Two for the freedom bill: seatbelts and drugs?

Professor John Adams has submitted a Mill-esque proposal for the Government’s Freedom Bill.

Adams, author of “Risk”, explains on his blog:

The Cream Buns Act would remove all existing laws and regulations that proscribe behaviour that risks only the health or safety of mentally competent adult risk takers.

Two nominations for early repeal: the seat belt law and the set of laws criminalizing the sale or use of drugs. They merit priority not only because they pass the Cream Buns Test but, more importantly, because they have criminalized millions and can be shown to have had highly significant adverse consequences. The drug laws have created vast, violent criminal enterprises, and the seat belt laws have made roads more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

Now there’s something to spark debate in liberal circles.

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  • I wonder whether there needs to be another element to the test, which is to do with the impact on others of the implications of your actions. Someone not wearing a seat belt might be injured or disabled because of their choice, or their injury or disability may be worse as a result; that has a financial impact on everyone else. Is that relevant?

  • The argument John Adams presents is hardly Mill-esque (I prefer Mill-ean). If you read your On Liberty carefully though, the drugs one might be repealable – until the individual harms society consequently, and then it won’t be. A kind of ‘one-strike-and-your-spliff-is-out’ law.

    Stuart – it is relevant, but it should not override other reasoning. I support the smoking ban not for the smokers’ health (she/he is a risk taker), nor for the possible cost of the smoker to the NHS (though tax-duty can do that); I support it because of the number of people who have choices of workplace limited to the service industry who have in the past had to suffer as a consequence of working in a smoky environment (pregnant or not).

  • Stuart, you make a good point. One of Mill’s key concerns in “On Liberty” was that an example of where liberty could justifiably be constrained is where one’s actions may cause harm to another. That could be argued to apply in the case of selling drugs, and also buying/taking them where the resultant personality change may result in harm being caused to another person. It would certainly apply in the case of seat belts, for example where the decision by a parent not to use a belt on a child would certainly cause harm in a crash.

    I’m not sure I understand how seatbelts have made roads more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, though?

  • Colin Green 29th Jul '10 - 4:28pm

    If only it were as simple as you make out, both problems would be solved already.

  • Simon Titley 29th Jul '10 - 4:41pm

    Professor John Adams is not “Mill-esque”. He’s either a childish libertarian or he’s taking the piss.

    Seat belts don’t pass the ‘cream bun’ test. If the only consequence of not wearing a seat belt would be to increase the risk of injury to oneself, there might be a case. But not wearing a seat belt has consequences for others. It increases the risk of injury to your fellow passengers. The greater severity of your injuries imposes avoidable costs on the emergency services and health services. Your long-term disability also imposes costs on society. And your death or disability has consequences for your family.

    In any case, can anyone honestly say that being forced to wear a seat belt takes away their ‘freedom’ in any meaningful sense? Does it really take away your civil liberties? Do you really feel oppressed whenever you “clunk click every trip”?

  • But seatbelts don’t “make you feel safer”; when you’re obliged to put a belt on every time you get in your vehicle, you are reminded each time of the potential for a dangerous crash. If you’re used to driving without any kind of restraint, you can easily assume that driving is a risk-free enterprise.

  • Vera Roberts 29th Jul '10 - 8:03pm

    How can you repeal a law like the seatbelt law that manifestly does not risk only the health of mentally competent adults? You can hardly say that only those people don’t need to use seatbelts, everyone else has to. Completely potty, I would campaign against it to my dying day

  • Simon Titley 29th Jul '10 - 8:18pm

    @Cllr Mark Wright – “It’s not implausible that seatbelts could be a small factor in encouraging more risky behaviour.” Your suggestion is hedged about with qualifications but is there any actual evidence that wearing seat belts does encourage risky behaviour? No, I thought not.

    Instead, the evidence points to Brtian’s roads becoming safer, despite the increase in traffic. Indeed, deaths on British roads are at an all-time low (the lowest since records began in 1926):

  • Darren Reynolds 29th Jul '10 - 8:28pm

    The principle has some debatable merit but the examples are crap.

    The first problem with the principle is that all action has some impact on others. Consider two extreme examples to make the point. Does breathing cause harm to others? If you’re in an enclosed space and the CO2 levels are above 5%, choosing that moment to do some hard exercise could kill someone. And using water to wash might kill someone with dehydration in some parts of the world, hence the very real fear of future water wars.

    You cannot do anything without it having an impact.

    Then there’s the problem of defining harm. If your action means I fail to get a job – because you applied and got it instead – is that harm? If I crash my car and you’re first on the scene, and the resulting carnage causes you emotional trauma, is that harm?

