Richard North, 04/03/2006  

It is very easy to see why the EU has taken so enthusiastically to its road safety portfolio. The subject offers endless opportunities to pander to the "nanny state" tendency inherent in the construct, allowing sundry politicians to lecture us on our behaviour.

Latest in this line-up is Hubert Gorbach, vice chancellor and transport minister of Austria, commenting on the EU’s mid-term review of its Road Safety Strategy.

According to the faithful Reuters, Gorbach's target is the citizens of the EU's mostly ex-Communist new member states. They must, he says, get in the habit of wearing seatbelts to help cut the high number of road deaths in the Union. "Forty-thousand people are killed on the roads every year in Europe," he wails. "That's terrible."

The particular problem identified, to explain the rise in road accidents in the accession countries, is the lack of seatbelt usage. The level of use in nations such as Sweden, Britain and the Netherlands was 95 percent, while that in countries that joined the EU in 2004 was a low 70 percent. "There's a great potential for improvement there," says Gorbach.

Other explanations offered for the death toll in the accession countries – but buried deep in the commission's working document is the fact that high-powered, modern West European motor cars are now available in increasing number in the East, but they are being driven on decrepit roads which are not designed for them – with disastrous results.

To remedy that, however, would cost real money and take considerable time, so it is much easier for Gorbach to hector the citizens. As always, he offers the mantra that people in road crashes not wearing are seven times more likely to die than those who are belted up.

That conveniently ignores the number who have been killed because they were wearing seatbelts. Certainly, if in the one major crash in which I was involved (as a passenger), I had been wearing a seatbelt, I would have been killed. Instead, I was thrown clear, and suffered only a brief spell of unconsciousness, while the part of the sports car in which I had been sitting was completely demolished after impacting with a telegraph pole.

One expert, John Adams, author of the book "Risk", sheds a different light on the issue. He agrees that, overall, death rates in accidents are lower but argues that, when drivers feel safer – such as when they are wearing seatbelts – they take more risks, and thus have more accidents. Often, the risk is transferred from the drivers to pedestrians.

Thus, says Adams, if you really want to improve safety overall, the way to do it is to have a sharpened steel spike projecting from the centre of the steering wheel of every car. But what makes me think that an amendment to the EU's vehicle construction and use regulations, along these lines, is not in the offing?

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