Declassified files: Stormont was on the verge of belt law in 1972

Stormont was planning to make seat belts compulsory when it was prorogued in 1972
Stormont was planning to make seat belts compulsory when it was prorogued in 1972
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Stormont almost led the way in the UK with pioneering compulsory seat belt laws days before its 1972 collapse.

Stormont almost led the way in the UK and introducing pioneering compulsory seat belt weeks before it was prorogued in 1972.

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor

A cabinet paper from that year discussed the possible slashing of death tolls in the Province that could come about from such a measure.

However, amid the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the Province and political clashes between Westminster the devolved unionist government, London stepped in to seize power from Stormont at the end of March that year.

Sam McBride’s reports relate to cabinet papers between London and Northern Ireland in the late 1970s.

More than a decade ago, I reported on the then newly released 1972 Stormont papers, some of which also related to seat belt laws.

A paper dated March 8 by an official in the Ministry of Home Affairs was prepared for Brian Faulkner’s cabinet. Albert W Anderson, senior parliamentary secretary, wrote: “There can be no doubt that if seat belts were universally worn this would make the biggest single contribution to a reduction in the mounting toll of fatal and serious injuries.”

Mr Anderson was explaining the proposed Clause 6 to the planned Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, which had been approved in principle by the Stormont cabinet in 1971.

“The proposal is to take power to make the wearing of seat belts compulsory and to provide further that the failure to wear seat belts shall be treated as contributory negligence in any subsequent action for damages resulting from an accident,” Mr Anderson wrote. He added that the seat belt usage rate “is still far too low and ... only about 10% of all drivers actually wear them”.

The paper said that it was “only a matter of time” before wearing seat belts was made compulsory in Great Britain and concluded that “this is an opportunity for Northern Ireland to lead the way”.

Mr Anderson noted: “The State of Victoria in Australia has already introduced the compulsory wearing of seat belts and the early indications are that it has been most effective in reducing the number of fatal and serious injuries. New South Wales and New Zealand are now following suit.

“At at a time when the increase in serious and fatal accidents in Northern Ireland is a matter of grave concern, it is felt that a major new step of this kind is needed to make any real impact on the problem.”

In 1971 there had been 304 deaths on the Province’s roads and in 1972 there would be 372, the highest ever number of fatalities. In far-sighted passages that would ultimately be vindicated by events, the paper said: “No other road safety measure could be expected to produce anything comparable in terms of reduced casualties and certainly now at such low cost to public funds.

“In comparison the return which be expected from the recent drink and driving legilsation and the proposed private car testing scheme as relatively insignificant although of course these measures are justified as preventative measures dealing with certain specific causes of road accidents. The effectivenes of seat belts is now well established and documented and the Road Research Laboratory estimates that the wearing of seat belts can achieve a 70% reduction in serious injuries.”

The casualty figures “could probably be halved if seat belts were more widely worn”, Mr Anderson said.

The document considered the argument that it was “wrong in principle to legislate to protect people from the consequence of their own negligence”, but concluded that the principle had already been considered in some safety situations.

However, Stormont ministers and officials had no idea that two weeks to the day after the paper the prime minister, Edward Heath, would tell Mr Faulkner London was taking over security powers from the devolved government, which led swiftly to its collapse and the introduction of direct rule.

Northern Ireland lost its chance to lead the way. In 1982, the year before a law came in across the UK, there were 216 deaths. By 1992, the first year after the law was extended to back seats, the toll had fallen to 150.

Compliance is now at over 95%. Last year 74 people died on NI roads, a fraction of the tally when the paper was written.

Morning View: Stormont’s 1972 seat belt plan shows the potential of devolution