the road accidents that they have to deal with. There is no casualty department or accident department in this country that would not shout "Hooray!" if your Lordships gave this Bill a Second Reading this afternoon. The unnecessary work and the vast amount of serious work and expense which is imposed upon the hospitals of this country due to unnecessary accidents owing to the absence of seat belts is unbelievable. We do not hear nearly enough of it.

I should like also to express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, for what I, too, would say was an excellent speech—so much more modest and better thought out than mine. However, I should like to say this to him: I believe, if I am allowed to mention statistics, which are becoming unpopular today, that 40 per cent. of the deaths from road accidents in this country take place in 30 mph areas, so one is not out of danger if one is in a 30 mph area. Although the French may have different ideas, as they have about many things, I would not go very far with their scheme. It would need a ring of police round the 30 mph areas to see that everybody was putting on a belt before leaving the "unbelted zone".

In view of what has already been said, I do not feel that I want to add much more, but I should like to revert to a point which I believe has already been made. It is that we are dealing with a subject which, to my mind, is of national importance. Unless we carry on with this Bill, I do not believe that we can avoid a terrible moral responsibility. For far too long, we have avoided that moral responsibility. Traffic accidents are the worst epidemic disease in the world and we have done nothing at all about it. Nearly every other country has done something: it is high time that we did something, too.

6.3 p.m.


My Lords, I do not like all this publicity for the AA. I happen to be vice-chairman of the RAC and we take a different, though similar, view on this. We oppose compulsion but we are prepared to support freedom of choice and hope that the standards of seat belts will be improved. That seems to me to be a far better way to tackle the matter.

I am the son of a great racing driver. I have done a little bit of it myself as well. I do not know whether it would be of any help to the noble Lord, Lord Platt, to point out that I had a father who probably broke more bones in his body than anybody else in your Lordships' House. But, so my father told me, when the hones mended they were stronger than those which he had not already broken. I hope that that will not be queried by the medical gentlemen, but it comes from somebody who hurt himself a great deal.

The whole matter of seat belts is highly controversial. The wearing or not of seat belts does not necessarily save life in a collision and, since the majority of collisions are frontal ones, I should have thought that freedom of movement so that one can fling oneself to the near side of one's motor car would save severe injuries to the chest as the steering wheel pushed past one into the seat. I instance this because, though one does not want to be emotive over this, my wife was involved in an accident when not wearing seat belts and, though it was a very bad accident, she was able to fling herself aside and her life was saved. She had a broken shoulder and six broken ribs. I feel that it is worth mentioning that with reference to the problem of seat belts.

If the side of the car is hit, I fail to see that there is much that the seat belt can do. In the event of a fiery accident, which I know is emotive but which can happen, both on the race track and on the ordinary roads, when instantaneous combustion can take place simply from the shock of the collision, seconds can count in getting free of the seat belts and the motor car. This has happened, even on the race track itself.

Many motorists find the lap and shoulder strap most uncomfortable and in that position their driving ability is quite severely impaired. I myself am far too conscious of being strapped in and my concentration is therefore more on my seat belt than on my driving. It ought to be realised that after a severe "shunt" the seat belts can be so strained that they will have lost their efficiency and should be changed, which I believe costs £25 a pair, for one cannot change one at a time. I am glad to see that the Ministry of Transport tests now include checking on seat belts. It is interesting that the driver of a single seater formula racing car is firmly secured in his seat by a 6 point harness to prevent being flung about on corners at the high speeds attained. On the other hand, before the war, when seat belts were unheard of, my own father was hurled from his racing car at Brook-lands and survived severe injuries. Had he been strapped in, he would most certainly have been crushed to death as the car cartwheeled down the track.

The answer must be freedom of choice. Compulsion is a gross intrusion on the freedom of the individual and should not be used, as my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve has said, against justly and strongly-held feelings. We have frequently spoken in debate about being realistic as far as traffic regulations are concerned. Let us be realistic about enforcement. I realise that it is almost impossible to enforce any compulsory wearing of seat belts unless we employ a squad of police vigilantes in most towns and shopping centres. Take, for example, an occasion when your wife is going to the bank to get money to shop for the weekend on the Friday because the banks close on Saturday. She takes off her seat belt when she gets to the bank, comes out, puts it on again, goes to the wine store or the grocer's, takes it off, comes out and puts it on again. This is almost as bad as the nautical manoeuvre of "off caps" and "on caps". It really does not make sense and motorists will not do it. They just will not wear it. We battle on with speed limits which are unrealistic, bus lanes and yellow boxes, all of which are impossible to enforce properly. These only really prove my point. Persuasion is now working. I believe that every one of us will realise as we are motoring, if we have the chance of seeing drivers passing, that they are wearing their seat belts. It is working, but it is working slowly.

Compulsion is an ugly word and it is offensive to most motorists. We should leave the motorist alone for a bit. He is heavily taxed before he even puts his car on the road, then fined for stopping, then for moving and now the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, wants to strap us all into our motor cars. I shall vote for the Amendment and I should also like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye on his speech and on his clear and common sense approach to the whole very difficult problem of seat belts.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I ask whether he is aware that, when Mr. Peyton was Minister, he spent some £1,700,000 purely on advertising seat belts but that at the height of the campaign the wearing of belts never got up to more than 50 per cent. and, as soon as it stopped, wearing went down to 30 per cent.?


My Lords, all these percentages and statistics do not influence me at all. This is a private and personal matter for all of us and I do not think that these figures should be trotted out. Nor do I believe all that Secretaries of State and Ministers say.

6.9 p.m.


My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Howe. I used to know his father and I saw him on a number of occasions going round Brooklands and other places at very high velocity. One of the things about him that impressed me very much was his superb driving and his flow of language if anything went wrong. I heard him at Dieppe when he hit a tree.

Turning to the Bill, I must first say that I am in complete favour of seat belts. As has been said a number of times, and as I believe, seat belts probably save an enormous number of lives. However, I am not in favour either of the principles of the Bill or of its detail. The motorist—and the non-motorist, too—is being interfered with in virtually every act he does, except going to bed and getting up in the mornings. To my mind, it is quite impossible to go on in this way, with people being regimented in everything they do. The people of this country are not the type who are prepared to be regimented.

I have the feeling that there will be much more co-operation in carrying out certain acts and functions when an appeal is made to people to do them for the right cause. In this regard one has only to look at what happened regarding the speed limits which were introduced, in the first place for the saving of fuel and power. At first everybody reverted, almost at once, to a 50 mph speed limit. As the time passed and the need behind the limits appeared to be lessening, the limits began to be observed less, almost from day to day. The enforcement of them was quite impossible.

There are so many speed limits in this country. If one is to talk about statistics it would be most interesting to find out, though one never can, the percentage of speed limits which are observed compared with the percentage which are not. I should say that the number is very small. I drive a considerable distance to and from your Lordships' House, and I should not be prepared to say that I observe the speed limits all the time. But the number of times that I break a speed limit is infinitesimal compared with the number of motorists who go rushing past me on the roads. When it comes down to a matter of law, one gets straight back to the position in the Army: no order which is unenforceable is a good order. My view is that the compulsory wearing of seat belts is totally unenforceable. It is totally unenforceable by the people who are supposed to enforce it.

One could go into a number of details as to why the Bill is not a good Bill, and one could probably say some extremely amusing things about it. For instance, one point which interests me is: Who is supposed, while driving along, to tell one's aged mother, who has never worn one, to put on her seat belt? As the owner and driver of the car, is one therefore responsible for her, or is she a law unto herself? If she was to be summoned for not wearing a seat belt, would one then be prosecuted for aiding and abetting her? This is one of the matters which, to my mind, make the Bill almost untenable.

Another matter regarding the Bill which annoys me is that for many years the motorist has borne a vast amount of taxation. In the Bill it is sought to save lives which might be lost as a result of accidents. Would it not be far better if a considerable amount of the money that has been received from the taxation of the motorist was applied in order to reduce considerably the conditions under which accidents occur? If this had happened we should probably not now be in a position of being asked to try to save 1,000 lives a year.

Another point which has always interested me is the question of seat belts in aeroplanes. I found myself being involved too much in this matter during the war years so far as aeroplanes are concerned, but I believe that in aeroplanes one is compelled to wear a seat belt only at the moment at which it is known that the most acute accident conditions exists. I understand that in between those times one is not required to use the seat belt. So it rather defeats me that that should be used as an argument as to why one should be compelled to wear seat belts at all times in a motor car, excepting the fact that one admits that everyone involved in driving is a complete "nut case". I should like to see far more education in manners and courtesy, and the acknowledgment that there are other road users besides oneself on the road If this were to come about then we should not need any such Bill as this. I personally must oppose the Bill because I do not see that what it proposes is enforceable, nor do I think it reasonable that this should be compulsory.

6.16 p.m.


My Lords, I must ask for your Lordships' indulgence or dispensation if I leave before the end of the debate, because one of my children is having a 21st birthday celebration and I crave your Lordships' indulgence to enable me to attend it. We have this controversial Bill once again, and I wish to say at the start of my remarks that I shall support the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye—and so at the moment that makes two belted Earls, counting the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and myself.

I also wish to ask noble Lords—I may not succeed in this—to consider that if they have any preconceived ideas, and if they are going to vote in favour of the Bill that they think over the matter very carefully. If there are present some noble Lords who are in doubt or might be thinking of abstaining, I hope that as a result of my small efforts and the efforts of others they will vote in favour of the Amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Balfour, said that statistics are not much use, and I agree with him on that. They can be juggled around in order to mean anything one wishes, depending from what side one is looking at the matter.

I agree that if seat belts are worn, some lives will be saved and some injuries prevented, but looking at the other side of the coin it seems that some lives will be lost and some injuries will be sustained. Why is this? The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, gave us some examples in this regard, and I should like to mention two short examples myself. One concerns a friend of mine who wrapped his car around a lamp-post. The lamp-post came through the driver's side of the car. He got thrown over to the passenger's side and he walked out shaken, but otherwise unhurt. Had he been strapped in, he would not now be with us. Another friend of mine parked behind a lorry from which a girder was sticking out. The lorry driver reversed, despite being hooted at, and the girder went straight through the windscreen of my friend's car, and had he been wearing a seat harness he would not have been able to have got down under the dashboard. He, too, would have been dead—and he was not even moving in his car at the time.

Then we come to the question of fire in motor vehicles which, as all noble Lords know, is a comparatively rare happening. But as has already been quoted today, there have been instances of people being burnt because their seat harnesses could not be undone, and for similar reasons. Years ago I was a great believer in wearing a seat harness. Now, when I sometimes still wear seat harness, I find that I am inclined to drive faster than when I am not wearing it, because subconsciously I have a greater feeling of superiority of power. I think that if I hit somebody he will get hurt and I will not. I think that this involves an interesting medical point, and perhaps somebody will be able to come up with an idea or theory about this power complex—


My Lords, how does my noble friend reconcile the two points, that he has put before us? One is that a motorist is injured if wearing a seat belt, and the other is that if he is wearing a seat belt, he has a greater feeling of confidence that he is not going to be injured.


My Lords, that is a very difficult question to answer, and I think it all depends from which point of view one looks at it. But the majority of the English have much more common sense than politicians give them credit for, and the one thing they do not like is being regimented and herded about like sheep. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, said that they like their freedom of choice, and I agree with him. There have been suggestions of certain exemptions being laid down in this Bill, one of them being that may be you should not be compelled to wear a seat belt on local journeys, but as another noble Lord has already said this afternoon, supposedly most accidents happen either near your place of work or near your home. Therefore, the whole purpose of the Bill will be nullified if such people are not made to wear a belt.

