Expert Blog

If you still moan about seat belts, 50 years on, belt up and check the facts

In January 1965, there was no requirement to wear seat belts, the only obligation was that any car manufactured after that point had to have seat belt fixings for the outer two front seats. By 1968, the law clarified that you actually needed belts fitted, too. It was not until 31 January 1983 that wearing a seat belt became compulsory for drivers and front seat passengers (with a few exemptions).

To coincide with these anniversaries, the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) has issued a warning that too many drivers are still failing to wear seat belts.

Actually, British drivers are, for the most part, remarkably compliant with the law, perhaps spurred on by the fact that failing to wear a belt – quite apart from the possibility that it could cost them their lives – carries with it the possibility of a £100 fine and three penalty points on their licence. The evidence suggests that, almost immediately, nine out of ten drivers started to use seat belts, a figure which climbed to more than 95 per cent of drivers on the most recent comprehensive survey by the Department of Transport, published in 2009.

That is a higher rate than is found in many comparable developed countries, even some of those with compulsory seat belt laws. But the IAM’s point is that the proportion of drivers killed in accidents is much higher for those who were not wearing belts.

According to the government figures for 2013, of the 232 fatalities for which seat belt data was recorded, 45 of them – nearly a fifth – were not wearing belts. Given that only one in twenty drivers don’t use seat belts as a matter of course, that’s an enormously high figure.

A great deal of research has been done on the efficacy of seat belts, and the evidence is pretty unequivocal. There’s a tiny number of accidents where a seat belt might make matters worse (about four per cent), while it’s more like half where they prevent death or serious injury. A plus 42 per cent rating or thereabouts, which is what the general consensus seems to be from the studies, is an absolutely cast-iron basis for advocating their use.

What’s more, they haven’t been superseded by other safety features, such as airbags. That’s because, for an airbag to work as intended, and safely, you need to be strapped in as well.

The thing that is harder to quantify, for obvious reasons, is whether the accident figures are skewed by what one might call the psychological factors. Given that belting up is now as close to universal as any public safety message or attendant legal penalty is likely to be able to achieve, who on Earth are the drivers still ignoring it? One obvious conclusion is that they are people who have a strong disposition towards reckless behaviour, and a poor understanding of statistical risk. That being the case, it seems plausible that they are also the kind of drivers who are more likely to be involved in (and probably cause) accidents in the first place.

But even if the case for seat belts is bolstered by that factor, it’s still a solid case – and, in any event, what does it matter what causes the accident, if wearing a seat belt increases your chances of surviving it unscathed?

The message from the IAM’s head of road safety, Kevin Delaney, that encouraging seat belt use is a priority is more or less factually impossible to argue with, even if his statement that “if people don’t take heed of it, they will end up as a Department of Transport accident statistic” is a little too definite. But the point is well made: you could ignore his advice and you might be lucky, but the odds are stacked against you, and they’re pretty long odds at that.

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