Wednesday 9 February 2011

Vintage Truth Suppression

One of the first UK laws to establish the state's right to legislate 'for our own good' was the Transport Act 1983 which rendered a driver punishable if not wearing a seat belt for their own safety.

It's no surprise, then, that mandatory wearing of seat belts is now regularly cited as a precedent by politicians - when they lack public demand - wishing to further interfere in our daily lives. It has been quoted to justify all manner of illiberal schemes including (I know my audience) the pursuit of smoking bans, minimum alcohol pricing and, increasingly, climate change measures, as skilfully illustrated by Tim Yeo here.

The Government's response also claims that public support for personal carbon trading is "limited", but that has been the case with all sorts of desirable changes that have taken place. Ten years ago, public support for banning smoking in public houses would have been limited. That does not mean that it was the wrong thing to do; it was an opportunity for leadership. Going back further, before seat belts in cars were compulsory [...] support for that measure was decidedly limited in the 1950s, just as support was fairly limited for the breathalyser. All those changes needed leadership from the Government. To run away from an idea because support for it is limited seems an unsatisfactory justification.
The reason for this is that the benefits of seat belt laws are seen as indisputable. A perfect example of government being proven, by subsequent evidence, to be wiser than the public.

However, the issue of seat belt legislation is also one of the first in which incredible truth-bending and manipulation of statistics were employed to trick the public into compliance.

The truth is that there is no evidence whatsoever that seat belts have produced a net saving of lives anywhere in the world. What did happen though, is that wild claims were made before the passing of the UK Act, and wild claims were made following it, based on the same kind of flawed, or heavily-biased, studies we see in many other areas to this day. The double-counting, discarding of conflicting data, exaggeration of causality, clever couching of studies, and overt rent-seeking now endemic in statistics and epidemiology, were honed and perfected back then and are replicated every day in the modern political arena.

The Transport Act truly was a precedent. It was a textbook example for the righteous of how to lie and cheat their way to a law based on nothing but their own favoured opinions.

John Adams has been arguing expertly since the 80s against the false consensus - screamed regularly and inaccurately - that seat belts save thousands of lives a year. His evidence is not just mischief making either, it is incontrovertible. A prime reason for such strong contrary opinion being largely ignored will ring a big bell for those of us who are well aware of public health connivance in suppressing the truth.

Here, John explains the reaction of the World Health Organisation to a report they commissioned (highly recommended 4 page pdf), not long after implementation of the Transport Act, which didn't agree with their pre-determined policy.

In 1986 they had commissioned an article by me on seat belt legislation for The International Digest of Health Legislation.

The article I submitted summarized the evidence and arguments of these earlier essays. I assumed they knew what they were commissioning.

I received a prompt reply from someone with the title “Chief, Health Legislation”: “I would like to inform you that, for editorial reasons, your review will not appear in the International Digest of Health Legislation. Even though, under the terms of the contractual agreement with you, copyright in the text is vested with the Organization, we have no objection to the review being submitted by you for publication elsewhere, subject to the proviso that no mention is made of the fact that the review was commissioned and an honorarium was paid by WHO.”

From that day to this the WHO has campaigned for seat-belt legislation. No mention should be made of evidence that casts doubt on the efficacy of such legislation – that would undermine the efficacy of its campaign for more legislation.

The WHO being complicit in misleading the public shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, but I'm sure there are a hell of a lot of people who will be ignorant of the fact that they have been lied to, not just on a massive scale and on a daily basis, but also for such a very long time.

Whither integrity, eh?


Curmudgeon said...

The point has also been made that even if seat belts do save lives for car occupants, they may end up transferring the risk outside the car and on to cyclists and pedestrians via the process of "risk compensation".

Ian R Thorpe said...

Well at least things aren't yet as bad as in Malawi where farting is to be made a crime.

Mark Wadsworth said...

What C says.

I have every reason to believe that wearing a seat belt has reduced the number of drivers and passengers being killed, but has correspondingly increased the number of pedestrians being killed.

