09 September 2009

A Sad Indictment

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.


Mark Wadsworth said...

I remembered your original post on seat-belt deaths and quoted it recently to a mate at a barbecue.

My mate works for the BBC and likes to ride a bike in London. He told me he was mortified by a BBC interview in which some cycling safety professor pointed out that wearing a helmet not gives you a false sense of security but also makes it more difficult for you to see what's going on around you and hence increases the risk of death or injury - and the prof had statistics to back up this claim.

The interviewer (who had been pushing the standard BBC Elfin Safety line) had to back pedal a bit, and asked the prof how he got to the studio (by bike, the prof replied) and whether he had worn a helmet while doing so (no of course not, the prof replied). At which stage the interview ground to an embarrassed halt.

Paul Lockett said...

That's excellent!

I'd never really thought about the visibility aspects of cycle helmets before you posted that, but having two nylon straps either side of your eyes is bound to reduce your range of vision. It's another serious consideration to add into the mix.

Robin Smith said...

Thanks for this. As a regular cyclist I can confirm that I certainly feel more secure wearing a helmet and I do ride with less concern.

On city roads I never wear a helmet because it looks cool. Also urban drivers, who still hate cyclists, at least respect you somewhat more.

On rural roads I always wear a helmet because the drivers there actively intimidate cyclists. The risk is very real indeed. I know many who have been cut in half by deliberate dangerous driving

But to say a helmet restricts visibility is not quite true. It does restrict some movement which might then have the same effect.