My Lords, if this Bill becomes an Act it will be yet another law for the police, who will find themselves incapable of enforcing it, and the courts will be even more cluttered up. My noble friend Lord Avebury said that the police have not made much comment about it. I have a slight interest here. I have a son who is a policeman, and he says he hopes that it will not be made law because even now they cannot look after yellow boxes, and all kinds of things, in traffic. No, my Lords; it is just like the 50 m.p.h. limits. When they were first introduced it was because of fuel economy. Now that they have not been entirely cleared or released, one of the excuses being given is that they cause fewer accidents. So yet another piece of our freedom is being taken away from the individual, but it is being removed under false colours. Many people thought that the limits would never be restored to what they were. May be they are right, may be they are wrong, but I ask your Lordships: is there not one possible reason why there have been fewer accidents? It may be that we have a higher standard of driving in this country. It may be that the motorists are getting better at driving. It may be that their standards have improved. Has anyone thought that, every year, motor cars get better mechanically, become more reliable and therefore safer?

Once upon a time I manufactured seat harnesses, and I had an inertia reel seat harness in the Motor Show in 1951. At that time I was very pro that it should be compulsory for people to wear seat harnesses. Looking back, I have a feeling that this might have been a slightly commercial attitude. I now think that it is wrong thinking. There are more accidents that occur from one side or the other than absolutely head-on, and I would say that if you have a head-on accident you are probably safer wearing a belt, whereas if you have one from the side there is more chance of your being killed or injured. So I should like to leave the judgment of this, for or against, to the individual. Incidentally, it may interest noble Lords to know that, when they leave your Lordships' House in the evening, not one in ten wears a seat belt for a local journey. I know this because I did a survey myself the other day. Any noble Lord who does not wear his seat belt when he leaves this House should not in all honesty vote for this Bill.

My Lords, we have exemptions. We shall have have sufferers from claustrophobia; and we shall have people who have a fear of fire, or many other neuroses. We shall have exemptions for tall people, short people, fat people, thin people. As for women, I think it has been medically proved that a diagonal belt may possibly be a cause of breast cancer. So there will be many exceptions, and there will be many hundreds and thousands of people with doctors' certificates saying that they need not wear a belt. If that is the case, then, again, the Bill will become unworkable. My Lords, practically every day some Government Department or some scientist gets up and says, "Don't eat this or that; don't drink this or that; don't smoke this or that, or don't do something. It may damage your health or shorten your life". Not long ago the Daily Mail said: Living is dangerous to your health, and one day you will die". My Lords, Lincoln wrote on April 6, 1859; Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves". I sincerely hope that the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, will be carried tonight, and hope that I shall be able to return to vote.

6.24 p.m.


My Lords, I share in giving thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for creating the opportunity to debate this important matter of the compulsory wearing of seat belts in vehicles, but it is my firm intention to stand alongside the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, in support of his Amendment. In what I hope will be cogent and crisp reasoning for this stance, let me start by saying that it is the element of compulsion that is objectionable to me. The liberty of the individual, especially the motorist, is already being eroded almost savagely in this country, and the idea of making the wearing of seat belts compulsory by law is harsh, intolerable and, above all, impractical. The choice to wear or not to wear a seat belt should be left to the udgment and good sense of the driver or person in charge of the vehicle. Circumstances alter cases. On some types of runs, on uncrowded wide roads at a leisurely pace, the need to be belted in is non-existent. But that same motorist, if in a hurry on a busy winding road, would wisely fasten his seat belt. If a learner driver has enough intelligence to pass his or her driving test, surely the individual can be regarded as sufficiently adult to make the choice to wear or not to wear his own decision, and not be subject to compulsion.

Let me quote two corollaries. Take cigarette smoking. Every packet carries a Government warning that the practice is harmful, but there is no legal compulsion against smoking. The decision is in the hands of the individual, which is right and just. Then about 25 years ago there was a campaign to make all seats in civil aeroplanes face backwards. It was urged that in the event of a crash the danger to the passengers would be minimised. The arguments went back and forth until, as we all know, civil aircraft are now fitted with mostly forward-facing seats, with may be some, as in a Trident, facing backwards. The customer, the buyer, has the liberty to make the choice, which is democratic freedom—a right! Another germane fact is that it depends on the type of mishap to a vehicle that makes a seat belt a device for safety or danger. In a direct head-on collision, a properly fitted and adjusted inertia belt can reduce head injuries; but most accidents are not head-on, and in the case of angular collisions, which are in the majority, the straight-jacket effect will restrict the movement of the occupant to free himself and/or others, which, in the case of a fire, is a very serious situation.

I want to deal, clearly but briefly, with the psychological aspects of car seat belts. We all know that humans are subject to the corruption of power. Any engine-driven vehicle is an example; and the driver who has tens of horse- power under his foot develops a sense of superiority and, to a degree, selfishness. It is subconscious corruption, it may be, but it is there, and I am convinced that wearing a seat belt increases that feeling. Let it not be forgotten that the run-of-the-mill medium-sized family car has the horse-power and performance of racing cars of not so many decades ago, and that very power, when allied to a closed saloon-type body, induces an arrogant euphoria in the man or woman at the wheel. The noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, touched on this, and I so agree with what he said. Anyone who does much road-faring nowadays is familiar with that brash type of driver—a youngish man, usually in shirt sleeves, and probably cigarette smoking. He has his windows hard shut, radio blaring and heater full on. He is psychologically secure in the knowledge that it is a company car, he is fully insured and, because he is comfortably cuddled up in his seat belt, he can take more chances and drive just that much faster, change lanes and cut in with almost wreckless abandon, which he does. He may not have an accident himself, because his reactions are quicker, but he leaves behind him a trail of angry, frightened and distracted drivers who are much more prone to run into trouble because of his arrogant behaviour. I am thoroughly of the opinion that anything which induces a false sense of security in a car should be avoided and definitely not be made compulsory.

There are all kinds of "thou shall nots" which can be applied to motorists. At the time that Mr. Ernest Marples (now the noble Lord, Lord Marples) was Minister of Transport, there was a busybody proposal that would have made it illegal to smoke while at the wheel. The enlightened Minister agreed that the constant hand movement of the cigarette to the lips and into the ashtray reduced the concentration of control—a situation accentuated into danger when both hands were needed to fill and light a pipe. Recognising that the scheme was uncontrollable and unenforceable it was swiftly quashed. Common sense prevailed. Let it do so again in this matter of compulsory seat belts. The right policy is so to regulate and guide our traffic that there are fewer accidents and not irritatingly to try to make accidents less dangerous. I shall vote for the Amendment.

6.30 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to start by dealing with some of the fallacies, the red herrings and false analogies which have cropped up so far. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, started his speech with the insulting allegation that those of us who follow the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, into the Lobby tonight, if we were successful, would be sending a thousand people a year to their deaths. Bearing in mind that the noble Lord was for a number of years a Member of the other place, I am astonished at his apparent contempt for the electorate. He, and I regret to say one or two other noble Lords, presuppose that the average person in Britain is a semi-literate and ignorant individual, totally incapable of making up his own mind, who is waiting slavishly to lap up the pearls of wisdom that drop from the lips of his self-styled superiors: politicians, so-called experts, the fabled gentlemen in Whitehall. To the extent that this was ever the case, those days have gone for ever. Whitehall has been wrong far too often over the last 30, 40 or 50 years; and people will not stand for being patronised in this way.

I have a petition containing 494 signatures against the compulsory wearing of seat belts and this is from one small area of Merseyside alone. This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you multiply that figure by 10,000, I think you will get a true idea of the groundswell of opinion against this sort of paternalism. I have no doubt that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, means well; but I wonder whether he realises the enormity of what he proposes. The tradition in this country is that those activities which are intrinsically innocent but which may none the less jeopardise health in some way are dealt with in one of two ways. Either nothing at all is done and people are allowed to get on with and enjoy those activities without hindrance—and into this category fall all hazardous sporting activities and also the consumption of foods which are deleterious to health: sugar, butter, cream and so on—or the alternative is to discourage such activities by fiscal means. Into this category come smoking and the consumption of alcoholic drinks. The taxes raised have a dual function. The first is to try to reduce consumption to some degree, and the second is to raise enough revenue to compensate the Exchequer for the extra funds required by the National Health Service and the social security systems as a result of indulgence in these vices.

What this Bill proposes is something quite different and almost without precedent. Instead of encouraging the wearing of seat belts by fiscal inducements or discouraging the nonwearing of them by fiscal penalties, it introduces the criminal law into a matter which affects the individual and himself alone—a highly retrograde step. The compulsory wearing of crash helmets by motor cyclists has been cited to try to prove that this is not without precedent. Much as I disapprove of the law regarding the compulsory wearing of crash helmets, I concede that there are two mitigating factors. The first is that a large number of 16 and 17 year olds ride two-wheeled powered vehicles—motorcycles, motor scooters and mopeds—and Parliament does have a special duty towards those who are not yet adult. The second is that one is 18 times as likely to be killed and no less than 27 times as likely to be seriously injured riding a motorcycle or a moped as one is riding in the front seat of a car.

But here we come to a paradox. Only a few months ago the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, successfully piloted a Bill through this House which exempted certain sections of the community from wearing crash helmets on motorcycles, despite the high mortality rate involved. So the noble Lord has tacitly conceded that there are things in life which transcend the somewhat curious obsession that everybody should be made to lead a life style which ensures that they live to the ripe old age of 90 plus.


My Lords, does the noble Lord know of any religion which enjoins its followers not to wear seat belts?


My Lords, the Sikh community are also opposed to the compulsory wearing of seat belts. It is not part of their religion, but they oppose it. I have had letters from them to that effect.

The sheer outrageousness of what this Bill proposes by no means ends here, for as the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, has said, unlike the crash helmet Act, and unlike any other piece of legislation, this Bill would compel unwilling motorists to perform actions which would directly result in the death or serious injury of a small proportion of them. It is as if immunisation against one or other disease were made compulsory for the entire population heedless of how many people are allergic to, or react violently against, the vaccines, as happens in some cases. And it is as if the Government were then to justify the deaths and disabilities that resulted on the grounds that far more people had been saved by the vaccine than had died from it. We have all read about the tragic case of the children who have suffered serious disabilities from whooping cough vaccine, but at least in this case, despite the arm twisting and persuasion brought to bear upon the parents, in the last resort they could opt out so far as their children were concerned if they felt strongly enough. No such loophole or conscience clause is proposed in this Bill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, astonishingly denied that any accidents had occurred as a result of wearing seat belts. But the evidence—

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I did not deny that none had occurred. I said that there was nothing proved that seat belts had been the cause of people dying where they would not have died if they had not been wearing them.


My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that. There is a great deal of circumstantial evidence none the less. The wearing of seat belts is of the greatest utility only in the case of frontal impact, but only 70 per cent. of accidents involve frontal impact. Belts are of little use in the case of sideways impacts or where a car, particularly an open car, overturns or where a car hits the tailboard of a lorry or juggernaut or where a car catches fire—and approximately 2,500 accidents involve fire every year—and in particular where a fibre-glass car is involved. In another place it was pointed out last year that where a fibre-glass-bodied car was involved, the wearing of a seat belt would be suicidal; for fibreglass, unlike steel, does not crumple under impact but splinters into pieces of a jagged shape. There is far less risk in being thrown out of such a car than to be impaled by a long splinter of fibreglass.

