HL Deb 11 June 1981 vol 421 cc321-31
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bellwin.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

Clause 26 agreed to.

Lord Nugent of Guildford moved Amendment No. 79: After Clause 26, insert the following new clause:

("Compulsory wearing of seat belts

.—(1) After section 33 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 there shall be inserted the following section:— Wearing of seat belts. 33A.—(1) The Secretary of State may make regulations requiring, subject to such exceptions as may be prescribed, persons who are driving or riding in motor vehicles on a road to wear seat belts of such description as may be prescribed. (2) Regulations under this section—

  1. (a) may make different provision in relation to different classes of vehicles, different descriptions of persons and different circumstances;
  2. (b) shall include exceptions for—
    1. (i) the users of vehicles constructed or adapted for the delivery of goods or mail to consumers or addressees, as the case may be, while engaged in making such deliveries;
    2. (ii) the drivers of vehicles while performing a manoeuvre which includes reversing;
    3. (iii) persons holding a valid certificate signed by a medical practitioner to the effect that it is inadvisable on medical grounds for him to wear a seat belt;
  3. (c) may make any prescribed exceptions subject to such conditions as may be prescribed; and
  4. (d) may prescribe cases in which a fee of a prescribed amount may be charged on an application for any certificate required as a condition of any prescribed exception.

(3) Any person who drives or rides in a motor vehicle in contravention of regulations under this section shall be guilty of an offence.

(4) If the holder of any such certificate as is referred to in subsection (2)(b) above is informed by a constable that he may be prosecuted for an offence under subsection (3) above, he shall not, in proceedings for that offence, be entitled to rely on the exception afforded to him by the certificate unless—

  1. (a) it is produced to the constable at the time he is so informed; or
  2. (b) within five days after the date on which he is so informed, it is produced at such police station as he may have specified to the constable."

(2) In section 169 of the Road Traffic Act 1972 (forgery of documents etc.) in subsection (2) (documents to which that section applies) after paragraph (b) there shall be inserted the following paragraph: (bb) any certificate required as a condition of any exception prescribed under section 33A of this Act".

(3) In Part I of Schedule 4 to the Road Traffic Act 1972 (prosecution and punishment of offences) after the entry relating to section 33 there shall be inserted the following entry:—

"33A. Driving or riding in a motor vehicle contravention of regulations requiring wearing of seat belts. Summarily. £50. Sections 181 and 183 apply."").

The noble Lord said: Your Lordships may have noticed that on the Marshalled List there are four amendments to my amendment. In order to save the time and convenience of the House, the noble Lords in whose names those amendments are recorded have very kindly agreed not to move them now. So that, at the end of the general debate on my amendment, there will be one single vote instead of a series of four or five votes which would, of course, have been very confusing. The noble Lords concerned reserve the right to put down their amendments on Report if my amendment should be carried. No doubt they will join in the debate on my amendment.

This new clause is the same in substance as my Private Member's Bill which gave an enabling power to the Secretary of State for Transport to make regulations covering the compulsory wearing of seat belts. Noble Lords will remember that we had a debate about this last December. During the Second Reading debate—a very good, five hour debate—every argument, for and against compulsory seat belts was developed. I thought the debate was of a very high order. We ended up with a vote of 72 in favour and 36 against. This was of great satisfaction to those who favour seat belt legislation.

I did not proceed with my Private Member's Bill because of the well known vulnerability of Private Member's Bills to any opposition in the House of Commons. One determined opponent is quite enough to destroy a Bill. Obviously, therefore, the best prospect of getting the issue on to the Floor of the House of Commons, where it is believed that on the free vote which would be given there would be a majority of about 100 in favour, is an amendment to this Government Transport Bill which we now have before us. I should add that an amendment similar to mine was on the Marshalled List in another place, but that when the Bill was passing through the Commons that amendment was a casualty under the guillotine motion and therefore was not voted on. So if we pass this amendment today and send it back to the Commons, the elected House of Commons will have their first chance in this Government Bill of voting upon this very important issue.

Despite the general public interest in this subject, I do not propose to inflict upon your Lordships a long and detailed speech, perhaps running to half an hour, dealing with all aspects of the Bill. If I did so, I think noble Lords might very well give me the advice to belt up myself. I believe that after the comprehensive debates which we have had in the past I need do no more than deal with the central argument in the Bill, that of the saving of life and limb which is expected to follow the making of this law. The powerful medical arguments I can confidently leave to my noble friends Lord Porritt, who will be following me, and Lord Richardson, who will also be taking part, as before; and I am delighted to see that my noble friend Lord Hunt of Fawley, recovered from his illness, also intends to take part. I know that I am going to be well supported by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, from the Front Bench on the other side, and I have no doubt that other noble Lords will develop the many other interesting points surrounding the subject.

