The government has given its clearest indication yet that it plans to change the law around the offence amid growing concern over the number of casualties linked to car occupants not wearing a seatbelt.
At the moment in England, Scotland and Wales failing to wear a seatbelt is subject only to a fine but in an answer to a parliamentary question, the Department for Transport said that it was “considering the merits” of introducing penalty points.
Road death figures for 2021 show that in 30% of all car occupant fatalities the victim was not wearing a seat belt. That is the highest proportion on record and a sharp increase from the 23% recorded in 2020. The government believes that harsher penalties for not wearing a seat belt could encourage more drivers and passengers to obey the law, and reduce casualties.
Katherine Fletcher MP, the former parliamentary under-secretary of state in the DfT said: “The Department for Transport knows that in 2021, in 30% of all car occupant fatalities recorded, seat belts were not worn. This is unacceptably high, and we have been considering options to tackle this including the potential merits of introducing penalty points. This might form part of the Department for Transports planned call for evidence on motoring offences.
Better enforcement needed
RAC road safety spokesman Simon Williams said introducing tougher rules would be welcomed but needed to be backed up with better enforcement. He said: “It’s irrefutable that seat belts save lives, yet the sad reality is that in 30% of fatal collisions a seat belt was not being worn. These stark figures underline just how important it is to buckle up in both the front and the rear of the car.
“Putting points on the licences of offenders would be a welcome move, but this must be accompanied by better enforcement. While up until this point offenders had to be caught not wearing a seat belt by a police officer, there is now technology on trial in the UK that can make the process far simpler and more effective.”
Police forces in England have begun testing a new type of enforcement camera system which can detect car occupants not wearing a seat belt, as well as spotting drivers using a mobile phone at the wheel. The van-mounted Acusensus unit uses multiple cameras to capture footage of passing vehicles. The system then analyses images for evidence of seat belt or phone offences and after being verified by a police officer, a warning letter or notice of intended prosecution is sent to the car’s owner.
In Wiltshire, where the system was first tested, it detected an incident once every six minutes in its first 64 hours in action. This included 512 people not wearing a seat belt.
Wearing a seat belt has been compulsory in the UK for drivers and front seat passengers since 1983 and for rear seat passengers since 1991. While offenders in the rest of the UK only face a fine of between £100 and £500, those in Northern Ireland are already subject to penalty points as well as a fine.