How the government is killing you, with seat belts


As I was asked a question on risk homeostasis at the course I’m teaching, here without further ado is John Adam’s tour de force on The failure of seat belt legislation. Collectively, the group of countries that had not passed seat belt laws experienced a greater decrease than the group that had passed laws. Now John doesn’t directly draw the conclusion, but I will, that the seat belt laws kill more people than they save.

And it gets worse, in 1989 the British Government made seat belt wearing compulsory for children under 14 years old in the rear seats of cars, the result? In the year after there was an increase of almost 10% in the numbers of children killed in rear seats, and of almost 12% in the numbers injured (both above background increases). If not enacted there would be young adults now walking around today enjoying their lives, but of course the legislation was passed and we have to live with the consequences.

Now I could forgive the well intentioned who passed these laws, if when it became apparent that they were having a completely contrary effect they repealed them. But what I can’t forgive is the blind persistence, in practices that clearly kill more than they save. What can we make of this indifference, other than people and organisations will sacrifice almost anything and anyone rather than admit they’re wrong?

3 responses to How the government is killing you, with seat belts


    Some wise person once said everything happens for two reasons (with respect to organizations, at least);
    Reason Number One: The reason everybody says is the reason.
    Reason Number Two: The real reason.*
    *The real reason usually is about money; sometimes social power, social gain or personal aggrandizement.

    In the late 1980’s in Alaska, there was suddenly intense lobbying in promotion of a law to mandate the use of seat-belts. There was full page ads, mailers, television commercials, speakers and money flowing into legislative campaigns. Anytime the funding source was disclosed, it was from an “association” of automobile manufacturers. I recall wondering why in the world is Ford/GenMotors/Chrysler so obsessively interested in seat-belts? Of course, the reason everyone offered was that is was an important step in promoting safety. I later stumbled upon the fact that the Secretary of Transportation (Elizabeth Dole) had promised to rescind a law that required automobile manufacturers to install passive restraints systems, if 2/3 or more of the state passed seat-belt laws by 1989. The automakers were bitterly opposed to spending to develop self-buckling seat-belts, airbags and other passive strategies and therefore went all out to get > 2/3 of the states to enact the seat-belt laws.

    An interesting political strategy; can you imagine that if you really believed that lives could be saved via passive restraint systems, then in Alaska in the late 1980’s, you’d have to take a position of being “against” seat-belts. Political opponents would be all over that one . . . Sometimes we make decisions (and pass laws) for very fuzzy reasons.


      Matthew Squair 14/05/2014 at 11:52 pm

      Very fuzzy, and the irony that the forces of corporate America in arguing against compulsory restraints were actually ‘right’ all along is not lost on me either.


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