I should begin by declaring my special interest in the subject as President of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and thanking their members and officials for the very helpful support which they have given in this campaign over the years.

The case for compulsory seat belts is very simply stated. It is this: the present wearing rate of seat belts is approximately 30 per cent. This was achieved after a massive public relations campaign by the Government over recent years. Legal compulsion is expected to raise that rate from 30 per cent. to 80 to 90 per cent. That forecast is based on experience in many other countries—26 now have this legislation—but particularly on the experience of Australia and New Zealand who might be thought to have a similar mentality to ourselves. At this level of seat belt wearing, 80 to 90 per cent., the Transport and Road Research Laboratory estimate that the saving of life would be of the order of 600 to 700 per annum and that the saving of serious injury would be of the order of 11,000 per annum. The police are in favour of this measure, despite whatever difficulties there may be for them. I believe that this makes a compelling case in favour of the law.

I should mention a recent contribution to the public debate—Professor Adams' paper, which some noble Lords may have read, which advances the new and interesting thesis that the wearing of a seat belt might encourage a driver to take greater risks and therefore have more accidents. Professor Adams supported this thesis by reference to the death and injury trends for all classes of road user before and after seat belt legislation in a number of foreign countries. The evaluation of the significance of that paper depends upon the analysis of these global figures—the figures include all users: pedestrians, cyclists, motor cyclists and so on—to show what is related to front seat passengers and drivers only, which is what we are talking about. I have therefore asked the Transport and Road Research Laboratory for their comments on this interesting paper but it will take the laboratory some time to obtain detailed statistics from these countries. I hope that the Transport and Road Research Laboratory will then publish a reply. It will be of obvious interest. In the meantime, the laboratory adhere to their former forecast of the potential saving of life and limb from the measure.

Let me briefly turn to the case of the opponents to this measure and say immediately that I recognise and sympathise with the attraction of the argument in defence of the liberty of the subject. I do understand the strength of feeling of noble Lords and some private citizens, too. Quite a number have written to me over recent weeks and months—about 50:50 for and against. I have had quite a fan mail. I have answered all those who wrote, except those who did not stamp their letters. In the context of driving a motor car on a public road where there are many regulations which must be accepted in the interests of the safety of everybody, my belief is that that argument really is not valid.

For the last 20 years both my wife and I have worn seat belts. With the modern belt, I find that it really does become second nature to put on the belt as I get into the car. I do not notice it when I am driving. It really is in no way onerous either to put it on or to wear it. I support my personal experience by reference to what has happened in those countries which have made it compulsory: that there has been general acceptance in the many countries concerned. It appears that most people quickly accept and adopt the practice, and I believe that this would happen here.

Finally, I must deal with the argument that the wearing of seat belts may actually cause death or injury. I immediately acknowledge that they may, but the odds against it happening—these have been assessed as well as one can in such a difficult case by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory—are at about 1,000:1. It is a very long shot indeed, whereas the wearing of seat belts is reliably estimated to double your prospects of avoiding death or injury in an accident. Those seem to me to be pretty good odds to adopt.

In the nature of things, there is no absolute certainty in frail human life. At the end of the day it is a matter of personal judgment. However, I submit that the advantages of making this law so greatly outweigh the disadvantages that we are justified in doing so. I beg to move.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)

As an amendment to this amendment, Amendment No. 79A, which stands in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot.

Lord Teviot

Not moved.

[Amendment No. 79B not moved.]

3.50 p.m.

Lord Monson had given notice of his intention to move Amendments Nos 80 and 80A as amendments to Amendment No. 79:

After Clause 26, subsection (1), at end insert— ("1) The Secretary of State shall arrange for compensation to be paid to any person driving or riding in a motor vehicle whose death or injury is caused by the wearing of a seat belt and where there are no rights to recover such compensation from any other person or organisation.".)

The noble Lord said: The two amendments standing in my name, Amendments Nos. 80 and 80A, are among the many extremely important amendments which will be necessary if by some misfortune the principle of compulsion is written into the Bill. I sense that it is the Committee's wish to concentrate on the main issue of freedom. Therefore I do not propose to move either of these two amendments.