Of the harm that can be caused by the wearing of seat belts there is much evidence The noble Lord, Lord Elton, who I believe, favoured the wearing of seat belts, told us three years ago of an accident where had he been wearing a seat belt he would have been killed. Last year in another place six Conservative Members, one of whom was pro-compulsion, spoke of cases in which they or their relations or friends had been saved from serious injury because they had not been wearing seat belts. One Labour Member spoke of two policemen who had been killed specifically because they had been wearing seat belts.

In this context, the police are by no means in favour of total compulsion. I have a letter from a lady in Nottingham who was driving her Volkswagen Variant estate car on the M6 near Birmingham. A car came from a slip road and hit her car which spun over several times. She and her husband were thrown into the back seat and she suffered only a tiny scratch on the arm. The front part of the car was crushed flat—the roof was meeting the seat. When the motorway police came along they said that she was lucky not to have been wearing a seat belt for in that case she would have been dead; and that they themselves never wore belts.

My Lords, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Porritt, has said, the medical profession are not wholly in favour. The noble Lord, Lord Platt, is going to vote for the Amendment. I have seen letters from doctors all over the country, from Oxford, Liverpool, Reading and Romford—the last being an eye surgeon—who oppose this Bill. An ambulance driver writes that in his experience on balance seat belts do not do any good. Perhaps he exaggerates slightly, but he has 25 years' experience of driving ambulances and this, I suggest, gives him a certain degree of authority.

Then there are those injuries that are caused by belts not necessarily in accidents. The Ford Motor Company has done some research into this. They have pointed out that it is extremely dangerous if belts are worn at all improperly. If the lap part of the belt is too high on the abdomen, abdominal injuries can result. If the diagonal part of the belt is too low on the chest the spine can be injured by a whip-lash effect. If the diagonal part of the belt lies across the Adam's Apple, a person can die by strangulation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, pointed out, or of shock.

A lady from Leicestershire was involved in a "shunt" involving three cars. She was the only person wearing a seat belt and happened to be the only person injured. She had a fractured sternum. When she awoke in hospital she was told that the trouble was that she was not the right height for this particular make of belt. How are people going to alter their heights to suit belts? I really do not know. The noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, referred to the possibility of the constant chafing over a period of years of the diagonal part of the belt being extremely dangerous for women prone to certain ailments. I have had correspondence with a nursing sister of many years' experience on this matter. This may seem perhaps unduly alarmist, my Lords, but never forget that thalidomide was originally prescribed on the National Health Service.

It is not only the dangers to motorists that we must think about—what about hazards to other road users? Fifty-five per cent. of those killed on our roads are not motorists, lorry drivers or coach drivers but cyclists, motor cyclists and pedestrians. If the compulsory wearing of belts were to increase casualties indirectly among these groups, even those veering towards compulsion might think again, particularly bearing in mind that it is children under the age of ten who form the bulk of pedestrian casualties.

I submit that if compulsion comes, casualties among these groups will increase (and we must not forget that compulsory seat belts will not prevent one single accident in themselves, their sole purpose being to prevent injuries once an accident has occurred). The first reason for this is a minor one—seat belts, particularly static ones—limit one's visibility. I have had many letters from people who say that they cannot lean forward at intersections or T-junctions to see whether cars are coming from the right or left. They find it very difficult to reverse or circumnavigate hazards like Hyde Park Corner because their body is restricted.

Far more important is the overconfidence induced by belts. This was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. This is probably mainly subconscious; but I believe that when people strap themselves in they feel, "I'm all right, Jack! Nothing is going to happen to me; I am nice and secure in my car. I am in a hurry, I am going to overtake on this blind corner in order to get to my appointment in time". That is the way accidents happen. What has not been mentioned is the discomfort and what I call "imbalance" that affects some drivers when belted up. I entirely accept that many drivers drive better with seat belts on, and good luck to them! They find they are more secure, and this is splendid. Unfortunately, I and, I suspect, many hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of people find the opposite. We find that we drive less well when wearing a seat belt. I like to lean forward slightly when I am driving; I find that a seat belt pulls me back into my seat, causing considerable arm and neck strain. I get irritable and drive perceptibly less well—perhaps only 5 or 10 per cent. less well—but this is enough to increase the possibility of an accident.

It is no use decreasing injuries among drivers or front seat passengers if the total number of accidents increases. The New Zealand experience might be of some use here, which was cited by the then Minister of Transport in another place on 1st March last year. In the first year in which seat belts were compulsory in New Zealand, the number of deaths and serious injuries among drivers and front seat passengers remained static. It did not fall at all. The total number of injuries and deaths went up by 44 per cent. This, I agree, could be a freak result.

This might be a moment to interject that if we are using other countries as a basis of comparison, the Minister of Transport last year also told the House that the reduction of accidents in Australia in the first year when seat belts were compulsory was only 17 per cent. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, produced figures claiming 1,155 people would have been saved if belts had been compulsory in this country. But applying 17 per cent. to the number of deaths among drivers and front seat passengers in this country gives us a figure of only about 450. Even the experts cannot agree among themselves. Dealing very briefly with the old red herring about the commercial airliner, the commercial airliner has no bearing on the case at all. One is under no obligation to wear a seat belt when flying in a private aircraft, and it is only a private aircraft that you can logically compare to a car in this matter.

It would be a mistake to assume that only those of us who have doubts about the efficacy of belts oppose this Bill. A close relation of mine religiously clips on her belt on every single occasion, even if she is driving 50 yards along the road at 20 mph. Despite this, she is completely and totally opposed to the Bill, believing passionately that individual freedom is part of our British heritage.

If the Amendment is carried, there is nothing whatever to prevent 99.99 per cent. of motorists wearing belts voluntarily tomorrow. If the Amendment is defeated, and the Bill is passed into law, a certain number of people will be compelled to do something which may lead to their deaths. For that reason, I hope that the House will support the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye.

6.47 p.m.


My Lords, when already so many of your Lordships have spoken, the House will be relieved to know that I do not intend to detain it for more than a few moments. I had originally intended to merely put on record my complete agreement with all that my noble friend Lord Balfour said in introducing his Amendment and which other noble Lords had put forward in his support Listening to the debate, I have been much impressed by various speeches made, particularly those of the noble Lords, Lord Mowbray and Stourton and Lord Errol of Hale, as well as those of the noble Lord, Lord Porritt, and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, whose father I knew very well as we lived in adjoining cabins for more than four years during the First World War. I had the pleasure of motoring with him over very many miles in the North of Scotland, and particularly between Queen's Ferry and the Central Hotel in Edinburgh.

As a result of listening to the debate, I have come to the conclusion that we should not go ahead with this Bill, to which so many noble Lords have taken exception, until it has been completely redrafted, and also until there has been designed a seat belt which is foolproof, one which it is possible to get out of quickly in all conceivable conditions. So, my Lords, I will vote for the Amendment.

6.48 p.m.


My Lords, from some of the speeches in your Lordships' House today one might think that if this Bill is not passed people will be prevented from wearing seat belts. My noble friend Lord Porritt went so far as to say that if we did not pass this Bill we should be sending people to their deaths. There is nothing in the world to prevent a motorist wearing his seat belt. A very large number of motorists do so. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Porrit, that in the United States of America they were considering legislation of this kind but gave it up because they found it was unnecessary. Now what is proposed is what I would call "nursery legislation". An adult motorist is to be forced to wear a seat belt whether or not he considers it desirable to do so. Judging from what has happened in the United States, if the motorist is provided with the arguments in favour of wearing seat belts, and also the arguments against wearing seat belts—because there are arguments both ways—let him make up his own mind. He is an adult individual; he should not be forced to do something by Government decree.

The wearing of a seat belt will not prevent a single accident. It is designed simply to protect a motorist and his passengers—from what?—from injury to themselves. Undoubtedly there are occasions when the wearing of a seat belt can save the driver and his passengers from serious injury. Equally, there are occasions when the wearing of a seat belt results in serious injury to them. Take the case of the driver of an open sports car. The car leaves the road, turns upside down in a ditch and catches fire. The driver is flung out into a ploughed field and suffers minor bruises, instead of being burned to death, as he might have been wearing a seat belt.


Would the noble Viscount allow me to intervene? Would he have recommended Nikki Lauda, the racing driver who survived a very serious accident, as your Lordships may remember, not to wear a seat belt?


My Lords, I hesitate to answer that because, of course, the situation of racing drivers is altogether different. Perhaps I might obliquely answer the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, by saying what happens on the Cresta Run. On the Cresta Run, we do not make riders attach themselves to their toboggans; they can do so if they like. So far as I know none of them does. But every day when the Run is open the riders of toboggans on the Run go over the corners. Generally, they are flung free of their toboggans and sustain very minor injuries, if any. The only serious injuries that occur are those that happen when the rider gets mixed up with his toboggan, falls with it and then the toboggan itself injures him. That is, to my mind, a similar situation to that of the driver in an open sports car. My noble friend would say "No"; but it is, because if you go over the corner on the Cresta Run what you want to do is to get free of your machine. If you are chucked out of a sports car into a field, that is what happens; you get free of your machine.

The same driver, on another occasion driving a saloon car, may very well decide to wear a seat belt. He would probably be wise to do so, and yet that saloon car can end up upside down in a lake, the driver being trapped by his seat belt and drowned. As an example, during the War I had a great friend who was flying a Hurricane. He was, of course, strapped into his seat. When he landed, the Hurricane hit a pool of water on a grass aerodrome, turned upside down and my friend was drowned. That could happen in a saloon car.

Surely what is needed is that motorists should be supplied with all the material that is available and with all the arguments giving the pros and cons for the wearing of seat belts, and should then he left to make up their own minds. "Nursery" legislation—which is what is being proposed—is seldom either desirable or justified. That does not mean there are not grounds for exceptions—reference has been made to the taking of heroin, for example—but, as a general principle, "nursery" legislation is most undesirable. I propose to support the Motion of my noble friend Lord Balfour.

6.54 p.m.


My Lords, at this late hour I do not think it is necessary to add very much to what has been said already so admirably by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye and others. I have sat in this Parliament continuously for over 50 years—I am sorry to have to say so in public, because I try to conceal it from myself—and I have never seen a more monstrous encroachment upon the liberty of an individual than that proposed in this Bill.

Statistics are notoriously unreliable, and in this case they are particularly so. It may well be—and this I concede—that more lives have been saved than lost by seat belts. What is absolutely undeniable is that a considerable number of lives have been lost through the wearing of seat belts. It is surely up to the individual to choose whether he is prepared to accept the greater risk of being knocked out in an accident, rather than the lesser risk of being burned to death.

The question of cigarette smoking has been raised by my noble friend Lord Platt, and it is, of course, a similar question. We do not, and never will, attempt to prohibit by compulsion cigarette smoking. A lot of people deliberately take the risk of death because they like smoking, and if they choose to do that why should they not do so? I remember a great friend of mine who will be in the memory of your Lordships, the late Ed Murrow—perhaps one of the greatest broadcasters and television experts of our time. The last time I saw him, I said: "You know, Ed, I think you are smoking yourself to death". His answer was: "I know I am, but I like it that way." And that is what happened.

