Matters of moment, September 1981

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Compulsion

It looks as if the do-gooders, among whom must be numbered some motor journals and motoring organisations, the AA especially, are about to get their way over compulsory, you’ll-be-fined-if-you,don’t, strapping of drivers and occupants to their private means of transport. In other words, the belt-up Bill, making seat harness in cars compulsory, looks like succeeding. If it does you will probably have to wear a seat-belt in less than a year’s time if you drive a post-1964 car or face a fine of up to £50 for not doing so. We are sad about this not from any desire to stop those who wish to do so from belting-up, and there are a very great number of car occupants who do, but because of the dangerous, unfair, unpleasant compulsion. Freedom is something most of us will fight hard for and it should not be withheld from one section of the community, as with compulsion on motorcycle riders to wear crash-helmets (though few are so foolish as not to, but compulsion here has forced “skid-lids” on owners of slow vintage machines, and motorcycle sidecar outfits which are reckoned to be among the safest vehicles on the road) is unfair. The dangerous aspect is less pronounced, but there will still be those who will die, be murdered by bureaucracy if you like, because seat-belts strangle them, they fail to be released in time to get medical help through being harnessed to a crashed vehicle, or drowned in a car that has fallen into water, when getting out quickly is life-and-death and belts to release don’t help.

The unpleasant even dangerous aspects are more difficult to define. But apart from elderly and infirm people finding seat-belts difficult to cope with, we are certain that there arc far more sufferers from claustrophobia than is commonly known, to whom the fear of a belt failing to release will be a nightmare. It is possible to avoid lifts, crowded tube-trains and the like, and to avoid being enveloped in crowds, so normally sufferers do not seek medical aid. How, anyway, can the Medicos tell if the patient is genuine? Now, under seat-belt compulsion, many will suffer agonies, removing any pleasure from motoring, the writer included. There are only three solutions open to us after compulsion becomes law- give up driving, defy the Law and pay endless fines, or carry a knife with which to cut through a jammed safety-belt catch, expensive in renewals and rendering a car illegal until the offending belt is replaced. (I am not joking! I have my “Just In Case” Emergency Seat Belt Cutter, made by the Safety Equipment Co. of Birmingham, and costing £4.99 when delivered, at the ready, should compulsion come – WB). Incidentally, the very fact that such a product has been marketed points to a well-recognised shortcoming of belting-up, namely, that it is not always possible to remove conscious or unconscious trapped occupants from a damaged vehicle when they are attached to it by so-called safety harness.

The sad aspect is that leaving those who wish to wear belts to do so, at their own discretion, instead of making everyone do this at the command of policemen who have more vital things to attend to, is commonsense, in the view of many serious-minded people. But no, the do-gooders had to have their way! That the matter is a highly debatable one is shown by the eight attempts over ten years that it has taken these do-gooders to almost get their way. Even now, this additional motoring requirement has been favoured by a majority of 77 MPs out of the 365 who voted. Even Norman Fowler, the Minister of Transport, and Francis Pym, Leader of the House of Commons, who have such a wide knowledge of legal affairs, are against seat-belt compulsion and when the latest vote was taken some dozen members of the House were opposed to this. Note, too, that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary both abstained from voting.

Further weaknesses are evident in the stupid existing Law demanding that belts be fitted at your expense but not necessarily worn, that the new regulation may still be delayed by objections. that after compulsion has become Law this regulation may be rescinded after three years, and that no-one appears to know fully how it is to be applied, ie, who will be exempt, (milk roundsmen and policemen, perhaps, but not apparently while reversing(!), how soon fines for not using harness will be inflicted, how exemption on medical grounds such as pregnancy or the aforesaid claustrophobia (which those who do not understand can be expected to meet with snide laughter) will be sorted out, and so on. That licence endorsement won’t follow non-use shows the doubt that exists.

What a silly business it is, for all save do-gooders. For if it is so absolutely essential to the saving of injury and life for this fresh motoring legislation to become Law, isn’t it equallv necessary for the do-gooders to insist on everyone bathing in pairs, because heart attacks in the domestic bath can prove fatal, pedestrians to cross the highway only by bridge and underpass, all pedal cycling to be abolished, indeed, any moderately hazardous human pursuit to be carefully controlled, with fines for those who take risks?

There seems to be a flavour of wanting the motor vehicle to appear a lethal weapon in the thinking behind those in favour of compulsory belting-up. Which is why we strongly favour seat belts for those who feel them necessary while echoing the words of Mr. Ivan Lawrence who has urged “ill-informed, illiberal do-gooders to belt-up yourselves if you like but for goodness sake leave us alone” …. Norman Fowler realises, we suspect, that the police will find compulsion a very difficult thing to enforce.