In a follow-up to a Radio 4 programme about seat-belts being made compulsory, the BBC website carried an article outlining the thread of the show. One sentence felt particularly depressing:
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.
If it is now viewed as strange for parliamentarians to stand up to defend the right of people to participate in an activities which pose little demonstrable risk to others, it’s a sad indictment of the parliamentarians we have.
The effect of compulsory seat-belts is something I've blogged about previously. It is a law I'm still very uneasy about, not just for civil liberties reasons, but also for practical reasons; while it seems undeniable that the law has prevented some deaths, there has been an unwillingness to consider the possibility that the law may have increased other risks. As is so often the case with precautionary laws, the possibility of unintended consequences is ignored.
One of the most authoritative voices on the subject is John Adams, who has, for some considerable time, pointed out that, while compulsory seat-belts might increase the safety of drivers who may not otherwise wear them, there is a possibility that those drivers' increased sense of safety could result in less cautious driving and greater risk to other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. The strength of the theory of risk compensation has been demonstrated across a range of activities, something the article acknowledges, but in what feels like a very weasely way:
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.
To me, it seems a little desperate for somebody to acknowledge that an increased perception of safety can result in increased risk taking, but continue to deny that the effect could have any impact in one specific situation.
For anybody wanting to hear the opposing argument to the one the BBC promotes, I recommend reading John Adams’ response.