The only answer is propaganda, not compulsion. Let the advocates of seat belts confine themselves to that. Anybody can wear a seat belt if he wishes, and I believe that more and more people will do so; but there are wider aspects to the Bill that is now before us. If it is passed, it will prevent a considerable number of people, including myself, from ever entering a motor car again. For my part, I am not prepared to be strapped in by law, and suffer what may well be a horrible death. I believe that many people—perhaps more than your Lordships may think—share that view.

I want only to make one last point. For me—this may be old fashioned—liberty is more important than life; and I think the great majority of the people of this country have proved in two World Wars that they share that view. Indeed, I know of no Communist country at present which imposes a restriction upon the liberty of the individual citizen comparable to that proposed in this Bill. Personal freedom, my Lords, in the end is the essence of democracy and, above all, freedom of choice. It is today gravely threatened by an omnipotent State bureaucracy which interferes with our lives all round the place. Some of the interference is necessary: a lot of it is not. But there are limits to what is tolerable in what we may still call a free society and, in my view, this Bill passes them. I hope your Lordships will reject it.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down—I did not want to interrupt him—might I just ask, in view of the fact that he has just told the House that undeniably a great number of casualties are caused by seat belts, what possible grounds has he got for making that statement, apart from his own opinion?


A great many people have given me information on the subject and I have read a great many newspapers. I have heard many stories of people who have been trapped in burning motor cars and have been unable to get out because of a seat belt. I am absolutely ready to concede that more lives are saved by seat belts than not, but there are a certain number—and there is no doubt about them—of lives that are lost by wearing seat belts because people cannot get out. I should have thought that was common knowledge, and that it would be accepted.

7 p.m.


My Lords, before I come to the main body of my speech, I should like to take up what the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, said. I think I am right in saying that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, pointed out the difference between people who lose their lives by wearing seat belts and people whose lives are saved by not wearing seat belts. I believe I am right in saying that the Road Research Laboratory can find very few cases where a seat belt has killed anybody, and one noble Lord pointed out that people who were burned because they were wearing seat belts were very often unconscious, and could not get out anyway. The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, will remember that over the years he and I have collaborated in debates on road safety, and I urge your Lordships to accept that the researches of the Road Research Laboratory are very thorough and very well-informed, and I would say with the utmost confidence that the figures which they give are probably the ones that are right.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will be kind enough to let me intervene, may I remind him of what I told your Lordships during the Committee stage of the Road Traffic Bill in 1974? I stated that The Times of 5th June that year stated: Seat belts' effect on head injuries questioned. The number of car drivers receiving fatal or severe head injuries in crashes is not reduced by wearing sealt belts."—[Official Report, 11/6/74; col. 364.] That was stated by a Mr. Grattan and a Mr. Hobbs of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory.


My Lords, unfortunately, I was prevented from attending that debate and, although I glanced through the report of it before I prepared my speech, I cannot recall it. My recollection of the figures which they adduced after many tests was that it was quite unquestionable that something like 1,000 lives a year could be saved if only people would wear seat belts, and 12,000 serious injuries could be prevented. I shall return to those figures later.

I feel it is a pity that no noble Lord concerned with the insurance industry has so far spoken, and I do not know whether such a noble Lord intends to give us his views. But I should like to return to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, who asked: why should we be compelled? One must remember that a great part of the cost of the accidents which occur results in much higher premiums throughout the motor industry. That cost puts a tremendous burden upon the Health Service and the various staffs concerned with it. We in Britain are too inclined to go through life with the attitude that, "It cannot happen to me". It is only when one is brought up short, as unfortunately happened in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Parry, that one realises that it can happen to oneself.


My Lords, may I interrupt my noble friend for a moment simply to ask him this? Surely the insurance companies can insist upon the wearing of seat belts if they so wish.


Yes, my Lords; I entirely agree. Unfortunately, my view of the general attitude towards motoring is not so complimentary as some noble Lords, because I believe that there are a tremendous number of people, particularly young people, who do not have a clue and do not understand the dangers that they run until they are involved in an accident.


My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, will give way for one moment, may I ask him whether it is not a fact that the point has been made very strongly that, when insurance companies have attempted to bring this type of pressure upon the motorist, those who have demanded freedom have argued that law is for Parliament and not for the insurance companies, and that there is a very strong objection to insurance companies making clauses that anticipate changes in the law?


Yes, my Lords, I agree. But what I was getting at was that they have wonderful statistics about the total cost. However, I am getting away from the main burden of my speech. I feel that we are apt to credit the public, especially the young, with more common sense, particularly more civic sense, than I believe they possess. The older we get, the more likely it is that we think more of other people. I should like to return to the figures that we heard about during the debates in 1974. It is as well to remember that, when the Bill was in Committee on 11th June, Clause 7 was accepted and stood part of the Bill by 66 votes to 55. The position was then reversed on Report by 72 votes to 79. It was a rather narrow squeak, and had I been here it would have been 73 to 79.

Although I do not like his Bill, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is making a step in the right direction. Many noble Lords have worried about Committee matters, but, as my noble friend Lord Porritt pointed out in a most powerful speech, the main principle of the Bill is what we are concerned with. The design of seat belts and the different technicalities, such as whether they should be worn in built-up areas, when the rule should be introduced and what the manufacturers should do, can be argued about later. The noble Lord, Lord Boothby, takes the view that the principle is quite wrong, but I take the contrary view that, in the circumstances, it is right. As my noble friend Lord Porritt said, we have no right to pretend that we are not already wrapped around with conditions that we cannot avoid and must accept, in the interests of the community.

As I was saying, the first vote of your Lordships on this matter was in favour of Clause 7 of the original Bill. Then it was rejected by 72 votes to 79, and it is therefore consistent of me to oppose the Amendment of my noble friend Lord Balfour on this occasion. It is not so consistent that I have not spent the last many weeks reviewing my thinking on the whole matter. To do so, I have consulted a wide selection of acquaintances who, like the whole House, are very evenly divided for and against. My researches confirm my decision to oppose the Amendment, and I should like to recount the views of two members of the circle which I consulted.

First, there is the doctor-cum-dentist who parachuted into Arnhem with the RAMC, and subsequently achieved no little fame with a book which was filmed. Your Lordships should know that he gives generously, and I believe almost secretly, of his probably absolutely unrivalled skills in repairing broken faces, to the casualty section of the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. I consulted him the day before yesterday and he was outspoken as I have never before heard him, and I have known him for very many years. He is absolutely 100 per cent. in favour of making the wearing of seat belts compulsory.

When we discussed the matter some years ago—I have been interested in the subject for many years—I remember him saying to me, "If you have any doubt, come with me and watch the surgeons at the Royal Infirmary getting into their cars after work. They buckle in before they start their cars." It is not only the tragedy of death which is desperately serious but also the pain, the grief, the lifelong handicaps, the crippling, the family distress and all that follows from these serious injuries. I maintain that it has been proved that the wearing of seat belts will most markedly curtail these tragedies, and it is that which should weigh with us. The doctor confirmed something which the noble Lord, Lord Porritt, said: that every doctor and surgeon, no matter how badly they drive, will agree that this is a matter which must be put right.

The other contact to whom I wish to refer is a well known senior Peer who now has leave of absence. When I spoke to him on Sunday he made it clear that he dislikes the idea of compulsion even more than I do. I dislike compulsion, although I feel that we have to put up with it. However, he feels that as the situation is so serious there is no alternative.

Your Lordships will remember that when we compare this country with other countries, Britain has a higher concentration of motor vehicles per mile of metalled road than has any other country in the world. Therefore, apart from being a nation which says, "It couldn't happen to me", we have also this problem which other nations do not have. The friend about whom I am speaking made a proviso when agreeing to the background to the Bill; namely, that the manufacturers of motor vehicle equipment must invent seat belts which are more easily buckled on, or which have a buckle that rests near to the centre of the body or near to the outside of the vehicle. This is a Committee matter; I think that we have gone a little wide in our discussions today. If we accept the principle, then let us thresh out the matter, using all our knowledge and expertise, so that the Bill can be put into a shape which is acceptable to the people of this country.

Speaking about the difficulty of fastening seat belts, I am reminded of an occasion when I was seeing my son off to a party. He was using my car and I said, "Buckle your seat belt". "Oh, damn it, daddy" he replied, "I will die of old age before I find out how the ruddy thing works". We must not have that kind of seat belt. We must have seat belts which are more easily fixed and unfixed. However, people should remember that when a seat belt is restraining an injured person it is always possible to whip out a knife or a pair of scissors and cut the webbing.

Another of my contacts felt that the fasteners should be more accessible from the side of the vehicle. I have already made this point. One of my friends had an Australian staying with him; he is an ex-airman who is concerned with the motor vehicle industry. Having been consulted, my friend rang me up and said that compulsion in Australia, according to this Australian, had been an unqualified success and had paid enormous dividends, for it had saved expense, grief, pain and everything else. He went further. He said that he did not consider that the police are being overburdened by their task, especially since—I believe I heard him correctly—they have power to enforce on-the-spot fines of 50 dollars which, according to my calculations, amounts to about £20. I have a daughter who has spent some time in Australia. She and my son-in-law agree that the compulsory use of seat belts in Australia has been an unqualified success.

I have spoken for longer than I intended. I propose to vote Not-Content to this Amendment, however obvious it is that opinions are very evenly divided, as were the opinions which I canvassed.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether he is aware that by suggesting that people should be able to release those involved in car accidents by using a sharp knife, they would be held to be in possession of an offensive weapon and therefore would be liable to be prosecuted in a court of law?


My Lords. I am liable to be prosecuted, then, because have a very sharp knife in my pocket. I always carry one. Never, since I was a boy, have I gone out without a knife in one pocket and a piece of string in another.

7.16 p.m.


My Lords, I was tremendously impressed by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Parry. I know that he said that he did not wish to be emotional about the subject, but of course he was and I suspect that he meant to be. I could cap his story. I can begin in exactly the same way as he did. On 31st December 1952, on trade plates, I was driving a brand new motor car at six o'clock in the evening and ran underneath a lorry. I sheared the top off the motor car, and I also sheared off the steering wheel and scuffed the top of the back of the seat. Because I was not wearing a seat belt I was able to lie down and the lorry passed over me. I should hate and loathe to wear a seat belt.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, said that she knew of no case where the wearing of a seat belt caused death. However, in a Sunday newspaper of 27th June, 1976, it was reported that in Nottinghamshire four people had died in a blazing car after it had been involved in a collision. The police said that, due to metal expansion, the rescuers were unable to undo the seat belt of the driver. That must be a case of the use of a seat belt causing death. I know that the noble Baroness will say that one cannot assert that that man would not necessarily have burned to death had he not been wearing a seat belt. However, irrespective of what the noble Baroness says, what I say and what the police officer said, I argue that people who are in that situation—the noble Lord, Lord Platt, gave an instance of it—are going to believe it. It does not matter what the House of Lords has to say about it. There are people who will say, rightly or wrongly, and sincerely, "My God! I could be trapped and killed by wearing a seat belt." They could, of course, be killed if they were not wearing a seat belt. I think that was the point which the noble Baroness was about to make.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, the noble Lord has virtually made my point for me! The rescuers may not have been able to get out the trapped people because they were wearing seat belts; but we do not know, and the newspaper and the police probably did not know, how severely injured they were, although they were wearing their seat belts.


