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Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) Regulations 2006

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 12 July 2006

rose to move, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14 June be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee and 39th Report from the Merits Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, these regulations amend existing legislation and implement a European Directive, 2003/20/EC on the wearing of seat belts in different types of motor vehicle. The directive updates an earlier one from 1991. Some of the new requirements already apply in the UK, for example, to goods vehicles. The changes to our existing requirements may be considered in two parts. The first part relates to children travelling in cars, vans and goods vehicles; the second relates to adults, older children—14 years old and over—and bus and coach passengers.

I will deal with each of these in turn. I will also address the report from the Merits Committee, which draws attention to several matters of policy arising on these regulations. The committee has noted that we are late with implementation, which we regret, and expressed concern that we were not able to secure clearer wording in the directive. My officials strive constantly for wording in directives that can be readily transposed, but they are not always successful. It will be understood that we cannot impose particular wording in directives and we recognise the obvious fact that they obtain across a wide range of countries and, of course, languages which are using different traffic terms.

I should explain three points at the outset. First, current seat-belt wearing requirements are in Sections 14 and 15 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, as amended, and in regulations made under those provisions. The regulations before the House amend Section 15 and the regulations made under Sections 14 and 15. Secondly, the term “child restraint” is used in the directive and the regulations to mean baby seats, child seats, booster seats and cushions. These are used for children of different weights up to 36 kilograms. Thirdly, these regulations deal only with the use of child restraints in the rear seats of cars, vans and goods vehicles. Of course, children in front seats of vehicles need to be provided for as well as those in rear seats. This is provided for now by Section 15(1) of the 1988 Act. That Act was a consolidation and it is a historical curiosity that regulations under this section are subject to negative resolution. So, amending the rules on children in front seats will be done separately, but the intention is that the front seat rules will be made to come into force at the same time as these regulations.

The regulations before the House require children up to the height of 135 centimetres—4 feet 5 inches—to be secured with an appropriate child restraint in the rear of cars, vans and goods vehicles, but they allow all children above that height, and every child aged 12 or more, to wear an adult belt. Children under the age of three will have to be carried in the rear of a motor vehicle in an appropriate child restraint. The new rules will also prohibit the use of rear-facing child restraints where there is an active frontal air bag.

This country has had seat-belt legislation for many years. Observed wearing rates are high and we seek continually to improve them. Seat belts have prevented many road accident fatalities; estimates suggest that around 2,000 lives are saved each year. Total road fatalities are now down to some 3,220 per year and the impact of seat belts is a clear contributory factor to that improvement.

There are two main reasons for the provisions in the new regulations relating to children, the first of which is a practical one. The vast majority of five to nine year-olds just use a seat belt in spite of longstanding recommendations made by the department to use child restraints. Seat belts are designed for adults. An adult belt or a wrongly used child restraint may simply fail to hold a child in during an impact and could cause serious internal injury. Children are not little adults, they have smaller and less developed frames. Babies and children have been tragically killed in accidents because they were not properly restrained. Properly fitted child restraints avoid these dangers and provide children with the full benefit of the safety belt.

The second reason for strengthening the law is that too many children travel without wearing any restraint at all. Our surveys have observed that 8 per cent of children travelling in rear seats are unrestrained; in other words, too many drivers who may or may not be using a seat belt themselves have unprotected children in their vehicles as passengers. Other small children travel on laps, a very dangerous practice that can lead to serious harm. If we are to tackle these matters, it is clear that we must specify the safest means of travel for children of different sizes. It may be a baby seat, a child seat or a booster cushion. We and the shops selling the equipment will make all this clear to parents.

There are some specific exemptions and I shall highlight one to which the Merits Committee referred. The directive states that a child over the age of three who should use a child restraint may travel wearing an adult belt in the rear seat for occasional journeys over a short distance. We believe that that wording is too vague, so the regulations refer to an “unexpected necessity” which requires a child to be driven a short distance wearing an adult belt if there is no appropriate child restraint. The Merits Committee was concerned that even that is too imprecise and uncertain. We do not want to give a general dispensation for all short journeys, including planned and regular trips. If a child travels in the family car, the child seat should be available for any journey, short or long. The same applies to planned journeys in other people’s cars.

