04 February 2009

The Mother of All Nanny-Statists and the Seat-Belt Dilemma

This vigorous piece of authoritarian propaganda almost made me start smoking in retaliation.

I could spend a huge amount of time fisking the arguments that the author makes in favour of limiting our freedom in order to protect our health from our own choices, but to be honest, I think most of the flaws are fairly obvious anyway.

There is one sentence I would like to focus on, however. In attempting to justify the idea that we need more legislation to save us from ourselves, the author says:

"We accept the laws on seat-belts, crash helmets and drink-driving because we know they reduce road injuries and deaths."

I think it's important to look at these three sets of laws separately, as they serve different purposes.

I am comfortable with the idea of drink-driving laws, as their primary intention is to protect people from the actions of others and I don't think it is unreasonable to require anybody operating a piece of dangerous machinery in a public place to be in a fit state to do it.

I am opposed to crash helmet laws, as their intention is to protect motorcyclists from their own actions and as far as I am concerned, if somebody understands the personal risk which is presented by a particular activity and decides to accept it, it shouldn't be anybody else's business. The purpose of the law should be to protect people from the harmful actions of others, not their own actions. Otherwise, you get nonsense like this.

Seatbelts are in a similar category to crash helmets. There is an argument that back seat passengers pose a risk to front seat passengers if they jerk forward in an accident, but for a driver in a car on his own, I can see no justification for making the wearing of a seat-belt mandatory.

Putting the freedom of choice argument to one side for a moment, I'm also deeply unconvinced by the idea that we know seat-belts reduce road injuries and deaths. It's something which seems to be treated as self-evident, in spite of evidence which indicates that when seat-belts are made compulsory, it can actually increase casualties, by making drivers feel safer and therefore make them sub-consciously more likely to take risks. There is some detailed comment about this effect here and here. If you find this counter-intuitive, try thinking about a reversal of the situation. Imagine if, instead of making seat-belts mandatory for drivers, it was made illegal for drivers to wear a seat-belt. Imagine if it was also made mandatory for every car to be fitted with a long sharp spike in the middle of the steering wheel. Do you think that would result in drivers taking more care? I would expect it to result in an increase in driver deaths, but a reduction in the deaths of other road users.

This raises an interesting moral dilemma.

Even if mandatory seat-belts do end up reducing road deaths, it would seem reasonable to expect that there would be a reduction in drivers dying because of their own poor driving, but an increase in the number of death among other roads users. Is it right to take an action which will reduce the overall number of deaths, but increase the number of bystander deaths in the process? I would say no, because of my belief that the law should protect people from the actions of others, not from themselves.

This is why I hate authoritarianism; it isn't just illiberal, it's irrational. It's relies on the belief that the government is capable of knowing exactly what the right lifestyle choice for every person is, when in reality, it never can; there are always unintended consequences and unforeseen circumstances.


Mark Wadsworth said...

I have myself propounded the 'spike in the middle of the steering wheel' idea, I am sure it would reduce overall deaths.

But at the margin, there would be some pedestrians who would be killed because the driver would be unwilling to make a sudden braking manoevre, so the issue is not clear cut.

But given the choice, I always wear a seatbelt. I'm not daft.

marksany said...

A good discussion here:

With a graph! Showing that pedestrian deaths went up by the same amount that driver deaths came down in 1983 when seatbelt wearing became compulsory. Which makes me wonder: am I a worse driver with my seatbelt on?

In the US, they don't have compulsory seatbelts. They have legislation that makes car manufacturers fit airbags that work with an unbelted driver - perhaps that has the benefits of seatbelts without the false sense of safety that makes drivers kill more pedestrians.

Paul Lockett said...


I hadn't considered the likelihood of discouraging braking. Maybe the big metal spike will have to go on the back-burner!


I wasn't aware that seatbelts weren't compulsory in the US. On a similar note, I went to New Zealand recently and I was surprised that insurance isn't compulsory there. The more I think about, the more it seems that could be a good idea; if a driver knows that the full cost of an accident is going to come out of their pocket, it seems reasonable to expect that they'd be more careful.