My Lords, the noble Baroness is certainly entitled to her point of view, as I know she understands that I am entitled to mine. I am not going to give way to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. He has interrupted five times, and at the end of the debate he will have an opportunity to criticise me or to destroy any argument I may put forward. Time is so limited that it is not fair that I should give way to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, although of course I have to give way to the noble Lord, Lord Parry.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord. The point I wish to underline, and it is very important, is that we must realise that in major collisions people who are not wearing seat belts are likely either to be very severely injured or to be killed. Therefore one cannot say that a person who is found in a situation where the straps of the seat belt are on the body, the car is on fire and he cannot be freed, would have been alive had he not been wearing a seat belt.


My Lords, again the noble Lord, Lord Parry, is perfectly entitled to that point of view. He has expressed his point of view and I wish to express mine. My point of view is quite simple. I am not going to get involved in Committee matters; I hope to goodness I am never going to get involved in Committee points and I am not prepared so to do.

It is emotional and wrong to speak of certain Members of your Lordships' House being responsible for x number of deaths and x number of fatalities if we take a certain course of action. The noble Lords, Lord Porritt and Lord Platt, both spoke about smoking. I think in fact it was Mr. Dents Healey, after he raised the Road Fund licence and cigarette prices who said: "But of course cigarette smoking costs more in damage and in lives than does the motor car"—a point again brought out here. But I hope there is not going to be any suggestion of a law being passed as to whether we shall or shall not smoke.

The real point about this is that we pay our tax for certain services. If we did not do certain things, certain costs would not be involved. My bet is that the tax would not go down, but that is a side issue and almost an irrelevancy. So we pay our way and we have the right— and I do not use the expression used by other noble Lords who referred to "freedom of choice" although I agree with them—to make the decision.


It is the same thing, my Lords.


No, my Lords, it is not quite the same thing, because more and more we are finding that Government are removing the right of men and women—adults—to make their decisions. What are we going to be?—complete morons in another few years. I am serious in saying this. We no longer have the right to choose the way in which we are going to educate our children or necessarily the school to which they will go. We no longer have the right to choose how State benefits are going to be distributed in the family. In his Bill the Minister, Mr. David Ennals, has decided that the child welfare allowance is to be paid to the wife. How dare he decide how the money is to be spent within the family!

It may be that he is right; I am not arguing that. But he has made an arbitrary decision, and in the same way in this Bill a Minister is going to make the arbitrary decision as to whether we do this or that in a motor car, which is our concern. There are very good and valid reasons why people do not wish to do these things. Perhaps it would be better if they gave up driving, although I do not think that is a fair argument. As usual—and the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, will recall my words—Governments take refuge in compulsion where their abilities to educate people fail. The noble Baroness will remember the point I made during the debate on the Highway Code.

There is no doubt that more and more people are wearing seat belts. I personally do not wear one, although all my family do and they think I am a fool and they tell me so. But they wear them—both the boys wear them and the girl wears one, in the front of the car. When the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, introduced the Bill he said that it provides for front-seat passengers. The Bill does not: in fact it provides for any person driving or riding in a motor car. That may be a Committee point, but as the Bill stands it is so absolutely bad that nobody should give it a Second Reading. If somebody comes along with something better and more acceptable that will be another point, but I should doubt it. I hope that we do not give the Bill a Second Reading. I hope that we maintain the ability for adults to have a right of decision in a matter which in essence concerns them more than it does the community.

7.25 p.m.


My Lords, one thing one can say about the debate this afternoon is that for once it certainly is not a Party political matter. This is the third occasion on which I have addressed your Lordships' House on this subject. Indeed, in 1973 it was my Amendment which was accepted by the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, to make seat belts compulsory, and it was only the spirited and effective counter-attack by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye that had the effect of reversing that.

I like to think that I cherish individual freedom as much as anybody else, but I think we should also agree that people in Australia, in New Zealand and France and many other countries also cherish individual freedom, and if the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, would like to know the Communist country which insists on seat belts I will tell him—it is Yugoslavia. I have great sympathy with those who feel that compulsion would be an infringement on our personal liberty. My view is quite simple: it is that this is a very small price that we have to pay as compared with the great and guaranteed saving of life, injuries, misery to dependants and indeed cost to the health services.

I admit that I have long been a fighter in the cause of protecting the motorist against too many needless regulations. Indeed, when my father introduced a Bill in another place for number plates to be displayed on cars, he was so attacked. But was it really all that great a loss of freedom? Did driving tests represent a loss of freedom? Were MOT tests a loss of freedom? Should we obey traffic lights or should we not? There are many things that the motorist has to do for the safety of us all. Perhaps the greatest freedom we have today is the actual ownership of a car, so why should it be so objectionable that we should be required to protect ourselves and our passengers against injury, particularly when our skill is involved?

Many noble Lords are choosing to ignore or dismiss statistics from other countries. I believe that this is a frivolous and irresponsible attitude. We are no longer in the experimental stage in which we were a few years ago. We now have an immense amount of evidence which is absolutely overwhelming. I sympathise, however, and realise that there are many people who are speaking from an entirely subjective point of view, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, was. He had an experience which has certainly influenced his judgment.

We have heard many horrifying stories from both sides, and I do not intend to embark on such things, but without doubt many more people have been saved because they were wearing safety belts than in any other way. To prove the opposite is virtually an exercise not worth going into, because after all if you cannot get your safety belt undone because of metal fatigue can you really open the door? Of course you cannot. The fact is that opening the door calls for much greater effort than getting the safety belt undone. When people speak about drowning and burning, those people have been drowned or burnt to death and not killed by their safety belts. I do not believe this argument has any substance at all.

Also, I wonder what sort of safety belts noble Lords are using? They must be using extremely old cars and old safety belts, because the modern safety belt is extremely flexible, very quick and easy to do up and undo and the idea that you are strapped in and cannot move about is ridiculous. The inertia reel belt makes it extremely easy to move about.

We have heard a lot about enforcement, but there has been no trouble about enforcement elsewhere, as many noble Lords have said. We have heard about exemptions: are we not, as a Parliament and as a sensible people able to work out the exemptions in the same way as other countries? We have not had any parades of Women's Lib in Sydney or riots in countries in Europe. It has all passed off quite peacefully.

Finally, and quickly—because I know we all want to get to the vote—I should like to challenge those who support this Amendment and ask them whether they think it would be appropriate to suggest that we should have a two-year experiment for compulsion. If they really think it would be all that unpopular; if they think it would be unenforceable; if they think that the statistics are wrong; if they think that Whitehall is wrong, would they be prepared to accept any experiment for two years, because we who oppose this Amendment know that the statistics would be absolutely overwhelming. In face of the statistics that would be available after two years, would they feel justified in returning to a voluntary system? I wonder. I would like, therefore, to support in particular what Lord Mowbray said, that we ought to start with compulsion in built-up areas. I agree wholeheartedly with him that this is the most dramatic action that can be taken by any country today to reduce injuries and deaths. I think it would be very irresponsible of us not to seize that opportunity.

7.30 p.m.


My Lords, like the previous speakers, I will not detain the House for more than a very few minutes, although I feel I simply must, even at this late hour, make my position clear on this very vexed question. I have only twice in my life been really frightened while driving a motor car, but that for me is quite enough, I assure your Lordships. The first time was some years ago, not in this country at all, but in Holland, when I was driving down a motorway in freezing rain; I was traversing a roundabout, and it so happened that I was in a very heavily laden car, one full of passengers. I was in the middle lane of this motorway. Inevitably, perhaps, we skidded, and I maintain that it was only because I was wearing a seat belt that I was in full control of my vehicle.

The second occasion was rather different. Much has been said this afternoon and this evening about fire. Some two years ago my wife and I and our six-month-old daughter, all securely strapped into our Maxi car, were driving within three miles of home, on our way out to lunch. We heard a clicking from under the dash- board. It stopped, so, fairly naturally, we ignored it. This was in the event a very stupid decision; we should have stopped immediately and investigated. About two miles up the road, just going through Taunton, to our obvious consternation, billowing acrid smoke appeared from under the dashboard. Never, I maintain, has a car been cleared quite so quickly when travelling at 25 mph. The three of us were out of our seats, our seat belts having been removed, and my six-month-old daughter was in her push-chair at the side of the road within, I should think, 20 seconds. Again, this inclines me towards the view that wearing a seat belt is quite definitely the thing that should be done by all motorists, certainly in private cars.

However, we come now to the much more difficult question of compulsion. I have listened with great attention to all the speeches which have been made today in your Lordships' House. I am afraid nobody has swayed me to the opinion that compulsion is absolutely inviolate—that we must have compulsion on this matter. That is why I have to follow the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, into the Division Lobby this evening.

7.34 p.m.


My Lords, it always surprises me how emotional a debate on this subject becomes. There seems to me just one central issue, and this is whether making the wearing of seat belts compulsory is too great an infringement of personal liberty. I want to come back to that in a moment. I am afraid, with all due respect to a number of noble Lords who have spoken, it seems to me that the other arguments made against it are, to say the very least, of very little weight indeed, and the position would be a great deal better if they were not even made. People's personal experiences on this issue are really not of importance when we are considering so large a subject.

I should like to deal with three of these arguments. First, let me take unenforceability. Virtually no laws are completely enforceable, and in the motoring field most are only to a small degree. The point which I think should be made here is, that any law proposed must be accept- able to the bulk of people; unless that is so it is no good enacting it. Then there is the burden on the police. It is very easy to check whether people are wearing safety belts. I think one might consider whether on a cost-effective basis this might not be, in fact is, far more important than, say, checking whether somebody has one or two millimeters of tread left on their tyres. The accidents that will be produced by not wearing safety belts are of an order of magnitude greater than those avoided by checking on tyre treads.


My Lords, If I may intervene, how does the noble Viscount suggest that accidents can be caused by not wearing safety belts? It is impossible.


My Lords, I think I expressed myself badly The deaths and serious injuries that will be caused by persons not wearing safety belts are far greater in number than the possibility of the odd accident occurring from using smooth tyres.

On the other point that was made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, that we should ignore statistics, I think I should say, that they are really overwhelming. One has to accept evidence to make any decision. There is nothing in this world that can be proved completely. There are, for example, still some people who believe the earth is flat. One really has to consider whether there is overwhelming evidence, and not just dismiss statistics as being misleading. In my opinion, this argument should never have been made. There is no doubt whatever that by wearing seat belts a great number of deaths and serious injuries will be avoided.

Another, rather more interesting, argument is that one in a thousand who were wearing seat belts might not have died or been seriously injured had they not worn them, and that we are therefore not entitled to legislate. If we look into a number of other fields we see that we have done just that. I would quote first the example of houses. The compulsory earthing system, which you cannot avoid, has led to accidents which would not have occurred had there not been an earthing system. I will not go into the technicalities of this, but would just say that in Sweden under certain conditions they do not believe in an earthing system. Then, of course, you could equally well say that the efficient braking on a car, which is insisted on in the MOT test, may, in a very small number of cases, well cause skidding accidents which would not have occurred had the braking system been less efficient. Then, of course, taking another field, there is the guarding of machinery for the benefit of workers in factories. Undoubtedly, although this saves very many accidents, in extreme cases it also causes some. Another case is vaccination. You need not go to a country requiring it, but neither need you drive a car. So I am afraid that I would dismiss this argument completely.