But there has to be a little flexibility or we shall cause a good deal more trouble than we would want. We can all imagine unexpected circumstances where it would be absolutely absurd to leave a child behind because his or her child seat is unavoidably unavailable. The Merits Committee noted the difficulty of defining an “unexpected necessity” and what “short” is to mean. Of course, if something is unexpected it is by nature going to be hard to define, and we think it would be unwise to try to pin down in advance all the types of circumstance that might arise. However, I do not see a serious problem in the courts in applying these concepts to individual cases, as they do with so many other general legal concepts.

Put simply, we do not want to be overly prescriptive in what is meant by “short”. Our Explanatory Notes state that a short distance may well vary between town and country, and the courts would take this into account. Cases are likely to be prosecuted only if the facts are fairly clear cut, such as, for example, if it can be proved that a child has no car seat for a regular journey to school. The Government look to parents to use the exemption in this spirit. We will have to keep it under review to be sure that it is not overused.

The regulations also extend the requirement to wear seat belts to adult passengers in buses and coaches in which they are fitted, together with older children, those aged 14 and over. Bus and coach operators will have to notify passengers of the requirement to wear a seat belt by means of an announcement, an audio-visual presentation or signing. These requirements do not apply to a bus providing a local service wholly in a built-up area or where standing is permitted and the bus is designed for it. Many buses are not fitted with seat belts. It is not logical to fit a bus with belts if it is designed to carry standing passengers. Bus and coach travel is very safe in this country and serious casualties are fortunately quite rare. But seat belts do offer passengers increased protection. The majority of minibuses and coaches, and now some buses, are fitted with them. The time has come to require passengers to use them when they are available.

The Merits Committee also noted that at this time we have not extended the requirement to children below the age of 14 in buses and coaches. Our Explanatory Notes make it clear that we need to consult further about how any such requirement could be enforced, taking into account the practical difficulties of requiring bus and coach operators to ensure that children are adequately secured. Other member states are finding that they have the same problem, although they have all agreed that children should be covered by this rule.

We have consulted on these new requirements and they are widely supported. We have used provisions in the directive to make appropriate, specific exemptions and we are implementing it in a practical way. Those whom we have consulted recognise this. The regulations will apply throughout Great Britain, while the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment is preparing separate regulations to implement the directive in the same way there. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft regulations laid before the House on 14 June be approved [30th Report from the Joint Committee and 39th Report from the Merits Committee].—(Lord Davies of Oldham.)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of this important order. I am happy to say that we on these Benches support the general thrust of the legislation and what it seeks to do. Anything that attempts to cut the numbers of those killed and injured while not wearing a seat belt, particularly children, should be applauded, and I congratulate the Government on that. Indeed, to put the issue into context, in my own county of Essex of the 53 drivers or passengers killed in accidents over the past year, 14—26 per cent—were not wearing a seat belt. That kind of statistic is repeated across the country and it is growing, which is a worry.

As I mentioned, we support in principle what is set out here. Our concerns turn on its implementation where we have a number of serious reservations about how it is to work in practice. Many of the questions that I would like to put to the Minister today are similar to those put forward by my honourable friend the Member for North Shropshire when this legislation was discussed in the other place. There appears to be some confusion surrounding the status of this legislation regarding the involvement of coach and bus operators, specifically in making them responsible for ensuring that children aged under 14 are wearing seat belts. Indeed, no practical way has been identified to enforce this requirement. The Merits Committee, to which the Minister has referred, also raised this as a concern and suggested that the Government should have tried harder to obtain a clear form of words in the directive. Indeed, during the debate in the other place, the Minister of State for Transport said that it would be necessary to re-consult on this aspect—the Minister in this House has also referred to that. However, it is strange that we are considering legislation that to all intents and purposes is very far from being the finished item.