[Amendment No. 81 not moved.]

3.50 p.m.

Lord Bellwin

I intervene now on this important and controversial issue in the hope that your Lordships will find it helpful to hear the Government's view expressed at an early stage in the debate. This is undoubtedly an issue that cuts across party boundaries and I confirm that the Government are content to follow what is by now well-established tradition and allow a free vote. The position of the Government is one of neutrality, and individual Members of the Government are free to express their own views—as I shall do at the conclusion of what I have to say on this subject.

I should like to start by emphasising the Government's firm belief that seat belts themselves save lives and substantially reduce the chances of serious injury. They do so by preventing the user from coming into violent contact with parts of the vehicle's interior or from being ejected from it in an accident. As to the extent to which seat belts offer that protection, the accident records of seat belt wearers and non-wearers in Great Britain, supported by special studies such as those carried out by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory between 1974 and 1976, show quite clearly that non-wearers are twice as likely to be killed or seriously injured as wearers. Of course, this might not apply in every single case and Members of your Lordships' House may well be able to quote personal examples where it is believed that the wearing of a seat belt would have made or in fact did make matters worse. This does not affect the general proposition that if one compares a large number of cases the record of seat belt wearers is decisively better. The medical evidence is compelling and the statistics, even with all the reservations that one might fairly place upon them, are none the less highly significant.

Compulsory use of seat belts, however, raises a different set of issues. Supporters of compulsory usage—and these include the Automobile Association, and the medical profession whose members have to attend to the tragic consequences of road accidents—believe that the saving of life and prevention of injury is the paramount consideration. They point out that the voluntary wearing rate has been on a plateau of around 30 per cent. for some time and seems unlikely ever to increase much above that figure. They believe that compulsion has been successful where it has been accepted in other countries, and that if we in this country follow suit with 100 per cent. usage we could save up to 1,000 lives and prevent 10,000 serious injuries every year. Of course one will never under any circumstances achieve 100 per cent. usage, but any pro rata saving of lives or diminution in the number or degree of severity of accidents would be of major importance.

This is a powerful case, but to be objective it has to be said that there are also powerful arguments against compulsion. First, there is what is generally called the libertarian argument. I want to make quite clear that the real basis of this argument is not an objection to safety laws as such, but to making it a criminal offence for a person not to do something that affects his own personal safety and does not directly affect the safety of any third party. Those who take this view—and there are many of them—believe that there are few precedents for this type of law and that the few such laws as there are are bad laws. I submit that no one should lightly dismiss that argument, as it is a fundamental and serious point for consideration.

Secondly, there is the argument about the difficulty of enforcing this type of law. There is no doubt from the experience of other countries which have introduced compulsory usage that to be effective such a law needs to be continually enforced. Unless that is done, the wearing rate gradually drops. Unless there are penalties—which some countries do not have, incidentally—the wearing rate never achieves a satisfactory level. It is a matter of opinion whether the British notorist will be more or less willing to accept this kind of law than motorists in other countries. However, I am sure no one would disagree that the question of enforcement and its implications in relationships between the police and the public is an important aspect for noble Lords to bear in mind.

To both of these arguments, which are not new, there has recently been added a third argument, which is perhaps rather more novel. Basically, its conclusion is that compulsion will not achieve the results which its supporters claim for it. This argument stems from the publication of the paper to which my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford referred. This was Professor John Adams' paper comparing total road accident fatalities during the 1970s for countries with and without seat belt laws. Professor Adams argued that countries which had no seat belt laws actually fared better in percentage improvement terms than countries which did have laws. He put forward the hypothesis that legislation actually encourages more risky driving. I have to say that I do not believe Professor Adams has proved his thesis but, even so, the fact remains that in countries where compulsion has been introduced the casualty figures have not been as high as one might have expected, given what one knows about the efficiency of seat belts.

Some noble Lords may like to have more information about the experience in other countries. All I can say at present is that while there are a great many possible interpretations there is none which, from our examination of the data which is available, can be said to be in any way conclusive. Let me illustrate this with one interesting example of the way in which figures that at first sight seemed disappointing can look very different in a more detailed analysis. New Zealand is one of the countries in which road deaths after the introduction of compulsory usage actually increased. But there, at first compulsion applied only in respect of cars first registered after a certain date. A detailed analysis showed that fatal and serious injuries to occupants of cars to which compulsion did apply fell by nearly 10 per cent., while they fell by only 2 per cent. in the case of other cars. Also, the deaths of other classes of road users went up. This illustrates how in general published statistics the benefits of compulsory usage may be masked by other factors, and it also shows that interpreting casualty trends is an immensly complicated business.