    Which takes me neatly onto the problem with the examples. Prof Adams needs to shadow his local emergency services for a few weeks, then he might change his mind about seat belts not harming others. A friend of mine used to work in a vehicle recovery yard and had the job of cleaning brains off windscreens. That was bad enough, but those who are first on the scene are often emotionally traumatised. Earlier posts above list other examples of the harm caused other than to the choice-maker.

    ‘Drugs’ are even more complex. Because there is such a range of substances with extraordinarily diverse and complex effects, it may not be appropriate to consider all drugs together. The amount of harm caused by any action has multiple dimensions, and in the case of drugs the former ACMD recognised many (the proper Nutt version not the pathetic excuse for a council we have now) . They describe three main factors that together determine the harm associated with any drug of potential abuse: the physical harm to the individual user caused by the drug; the tendency of the drug to induce dependence; and the effect of drug use on families, communities, and society. Each of these in turn then subdivides into a wider range of harms. Different drugs score different results on each scale, and some are certainly going to do harm to others, even in a fully regulated, decriminalised setting.

    I find it hard to believe that someone of the calibre of a professor would not understand this.

  • Darren Reynolds 29th Jul '10 - 10:53pm

    Forgive me David. You may be correct as a matter of fact in your final conclusion and it may be an interesting point to debate, but you’re not really addressing the heart of the matter raised by Iain’s post.

    The prof writes:

    “The Cream Buns Act would remove all existing laws and regulations that proscribe behaviour that risks only the health or safety of mentally competent adult risk takers.”

    He then goes on to say that the set of laws criminalizing the sale or use of drugs pass his [implicit] Cream Buns Test.

    They most certainly do not.

    Whilst the evidence does indeed appear to show that de-criminalising some and possibly all drug use would improve our wellbeing, this is not the same thing as claiming that drug use only risks the health or safety of the drug taker.

    The risks go much wider than that, as Prof Nutt and the ACMD acknowledge. So long as you accept the ACMD’s research, which is peer reviewed and of a considerably and manifestly more robust nature than the Cream Bun Test, then you have to conclude that Prof Adams is wrong.

    Or more likely, Prof Adams is having a laugh.

  • Cllr Mark Wright 29th Jul '10 - 11:09pm

    @Simon Titley – I havent seen any evidence yet and so I do not support scrapping seatbelt laws… however I think a knee-jerk rejection of it as lunacy misses the point. You said “It increases the risk of injury to your fellow passengers” and I dont believe that’s true. It’s only recently that evidence has emerges that blurring the distinction between roads and pavements, and also removing pavement barriers, both improve safety records. This is the principle of shared space – instead of just plowing ahead without thinking, drivers are forced to constantly watch for pedestrians, and they drive slower and safer as a result. This may be counter-intuitive, but the statistics dont lie. Probably the best way to get drivers to drive safely would be to put a big spike in the middle of every driving wheel!

  • @Mark Wright

    “You said “It increases the risk of injury to your fellow passengers” and I dont believe that’s true.”

    It is totally true and backed up by numerous studies, experiments and just about every other supporting evidence imaginable. You could even test the theory yourself: Put a person or other heavy object on your back drivers side seat, steam down a clear road at 50mph then slam on the brakes. Your’ll feel the person on the back seat hit the back of your seat with a force equivalent to an elephant putting it’s foot in your back, your injuries could be significant but not as bad as the person in the back seat without their seat belt on, obviously.

  • Keith Browning 30th Jul '10 - 8:08am

    Definitions of drugs and safety belts.

    Almost anything you eat, drink or come into contact with can act like a ‘drug’ in the body.

    Safety belts share the same range of options and effectiveness. A rally driver uses a six point harness and plane passengers use lap belts. If either crashes who is more likely to survive?

    Attitudes to both drugs and seat belts are about society’s attitude to itself. Much of the wealth of the British Empire was built on the opium trade of the 18th and 19th century. Seat belts only became important when colour television first appeared on our screens and news programs started to become a more important part of western culture (1966). The highest number of accidents on our roads was in the 1930s – not rate per car but total accidents. The response was to invent the driving test not the seat belt.

    Drugs –
    1. a chemical substance that affects the processes of the mind or body.
    2. any chemical compound used in the diagnosis, treatment, or prevention of disease or other abnormal condition.
    3. a substance used recreationally for its effects on the central nervous system, such as a narcotic.

    Seat belt –

    A three-point seat belt.A seat belt, sometimes called a safety belt, is a harness designed to hold the occupant of an car or other vehicle in place if a collision occurs. Seat belts are intended to reduce injuries by stopping the wearer from hitting hard interior elements of the vehicle or from being thrown from the vehicle. In cars seat belts also prevent rear-seat passengers from crashing into those in the front seats.