Of particular concern is the exemption for normal bus services, yet the inclusion in the scheme of scheduled bus and coach services such as those taking children to and from school. Who is to pay for the additional equipment required under the order? Will the school bus operators have to resort to local education authority funds for such a requirement—not that that local authority will have any funds anyway? But presumably if these costs are to be borne solely by coach operators, the expense may well push up their costs to such an extent that some of the smaller operators are forced out of the market, with serious consequences for the provision of school transport.

A further point that was made in the other place is how bus and coach operators will enforce such a scheme when other legislation strictly forbids them from touching children. A coach driver could not, therefore, physically place a child on a booster seat or strap them into a seat belt.

The other major issue, of course, is enforcement. The Minister of State in the other place mentioned that he did not envisage police peering into moving cars or measuring individual children to see whether they were over a certain height as specified in the regulations. Those comments appear to be a very public acknowledgement—and, indeed, a tacit agreement—that effective enforcement of this legislation is simply not possible. He also mentioned that there would be instances when the necessary equipment was not fitted to a car for all occupants to satisfy the terms of the legislation. For example, an adult on the school run may be required, at short notice, to pick up more children but may not have the necessary booster seat in place. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, mentioned that you could not leave a child without transport.

The Minister in the other place also said that it would be a good idea for the police to hang around the school gates at closing to give a clear message of what parents are expected to do. There are over 25,000 schools in this country. Was he seriously suggesting that, come four o’clock each day, the police forces around the country would send out a uniformed presence to every school gate, armed with a copy of these regulations and a tape measure? That, of course, would be an absurd proposition. However, I raise it simply to try to get across the difficulties involved in enforcing this legislation. We appear to be running the risk of signing off legislation that is virtually unenforceable. I do not have to tell your Lordships’ House of the very real dangers that such a step entails.

The point was also made about how a parent will expect and encourage a child who may be small for his or her age to go back to sitting on a booster seat. I suspect that no one in the department considered the impact of child and adolescent psychology when drawing up the legislation. Some poor children are obviously very conscious of, and worried about, that. It might sound a frivolous point, but we can all see that it has the potential to cause some serious disputes.

It seems that if this scheme is to work, the public will, as with other new legislation, need to be informed of it through an effective educational and communications strategy and well in advance of its commencement. It is worrying that these regulations could come into force in a matter of weeks and yet the vast majority of people out there will have absolutely no knowledge of these new laws. Have the Government taken on board this worry? Perhaps the Minister will explain how they will be communicating these new laws to the people who will be affected by them.

Finally, I would welcome an explanation from the Minister as to how much this is likely to cost, both to the individual with, say, three small children and more generally. I can see the danger that a family on a low income who can only just afford to run a car could be adversely affected to the point where they simply would not bother to comply with the law at all. Indeed, we could well be looking at a situation where the cost of buying two or three booster seats, which could run into several hundred pounds, would be more than the cost of the vehicle.

As I said at the start of my comments, we very much support the thrust of this legislation. Any measure that can improve child safety and save lives is very important. But we are loath to pass legislation which appears to be incomplete and in need of further attention and, more important, which appears to be unenforceable. I would therefore welcome any assurance that the Minister can provide on the concerns that I have outlined today.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, I am concerned about how these regulations are to be enforced. There is a huge burden on the police and it is quite normal that they will enforce things that they can easily enforce; if the laws are difficult to enforce, the likelihood is that little attention will be given to them. I am rather concerned that we are adding legislation that has rather slim prospects of working.

For example, how will a policeman be able to tell how an airbag is deactivated? I went out to my car yesterday and read the manual, but it did not tell me anything about how to deactivate the airbag. I do not know whether my car is peculiar, but I am not sure how it is done. That is only one question among many that I have.

