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House of Lords

Thursday, 29th October 1998.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Lord Colyton

Lord Colyton--Sat first in Parliament after the death of his grandfather.

Seat Belts

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they propose to take any further steps to alert drivers and passengers in motor vehicles to the liability that may arise, by reason of contributory negligence, through a failure to wear seat belts when the vehicle in which they are travelling is involved in an accident.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, it is a well-established fact that wearing a seat belt reduces the risk or the severity of an injury in a road traffic accident. Failure to wear one could indeed reduce an award for damages if it could be shown that the injury would have been less severe if the seat belt had been worn. In most cases, wearing a seat belt is also a legal requirement.

In any claim for damages in respect of injury or loss the principle of contributory negligence arises. It is a long accepted and well understood principle of civil law. A recent government campaign has highlighted the dangers that can occur when seat belts are not worn, and more of these campaigns are planned.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. But is he aware that most people are ignorant of the fact that grave consequences can arise in the civil courts as a result of not wearing seat belts, because in certain circumstances damages could be reduced by as much as 50 per cent.? Does he agree that previous campaigns by successive governments have not highlighted that important factor? Does he further agree that the time is overdue for a campaign to alert people to the real sanctions which can apply--namely, those referred to in my Question--and that it is incumbent upon the Government to ensure that seat belt legislation becomes effective?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the recent safety campaign on wearing seat belts in the back of cars was probably one of the most hard-hitting and effective which the Government have run. It certainly had an effect on the number of people wearing seat belts. Unfortunately, even now less than 50 per cent. of adults wear seat belts

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in the back of cars. The contributory negligence aspect in court cases would differ from case to case, but in any future campaign we shall bear it in mind and try to bring it to the attention of the public as one of the consequences, and financially possibly a larger consequence than a simple fine.

Lord Monson: My Lords, is the Minister aware that 17 years ago the late Lady Birk, a distinguished Labour Front Bencher for a dozen years or more, admitted to your Lordships that despite favouring the compulsory wearing of seat belts, her life had been saved by not wearing a seat belt? Her car was in a collision and she was thrown out to safety on a grass verge. But the front of her car was totally crushed, as she would have been had she been belted in. Is that by no means unique incident not hard to reconcile with the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I was not aware of that situation. There are very few cases in which not wearing a seat belt has avoided injury. However, statistics show that in the vast majority of cases the wearing of seat belts can reduce risk. The courts in considering such cases will take into account the size of the risk and in many circumstances suggest that not wearing a seat belt contributed to the injury.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, since I have become ancient I use black cabs fairly frequently. Is my noble friend aware that often the seat belts are difficult to put on and sometimes do not work at all? I suggest that the owners of black cabs and mini-cabs should be urged to ensure that their seat belts are wearable.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, even though I have not quite reached my noble friend's advanced years I sometimes find my dexterity lacking in the back of some taxi-cabs.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I must rapidly rephrase that and return to seat belts! The responsibility is on the cab-owners to ensure that seat belts in the back of the cab are workable and usable. That is the case with drivers of cars which are required to have such belts.

The Viscount of Falkland: My Lords, I agree with everything that has been said about the effectiveness of seat belts. However, is it not the case that under certain conditions certain people--for instance, the very old and the very young, those who have been injured and perhaps pregnant women--are doubtful about their relationship with the law as regards seat belts? Can the Minister give any guidance to those who are uncertain about whether they should travel in a vehicle when they find the belts uncomfortable or threatening during their period of injury and so forth? Can he give guidance on the difficulty which may be faced?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I understand that the law requires all people travelling in a car fitted with seat

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belts to use them. If that caused much discomfort it would be a matter of personal judgment not to travel by car. Such circumstances are limited. In many cases it may be uncomfortable or difficult to wear a seat belt, but it is still substantially safer.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House his view of rear seat belts?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, my view of rear seat belts is that passengers in cars fitted with them should use them, and that is indeed the law.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, why according to the law must one wear a seat belt in the back of a taxi while the driver need not do so?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I would need to take advice on that matter. However, I understand that the drivers of all cars, including black cabs, must wear a seat belt.

Noble Lords: No!

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the situation is clearly governed by taxi regulations rather than the law to which I have referred. I will rapidly retreat and let the noble Earl know the reasoning behind it, if any.

Lord Acton: My Lords, have any surveys been carried out to ascertain whether passengers other than the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Putney, and the Minister himself use seat belts in the back of taxis?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure that I should talk about the back seat of taxis any more! In general, surveys show that for vehicles as a whole just under 50 per cent. of adults use a seat belt. It is a legal requirement to wear them where they are fitted.

Lord Meston: My Lords, are any reliable statistics held by the insurance industry or elsewhere relating to the number of awards or settlements which have been discounted by contributory negligence? If there are reliable statistics should they not be further publicised?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not aware of statistics in that form. Should they be in that simple form, clearly they should be given greater publicity. The problem is that the degree of contributory negligence will vary from case to case.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, bearing in mind the alarming fact that, despite all the campaigns, less than 50 per cent. of people are wearing seat belts, is it not necessary, as I indicated before, to inject a measure of urgency into a campaign to boost the wearing of seat belts by emphasising the dire consequences that can occur if they are not worn?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I have said already to my noble friend that in future campaigns we shall certainly

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take that aspect into account. Whether in the literature or the television campaigns, I am sure that it will feature in future.

Millennium Dome

3.10 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What new information they can give on the Millennium Dome, with particular reference to means of access, parking arrangements, contents.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the new Millennium Experience Company's annual report and financial statements for 1997-98 were published on 30th July and copies placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The company's corporate plan for the period 1997-98 to 2000-01 was published in August and copies of that are available in the Libraries. I understand that the Millennium Commission has today laid copies of its annual report in the Libraries of both Houses.

Good progress is being made on all aspects of the transport arrangements for the dome. In particular, the Government welcome London Transport's recent appointment of Bechtel to manage the completion and commissioning stages of the Jubilee Line extension, and its confirmation that it will open in good time for the millennium experience.

I understand that the London Borough of Greenwich has recently approved the principle of the New Millennium Experience Company park-and-ride strategy. Overall, I am happy to report that the millennium experience, both at the dome and around the country through the associated national programme, is developing extremely well. The installation of the content of the dome has already begun on time.


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