Interestingly, the car-death rate in the UK has been drifting downwards for decades, we are actually one of the best performing countries in this regard.

Curmudgeon said...

In fact, in the year to September 2010, total GB road fatalities were down by 21% - see here. If this trend continues, the total for 2010 will fall below 2,000 for the first time since records began. This despite (or maybe because of) the switch-off of many speed cameras and cutbacks to traffic police.

WV = ansoled ;-)

Dick Puddlecote said...

MW: You're spot on in both respects. That's what is really happening and the evidence is incontrovertibly there to prove it.

PC: Not just that, if you see the statistics, it would seem that those claiming the reduction of injuries solely because of the seat belt ban are entirely ignoring the reductions attributable to evidential breath-testing that was introduced in the same year. And vice versa.

Dick Puddlecote said...

PC: Interesting about the reductions since speed cameras etc.

Isn't it funny how counter-intuitive (to politicians) schemes which confer greater responsibility on the individual, tend to be such marvellous successes. Perhaps one day the state will work that one out.

Smoking Hot said...

How many deaths are attributed to wearing seatbelts in RTA's? Don't bother looking because if you die in a RTA because of a seatbelt you are a casualty statistic and that's it.

As a survivor of a RTA because l wasn't wearing a seatbelt appears on no statistics anywhere ... but survive l did and because l wasn't wearing a seatbelt.

Dick Puddlecote said...

It's been mentioned and acknowledged SH, but is eclipsed by the persuasive evidence of cyclists and pedestrians who would possibly be alive if seat belt laws hadn't been implemented. Lives are saved inside cars, but Adams argues that those outside - the most vulnerable - are statistically now more at risk thanks to seat belt laws.

Curmudgeon said...

John Adams has some very useful insights on risk, but he's far from an unmitigated good guy - see, for example, this on "hypermobility":

"Mobility is liberating and empowering. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing. The
growth in the numbers exercising their freedom and power is fouling the planet and jamming its

Anonymous said...

"One of the first UK laws to establish the state's right to legislate 'for our own good' was the Transport Act 1983"

Could I draw you attention to the Crash Helmet Law in 1972?

I just couldn't understand it.
Though I always did wear a crash helmet, my fundamental disagreement with the law, was that it was MY head and not the government's.
How could they possibly justify prosecuting me for endangering my own head?

It only affected motorcyclists though, and sadly the rest of the population did not seem to understand the dreadful precedent set.

But you do now.


Pavlov's Cat said...

"One of the first UK laws to establish the state's right to legislate 'for our own good' was the Transport Act 1983"

I'd have to cite 'The Pistols Act' of 1903

Ciaran said...

I rarely wear my seatbelt, and I'm still alive. Admittedly I've only been in one accident in the last couple of decades though. (No, I wasn't wearing it at the time, yes, I was unhurt, yes, this is completely meaningless).

I do tend to think that (completely unlike cycle helmets) wearing seatbelts is a good idea on balance. I would be far more likely to wear one if Nanny didn't insist. As it is, I almost enjoy not wearing one and will continue to do so until it kills me. If it does. I suspect I have much less intention or likelihood of crashing than someone who considers themselves all safely belted and airbagged up.

Disenfranchised of Buckingham said...

My Dad was a paramedic in the 60s and early 70s.

He refused to wear a seatbelt because in his experience, after witnessing many RTAs, he was more likely to be seriously injured. The risk of death din't bother him, he preferred to die in an accident than risk being seriously burned or crippled for life.

Woodsy42 said...

I think it was slightly more than a 'for your own good' law though wasn't it DP? I seem to remember it also made the driver responsible for ensuring the front seat passenger wore a belt. Thus it may have been the thin end of the wedge for laws that now commonly punish one person for the non-compliance of another.
I wonder if anyone has ever seriously challenged that whole principle in court?

TheFatBigot said...

