This January marks 40 years since mandatory seatbelt laws were introduced in the UK, spearheaded by leading accident prevention charity, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA). To celebrate, the government is taking steps which will potentially scale back the lifesaving legislation as part of its retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill (REUL).
According to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (PACTS), once the 1983 legislation was introduced:
- 90% of drivers and front seat passengers were observed to be wearing a seatbelt;
- there was a 29% reduction in fatal injuries for front seat passengers; and
- there was a 30% drop in serious injuries reported across 1983.
RoSPA estimates that this seatbelt legislation has saved tens of thousands of lives since it was introduced. So why is it now under threat?
What is REUL?
Since the UK left the European Union, the government has been fighting to untangle the country’s legislation from that of the EU’s. Retained EU law is EU-derived legislation that has remained in our domestic legal framework since Brexit. The REUL bill will allow the government to review and then amend or revoke retained EU laws.
However, thanks to a so-called ‘sunset clause’, any EU law that the government wants to keep and incorporate into UK law, must be done by the end of the year. After that, any laws not explicitly retained will automatically be revoked. The REUL bill has understandably been widely criticised and the innumerable issues such as timescale, the rights and protections that may be lost and the impact on workers and businesses, are well publicised.
Seatbelts vs sunset clause
RoSPA fears that some legislation related to mandatory seatbelt use will become one of thousands of laws to fall victim to the sunset clause. While seatbelt use itself is featured in the Road Safety Act, which will be unaffected, RoSPA fears that REUL will water down the existing laws, making some of the who, what, where and whens of seatbelt use less clear.
According to PACTS, wearing a seatbelt can halve your chances of dying in a collision and 30% of those who died in cars in 2021 had failed to wear one.
One REUL for one and one for another
Government statistics suggest that while fatalities have plateaued, the number of people killed while not wearing a seatbelt has risen, suggesting that compliance with current seatbelt laws is falling. This is likely to be connected to the reduction in the number of traffic officers over the last 12 years, which the Police Federation attribute to the increased number of road deaths. But if the details around compliance and enforcement of seatbelt use are also watered down, RoSPA fears fatalities will continue to increase.
Interestingly, Rishi Sunak was caught not wearing his seatbelt just a couple of weeks ago and was subsequently fined by Lancashire Police. This arguably raises the question, was this just a momentary lapse of judgement by the PM, or does it show a fundamental disregard for road safety laws? Are these some of the pesky EU regulations the government intends to do away with?
A backwards step
RoSPA is understandably concerned that the momentous changes it campaigned for over four decades ago are now under threat and lives are being put at risk.
Nathan Davies, head of policy at RoSPA, said on the issue:
“Wearing a seatbelt is not just ‘common sense’. Making seatbelts a legal requirement changed behaviour, and drove up usage by 55 per cent almost immediately. But recent Department for Transport data shows us that compliance is the lowest it has ever been since the law was introduced, and that means that people still need laws which reinforce the importance for them and the other occupants of vehicles. By removing seatbelt laws, we expect usage to fall, and fatalities will then inevitably increase.
“Throwing vital seatbelt laws in the air at a time they are most needed will set the stage for thousands of the public being killed and injured on the road, leaving behind loved ones, friends and family. We must not throw away the progress made over last 40 years of mandatory seatbelt usage and urge the Government to tackle these vital laws with the time, respect and attention they deserve.”
The retained EU law (revocation and reform) bill 2022 will have a second reading in the Lords on 6 February. Only time will tell whether laws around seatbelt use will ride off into the sunset on the back of Brexit at the end of this year.