Let me quote just one other example. In this country, road traffic deaths have dropped by some 900 over the past two years, which is a very considerable number by any standard. Apart from the fact that we have had a Conservative Government for the past two years I can think of no other obvious reason for this improvement. If we cannot always find explanations for our own casualty figures, how much more difficult it is to do so in the case of other countries, when the data available to us is inevitably more limited. The truth is that, in reality, we really do not know the reasons, and we cannot rely on the extent to which the experience of other countries is necessarily relevant to our own case. All we can say in broad terms is that with other factors being equal, compulsory usage should result in the level of casualty savings which have been customarily quoted.

Next I want to say something about the way in which the Secretary of State might expect to use all the important regulation-making powers in the clause, if it is passed. The first power the new clause would give concerns the making of regulations prescribing who is to wear seat belts. In theory this power could be used to prescribe that everyone in every seating position in a car, van, bus or lorry, whatever the age of the vehicle, should wear a seat belt—but that would be totally impractical. In practice we would expect to propose that compulsory wearing of seat belts should apply wherever compulsory fitting applies under the Construction and Use Regulations. More precisely, this would mean usage in respect of the occupants of the front seats of cars manufactured on or after 30th June 1964, goods vehicles manufactured on or after 1st September 1966, and three-wheeled vehicles registered on or after 1st March 1970.

The second power the new clause would give would be to prescribe those exempt from wearing seat belts. Some exemptions are suggested in the clause, such as drivers engaged in making deliveries or in reversing the vehicle, as well as some on medical grounds. These are justifiable because they are so important and because there would be such a strong consensus in favour of them. There are other possible exemptions which would need to be considered, but I will not go into them now; but that they exist is without question. Before the Secretary of State makes the necessary regulations he would be under a duty—and I want to stress this—to consult outside interests. Clearly, this consultation process would give the Secretary of State the necessary opportunity to consider the practical issues involved.

I have spoken so far for the Government, but, as I close, I want to give my personal view. As a general principle, I strongly believe that the things which people should be compelled to do by law should be as few as possible. We are a free society and rightly proud of it. Any freedom, great or small, should not therefore be sacrificed lightly and I am as jealous and as concerned as anyone about encroachments on those freedoms. Too many people have sacrificed too much over too long a period of time in our history for us lightly to make concessions to basic principles. It is therefore with the fullest appreciation of what it means that I say that for myself, with all the caveats, with all the reservations which I hope I have fairly and objectively outlined, I would nevertheless be willing, in this situation, to forgo this particular freedom.

I entirely accept the arguments that we shall doubtless be hearing again today about the difficulties of enforcement. I do indeed understand those who will instance cases where wearing belts might have had an adverse effect. These are strong arguments and I respect them, but, at the end of the day, with a decision to take, to me the medical evidence cannot be brushed aside. Whether the saving of lives and the effects on injuries are in tens, hundreds or thousands the number itself does not matter; in my view the balance of the argument comes down, albeit not easily and only just in favour of compulsion, and that is why, unless today I hear some quite new evidence, I personally have decided, after carefully considering all the arguments so far available, that I will support the amendment.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Underhill

I am certain that the Committee will be grateful to the three noble Lords who have forsaken the opportunity to move their own amendments so that the Committee may concentrate on the main principle in the debate. I think your Lordships will also appreciate the concise way in which the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, put forward the case, which I support. I think one should also pass comment on the speech made by the noble Lord the Minister, for Lord Bellwin has been very fair in putting the two cases and I think everyone will appreciate that he has been prepared to state forthrightly his own personal view on this issue as well as putting forward the impartial case for and against. I should like to echo what he has said on the Government side and, as I said at Second Reading, on all these safety issues a free vote is the position with regard to these Benches.

I, too, have no intention of repeating all the arguments in previous debates nor of going into all the many statistics that were put forward on one side or the other in our previous discussions. There is so much support for the new clause from a variety of quarters. In fact the major opposition to the principle of compulsion has come from that influential body, the RAC, but even the RAC have made it absolutely clear that they are completely in favour of the maximum voluntary use of seat belts by drivers.