The Minister referred to the fact that legislation is being drafted for Northern Ireland. There is one important difference in the legislation in Northern Ireland compared with the legislation in the rest of the United Kingdom: it proposes to introduce penalty points for seat belt offences later this year, but people aged 14 to 16 and those without licences will have penalty points awarded and when they apply for a licence those penalty points will be activated. So there will be a real incentive for such people to wear their seat belts. That is extremely important.

I have carried out some work over the past three years on road casualties in the Thames Valley. Of the 279 fatalities, 93 were not wearing seat belts, and, of those, professionally trained investigators estimated that 65 would have survived had they been wearing seat belts. That is a startling statistic. If the Government are serious about reducing the number of road casualties, they have to get people to wear seat belts. Most of these people are in the 17 to 25 age category. We have referred to young children but, although child casualties perhaps catch the headlines, being killed in a car crash is the biggest single cause of death in the 17 to 25 age group. I draw this seriously to the Minister’s attention. The Road Safety Bill has not yet finished its passage through the other place and I ask the Minister to consider whether further amendments to that Bill are necessary.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, referred to the fact that getting young people to wear seat belts is very difficult. In Thames Valley, we run what is called a seat belt diversion scheme. It is similar to the scheme that we run with regard to speed offences. If someone travels at 37 or 38 miles per hour and has no previous offences, the likelihood is that they will be offered, as an alternative to penalty points, the opportunity to attend a speed course. With speed offences, we get a 90 per cent take-up rate; most drivers accept the speed course as an alternative to penalty points. With seat belt offences, we get a 2 per cent take-up rate, because the alternative is a relatively small fine and is therefore not an effective deterrent. In fact, we have had to abandon the scheme as not being worth while.

But seat belt wearing rates are not getting better. This year, Thames Valley Police have issued 18,000 fixed penalty notices for speed offences; I could add to those the large number that they have issued for using mobile phones. This is a similar offence in many ways. It is not dangerous driving, but the driver is doing something that is likely to lead inadvertently to an accident.

These regulations are possibly a useful step, but they are fraught with enforcement difficulties. Something needs to be done—and that something could be done in the Road Safety Bill. We had a long discussion in the House about the matter when the Bill went through, but we did not succeed in persuading the Government to amend it. However, the Summer Recess will give Ministers another opportunity to consider seriously whether something more substantial needs to be done to make our seat belt legislation more effective.

My Lords, we have certainly travelled a long way since those relaxed, carefree, politically incorrect days when the great challenge was to cram as many people as possible into a Mini Minor and drive around London, arms and legs sticking out everywhere. For 99 per cent of the time, the police did not give a damn. Rather more seriously, a few years later, in order to save both petrol and wear and tear on parents, two, three or four families—mine included—would get together and share the school run, taking it in turn to carry half a dozen or more children in the back of an estate car, albeit with arms and legs safely tucked inside. Never once did I hear of anyone coming to the slightest harm in consequence, although, no doubt on very rare occasions, it did happen.

Nevertheless, one has to accept that the younger generation, among whom I include the thirtysomethings and fortysomethings, is more jittery—I have tried to use as neutral a word as possible—than ours was. Hence, they willingly accept restrictions on carrying children in cars that our generation would have considered neurotically over the top. Even so, the first part of the regulations is open to some criticism. First, most normal people in this country do not measure their height in centimetres, and never will, any more than they will describe to friends and family the weight of their newly arrived baby in kilograms. If a new James Bond were to appear on our screens—they seem to do so every two or three years—he would be likely to be described in the media as tanned, muscular and 6 feet 2 inches tall, not 187.96 centimetres tall.

When I revisited India recently after a gap of many years, despite many decades of compulsory metrification, and although miles had succumbed to kilometres on road signs, I was delighted to see that in every other respect user-friendly imperial measurements—inches, feet, yards, pounds—were still used in everyday life and in business. In Bangalore, for example, hoardings advertised luxury apartments measuring 900 square feet. At least let the words “approximately 4 feet 5 inches” be used as a supplementary indicator to the 135 centimetres requirement so that parents can know what is expected of them.