Having said all that, I still believe that this measure is a greater infringement of personal liberty than anything that has so far been enacted. I therefore sympathise with those who take that view. Nevertheless, there is a justification for the Government interfering. This case was made very powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who said in effect that the accidents preventable by wearing seat belts cost the nation £64 million.

I would vote for compulsion regardless, but I nevertheless consider that there is a middle way. I suggest that we might well ask those who wish to opt out of wearing seat belts to pay an extra £15 a year on their driving or car licence. I think that this very nearly equates to the £64 million which was mentioned earlier. We could also do something else which would not necessarily be mutually exclusive to my first suggestion. We could make opting out voluntary, but we could also make it a little difficult in that the certificate had to be fully signed and witnessed. We could stipulate that the certificate had to be carried with the driving licence at all times, so that if the police stopped someone and he or she was not wearing a seat belt and did not have a certificate of exemption or a driving licence, there would be an automatic offence committed. That would merely make it a little more difficult to opt out but would still preserve the freedom of the individual.

Finally, bearing in mind the burden on the police and the possibility that these measures were not successful, we could move a stage further and take the measure that so far we have avoided in England, of imposing fines on the spot. That would save the courts work and would make life very simple. I do not suggest such a measure at present. We should first agree to the Bill, but then strongly urge the Government to make it voluntary on the terms that I have suggested.

7.42 p.m.


My Lords, I seem to be a late starter in every respect regarding this and previous Bills on the subject. I knew that I had expressed an opinion in your Lordships' House on the compulsory wearing of scat belts, but when I came to look it up I was lost. It was not, as I had thought, the Report stage of the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill discussed in your Lordships' House on 25th June 1974 when my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye carried his Amendment, but on the Report stage of the Road Traffic Bill on 27th December 1973. On that occasion I intervened briefly when we were discussing an Amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, regarding the suggestion that the Government of the day should introduce the compulsory wearing of seat belts. I gave my views on the experience that I had in Australia and California. The first of those two countries has compulsion; the latter, mechanised devices. At that time my option went towards the mechanical device as used in California, although that is open to abuse and derangement.

I have recently visited Australia and, although the introduction of the compulsory wearing of seat belts was received with a sense of acceptance and initially reduced the number of fatal accidents, my impression and that of the Australians to whom I spoke was that, though "belting up" comes naturally, there is now a feeling of self-satisfaction in complying with the law which has led to a deterioration in road discipline.

Before I conclude, I should like to refer to the speech made from the Opposition Front Bench by my noble friend Lord Mowbray and Stourton. I believe that we should either go the whole way and have compulsory seat belt law or we should have nothing at all. To say that one must wear seat belts only outside built up areas can lead to more abuse of the law and put a greater burden on the police who, as my noble friend quite rightly pointed out, are already overworked. In conclusion, I shall again support the Amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye.

7.46 p.m.


My Lords, I am all in favour of the wearing of seat belts. I have no doubt at all that they are an excellent safety device and also that they tend to give support, particularly to the passenger who, unlike the driver, has no controls to grasp in order to assist in support and balance. I am not at all in favour of the compulsory aspect of the Bill which is very undesirable for day-to-day motoring.

I should like to offer noble Lords some of my reasons for supporting the Amendment of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye which seeks to reject this very contentious Bill. First, I should explain that like many of your Lordships I have enjoyed an above average experience in that I have driven a considerable number of privately-owned motors since 1929, when I first obtained a driving licence. During that period I must have covered well over half-a-million miles. Thus it will be realised that I, and of course a great many other motorists, emanate from well before the application of seat belts to motor cars.

I am sure that I am not alone in finding that seat belts, admirable though they may be, are a nuisance to put on and take off, uncomfortable to wear, and awkward and fiddly in a rather small space. I do not wear an overcoat in a car because I like to feel free. I have worn a seat belt only on very rare occasions. I should prefer to have anti-whiplash headrests because in my fair share of accidents where other vehicles have been involved I always appear to have been run into from behind when I have been more or less or actually stationary.

There must be a great many motorists who feel as I do about seat belts. Many, of course, have other reasons. As has already been mentioned by many noble Lords today, one reason is that they fear the injury which may result from wearing seat belts. On the other hand, a great many motorists habitually "clunk click" their belts on as soon as they step into a car. Good for them—it makes them feel safe and comfortable. I am averse only to the proposed compulsory element in the Bill.

Another important point which has already been mentioned today is the difficulty of enforcing the wearing of seat belts. I am sure that noble Lords will know how difficult it is to see whether a seat belt is being correctly worn or not. I feel sure that the promoters of this Bill must be fully alive to this difficulty, and hence have reintroduced the extremely penal fine of £50 in order to cover this difficulty by frightening people into compliance.

There are so many of the road traffic laws which are frequently disregarded today by quite a lot of motorists. I was told today that there are well over 100 traffic laws, but the most notable ones to which a great many motorists do not keep are the five speed limits. At night how many vehicles does one sec with one or more headlamps out of action? I also understand that there are innumerable vehicles unlicensed and with no MOT certificate or even no insurance certificate. It would be far better if we could concentrate our resources on endeavouring to persuade motorists to keep to the existing laws, as well as to wear seat belts if they so wish, rather than to add another law to the tremendous number which we already have.

This law will, if it goes through, merely add to the problems of our courts and our police force in dealing with these various omissions. I further wonder, as was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, what will be the psychological effect on some drivers if they are compelled to wear seat belts. I think that many will feel that they can safely take more risks and use less consideration and care for others because they are secure in their seat belts. I do not know but I feel that this is a possibility. So, my Lords, I hope that you will vote for my noble friend's Motion against the Bill. I ask your Lordships not to remove the freedom of choice from the individual, which this Bill seeks to do.

7.53 p.m.


My Lords, we have had an interesting debate. It has been going first one way and then the other. According to my tally the score at the moment is 15:10—at least it will be by the time I sit down. There are three important principles at stake in this Bill, which my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye has brought out so ably. I should like, at the risk of slight repetition, to recap on them: first for the benefit of certain noble Lords who have only been able to join us towards the latter stages of the debate, and, secondly, as some noble Lords may have got a little confused in the matter of statistics since the early part of the debate, with remarks concerning people running under lorries, and various other personal experiences to which noble Lords have referred.

The first principle is the right of an individual to choose how, within the framework of accepted standards, he may conduct his life. Secondly, the consequential effects of the administration of laws passed by Parliament. Thirdly, and I think the most important, the heavy responsibility placed on Parliament to ensure, so far as is possible, that laws which are passed should avoid being injurious to those who abide by the law.

The last time that I addressed your Lordships on this subject was back in 1974. There was, on Report stage, as many of you will remember, a lengthy debate on the Amendment relating to Clause 7 of that Bill. Unfortunately I left it rather late before getting to my feet, and just before I spoke the Leader of the House, then Lord Shepherd, suggested that, as there was a good deal of other business to consider that evening, it would be in the interests of the House perhaps to try to draw the discussion to a close. After I had been speaking for about only four minutes, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, suggested that I was then tending to flog the issue, and he thought that your Lordships had probably heard enough of all the arguments. I am just wondering whether perhaps we are not involving ourselves in flogging the issue again.

All the arguments for and against compulsion have been aired up hill and down dale. They were argued in detail when we were last in Government; they were argued in further detail back in 1974; in another place in November the same year, and just over a year ago at considerable length in another place on Second Reading. For various reasons none of those Bills or clauses ever reached the Statute Book. Now off we have gone again to argue exactly the same points we have all heard before. I really think we should now come to the conclusion that we ought to have left matters where they stood in 1974. However, regrettably, we have not done so.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, was urging us to take a moderate view and a moderate line with good will, I think it was, because this matter is, as we all know, a non-Party issue and in another place would certainly be allowed a free debate and a free vote. I think that she was suggesting that we should let this Bill go through here and another place would then argue it on a free vote, but I am not very happy to allow this Bill to go out of your Lordships' House into another place on that principle.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, what I said was that, if we have a Bill of this kind which is a non-Party Bill and which seems to have a majority of support but which is left to the free vote of Members, all sorts of funny things happen to it en route and we cannot necessarily guarantee that we shall get it through in Parliamentary time this Session unless we are given a great amount of co-operation and consideration at all stages of the Bill in this House and in another place. We need co-operation in order to be able to get it through even in this Session.


My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. The point I wanted to make, and I think a noble Lord has already brought it up earlier, is that there are many occasions when the majority of the public have expressed their views by opinion polls, or what will you, on matters of a non-Party political nature, and when they have asked either your Lordships' House or another place to consider the matter all too often Parliament has acted against what is known to be the interests of the majority.

I would refer to just one subject; that is, the question of hanging. There is no doubt that there is a great feeling in the country about this question. The last figure I heard was that 89 per cent. of the people in this country were in favour of hanging, but what happened in Parliament? It was voted down on a free vote by just over 110 votes. I believe that it is the same with this Bill. The majority of people to whom I have spoken casually or in the course of conversation have, with a few exceptions, nearly all said no to compulsion: yes in favour of seat belts, but no to compulsion.

My noble friend Lord Monson was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, whether there was any religion attached to the idea of seat belts. Well, not in so many words, but certainly I would support what the noble Lord, Lord Monson, said about the Sikhs and what their feelings about seat belts are. It is much the same as it was about crash helmets, and that was not just because of wearing turbans. About two years ago the Sikh Courier stated: The Sikh faith, for example, requires its adherents to maintain high standards of both individual and collective behaviour. It stands for the improvement and uplift of society … We have always been champions of the right of the individual to make his own decisions on matters that affect him alone". We could take a leaf to good advantage out of the Sikh Courier and apply it in this case.

My noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu said he was not aware of any Women's Lib organisation complaining bitterly about people having to wear seat belts in Australia and other countries where it is compulsory. I am not an Australian, a Dutchman or a Frenchman but, as an Englishman, I do not believe that just because people in other countries do not complain about this form of compulsion, the British people should not or will not. We are a very different people and let us not forget that. In my view it would be wrong, just because the Australians do not complain about it, to think that the British would not complain.

Personal freedom is a basic and highly cherished commodity in this country, and the dilemma which is introduced in this Bill, viewed in isolation, appears to be justifiable on the grounds of safety, but it is wrong to argue that such legislation in no way infringes personal liberty. I believe I am right in saying that the greatest number of fatalities in car accidents result from head injuries; this number could, without doubt, be considerably reduced by the compulsory wearing of safety helmets in cars. Where do we stop? To what extent should an individual be free to choose the risks to which he exposes himself? Some years ago it was an offence for anybody in this country to attempt suicide and many prosecutions were brought against these unfortunate people. Fortunately, enlightened opinion eventually prevailed and the law was amended; it was recognised that an individual's life is, in such matters, his own responsibility. If society allows an individual freedom in that ultimate decision, it must surely also accord him the right to choose his own risks.

Today, in the realm of sporting activities such as mountaineering or boating, there are many precautions which should be taken but which many people do not take, although sensible people do. The habits of his life—his smoking or perhaps his over-indulgence in alcohol, even the manner in which he chooses to conduct his life—all materially affect man's survival. And so with seat belts. If the Bill should become law we shall break through this barrier and envelop one area of personal decision after another because, as sure as night follows day, it will not stop here, for it cannot logically do so.