The real problem is that there are so many variables other than the one being focussed upon - be it crash helmets, seatbelts or anything else - that no firm conclusions can ever be justified.

Cars are better able to withstand impacts; seats, headrests and airbags provide a degree of cushioning unknown thirty years ago; modern brakes and tyres allow vehicles to be stopped safely in a shorter time/distance; road surfaces are less slippery; crash barriers are more effective at keeping cars upright; cars themselves have greatly improved anti-roll devices. The list goes on and on.

All these are aimed at helping to reduce the risk of both injury and fatality but there are contrary factors. More cars on the roads, more powerful cars, perhaps more impatience, certainly more young drivers, more electronic devices in cars to to distract attention, this list also goes on and on.

It is simply impossible to isolate one of these factors and conclude that it has had a measurable effect on the number of fatalities or the numer/seriousness of injuries.

The greatest unmeasurable variable is the effect all the other factors have on the way people drive. A seatbelt might prevent someone being thrown into the windscreen and killed but it might also have caused him to drive faster and closer to the vehicle in front than he would otherwise have done because he felt he was not in danger. No one can tell.

banned said...

@Woodsie42, the driver of a private car is only responsible for his passengers belting up if they are minors. Adult passengers are responible for themselves and I understand that not wearing a seat belt is the only Road Traffic Offence that a passenger can commit (unless in charge of a learner).

On the subject of "risk compensation" it used to be said that the drivers of big old Volvo tanks (the forerunner of todays 4X4s) sustained far fewer deaths and injuries themselves but cause more to others as they charged around in comfort and safety.

Pogo said...

I believe that the WHO was the sponsor of the Boffetta et al "Multicenter case-control study of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and lung cancer in Europe." 1998, which clearly showed no statistical significance for SHS and smoking-related illness...

Which was very quickly dumped by its erstwhile sponsor!

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting topic. There is a lot of information available on the web. Cycling clubs took a keen interest as cyclist deaths increased following the seat belt law. Here is something I found when I was looking into it. Try and guess which years seatbelt laws came in for each of the country graphs here.

Anonymous said...

Re my previous post. Link is

Anonymous said...

This is annoying. Add p142.pdf on to the end.

Patrick said...

Full face motorbike helmets are good for keeping out the elements but they add about 3kg to the weight of the rider's head. This means that if that head comes to an abrupt halt, it is carrying more momentum at the time of impact. This in turn leads to a greater shearing effect between the grey and white matter of the brain (as they have different densities) so if the initial crash is survived, the brain injury will be more severe.

Before helmets were made compulsory a skull fracture was more likely. This would allow the injured brain to swell. With a motorbike helmet on you are much more likely to sustain a closed brain injury and when there is no where for the injured brin to swell to you are more likely to die or suffer permanent brain damage - motorbike helmets will have saved some lives, but caused the deaths of others who would have survuved had they not been wearing them

Woodsy42 said...


That's the rule now but I am quite sure that when the original law was passed part of the publicity warned drivers they could be prosecuted for carrying an unbelted front passenger. Maybe it was revised, or maybe they were lying, or maybe it was aiding and abetting, but I believe I remember the warning correctly. Rather exceptionally Her Indoors actually remenmbers it the same.

will said...

the market is the source of innovation. airbags, side impact protection, crumple zones, better tyres, brakes etc all brought to us by the voluntary market. strange then that a market that responds to consumers' desire for safer cars hasnt brought forth greater seatbelts than the coercively enforced legal minimum 3 point. there is no volvo with a 5 point harness. there is no 5 point harness on the options list of the mercedes s-class even though the whole interior is chock full of airbags ready to erupt from every surface as standard. if seatbelts really made a difference there would be no need to make them compulsory. airbags arent and yet consumers see airbags as such a good thing that they have spread from luxury models right across the market to the point that there are few cars available without airbags as standard.
following my own the-market-is-usually-right motto it seems seatbelts arent all that.

Dick Puddlecote said...

An extremely good point well made, Will.