If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Helmet Law

The Filthy Smoker, guesting on Devil's Kitchen, has a good rant about liberty and proposals for minimum pricing of alcohol. He brings into the argument a speech in Parliament by Ivan Lawrence MP in 1979, when the House was debating the introduction of compulsory seat-belt wearing. The law on the compulsory wearing of crash-helmets by motorcyclists was passed in 1973, and the seat belt law raised similar personal liberty concerns.

I would always wear a helmet on a bike, for reasons of comfort and efficiency, as well as safety. And I learned to drive wearing a seat belt (even though it was not compulsory then), and I don't feel comfortable in a car unless I am wearing one. But I don't believe they should be compulsory. I agreed with both measures at the time, on the basis of 'regrettable necessity', I think, but now I have changed my mind. The speech from Ivan Lawrence, which I quote here in full (source) sums up why, and it's worth reading. Emphasis is mine.

I am wholly in favour of seat belts, of encouraging people to wear them, and of insurance companies and courts applying sanctions to encourage their use, but I am against the Bill because it abuses the criminal law and the criminal process. Why should any citizen be forced by criminal sanction to wear something which could in some circumstances kill him? That has never been a legitimate principle of our criminal law. Why should anyone be forced by criminal sanction not to hurt himself? That was never, at least until the crash helmet legislation, a principle of our criminal law. Where will it end? Why make driving without a seat belt a crime because it could save a thousand lives, when we could stop cigarette smoking by the criminal law and save 20,000 lives a year? Why not stop by making it criminal the drinking of alcohol, which would save hundreds of thousands of lives?

When will we realise that laws not only cannot cure every evil but are frequently counter-productive? Here the harm done to our criminal process may well exceed any good that the law can do. We can see that in advance, so why do we persist with it? If there was a law which made it a criminal offence to smoke or to drink alcohol, neither of which, of course, do I advocate, just think of the amount of bereavement that would be saved, the number of hospital beds that could be put to better use, and the time and energy of our doctors and nurses which could be more usefully employed. Yet we do not consider doing that. What is it about the motorist that requires him to be singled out and subjected to this sort of legislation?

The Bill would also be an abuse of our criminal law because it would be an abuse of our criminal process. We can foretell that there will be widespread evasion of a law such as this. If there was 20 per cent. evasion among the 26 million people with cars, that would involve millions of British subjects evading the law. That could only drag the law further into disrepute. The Bill would irritate the police—and they are the defenders of the liberties of the subject. How many times would they be forced to stop motorists who would subsequently be found to be exempt from the seat belt law because they were too big, too small, too pregnant or too disabled, or because they fell within one of the other exemption categories? How irritating would this be to motorists who are stopped in these circumstances, and how much harm would this do to the relationship between the police and the public?

How much harm would it do to the legal system to have our courts even more overcrowded than they are now? Would not people feel that the legal system was once again failing and that the system of justice was yet again slowing down?

The harm to justice caused by this legislation will be far more substantial than we think. When will we realise that every little infringement of liberty, for whatever good cause, diminishes the whole concept of liberty? If life is the only criterion, why did we sacrifice so many millions of lives in two world wars? Why did we not in the Second World War lie down and say"Because millions of people may die, we should let our liberty be taken away before the onset of the Nazis "? The answer is that more important than lives is the concept of liberty.

Since I have been in the House I have seen the cogent arguments and the telling pleas of hon. Members on both sides of the House persuading and succeeding in persuading the House that it is only a very little piece more of liberty that we are withdrawing and for such great benefits and advantages. As a result we have far fewer of our freedoms now than was ever dreamed possible a few years ago. In the end we shall find that our liberties have all but disappeared. It might be possible to save more lives in Britain by this measure—and by countless other measures. But I do not see the virtue in saving more lives by legislation which will produce in the end a Britain where nobody wants to live.

In retrospect, that was a very far-sighted speech. At one time, the criminal law was used to prevent people from harming each other, and in that it is completely justified. Today, the criminal law is used to 'protect people from themselves' and even to prevent people offending other people's feelings. It's interesting to put your mind back to 1979 and see how differently we regarded the law in those far-off days. The remarks about tobacco-smoking (and now alcohol use) were prescient, too.


  1. It would work as long as those exercising the right to smoke/not to wear a helmet etc accepted the corresponding responsibility for any resulting hospital costs etc - and we stopped the individuals' right to sue to compensate for their own stupidity.

  2. I would agree with the second bit. No-one should get paid because someone else didn't warn them not to be a twat. But smokers, bike riders - who's next? Skiers? Mountaineers? Round-the-world yachtsmen? People who foolishly and recklessly go into forests alone and injure themselves? Should they accept responsibility for their own hospital treatment too? Once you decide to draw a line, you have to be very careful where it goes.

    Smokers (not that I am one) can always argue that they pay more into the NHS than they ever take out.

  3. what do you mean about "the irish' ..and ,yes,it is funny

  4. Should this be attached to the St PAtrick's Day post?


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