A very reasonable argument put forward by those who favour compulsory legislation is that if an individual was not killed but instead was put into hospital for many years, it would be the State or society that would have to bear the cost, so is it not justifiable to introduce legislation to prevent such an occurrence? This, then, is the crux of the problem—to maximise personal freedom while at the same time ensuring that the individual's risks are borne by himself alone. I suggest that the solution to the dilemma lies in the exact world of the actuary. The law requiring the wearing of seat belts has its genesis in a mass of statistics. Surely it is possible to assess from these very statistics the insurance premiums necessary to cover the State against the cost of such risks; the suggestion being that those who are unhappy over the wearing of seat belts in which the risk of injury is to themselves alone should be allowed to opt out of that particular requirement, provided they take out compulsory insurance to indemnify the State or society against the consequences of their risks.

The number of people who earnestly fear the risk of being trapped by their seat belts in a burning car, who genuinely experience physical discomfort in wearing them or, because they do not have the average shape or size catered for by the manufacturers, is considerable. With the growing complexity of life in modern society, intrusions into our private lives and decisions are bound to grow, and in my view this is an opportunity for us all to act and to be seen to act to preserve personal liberty, which is a truly precious commodity.

On coming to the House today, I happened to read the current issue of the Country Landowner's Magazine in which there was a sentence which, while it had nothing to do with seat belts, could have been written with them in mind. It read: It will be a great step forward when Governments stop interfering in the affairs of adult individuals instead of treating everyone like delinquent teenagers". As for the administration of this law, in my view it would be an impossible task for the police to carry out. To begin with, there would be a certain number of exemptions, but these we do not know precisely yet. This is the one area where I criticise the Bill as drafted, because we do not know who is to be included and who left out. Suppose pregnant women should be excluded from the wearing of seat belts. At what stage does pregnancy begin and what proof is there? All sorts of awkward and embarrassing questions could be asked. Suppose, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, suggested, that one was excluded from wearing a belt when reversing a car, because often there is difficulty in turning round when one is tightly strapped in. Would we then find people smartly going into reverse on seeing a policeman flagging them down for not wearing a seat belt? This sort of thing could open the door to further poor relations between the police and the public. Then there is the question of minors. I believe I am right in saying that it is not envisaged that minors should wear seat belts compulsorily. To my mind that is most retrograde; they are the only section of the community for whom I would strongly advocate compulsion.

I apologise if, at this hour, I am delaying your Lordships, but I must refer to the duty we have to ourselves as legislators in considering the far-reaching consequences of the laws we pass in Parliament. As legislators, we have to think not only of the feelings of the majority but those of the minority. If the minority of the people feel deeply and sincerely that something is prejudicial to their safety, we must think very carefully whether we should be right to vote for a measure which would compel them to do the very thing of which they are afraid. If one person were killed because of the compulsory wearing of seat belts, that person's family or anybody who felt of like mind would say with a good deal of justification that he was killed because of the law that we had passed. I fully accept that many lives would be saved by the wearing of seat belts, but there are many cases which have come to light this afternoon to show that if a belt had been worn in a particular accident, that person would not have escaped. Therefore, in view of those few occasions when that could happen, it would be quite wrong for us to consider passing a law which might in the end cost lives, and it would take only one such fatality to attract the scorn and fury of those who would be most directly affected to ourselves.

If there were evidence to show that seat belts were 100 per cent. effective, I agree that my argument would fall to the ground, but so far as I know there is no such evidence. Indeed, I think I am right in saying that seat belts are considered to be only 75 per cent. effective in preventing death. I sincerely trust that noble Lords will strongly support my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye in his Amendment.

8.9 p.m.


My Lords, pity I request from noble Lords, being speaker No. 27 in this debate, when nearly all has been said, when virtually every point has been made and when there are so few noble Lords left in the Chamber to address. In any event, I doubt whether any argument of mine would sway the view which any noble Lord has reached on this subject. I must admit that my feeling of gratitude to the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, for his introductory remarks—in which he spoke about packing the debate in—were most helpful to me and I hope that at some time in the future, perhaps the next time I hear that he is going to play cricket, I shall have the pleasure of ploughing up the pitch before he goes in to bat.

My noble friend is quite right about the amount that has been said, and I shall certainly not inflict on your Lordships what I might have inflicted two or three hours ago. However, despite the fact that many points have been made and, as not infrequently happens in your Lordships' House on Second Reading, the debate has swayed from course to course, some of which has not necessarily had much to do with the subject, we should not mind that for we always like it that way. On the other hand, I believe that what does emerge and what requires comment in the closing stages is a question of emphasis on certain points.

I must confess that, in the normal way of things, I do not agree with very much that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, says in your Lordships' House. Today, I agree with him completely. I believe that he is right in bringing forward this measure and he will certainly enjoy my support. Equally, I seldom disagree with my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye but, regretfully, I do so today because I see him, as I saw him in 1974, spearheading what I personally regard as the forces of reaction in this matter. I have to admit that I admire the way that my noble friend has marshalled his forces but, quite frankly, I do so rather more than I admire the way in which he has marshalled his arguments.

My first point is that I have failed to be convinced by this curious rejection of a great deal of authoritative, statistical, proven, properly collected evidence in favour of what I believe has been called an armful of selected, collected, individual cases which have been slung together under the guise of arguments to refute a case.

Before I go on, I had better just clear up one thing. In the past, when I spoke on such things, I wore an RAC hat. I got rid of that hat six and a half years ago and I am putting forward today what are entirely my own views, although they are based on a good deal of experience collected in various ways. I speak for myself and I consider that, from what we have heard this afternoon, the AA has got it right and, if my noble friend Lord Howe is to be believed, the RAC has most certainly got it wrong. Naturally, I should never have dared to say that six and a half years ago.

Of course, we have flogged this subject to death this afternoon. I am afraid that, on the last occasion, I was as guilty as many of your Lordships have been this afternoon of injecting a great deal of personal anecdote into the affair. The reason why I did it then was to stress that, while I had emerged from most of the rough experiences which I described unscathed, it was almost entirely due to outstandingly good luck which could certainly not be expected to protect me a second time nor be relied upon as an adequate safeguard for anyone else. I certainly do not intend to go through that again, and if anybody missed my exciting recital he can find it in Hansard for the day in question.

A further reason for rejecting this type of contribution is that I do not believe that anecdotal evidence is of very much weight in today's consideration, though I am afraid we have heard a great deal of it. We have had hypothetical argument put forward, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Boothby. That rather surprised me, coming from him—or perhaps it did not! We have also had quite a bit of argument on the lines of the exception that proves the rule as a basis for making the law one way or the other. Quite frankly, I do not agree with that.

I know why these arguments were brought forward. If one is trying to refute the evidence in favour of this Bill, it is the only kind of evidence that can be brought forward and one has to wax emotive, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod. I am sure that we would all have the greatest sympathy with the individual cases which she related to us, but they do not consitute an argument in the context in which we are talking because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, pointed out to start with, all the weight of the evidence based on experience, scientific, factual, medical and practical, lies in favour of the use of belts and, I would maintain, should lead your Lordships to support the Bill.

I have all this evidence here. I had hoped that more of your Lordships would have it. I have tons of it from various countries, but mostly Australia and New Zealand because they had the good sense to start first and have the most experience. But the ever-mounting experience of an ever-increasing number of other countries only goes to confirm the same beneficial trend —a definite and quite substantial reduction in death and serious injury accidents. That is a point that must not be forgotten.


My Lords, I do not understand why evidence given on one side is evidence, whereas evidence given on the other side is to be disregarded.


I can answer that quite simply, my Lords. No evidence has actually been adduced against the wearing of seat belts. It is all hearsay on the lines of, "I know somebody who …" and so on. There has been no report, no written evidence for this point of view put forward from any source. We have had interpretations of individual cases taken out of The Times. We have had the whole lot and none of it constitutes factual, practical evidence at all.

I have here, as no doubt have many of your Lordships, the road accident figures for Great Britain in 1975, which have recently been issued by the Department of Transport. These show that in 1975, 6,366 people were killed on the roads compared with 7,952 in 1965, ten years earlier. Serious injuries showed a similar reduction, as did all accidents. However, I am interested in the deaths and serious injuries. I am not going to make the point which your Lordships expect me to make and translate that into percentages of the people who would have been saved had they worn belts, though I could do that. The point that I want to make is that we can at least conclude that we are making modest progress towards greater safety on our roads when we take into consideration that traffic increased by 44 per cent. over those ten years. The precise reasons for this are harder to specify. Probably the provision of better and safer roads will have been the major contributor. I would agree with the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, that better and safer cars have probably made a useful contribution, as have better road safety education, better traffic engineering, speed limits and, probably, the present modest compliance with the wearing of seat belts will have added its little share. I maintain that we are at risk of losing the opportunity to increase that share by a very much more serious proportion.

I do not believe that I am really very impressed by the stories of the number of people actually killed by seat belts and the scare-mongering and horror-mongering that have been going on. After all, I have heard of a case or two, though not very many, in which people who have fallen into the sea have been killed by the lifebelt thrown to their rescue because it hit them on the head and they were drowned! I suppose that there must be a handful of cases where that has happened, and so far as I know there was never any proposition that the Board of Trade should withdraw its regulations which compel ships to carry lifebelts. My noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye consistently denies that he has ever heard of anybody being damaged by a crash hat, despite the fact that in 1974 and again today I tell him that there are such cases, and I think that there are others of your Lordships who know about them.

But, my Lords, there are more important matters than those. There is the question of enforcement, and I do not believe for one moment that the argument that the police could not enforce such a law as is here proposed is anything other than a complete overstatement. I had written down a note to say that, frankly, this argument is rubbish, and I think perhaps that it is because I cannot believe that such a law would be difficult to enforce. While there are a thousand other reasons for saying there are not enough police, what is being proposed now would not break the bank. This is not a question of opinion and judgment, as is dangerous driving, careless driving or some similar offence, where the police may have difficulty. This would be a black and white case; either one was wearing a belt or one was not wearing a belt. That is as near to a self-proving offence as one could want, and it would not be difficult for any police force to enforce.


My Lords, will my noble friend allow me to ask him this: How does a policeman or other authorised officer determine whether or not one is wearing a seat belt when he cannot see, either when passing in another motor car, or when standing at the side of the car, into the centre of one's car where the seat belt anchorage locks? Surely a seat belt is effective only if correctly worn and anchored, and a loosely draped but anchored seat belt is useless; in fact, it is worse than useless, it is dangerous.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord on that point, and if allowed I will come back to it. But I say that the principle which we are discussing this evening—that this should become an offence—is not a difficult matter from the point of view of police enforcement. I will come back to this point in a moment under another heading. Much has been made, quite rightly and quite correctly, about infringement of the liberty of the subject. We have previously heard much about this, and we have heard much about it today. I certainly would not presume to disagree with any noble Lord on the matter of the liberty of the subject. But how valuable a liberty is being infringed here? This seems to me to be a rather specious argument.

As has been said more than once, this argument must apply to quite a number of other matters. We drive on the left. Is that not an infringement? I do not want to make these points again, but we have speed limits, no parking, no waiting—all of these are infringements and they are accepted; or if they are not accepted, at least they are endured because they are regarded as being necessary in the public interest. For the life of me, I cannot see why there should be any difference in this case. I will give way to the noble Lord, but he must wait until I have finished my sentence.


My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that speed limits, driving on the left, parking restrictions and the like all exist to prevent one car hitting another car or damaging other people? They have nothing to do with the individual driver himself, but with other drivers.