Incidentally, halfway down page 2 of the draft statutory instrument, reference is made to,

“a maximum design speed exceeding 25 kilometres per hour”.

Legal limits in this country are still expressed in miles per hour. Curiously enough, one paragraph in the Explanatory Memorandum contains a wonderful jumble of metric and imperial, referring to,

“street lights no more than 200 yards apart in England and Wales or 175 metres apart in Scotland”—

politically correct Scotland. It continues:

“These are roads for which the normal speed is 30 m.p.h.”.

Better some imperial measurement than none at all.

More worrying is the nub of this part of the regulations—I refer not to the measurements but the substance. Children who are 135 centimetres tall, or just over 4 feet 5 inches, will in many, if not most, cases find the diagonal strap of a seat belt running across their neck. If there is a sudden stop, not necessarily occasioned by a collision, they could be very seriously injured, possibly even killed. Have the Government taken any detailed medical advice on the possible harm that can come from a strap tightening across a child’s neck?

My main objection is to the second part of the regulations, which introduces seat belt compulsion in buses although, strangely, not in trains. My noble friend Lord Erroll has said that he will support me in this. On average, no more than three people a year are killed in buses and some of these will be in urban buses, which will not be subject to the regulations. We are talking about a possible maximum of one life saved per annum. That is assuming that most people will obey the regulations, which of course they will not; there is no way of enforcing them, especially on double-decker buses, such as the Oxford Tube, which I use from time to time.

Moreover, more and more long-distance buses nowadays have lavatories. Will passengers now be forbidden to use those lavatories, or will the bus operating companies be compelled to remove them? This seems a typical piece of nonsense, emanating from the overpaid, paternalist control freaks in Brussels, aided and abetted by the paternalist control freaks in this country.

As the Minister will know, every American state, every Canadian province and every Australian state can decide its own seat belt laws. Why cannot the ancient nation states of Europe be allowed to do the same? Harmonising seat belt and other road traffic laws has nothing whatever to do with completing a single market. I suppose that I will be told that it was a previous Conservative Government who sold the pass. That may well be so, in which case this Administration cannot be blamed for this particular piece of Euro-nonsense. However, I hope—doubtless in vain—that they might in due course press for greater subsidiarity in this and similar matters.

My Lords, this document is intensely depressing. It contains a whole new batch of regulations at a time when I thought that it was fashionable to try to reduce regulation. The most demeaning of the new regulations is the requirement that children aged three to 11 and less than 135 centimetres in height must use a child restraint in the back seat of cars. Child restraints are designed for infants; they cost money and take up a lot of space in a car. This regulation outlaws parental judgment; it discriminates against families with several children and families from poorer backgrounds, who may be faced with having to buy a larger car or, indeed, a second car. There are other objectionable features in the document, many of which have been mentioned by other noble Lords. It is a further intrusion of the nanny state into personal and parental choice.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who contributed to the debate, although the regulations have not received quite the enthusiastic response that I might have wished for. I will do my best to meet the objections that have been raised.

Let me deal with the question raised by the noble Lords, Lord Hanningfield and Lord Bradshaw, as well as by other speakers, about the difficulty of enforcement. We know that seat belts are not worn as frequently as we would wish. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, mentioned mobile phones, and we have all seen people who continue to use them while driving. But that does not alter the fact that seat belts save lives and an awful lot of people obey the law by wearing them. Banning the use of mobile phones by drivers also means that far fewer people use them today than was the case before the law was changed.

Of course we cannot have a 100 per cent response—we do not expect that. But, over time, things gradually become part of the normal operation of people driving cars. The vast majority of people may not be assiduously concerned about safety, but they certainly do not want to be in an accident in which they or anyone close to them gets hurt.