    Lap belts are seat belts that go over the wearer’s hips. These were an earlier style of belt and are today less common in the developed world, being found mostly in passenger aircraft. Shoulder belts, or three-point belts, include a lap belt and a second belt going from one anchor point on the lap belt to a point over and behind the occupant’s shoulder. Three point harnesses were first made readily available in mass-produced vehicles by Volvo. Until recently shoulder belts were only available in the front seats of the cars, the back seats having only lap belts. Evidence of the potential for lap belts to cause separation of the lumbar vertebrae and the sometimes associated paralysis, or “seat belt syndrome”, has led to a revision of safety regulations in nearly all of the developed world requiring that all seats in a vehicle be equipped with three-point belts.

    Five-point harnesses are safer but more restrictive seat belts, typically found in child safety seats, and also in racing cars. The lap portion is connected to a belt between the legs and there are two shoulder belts, making a total of five points of attachment to the seat.

    Seats belts were first invented by George Cayley in the 1800’s. George invented many things in the early 19th century that had to be reinvented a 100 years later – like flight and the internal combustion engine. He was thought of as a great eccentric and would certainly been locked away for his own safety if he didn’t have friends in high places.

    He also just happened to be a Whig Member of Parliament.

  • Keith Browning 30th Jul '10 - 9:26am

    Parliament could debate the health & safety merits of original Coca Cola – with active coca extract – against the current sugary variety. Which side would the medical profession come down on that one?
    The humble and yet irresistable cream bun itself is a veritable timebomb. Full cream inside a dough of saturated fat, with added sugar and preservatives. Stored poorly in a warm atmosphere and this could be a secret weapon for the likes of the CIA.

    If we were to start again with a totally clean slate and everything in life was free again I might take my Liberal Freedom hat off to ban the following as being too dangerous for the general good.

    1. Chip fat as used in Yorkshire – southerners call it lard.
    2. Premier league football management
    3. Nightclubs in Nottingham, Sheffield and Newcastle, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights
    4. Cream buns purchased unwrapped from an independent petrol station on the South Circular Road, particularly in summer and if its late in the day.

  • There is another point worth mentioning on the drugs debate.

    If we are talking about risking the ‘health or safety of mentally competent adult risk takers’. Then how do you define mental competence?

    Maybe the first time somone takes a highly adictive drug such as Heroin they are in full control of their mental state, but surely there is a question over whether a severe addict can be said to be acting with sound judgement? I’m not saying this is really a legal definition of mental capacity but I’d like to here people’s own thoughts on it.

    If ywe do accept this as being the case would it not suggest that the Proffessors ‘cream bun test’ would mean that the first time someone took a drug then they should be allowed to do so, but that if they become addicted to it then there would be a case for crimilising their behaviour.

    So your left in a situation where you can allow someone to become addicted and then withdraw their right to their addiction- even if this does help people with an addiction it seems a pretty cruel way for the state to act!

  • Keith – in response to your comparison between rally drivers & planes, I don’t think that anyone would survive a collision at 30,000 feet even in a six point harness!

  • david thorpe 30th Jul '10 - 11:40am

    both should certainly be looked at, Im not someone who drives and therefore am reluctant to comment on the seat belts. but I dont think the assumption should be made that the leaglisation of drugs would automatically cause harm, or at leats more harm than alcohol causes, and the bas should be set at what is permitted now

  • James from Durham 30th Jul '10 - 1:36pm

    It is interesting to compare the laws on seatbelts with the law banning mobile phone use by drivers. The law on mobile phone use is not a “cream buns” case since the risk is mainly borne by others. Yet the former is generally complied with and the latter is routinely flouted.

  • david thorpe 30th Jul '10 - 2:00pm


    I dont understand half your post.

    Mill believed in the harm princiapl, if someone chooses to not weare a seatbelt is it likley to cause harm to others?

  • Isn’t the definition of harm by the state just as bad as the state defining what causes harm?

  • Andrew Suffield 30th Jul '10 - 8:56pm

    Then of course you need to consider that that person may have family and friends who will suffer as well.

    Ooh, I have a good one: the impact on the economy of people receiving 18 years of state-funded education and then getting themselves killed in a car accident. Should suicidal behaviour be limited to those whose tax payments have exceeded the state spending they have received?

    The “does not cause harm to others” concept is cute and sometimes interesting to think about, but does not work as a strict rule.

  • Since everyone here has spectacularly missed the point I am posting a link to Prof Adams blog which explains his view.
    I think that he shows that the seat belt law has cost lives, not saved them. The lives it has cost are those of pedestrians and cyclists.
    The series of open letters to the director of PACTS worth reading. He repeatedly challenges the Director to justify his claims of lives saved. The Director fails to do so.
    The whole of the blog is well worth reading. John Adams’s book “Risk” is a brilliant and entertaining exposition of Risk Compensation theory.

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