Select Committee on European Scrutiny Sixth Report


SAFETY BELTS IN VEHICLES UNDER 3.5 TONNES


(21938)
14469/00
COM(00) 815

Draft Directive on the compulsory use of safety belts in vehicles under 3.5 tonnes.


Legal base: Article 71(1)EC; co-decision; qualified majority voting
Document originated: 7 December 2000
Forwarded to the Council: 8 December 2000
Deposited in Parliament: 10 January 2001
Department: Environment, Transport and the Regions
Basis of consideration: EM of 18 January 2001
Previous Committee Report: None; but see (10720) 9228/88: HC 29-xiii (1990-91), paragraph 1 (6 March 1991)
To be discussed in Council: 4-5 April 2001
Committee's assessment: Legally and politically important
Committee's decision: Not cleared; further information requested

  3.1  The compulsory wearing by both adults and children of fitted safety belts in cars, goods vehicles and passenger-carrying vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes is required by Council Directive 91/671/EEC. However, the Directive allows Member States to legislate for certain exemptions. In the UK the main exemptions are: a person holding a medical certificate; people instructing holders of provisional licences while the holder is performing a manoeuvre which includes reversing; drivers of taxis and private hire vehicles; and people conducting driving tests.

  3.2  The provisions on compulsory wearing of seat belts for children are especially complicated, as under the original Directive different requirements could apply in different Member States. For example, in Sweden young children are not allowed to travel at all in a car unless restrained by an appropriate child restraint. In the UK, on the other hand, no child may be carried unrestrained in the front seat of any vehicle, and no child may be carried unrestrained in the rear seat of a car if there is an appropriate restraint available anywhere in the car. However, in the UK, if no child restraint is available, the child can still be carried.

  3.3  The Commission argues that these different rules in different Member States cause problems for intra-Community traffic. It adds that there is a case for raising the level of safety by reducing the discretion available to Member States under the existing Directive.

The current proposal

  3.4  The proposal seeks to bring about greater protection for vehicle passengers, especially children, and greater harmonisation in the law relating to the compulsory wearing of seat belts. It has five elements.

  3.5  First, all occupants of cars and goods vehicles, up to 3.5 tonnes laden weight, would be required to wear restraint systems where provided. However, children under 12 would have to use a child restraint system (child seat or booster seat, for example) suitable to their body mass and would not, as is currently allowed in the UK, be able to use the adult belt. The proposed Directive would remove the exemptions that have allowed some Member States, including the UK, to permit the carriage of children under 12 years of age without a child restraint where one is not available.

  3.6  Secondly, the Directive would prohibit children under three years of age being carried in cars (but not taxis) unless a child restraint system is provided. It would remove the option of carrying children unrestrained in the rear seat. Children are already prohibited from being carried unrestrained in the front seat.

  3.7  Thirdly, the Directive would require the air-bag to be de-activated when a child is travelling in a rear-facing child restraint in the front seat.

  3.8  Fourthly, the Directive specifies that child restraint systems must comply with the UN-ECE Regulation 44/03 or its equivalent or any other adaptation and must not simply be of an "approved" type.

  3.9  Fifthly, the proposal extends the original Directive by requiring that drivers and passengers of all passenger-carrying vehicles and goods vehicles wear safety belts where they are provided, and that passengers should be informed of that requirement by one or more of a range of audio/visual means. This is an extension of the original Directive which did not apply to vehicles of more than nine seats.

  3.10  Safety measures are a controversial subject. The Commission states that some "extreme civil liberties campaigners argue that the compulsory wearing of seat belts is an infringement of the freedom of the citizen." However, the Commission points out that the legal precedent for such measures is well established and that society has a vested interest in the sense that each road accident fatality has a high cost to society. The Commission estimates that the social cost of each fatality is 1 million euros.

  3.11  In relation to child passengers, the Commission points out that "small children are not miniatures of adults: the mass of the head of a small child is about 25% of the body mass, whereas the mass of the head of an adult is about 6% of the body mass." As a result, the injuries suffered by children of less than one year of age are typically to the head and torso. In the UK, some 270 babies (that is, below one year old) are killed or injured each year when travelling in cars and, for the EU as a whole, the number of deaths is estimated to be at least ten times as many. The Commission does not indicate by how much this figure could be reduced if the Directive is adopted. However, the Commission notes that child restraints have performed well in accidents, with the majority of occupants suffering only minor injuries or no injuries. The youngest children are especially vulnerable as car passengers and yet by allowing them to travel unrestrained in rear seats they are afforded the least protection.

The Government's view

  3.12  The Government believes that the wearing of seat belts makes a major contribution to reducing the number and seriousness of casualties resulting from road accidents. Calculations by the Transport Research Laboratory suggest that some 550 lives and 9,250 serious injuries per year are saved through passengers wearing seat belts. The Government therefore supports in principle the amendments to the existing Directive. However, the Government points out that if the revised Directive were adopted in its present form, it would restrict the number of child passengers in a car to those seats fitted with child restraint. The Directive would also mean that safety systems manufactured to a standard older than UN-ECE 44.03 would become unusable even though they offer some protection. The Government says it wishes to consult widely on the proposal, and in negotiations would seek to retain some flexibility in some of the elements of the proposed Directive.

Conclusion

  3.13  By requiring appropriate child restraints to be fitted and used for children under 12 years of age, prohibiting the carriage of children under three years of age in cars (except taxis) unless a child restraint is provided, and making child restraints older than the required standard unusable, the proposed Directive will cause inconvenience to some families. Against such inconvenience is the major contribution the wearing of seat belts makes to reducing the number and seriousness of casualties resulting from road accidents.

  3.14  The Government intends to consult widely on the proposal, and states that in negotiations it will seek to retain flexibility in some of the elements of the proposed Directive. However, the Government does not provide reasons in terms of a cost-benefit analysis for wishing to retain its discretion. Because of the sensitivity of the issue and the lack of any consultation on the subject so far, we do not clear the document. We request further information from the Government, especially any analysis of the costs and benefits involved in retaining the option of allowing children to be carried unrestrained. We also wish to be kept informed of any consultation on the subject.


 
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