As for enforcement by police, of course we cannot expect police officers to go around in patrol cars peering into every other car to see whether seat belts are effectively fixed, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is also right that we cannot expect the police to appear at every junior school to tell parents what is required. But we can expect the police to act in their normal judicious and intelligent way. Any person involved in an incident of any kind knows that failure to comply with the law will put them in increased jeopardy. Gradually, people will begin to realise that it does not do to defy the law.

I heard what the noble Lords, Lord Monson and Lord Cobbold, said about the nanny state; it is usually the nanny international state when we are talking about Brussels directives. However, let us leave Brussels out of the issue on this occasion. These regulations derive from a Brussels directive, but noble Lords will recognise that Britain is at the forefront of road safety measures because we are proud that we have a better safety record than almost any other state in Europe. It will not do for us to blame our continental partners about this. We are prepared to take initiatives because we think that they save lives and reduce injury.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, asked whether the Government had taken cognisance of the fact that the wrong size child in a badly fitted seat belt could come to mishap. That is exactly so. We talked about necessary child restraints and proper seats for children because an ordinary seat belt will not meet the requirement for a child. A small child popped into the back of the car and given an adult seat belt may be marginally better off than without a seat belt at all, but in certain circumstances that seat belt might occasion the very injury that we seek to avoid. That is why the regulations consider children as a special category.

We have enough scientific evidence for this and we are not alone in our view—all other European countries also recognise this—that seat belts contribute to safety, as, indeed, do airbags. A feature of the past decade or so has been the improvement in accident rates because of better designed motor vehicles and particularly because of the introduction of airbags. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said that he could not deactivate his airbag. He is not alone in that—a large number cannot be deactivated. I think that mine can, but I have never done so. However, the point is that, if the airbag cannot be deactivated and therefore is in use, we must not use a rear-facing child restraint or seat because we know that that can create more danger to the child.

I recognise the anxieties about these regulations. I frankly and accurately reflected the anxieties of the Merits Committee. We have difficulty in interpreting Brussels directives. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, made great fun of the differing measurements in use. I do not blame him for that, because I find it the source of the most incredible irritation when we are used to one measurement and someone comes along with another. He will have seen that I scrupulously translated centimetres into feet and inches for the purpose of this debate, because I share exactly those concerns. However, despite the difficulties of interpreting and fitting the regulations in with British law, we can see a way of reducing the number of accidents and deaths.

The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, mentioned Northern Ireland and the penalty points system. If he advocates that system, he will lay himself open to even more criticism from the noble Lords, Lord Cobbold and Lord Monson, because the penalties are even greater for infraction of the law under the Northern Ireland example that he gave. Northern Ireland has the right to make its judgments in this area. It makes them separately from the rest of Great Britain. This order relates only to Great Britain. I hope that I have assuaged some anxieties.

My Lords, will the Minister answer my question about whether the use of lavatories on long-distance buses will be outlawed?

My Lords, that is an interesting one. I do not have the answer immediately in my brief. However, perhaps it is safer to use the lavatory when the bus has stopped. I recognise that people move around in buses. We want to minimise that.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said that this was an unfair obligation on the coach driver. We are not demanding that seat belts should be fitted in coaches, minibuses or anywhere else if they do not already exist. However, where they do exist, passengers should be told that the driver and the company operating the system expect those seat belts to be worn. There might be a little label on the back of the seat or an announcement by the driver. Increasingly, coaches have televisions and other forms of communication that could be used. The instruction to passengers should be that the driver expects that, because the bus is fitted with seat belts, they should be used. That is a basic requirement. The bus driver cannot be expected to enforce the law. He has done his duty when he has carried out the operation that I described.

Despite the criticisms this evening, I hope that noble Lords will recognise the good intentions behind these regulations. They are being subscribed to by other member states in the European Community. They are an advance in terms of road safety and I hope that noble Lords will give them a fair wind.

On Question, Motion agreed to.