Many MPs come to Parliament with issues they deeply care about. For me, road safety is one of those issues. Having been in a very serious car crash when I was younger, I felt lucky to be alive and determined to reduce accidents on the road.
When I first came to Parliament, it was not compulsory to wear seat belts like it is today. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, seatbelts were beginning to be fitted in cars, but the wearing rate was very low. Despite huge government spending on publicity campaigns to boost the voluntary use of seat belts, the rate didn’t get much higher than 33%. There had been thirteen attempts in Parliament to introduce legislation to make seatbelts compulsory but all had failed.
I put my name in for a Private Member’s Bill and, when I was drawn in the ballot, decided to use my Bill to tackle the issue of seatbelts. I introduced a Bill that would make it an offence to carry a child unrestricted in a vehicle. Sadly, like many Private Member’s Bills, mine was unsuccessful. A Conservative MP at the time shouted “object” to my Bill and this meant it could go no further in the House of Commons. After this, however, a young junior minister at the time, named Ken Clarke, told me he had liked my Bill and recommended that I amend the Transport Bill going through Parliament at the time. So I added an amendment about children wearing seatbelts and it passed, meaning it became law.
The campaign to improve road safety could not stop there; adults were still not required to wear seatbelts in cars which meant many preventable injuries were still being caused by crashes. I knew that we would not be able to pass the legislation required in the House of Commons due to opposition from those who thought compulsory seatbelt wearing was an infringement of personal freedom.
Thankfully, we had some very good friends in the House of Lords who introduced legislation in the Upper House. Of course, this means that the legislation had to come back to the Commons to be approved. In this case, we got lucky! The date that the Bill would be read in the Commons was set to be just before a public holiday for Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding. This meant that many MPs went back to their constituencies earlier in the week so that they could enjoy the long weekend – but we made sure that our supporters stayed in London and came to the House of Commons to vote. Because of this, we were able to pass the law and make it compulsory for everyone in the UK to wear seatbelts in a moving vehicle.
After the vote, the group that had been involved in the passing of the legislation went to the roof of the Houses of Parliament and witnessed a grand firework display, which we said was for our victory in the House (in fact, it was for the royal wedding!). It was a wonderful victory and making seatbelts compulsory for adults and children remains a defining moment in my parliamentary career. The group was so effective at campaigning that we went on to form the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety (PACTS). PACTS is still going strong after 40 years and remains one of the most energetic groups campaigning for evidence-based policies to reduce road traffic accidents.