40 years of seat belts: what’s changed, what still needs to be done?

On 1st February, 1979, Ireland introduced legislation that made the wearing of seat belts, at least for front seat passengers and drivers, compulsory. At the time, mandatory seat belt laws were just becoming in vogue across the western world, and with particularly high death rates on her roads, it was high time Ireland joined the trend. In 1971, it was compulsory to have seat belts installed in cars, but by 1978 a Dáil memo on traffic safety claimed that only five percent of drivers were using seat belts, and this number only comprised of drivers, and discounted passengers.

The effect was fairly demonstrable early on. In 1977, ‘78, and ‘79 Irish roads saw 583, 628, and 614 deaths respectively. In 1980, ‘81, and ‘82 the numbers overall dropped to 564, 572, and 533. It may not have been the 40% death reduction that the Dáil memo had predicted, but it was a huge step in reducing road deaths. Another point that adds context to these high numbers is, at the time, there were about 850,000 cars on the road. In 2018, when we now have 2 million cars, there were 148 road deaths reported. Of course 148 deaths is still 148 more than the ideal situation, but if driving were as dangerous as it had been in 1978, many more people would have perished last year.

In the RTÉ archives there exists footage of a seat belt checkpoint on the very first day of the law, on the Stillorgan road – a location very familiar to the students of UCD. In the footage, Garda Tom Gillerman is seen pulling cars over and looking inside to see if the front seat passengers are wearing seat belts. He told RTÉ that he hadn’t encountered anyone objecting to wearing their seatbelts. When asked what he does if he sees anyone not wearing their seatbelt, he said, “I advise them that it became law as and from today, and then I send them on to that man there and he gives them the information on wearing their seatbelts and the law on it.” When asked how long this “softly approach” was going to last, Garda Gillerman said, “Ah, sure we’ll give them a month anyway.”

While it may seem fair to introduce new laws slowly and give people time to adjust, it may have been misguided. In the European Commission’s Road Safety Planning – National Approaches, a document prepared by the High Level Group on Road Safety, all policy is advised around awareness and enforcement. As most roads are not monitored all of the time, what is needed is either awareness of the safety benefits or fear of the law to encourage motorists to follow the law. This is why the introduction of new legislation, such as the ban on drink driving or the introduction of penalty points, often only has a short term effect. The new law is brought in, it coincides with an awareness campaign, the issue is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and for a few months, at least, the rates in fatalities and injuries goes down. However, as awareness drops, the rates climb back to where they were. This happened in 2002 when penalty points were introduced. In 2001 and ‘02, there were 411 and 376 road deaths respectively. In 2003 there were only 335, but in the two years following, the numbers went back up to 374 and 396. Education, awareness, and, most importantly, consistent enforcement of seat belt legislation is what the RSA and others credit with having the most impact on cutting road deaths consistently through the years.

It helps too that this attitude is almost totally culturally ubiquitous. Since 1992, it has been the law that all passengers, including those in the back seats, must wear a seat belt. That means that, year on year, more and more drivers will have simply grown up in a world where, once you get into a car, you put on a seatbelt. If a driver allows children in their car without using a seat belt, it is not just the children's lives and legal repercussions they are risking, it’s also the scorn of other motorists.

And why shouldn’t seat belts be the focus of road safety? Studies vary in their exact number, but according to a study, carried out by the US Department of Transportation, people wearing three point seat belts were 73% less likely to die and 41% less likely to sustain injury during a collision than people wearing no seat belt. Other studies put the number closer to 60%, depending which direction the collision is from and where in the vehicle a person is sitting.

The massive reduction in road deaths due to seat belts, as positive as it is, leaves a more complex question as to how to lower the death toll further. There doesn’t seem to be another “seat belt”, all the obvious safety precautions had been legislated for. To discover what else could be done, the RSA commissioned a report from the market research firm Behaviour and Attitudes. Their study concluded that “younger male drivers are the most likely to engage in forms of errant behaviour.” This matches the fact that while 51% of motorists are male, and presumably about 50% of pedestrians are also male, in all areas where there is gendered statistics available on road deaths, males take the lead- 66% of cyclist, 75% of pedestrians, and a whopping 95% of motorcyclists killed. Whatever campaign the RSA engages with in the future, it must focus on why young men are engaging in such dangerous behaviors.