Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Tuesday, 8 September 2009 12:18 UK

Where did it all go right?

By Philip Cowley
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's Where Did It All Go Right?

One of my favourite books is E S Turner's Roads to Ruin.

Jimmy Saville
Jimmy Saville's 'Clunk-Click' campaign helped change attitudes

Published in 1950 (and now sadly out of print), it examines the introduction of a range of pieces of Victorian social legislation, from the introduction of the Plimsoll line to stop overloading of ships, to the banning of mantraps to catch poachers - all of which were fiercely fought against at the time, all accepted as perfectly natural soon after.

In a series of programmes for BBC Radio 4, I have been looking at modern-day examples, such as the 1981 law to make seatbelt-wearing compulsory.

Prior to legislation, only around 30% of drivers wore seatbelts, even where Jimmy Saville's famous 'clunk click' safety adverts were being shown on TV.

After the the law came into force in 1983, that figure jumped overnight to 90%.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) estimates that this has saved 60,000 lives since the law's introduction. And almost no-one now suggests repealing it.

Yet in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were repeated Parliamentary battles about our right to go hurtling through a sheet of glass - battles which aroused a level of passion that seems strange today.

Rock climbing

The proposed law was described in the Commons as "wicked," "evil" and "horrific", and as offending "against the ark of the covenant of a free society".

In 1983 seat belt use in front of vehicles becomes compulsory
Back seat belt use by children becomes law in 1989; extended to adults in 1991
Of 1,432 car occupants killed in 2007, 34% had not 'belted up'
In 1982, 37% of drivers wore seatbelts - by 2007, it was 94%
An estimated 565 people were not using a seatbelt when killed in 2005. Some 370 may have survived if properly restrained
Source: Department for Transport

There are, of course, some very serious arguments about the extent to which the state should - or should not - prohibit self-harm.

If we have to wear seatbelts for our own good, then why do we allow people to eat cream buns or go rock climbing?

And some of these arguments were put at the time.

Yet it is noticeable how most of the opposition was much more prosaic, focusing on matters of detail rather than principle.

Documents prepared for a 1971 government working party on compulsion, and now in the National Archives, set out a string of practical objections.

Compulsion would be too difficult for the police to enforce.

It would make life difficult for driving examiners.

Women would find them uncomfortable.

The elderly would not want any new-fangled nonsense, and so might cease to drive. And what about dwarves and hunchbacks?


Once those objections had been dealt with, debates moved onto to another practical consideration: far from being a safety device, seatbelts were in fact very dangerous.

Every opponent of compulsion could produce examples where people's lives had been saved because they were not wearing a seatbelt.

Mobile phone driver
Warnings about mobile phones have yet to get through

Reading the parliamentary debates of the time, you get the sense that an awful lot of people were routinely being ejected from crashing cars, managing to land unscathed on the road.

Almost everyone seemed to know someone who had thrown themselves clear of an exploding vehicle, or freed themselves as their car sunk into the icy depths of a river.

Britain in the 1970s was clearly an action-packed place to drive.

A more sophisticated argument came courtesy of John Adams of University College London: risk compensation.

It was not just that Adams objected on principle, he also argued that seatbelts would change drivers' behaviour, making them more aggressive as they compensated for the reduced risk they feel.

Mobile phones

As a result, whilst there might be fewer deaths amongst car drivers, because of seatbelts, they would be more than compensated for by an increase in deaths amongst other road users, pedestrians and cyclists.

His ideas were seized on by MPs opposed to legislation, as new evidence against the wisdom of compulsion.

His general theory of risk compensation is now accepted among transport safety experts in some situations, although not when it comes to seatbelt wearing, where Adams ideas are still some way outside the mainstream.

He remains unrepentant today, describing himself as being like the last Japanese soldier in the jungle (although I pointed out to him that even that soldier eventually surrendered).

The ROSPA estimate is 60,000 lives saved, his is none.

But why was the law accepted so easily by the public once it was finally passed?

Other road safety laws - most obviously the one prohibiting mobile phone use - are routinely flouted.

Why did this one have such a dramatic effect?

Perhaps partly because of the large number of exemptions that were allowed at first, which bought off at least some of the strongest objectors.

And because many police forces initially took a relatively gentle approach to enforcement, giving car drivers a chance to adapt before hitting them with fines.

And possibly because the law came into effect after that long campaign by Jimmy Saville which softened up the public to the idea that wearing seatbelts was the sensible thing to do, even if they did not necessarily want to.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham. He presented the second in a three part series, Where did it all go right?, on 7 September on BBC Radio 4. You can listen to the programme on the BBC iPlayer.

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