HL Deb 16 January 1984 vol 446 cc836-9

2.40 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the compulsory seat-belt regulations have achieved a reduction of death and injury from road accidents in 1983, and whether reliable statistics can now be given.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the Department of Transport published its latest bulletin, Road Accidents and Casualties in Great Britain, on 12th January. This issue covered the third quarter of 1983 and included an analysis of casualties for the eight months, February to September, since the use of belts became compulsory on 31st January. In summary, wearing rates have been maintained around 95 per cent. Fatal and serious front seat car and light van casualities were each down by 25 per cent. compared with the same eight months of 1982. A copy of the bulletin, STC4(84)1, has been placed in the Library.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that welcome Answer. Is he aware that the substantial saving in life and limb which this increased wearing rate indicates is very much to be welcomed? Is he further aware that the law-abiding nature of our fellow countrymen, including, especially, some of my noble friends who are much opposed to the compulsory wearing of seat belts, is also very much to be welcomed? Can my noble friend tell the House whether he now intends to make this an even easier habit to acquire by further improving the fastening apparatus for seat belts and making it generally uniform?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his comments on the reduction in the number of deaths and serious injuries, and I am sure that that welcome is shared throughout the House. On improvements to seat belts, the United Kingdom car manufacturers and seat belt manufacturers, together with the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, are currently carrying out further work to improve seat-belt anchorage points and seat-belt locking points.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, while we obviously all welcome the encouraging figures for the first eight months, may I ask the Minister whether the Government will take every opportunity to ensure that publicity is given not only to the reduced numbers of deaths and accidents but also to the 95 per cent. wearing rate, in order that there will he no diminution in seat-belt wearing because of complacency? Have the Government considered Report No. 1079 of the Transport and Road Research Laboratory on the effects of front seat passengers being involved in direct impact with passengers occupying rear seats?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I take note of what the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has said with regard to publicity. I do not think that there is any evidence of complacency in seat belt wearing since the rate has been maintained since 31st January. As the House may perhaps be aware, this wearing rate is monitored at over 55 monitoring stations throughout Great Britain. The Government are aware of the report to which the noble Lord referred, and are giving it further consideration.

Lord Kilmany

My Lords, arising out of the original reply, which of course I very much welcome, may I ask my noble friend the Minister whether the statistics he has given include any estimate at all of the number of people whose lives might have been saved by being thrown out of their vehicles instead of being trapped in them by their seat belts? It could only be a guess, but I feel that to get a proper balance I am entitled to ask the Minister that question.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, of course my noble friend is entitled to ask anything he likes relative to this Question. There are no reliable figures available at the moment. The House will recall that the Government are to present a report towards the end of the third year of the experiment. I can tell my noble friend that the monitoring that is currently in force will take what account it can of the matter he has raised.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, when these changes were made the fear was expressed that some drivers might become over-confident. Could the Minister tell us whether there are any statistics about the deaths of pedestrians?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, we have no evidence of over-confidence, and I do not have at my fingertips the figures with regard to pedestrian accidents. They will be found, however, in the bulletin to which I have referred.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister ask the Road Research Laboratory to look into the possibility of putting hooks on drivers' doors so that a seat belt can be unhooked rather than always having to be cut away by those trying to extricate passengers who have been in an accident?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am not sure that I fully understand my noble friend's question in so far as a hook is concerned. If my noble friend is referring to the pillar anchor point, which I think she is, she will recall that the anchor points are specified in an EEC directive, to which of course we subscribe, and a hook would not conform to the specification which includes the present anchor points. However, as I intimated in an earlier supplementary, the whole seat-belt locking and anchor system is currently being further developed by both belt manufacturers and car manufacturers.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, in the light of the statistics given this afternoon, which were predictable, does the noble Lord not think that a heavy responsibility rests on those noble Lords who secured the defeat by two votes of a Bill which would have accomplished the compulsory wearing of seat belts six years ago?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

No, my Lords, I do not think I can agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I think we have to deal with the matter as it is today. It is a satisfactory position.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, Is my noble friend aware, with regard to the possibility of lives being saved by people being thrown clear of a car in an accident, that in the racing world this was the general belief about 20 years ago but that today no racing driver would dream of driving a racing car without seat belts not only around his shoulders hut also around his legs?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, my noble friend is of course quite right, and more protection of drivers is being sought by them.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, is it not the case that the anxiety which has already been expressed in one supplementary question rests mainly on the possibility of a driver being trapped who might not otherwise have been in a situation in which he would have been hurt? Is it not the case that many of us find, moving from one car to another, that there is no possibility whatsoever of automatically releasing oneself because so many of the bindings are different? Should not the investigations which the Minister has happily said are taking place concentrate on one single ideal method of automatic release?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, the question of standardising the fixing point or the locking mechanism has been examined on a number of occasions. If we lived in an ideal world, of course, it might be possible to devise an ideal locking system. Currently we feel that the freedom that is permitted in the British standards, which is in conformity with the EEC regulation, allows for further, more general and more widespread experimentation which might ultimately lead to that ideal situation.

Lord Monson

My Lords, arising from the question asked by my noble friend Lord Allen of Abbeydale, is the Minister aware that according to a report in The Times last week more pedestrians and cyclists have been killed by motorists since seat-belt wearing became compulsory, which is exactly what many of us feared would happen?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am aware of the article to which the noble Lord. Lord Monson, refers. However, we do not have reliable statistics to support 100 per cent. the contention he makes.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, referring to the Minister's answer to his noble friend's question about whether it would not increase the chance of rescue if safety belts were hooked to the pillars instead of being rigidly fixed, the answer was that that would contravene an EEC directive. Could there possibly be a worse reason?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

Yes, my Lords. A worse reason is that if it were a hook it is likely it would be far less effective than the self-locking bolt system which is currently employed.