My Lords, at the moment I am talking not about traffic engineering, but on the subject of personal liberty, and I cannot see any difference here in this case. Do not forget that there are medical and economic arguments and arguments of enforcement which can be considerably and materially benefited by the wearing of belts. I will return to that point in a moment.

I noted that the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, said that we are not a people who are easily regimented. I did not need the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, to tell me that we are English, and therefore different. I knew that. But I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, whether he has ever tried regimenting a gang of Australians? If he has, then I feel that he might not have said what he did say. I turn quickly to the question of persuasion—


My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? In reply to his question, I should say, Yes, I have; I did it during the war.


I am left flabbergasted, my Lords. I turn quickly to the question of persuasion. Of course it would have been better to have handled this matter by persuasion. Of course any of us would prefer to do it by persuasion; but we have not done it by persuasion. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, is quite wrong about that. Persuasion has not worked. It has been hotly pursued and heavily financed, subsidised, and advertised for 15 solid years, to my certain knowledge. But what do we have today?—a wearing rate of about 30 per cent. If anyone tells me that persuasion has been successful in this case, then I should be very surprised—


My Lords, I would say to my noble friend that I do not think that persuasion can alter a large number of people in a short time. It will take a long time. But my point was that it is working slowly, and it is better that people should be volunteers than be forced into something.


It is working so slowly, my Lords, that it is going backwards. Persuasion has achieved a rate of 30 per cent. after 15 years, after having once been 50 per cent. That is not progress. In the meantime, many people are being smashed up and killed, and that is not good a thing.

The noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, was one of those who told us that everybody is in favour of seat belts. Several of your Lordships said, "I am in favour of seat belts. They are splendid things. Wear them. They will protect you." Everybody seems to be in favour of them. But why, my Lords, do they not wear them? That is what I want to know—and they do not wear them. All I am saying is that we have reached the stage where persuasion has failed, people are not wearing seat belts, and it is justifiable here to consider in principle the question of the introduction of another element.

If this Bill were a mandatory Bill then, despite the arguments that I have put forward, I would certainly not vote for it this evening. But I would join with several noble Lords—Lord Porritt, Lord Platt, Lord Parry, for instance, to name but a few—in saying that this is a good basis on which to get the matter going. I believe that because this is a permissive Bill we should give it a Second Reading, and I say that in the full conciousness that we should have much work to do in Committee, particularly to ensure that the essential safeguards and exceptions are most carefully worked out. No doubt they would be principally concerned with questions of unreasonable inconvenience and genuine medical and physical grounds. There would be much to do, but it is because I think that it is a reasonable thing to request that I for one would ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to the Bill and not to accept the Amendment of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye.

8.29 p.m.


My Lords, I should not be at all popular at this hour of the evening if I were to attempt to answer all the speeches made during the course of the debate. But I ought to say at the outset that there have been many outstanding speeches, not least the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Parry and Lord Mowbray and Stourton, and the impressive speech to which we have just listened from the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, to whom I am particularly grateful. As he said at the beginning, we are so often on the opposite sides of the political fence, and so it is all the more gratifying to find that he is prepared to give his wholehearted support to this measure which I am introducing this evening.

I think I ought also to congratulatv the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, on his own speech, which, although I did not agree with it, of course, showed that he was, as the noble Lord, Lord Erroll, put it, a master of political gamesmanship. I do not mean that in any pejorative sense, because I enjoyed listening to his speech, and I thought there were many points in it which were worth further consideration—and that we shall certainly be able to give them if this Bill is given a Second Reading this evening. But there is one particular aspect of the noble Lord's speech to which I do wish to reply as the epitome of an argument which has been recurring throughout the whole of the debate, and that is the anecdotal evidence which he offered of a particular case where certain individuals were alleged to have been killed because they were wearing seat belts—and we heard this again from the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, and several others—as if that was positive evidence in favour of the Amendment which is before us this evening. Of course it is not, and I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Chesham: the fact that one or two individuals can produce these anecdotes does not prove anything.

However, having looked into the case mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, who kindly referred me to the piece in the Daily Telegraph which he quoted, I will give one or two further facts about that story which I think are instructive. The news item said that at a coroner's inquest one of the witnesses who attempted to rescue the occupants of the car was unable to unfasten the belts because the car was on fire and the occupants were trapped inside it, and finally he had to retreat. He gave a statement after the inquest, presumably to the reporter of the Daily Telegraph, in which he said, "I know the law will soon stipulate that everyone must wear a seat belt, but this is a case where two people would have been alive today if they had not been wearing one". That is the case of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour. But the facts are that in this car there were four occupants. Two of them were wearing seat belts, and two were not. I am sorry to tell your Lordships that all four of them were killed.

So far as the witnesses who approached the car after the accident could ascertain, the four men were all unconscious, even if they were not dead, at the time when the fire broke out. The doors were all damaged and the frame of the car was so distorted that, even if it had been possible for the rescuers to unfasten the seat belts, I do not think the individuals could have been extracted from the car. The accident was in fact of such severity that if they had not been belted in the front seats they would undoubtedly have been extremely seriously injured or killed, and would still not have been able to get out of the car. I am just wondering how many of the other anecdotal stories that we have heard this afternoon, if one could have pursued them, would have led to that kind of conclusion.

My Lords, another theme which has recurred is the possibility that, in accidents which take place through an impact on the side of the vehicle, the reactions of the driver are so miraculously quick that he is able to leap out of the way because he is not wearing a seat belt. My Lords, it is not true that drivers are able to react as quickly as that, but if they saw that there was the possibility of an impact, it would almost invariably be more sensible for them to stay at the wheel and try to arrest the vehicle before the impact, and thus reduce the severity of the injuries that they would suffer.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for just a moment? Did he not read about the Centurian tank which ran over a car which was stationary, the driver of which was not wearing a seat belt and was therefore able to duck out of the way? Admittedly the car was parked where it should not have been, probably, but the tank ran over the car at 5 mph and, as he was not wearing a seat belt, the chap lay on his wife's lap, and lives.


My Lords, I did not read about this particular accident, but I think that if one heard a Centurian tank approaching, unless one was stone deaf there would be plenty of time to unfasten one's seat belt before the unfortunate occupants were crushed by the impact of the tank. But I shall certainly look into that case if the noble Lord would like to give me the details, and perhaps we could examine this further if the noble Lord would vote for the Second Reading of this Bill so that we can go into Committee. Certainly the investigations into accidents which have been made show that if drivers stay at the controls until the last moment then they can do a great deal to reduce closing speeds; and there is no evidence from these investigations that unbelted drivers or passengers can throw themselves about in the event of an accident.

Another point which has not been referred to is that if the impact is on one side and the person we are discussing is on the other, then his wearing of a seat belt prevents him from being thrown towards the site of the collision and so he is much less likely to sustain an injury. We seem to assume that we are talking about the person who is on the side of the impact, where a vehicle is coming into your own car. But even if that is so, if you are not wearing a seat belt and you are free to move in the vehicle, you are in fact thrown towards the point of impact and not away from it, as some people may imagine, and therefore you are more likely to sustain a serious injury. As a matter of interest, surveys have shown that frontal impacts account for 70 per cent. of injuries, side impacts 20 per cent. of injuries and rear impacts 10 per cent. Those are obviously very broad categories because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, mentioned, I think, there are some impacts which are at an angle, so that it would be difficult to classify them as between front and sides.

My Lords, if I were to go into as much detail as that on every single point which has been raised in the debate, I am sure I would not be at all popular; and I know that your Lordships would like to reach a decision as quickly as possible. I shall therefore simply conclude by saying that I think that fundamentally we have exhausted all the details, and, in the case of exemptions, perhaps we could do something at Committee stage to put in some of the more important ones that noble Lords have spoken about in the form of a Schedule instead of waiting for the consultations to be completed. But it boils down to the view that one takes of the civil liberties aspect of the legislation. If, as I do, your Lordships think that the sacrifice of one small iota of freedom on the part of motorists (which involves no issue of principle whatsoever, because there cannot possibly be any religious or conscientious objections to wearing a seat belt) is a small, insignificant price to pay for the saving of 1,000 lives and 11,000 serious injuries, then your Lordships will vote against the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Balfour, and in favour of the Second Reading of this Bill this evening.

8.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am quite sure that the kindest thing I can do is not to stand between your Lordships and a decision on this issue. We have had a long and full debate. Many questions have been argued, for and against. It seems to me that the issue is quite clear and simple. It is, to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, black and white. Are the Government to take powers to deprive a man of the decision, which should be his, as to whether he does or does not wear a seat belt for the safety of his family and himself; or are we to impose by law the risk to that man which he himself does not wish to take? That is the simple issue.

We have had many speeches and I thank all those noble Lords, whether they

Abinger, L. Ferrers, E. Platt, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Foot, L. Raglan, L.
Allerton, L. Gainford, L. Rankeillour, L.
Atholl, D. Gladwyn, L. Rochdale, V.
Balfour of Inchrye, L. Grey, E. Salisbury, M.
Barrington, V. Hale, L. Sandys, L.
Belstead, L. Hood, V. Savile, L.
Berkeley, B. Howe, E. [Teller.] Sharples, B.
Bledisloe, V. Inglewood, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Boothby, L. Kimberley, E. Stone, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Strathclyde, L.
Cathcart, E. Lucas of Chilworth, L. Strathspey, L.
Clitheroe, L. Macleod of Borve, B. Thomas, L. [Teller.]
Colwyn, L. Monck, V. Wade, L.
Cottesloe, L. Monson, L. Wakefield of Kendal, L.
Davies of Leek, L. Mountgarret, V. Ward of North Tyneside, B.
de Clifford, L. Napier and Ettrick, L. Wynne-Jones, L.
Dormer, L. Noel-Buxton, L.
Emmet of Amberley, B. Nunburnholme, L.
Amherst, E. Hanworth, V. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Auckland, L. Heycock, L. Rochester, L.
Avebury, L. [Teller.] Janner, L. Shackleton, L.
Banks, L. Kennet, L. Sheffield, Bp.
Blyton, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Sherfield, L.
Brockway, L. Lyell, L. Stedman, B.
Champion, L. Montagu of Beaulieu, L. [Teller.] Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Chesham, L. Strabolgi, L.
Collison, L. Morris, L. Strathcarron, L.
De La Warr, E. Mowbray and Stourton, L. Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Denham, L. Northfield, L. Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Durham, Bp. Onslow, E. Trefgarne, L.
Erroll of Hale, L. Oram, L. Vernon, L.
Falkland, V. Parry, L. Vickers, B.
Ferrier, L. Peart, L. (L. Privy Seal.) Wallace of Coslany, L.
Garner, L. Phillips, B. White, B.
Hacking, L. Redcliffe-Maud, L. Wigg, L.
Halsbury, E. Redesdale, L. Winterbottom, L.
Resolved in the affirmative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly.

supported me or not, who have contributed to the debate. We all know where we stand now. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, we know, stands solidly on behalf of the Government behind the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton—I am not quite sure. He sprayed the political issues with delightful sweet-smelling lavender water. Where we got to after that I am not quite sure. We had a distinguished speech from the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, an ex-boss of the RAC, and one from the noble Lord, Lord Erroll of Hale, the chairman of the AA. The RAC is against compulsion and the AA is for it; I must get that right. Once again, I thank all who have taken part and I sincerely hope that we can say goodbye to this Bill tonight.

8.41 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 55; Non-Contents, 53.