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

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

An intriguing report in today’s newspaper sheds light on the origins of one of the biggest road safety innovations.

Seat belt laws for drivers and front seat passengers came in across the UK in 1983, but the safety value of restraints had been known decades earlier.

As we also report based on government papers from the 1970s, there was significant opposition to such laws even though they had been successful in Australia.

But we now know that Stormont was on the verge of approving seat belt laws in March 1972, days before devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed. Compulsion was then delayed until that UK-wide introduction 11 years later. The law was not extended to the back seat until 1991.

There is little doubt that these laws have had a huge impact. Overall seat belt compliance, front and back, is now at around 98%. In the last decade it has risen from around 91%. It took 30 years for the law to be almost universally observed.

Over those 30 years, there has been a stunning fall in Northern Ireland road deaths from 216 in 1982, the last year before compulsion, to 74 last year, despite rising traffic levels.

A News Letter analysis of road death statistics last Saturday estimated that over 600 Northern Irish people (enough to fill most of the Belfast Opera House) are alive last year who would otherwise be dead if road deaths had continued at their 1970s levels, which is when they were at their worst.

It is fascinating to read the government papers, and see how accurate the advocates of seat belts proved to be and how foolish opponents of the law were. It is also interesting to be reminded of some of the good work done by the old Stormont parliament, which has been retrospectively demonised.

Many people who were killed in the 1970s and 80s would now be alive if that 1972 plan had gone through.

Devolved government is back in Northern Ireland. If our MLAs aim high, they could achieve the sorts of things that the planned 1972 seat belt law would have achieved.