HL Deb 20 May 1981 vol 420 cc951-3

2.47 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether figures are available relating to car occupant deaths and serious injuries occurring before and after the introduction of legislation making the wearing of seat belts compulsory in Australia, West Germany, New Zealand and Sweden; and, if so, whether they will publish the figures.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Bellwin)

My Lords, figures for Australia and New Zealand are not available. Figures for car user deaths and injuries in West Germany and Sweden for the three-year periods before and after the operative date of compulsory seat belt wearing are as follows. In West Germany, before compulsion there were 21,486 deaths and after compulsion 21,190 deaths; there were 831,000 injuries before compulsion and 863,000 injuries after compulsion. That is against an increase in total car traffic in Germany of 8 per cent. In Sweden, before compulsion there were 1,844 deaths and after compulsion 1,809 deaths; before compulsion there were 41,400 injuries and after compulsion 40,300 injuries. That is against an increase in total car traffic in Sweden of 13 per cent.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer. Would he not agree that it is disappointing that no official figures are available for Australia in particular? Is my noble friend able to make any comparison between those before compulsion figures for, let us say, West Germany and our own figures in the United Kingdom? Secondly, would not my noble friend agree it is reasonable to anticipate that a pattern similar to that which is shown by these figures from countries where there is compulsory seat belt wearing might well emerge if compulsion were to be brought into effect in this country?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, the fact is that Australian figures are not available. We have written to them and we are trying to get as much information as we can from them. So far as comparisons with this country are concerned, we are unable to draw any comparisons because the legislation came into effect at different times during the 1970s.

As to the last point which my noble friend has made, we have to be very careful about the assumptions which we make from these figures. We do not know, for example, how many people were wearing scat belts before compulsion. We know that in West Germany, where the figures seem to be somewhat smaller than one might have thought, the compulsion is not enforced. There is no penalty. They have compulsion but they have no penalty for not adhering to what is required. Then there is no international definition of the word "injury". One can talk about the severity of injuries but there must be a great difference between a knock on the head and a broken back, so I think it is really not helpful to draw an actual conclusion from these statistics, interesting though they may be.

Lord Parry

My Lords, would the Minister accept that some of us draw from these figures the conclusion that considerable savings in lives and injuries have been made since the introduction of compulsory seat belt wearing elsewhere and that the time must come when some Government in Great Britain must grasp the nettle of the introduction of the compulsory wearing of seat belts in order to achieve similar savings in this country?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, as to the latter point, I think we shall have many opportunities in the forthcoming Transport Bill to debate this, not least on an amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford, and, if I may, I should like to hold my fire for that occasion. We are not very far from that. However I would say again that it is important that we do not draw false conclusions from these figures. In fairness we should say that they are interesting so long as we are careful as to how we interpret them.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, those figures are disappointing. We might have expected a bigger improvement than has been achieved, even when taking account of the increase in traffic, but is the Minister aware that it is most necessary that there should now be a professional analysis of these figures and facts so that we are able to draw the correct conclusions, and will he ask the Transport and Road Research Laboratory if they will kindly make this analysis so that we may have the benefit of it when we are considering this important subject next month?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I think it would be even more helpful if we were to do as my noble friend suggests if we can get the additional information from the other countries. After all these figures relate to two situations only and, as I have explained, in one of them there is not even a penalty. So, while I endorse the fact that it would always be helpful to have more analysis, I think it would be slightly premature to carry it out merely on the basis of these figures. There is one other most important aspect to this: it is that there are so many other road safety factors that cause accidents that simply to assume that the wearing of seat belts is the only factor could be extremely misleading.

Lord Monson

My Lords, are there any comparative figures for deaths caused to motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians before and after the introduction of compulsion, given that there is evidence from New Zealand that subsequent to the introduction of seat belt compulsion, fatalities and serious injuries caused to motorcyclists and pedestrians went up quite sharply, possibly as a result of over-confident or careless driving by motorists who had been led to believe that wearing seat belts would protect them from the consequences of a collision?

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, I repeat, I am not anxious to get into a debate in Question Time. I shall have not only many opportunities but many obligations to do so before very long.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, is it not just as important to have some regulations about the actual safety of the seat belts themselves, because in many cases if small persons use a particular type of seat belt it catches them under the chin and breaks their necks? So far, we have heard very little about the design of these seat belts.

Lord Bellwin

My Lords, my noble friend raises an interesting point which I have heard talked about elsewhere and I am quite sure that if I again fall back on the need to discuss this at greater length and in greater depth than at Question Time your Lordships will understand.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, does the noble Lord appreciate that there are many noble Lords in the House who realise the logic and common sense of his replies and how dangerous it is to make quick assumptions in a question and answer session?