Oh no, not seat belts again…

You might think that discussion about compulsory front seat belt legislation in the U K (introduced 26 years ago and confirmed 3 years later) is about the last thing that those of us interested in safety on the road should be considering at the moment.

Surely there is no need for detailed statistical discussion about this event, still less questioning what has become a – or the – major triumph for those officially charged with safety on the road?

But no. A recent debate has seen the proponents of compulsory bicycle helmet use drag the issue out again – and this time some revealing facts have been shown up. Some uncomfortable truths about the effects of the seat belt law in the UK  and the  “road safety” establishment  have critical relevance to everything that those of us working for safety of all road users should be aware of.

So, if you’re interested in real road safety, do read on…

It all started with a debate on whether mandatory wearing of cycle helmets by child cyclists would be desirable, featuring the main theorist or risk compensation, Emeritus Professor John Adams at the College of Emergency Medicine. His opponent,  Dr. Andrew Curran,  justified mandatory cycle helmet wearing on the basis of the supposedly unqualified success of mandatory seat belt wearing.

 Leaving aside the point that seat belts are undoubtedly effective after crashes in mitigating serious injury, whereas the evidence for cycle helmets after road crashes in mitigating serious injury is dubious, this comparison is extremely instructive. But against, rather than for, both seat belt and cycle helmet compulsion – particularly if you walk, cycle, or are simply interested in reducing danger at source anyway.

 It is also instructive to examine this comparison properly if you value scientific enquiry. Or if you think it wrong to endanger the more vulnerable (and less dangerous to others) road users in the name of safety. Or if you think it wrong to kill cyclists and pedestrians in the name of safety, even if the number killed is supposedly “not high enough” to count.

 I strongly suggest that you read all the contributions of Professor Adams in September and October of 2009. In particular, his letters to a leading figure in Britain’s “road safety” lobby, Rob Gifford of PACTS, which I suggest Mr. Gifford was unable to satisfactorily answer – but, of course, decide for yourselves. (The third letter may be difficult to follow all the way through for users of IE7, try Firefox, Opera or Safari)

 I intervened with two sets of comments to the second letter by Professor Adams:


reproduced below. They refer to matters which are central to safety on the road – here they are:

 on 30 Sep 2009 at 1:06 pm   Dr. Robert Davis

The seat belt law experience is highly relevant today in respect to matters other than cycle helmets: however much eyes may roll at the prospect of statistical analysis of a law passed decades ago, this matter is highly pertinent.

Firstly, the obvious truth of adaptive behaviour or risk compensation is central to contemporary discussions of some very positive episodes: the good experience of safety with “shared streets” and the decline in casualty rates among London cyclists as just one example of “safety in numbers” with numbers of cyclists approaching “critical mass”.

Secondly, the obvious truth of adaptive behaviour or risk compensation indicates that the relentless idiot-proofing of the driver environment – whether of the vehicle or highway – has produced idiots in such a way that the “road safety” lobby is hardly well qualified to pontificate on matters of cyclist or pedestrian safety – of which cycle helmets is just one. No doubt this is a main reason for the denial of such effects from the “road safety” establishment.

Thirdly, the obvious truth of adaptive behaviour or risk compensation indicates that supposed progress in declining RTA fatalities and other casualties may have resulted from adaptive behaviour by the most benign and vulnerable road users, as opposed to “road safety” interventions, including migration from the road environment entirely. Again, this might explain some denial from practitioners of “road safety”.

Finally, the obvious truth of adaptive behaviour or risk compensation indicates that some changes in fatalities are due to changes described by the Smeed and Adams curves, and are independent of interventions claimed by “road safety” professionals.

All of this suggests that denial on their part is understandable, but not acceptable to those of us concerned with the safety of all road users and the truth.

  1. on 30 Sep 2009 at 1:10 pm   Dr. Robert Davis

Can I make another comment which seems rather crucial?

You say:

“In your Significance article you are clear that the law has saved the lives of people in cars at the expense of vulnerable road users: “The picture shows a clear reduction in death and injury to car occupants, APPRECIABLY OFFSET BY EXTRA DEATHS AMONG PEDESTRIANS AND CYCLISTS.”(MY EMPHASIS – Rob Giffords words).

John, you then go on to give a (blackly) amusing analogy. One can put this in a less dramatic way: doctors – and doctors are among the main proponents of such types of intervention – are required by their ethical code (the Hippocratic Oath) to “First, do no harm”. You appear to admit that this is precisely what they have not done – that they have killed people in the most vulnerable, and least dangerous to others, road user groups in the name of “road safety”.

For this reason those of us who are supporting the most benign and healthy forms of transport are unlikely to trust PACTS, RoSPA and others supposedly concerned with safety on the road ,of which bicycle crash helmets are just one issue.

If Gifford values his reputation among those concerned with the safety of all road user groups and the genuinely scientific community, I suggest he reconsiders as John suggests.