Reference has been made to the study paper of Professor Adams. I want to deal with that from another angle because a number of noble Lords may have received a covering letter from a Member of the other place with items concerning this study paper. Reference is made to the fact that a rally driver with various pieces of safety equipment and wearing a seat belt—and I now quote from the covering letter— Will obviously drive faster and take greater chances than a driver without this equipment". The question is then posed—and I shall quote again: is it not reasonable to assume that the ordinary motorist who has had drummed into him the safety benefits of wearing the seat belt may be affected by the same phenomenon? I would suggest that it is not reasonable at all to claim that this is generally applicable to seat belt-wearing motorists. Such a suggestion would be rejected by the Automobile Association, which fully supports the principle of compulsion and also, I think, by the RAC, which supports the voluntary wearing of seat belts.

I am satisfied that the overwhelming majority of motorists who regularly wear seat belts do so because they are satisfied that by doing this they may avoid serious injury. But what concerns me is that arguments of this kind could suggest that opposition in some quarters may be shifted. Hitherto the main argument has been on the question of compulsion. It would be terribly dangerous if credence were to be given to any arguments against the benefit of the wearing of seat belts. I said that I would not go into statistics and I shall not do so, but I must challenge any suggestion that there has been no serious research into the question of seat belts and accidents. As has been mentioned, the Transport and Road Research Laboratory has produced a number of reports. I have five of them and I have read them time and time again. These reports have been compiled by scientists and other experts and I would remind noble Lords of one report, which surveyed 1,800 accidents and for each of the 2,879 occupants of the cars involved some 800 pieces of data were coded and fed into the computer. That does not suggest a light-hearted approach to the survey. These reports of the laboratory are very compelling and just cannot be disregarded.

In addition to the support of the AA and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, reference has been made to RoSPA. I think all noble Lords will appreciate the valuable work of RoSPA on many issues. Their work is generally respected and I am certain that RoSPA would never have arrived at the conclusion they have arrived at, to support the compulsory principle, without very great care and detailed research.

Above all, we have to consider why the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Nursing have all come out strongly in urgent support for the new clause. Their members see the results of serious accidents, and I am certain that many noble Lords will be as impressed as I am by the arguments advanced in this House by eminent members of various branches of medicine. The issue must not be confused now by opening up any argument about the benefit of seat belts; the issue before us is the one of compulsion or otherwise.

I also appreciate the view of those who oppose the principle of compulsion. I value individual freedom possibly higher than any other principle that I have, but in our modern society we all have to accept restraints on liberty of action. On every single journey that we take as motorists—and most of us in this Committee are motorists—we are confronted all along the way with what we may do and what we must not do. The entire question of traffic law and road safety provisions affects our freedom of action.

There is one other point that must not be overlooked. Consideration must be given to the immense cost of the resources involved in the work of the police, ambulance, medical and hospital services, the time and care that our skilled surgeons, doctors and nurses have to devote to thousands of serious casualties as a result of road accidents, many of which those in the medical profession are satisfied could have been avoided if seat belts had been worn.

Reference has been made to enforcement, and no doubt that will be added to by other noble Lords. Of course the question of enforcement could be argued in regard to most of our road traffic laws and as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, the police do not oppose the principle in this new clause. In any event if agreeing to this new clause only increased substantially the number of motorists who regularly, as a matter of habit, put on their seat belts a great advantage would have been secured.

The final point I want to make is that, as has been mentioned, this is in effect an enabling Act and the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, has stressed that there will be consultation. That is vital. I have been approached, both by the Association of District Councils, 50 of whom have their own passenger road transport systems, and also by the Confederation of Road Passenger Transport. I recognise that the position of passenger public service vehicles must be considered, and I am delighted to know that there will be the fullest consultation, which will obviously take in the Confederation of Road Passenger Transport.

I hope the Committee will support this new clause and that there will then he the widest possible consultations with all interested bodies, motoring organisations, accident prevention organisations, the medical profession and the manufacturers of motoring equipment, before drafting the necessary regulations. I emphasise that I believe the consultation must include the manufacturers, with regard to any possible improved design of seat belts. I believe that is essential. Despite the arguments that will be put on the compulsion issue, the views put forward so clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent, are such that I hope the Committee will give its support to this new clause.

Lord Bellwin

It may be for the convenience of the House if we now take the Statement. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.