Automobile seatbelts have been mandatory in Ontario for about a quarter of a century. There can hardly be a person in the province who hasn't seen the films of unbelted crash dummies smashing into windshields. Surely by now everyone knows that seatbelts save lives.
So why on earth is Jean-Serge Brisson going to court, probably this month, to challenge the seatbelt provisions of the Highway Traffic Act?
Brisson, a radiator repairman in Embrun, Ontario, thinks seatbelt statistics are an example of everyone "knowing" what just ain't so. In 1975, he had a serious accident. Although ordinarily a seatbelt wearer, he had neglected to buckle up that day. He was thrown from the driver's seat as his car flipped over. He still keeps the wrecked vehicle as a memento. The roof over the driver's seat is crushed in below the level of the steering wheel. He’s convinced that had he been held in place by a seatbelt, he would certainly have died.
Since then, Brisson has never worn a seatbelt. In 1989, he was fined. He refused to pay, so they suspended his driver's license. He has now been charged "about 13 times" for driving while under suspension. Last November, a justice of the peace, exasperated by Brisson's insistence that he is an innocent victim of an insupportable law, threw him in jail. He’s now seeking a new trial.
Like everyone else, Brisson has seen the films of the crash dummies. He concedes that in certain types of accidents, seatbelts may save lives. However, in others, seatbelts can kill. He thinks he should be free to choose which type of risk he prefers to run. His argument will be based in part on the right to liberty and security of the person guaranteed in section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This is certainly not the first time anyone has made this argument. From 1985 to 1989, there was a flurry of similar challenges in at least five provinces. The courts uniformly convicted the unbelted drivers.
I’ve always worn a seat belt myself, law or no law, because I thought I’d be safer. I’m quite prepared to let Mr. Brisson do otherwise if he chooses. But recently, an acquaintance brought to my attention some new studies that have made me wonder which of us is making the wiser choice.
Elliott Levine, a philosophy professor, and Alex Basilevsky, a professor of mathematics and statistics, both at the University of Winnipeg, analyzed Manitoba accident statistics from the pre-and post-mandatory seatbelt legislation eras, obtaining access to data not generally available to the public.
According to their 1990 report, "The data presently warrants the strong claim that actual net outcomes of seat belt use are negative, that the probability of both fatality and more serious injury is significantly increased for seat belt wearers."
Levine continued his investigation using U.S. accident statistics, and reported in the September 1999 issue of Mature Medicine Canada that seat belts do not save lives. In a summary fact sheet faxed to me, Levine goes further, claiming that U.S. seatbelt laws "can be linked to current net annual loss of thousands of occupant deaths, millions of spine injuries." The increased fatality rates affect primarily sober motorists, women, and anyone over 65.
According to Levine, Transport Canada seems aware of these disproportionate risks of fatal or major injury for particular groups, if not an overall threat to public safety. In its 1993 Road Safety Annual Report, it said, "The finding…supports the conclusion that the seat-belts themselves are contributing to the higher risk of injury to women and seniors."
Levine is not the only dissident in this field. Australian Christopher Morris, a retired teacher of mechanical engineering, has arrived at similar conclusions after studying 1996 U.S. data. He segregated data from alcohol-affected and non-alcohol-affected accidents, as well as urban from rural accidents. He concludes that for sober drivers, especially in cities (where side-impact accidents are more common than high-speed, head-on crashes), seatbelts may be causing thousands of needless deaths annually.
Morris’ analysis is published on his web site at www.barvennon.com/seatbelt.html, where he also critiques other leading seatbelt literature, pro and con. It’s thought-provoking reading.
This research is of course too recent to have been of assistance in any of the 1985-1989 legal challenges. Levine has been prepared to give expert testimony on his findings several times during the 1990s, but each time the Crown inexplicably decided to stay the charges, contrary to the accused’s wishes.
Although the whole thing smells a little too much of conspiracy theory for my tastes, it’s not hard to imagine that there might be many individuals and institutions with a vested interest in ensuring that the conventional wisdom on seatbelts remains undisturbed. Liability lawyers would have a field day if it turned out our legislatures, car manufacturers and insurers have been forcing or encouraging us, even unwittingly, to kill ourselves all these years.
Meanwhile, in researching this article,
I’ve learned of other individuals in Manitoba and Nova Scotia who are continuing
to fight this issue in court. One has to admire their spirit, if nothing
else. And who knows? Maybe some day their persistence in asserting
their freedom of choice will reveal who the real crash dummies are after
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