Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Second Report




COM(00) 815

Draft Directive on the compulsory use of safety belts in vehicles under 3.5 tonnes.

Legal base:Article 71 (1) EC; co-decision; qualified majority voting
Basis of consideration:Minister's letter of 22 May 2002
Previous Committee Report:HC 28-vi (2000-01), paragraph 3 (14 February 2001) and HC 28-xiii (2000-01), paragraph 3 (2 May 2001)
To be discussed in Council:17 June 2001
Committee's assessment:Legally and politically important
Committee's decision:Cleared, but further information requested


  13.1  The compulsory wearing by both adults and children of fitted safety belts in cars, goods vehicles and passenger­carrying vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes is required by Council Directive 91/671/EEC. However, the Directive allows Member States to legislate for certain exemptions. In the UK the main exemptions are: people holding a medical certificate; people instructing holders of provisional licences while the holder is performing a manoeuvre which includes reversing; drivers of taxis and private hire vehicles; and people conducting driving tests. The provisions on compulsory wearing of seat belts for children are especially complicated, as under the original Directive different requirements could apply in different Member States. For example, in Sweden young children are not allowed to travel at all in a car unless restrained by an appropriate child restraint. In the UK, on the other hand, no child may be carried unrestrained in the front seat of any vehicle, and no child may be carried unrestrained in the rear seat of a car if there is an appropriate restraint available anywhere in the car. However, in the UK, if no child restraint is available, the child can still be carried.

  13.2  The previous Committee noted that the Government and some other Member States had concerns about the proposed text. The Committee decided to leave the proposal uncleared and asked the Minister to provide a cost­benefit analysis of the Government's policy of retaining its flexibility in some of the elements of the proposed Directive.

    Minister's letter

  13.3  The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Department for Transport, Local government and the Regions (Mr David Jamieson), has provided an update on the negotiations. The Minister also provides some information on the costs and benefits of passengers using the appropriate restraint.

  13.4  The Minister says that one of the UK's major concerns was how best to restrain the smallest children in minibuses and coaches. The working proposal had been that in buses and coaches, all seated occupants must use seat belts, or an appropriate child restraint if available. The text now refers only to children aged three and over, and to adults. According to the Minister, this removes the Government's concern about requiring the smallest children to use an adult belt if a child restraint was not available. The Minister says that the safety benefits of the smallest children wearing an adult belt are unknown, but whereas the Commission considers research on this unnecessary, the UK and several other Member States believe such research is essential.

  13.5  The Government's second concern was the proposal for a time-limit on the exemption for children over three years from using an adult belt in cars for 'short and occasional journeys' if an appropriate child restraint is not available. The Minister comments that recent discussions have covered the length of the transition period before the new law would come into effect; the rule that children under three years of age must have a proper child restraint; and the proposal that children between the ages of three and twelve and under 150cm in height must have a proper restraint for their age and size. An exemption has been offered for "short and occasional journeys" which is limited to six years. The Minister comments:

"It is acknowledged that circumstances arise where occasionally, due to unforeseen circumstances, a driver may find himself transporting children additional to his normal load for whom the appropriate restraints could be expected to be used. The Presidency and the Commission do not want to allow a loophole that has potential to be widely exploited and have now said they wish to limit this exemption to six years. The Government considers this quite wrong since it is not a transition provision that can be time limited. It will remain important that drivers consider the wider safety and security of a child, and in the appropriate circumstances should be permitted to carry an extra child using an adult seat belt if there is no alternative transport for him/her at all. Transposition of the Directive into UK law would have to allow for this and in the course of the necessary consultation on regulations, we shall seek a formulation that reflects the spirit of the Directive."

  13.6  The Minister also says that the Government supports three proposals that have remained broadly unchanged from the original text: the requirement that rear­facing child seats should not be used on a seat with frontal air bags unless the air bag has been deactivated; that all child restraints must conform with UN/ECE Regulation 44103 or be better, although national standards may continue to be used for five years; and that passengers on buses and coaches must be informed of the obligation to wear seat belts by one or more means.

  13.7  The Department has provided a helpful comparison of the current legal position in the UK with that proposed. This is reproduced as table one. The Minister says that the case for passengers using the appropriate restraint has been demonstrated. The Minister recognises that large families will be most affected, but concludes that the cost of acquiring child seats and booster cushions should not be a financial burden. As regards enforcement, the Minister adds that:

"There might also be emergency occasions when the total number of passengers will exceed the number of seat belts available and we shall want to provide some sort of protection against indiscriminate prosecution. This could perhaps be done by specifying in statute mitigating circumstances which might be regarded as 'reasonable cause' not to observe the law on a particular occasion."

  13.8  The Minister complains about the detailed involvement of the Commission in this area of public policy. He says:

"I have to say that the detail of this particular Directive has raised questions of subsidiarity for us. It is appropriate, I think, for Europe to provide a general steer on road safety matters and to foster co-operative and collaborative work, particularly of a technical nature. Moreover, in the Single Market, there is a strong case for common legislative standards for safety features of vehicle design. However, on this Directive we have found ourselves getting into the harmonisation of laws on the behaviour of occupants of vehicles intended for their own safety not for that of others. There are also issues of enforcement and penalties. On the whole, these areas for legislation would be more appropriate at the level of member states. Most of the measures in this Directive are acceptable on grounds of road safety but we shall (John Spellar will) be making these points about subsidiarity in the Transport Council, partly to alert the Commission to our views before they consider future legislative proposals on road safety."



  13.9  The Spanish Presidency is seeking to reach political agreement on this Directive at the 17 June Council.

  13.10  A number of the measures on improving passenger safety have widespread support. However, the Government has criticised some aspects of the proposal. For example, the Government has argued against having small children use adult seat belts. The Government would prefer to wait until the safety benefits have been evaluated. The Government has also argued that the text should take into account the common practice of occasionally carrying an extra child passenger on short trips. Progress has been made in addressing these concerns during recent negotiations.

  13.11  However, we also note the Government's serious concerns about subsidiarity in respect of this proposal, and will expect the Government to make its points about subsidiarity robustly in the Council.

  13.12  The previous Committee requested a detailed cost-benefit analysis in respect of the particular measures the Government objected to. The Minister has indicated that the costs for the average family of implementing the proposed measures are unlikely to be a financial burden. We understand that a detailed assessment of the costs and benefits will be provided when the text is finalised. We reaffirm the request and call for the Minister to indicate the number of lives which would be saved, serious and minor casualties avoided and the costs to an average family of adopting the measures in the proposal.

  13.13  We understand that negotiations have continued recently, and that further changes to the text may bring it more into line with the Government's position. We request the Minister to provide an update soon after the 17 June Council.

  13.14  Meanwhile, we are content to clear the document.




Current UK legislation

Proposals in draft Directive (3 year transition period)

Children under 3 may only be carried in the front of cars and goods vehicles if they are in the appropriate restraint. In the rear, they may be unrestrained if no child restraint available.

Children under 3 may not travel in cars (other than taxis) and goods vehicles unless using the appropriate child restraint.

UK requires children 3 to 11 years to use the appropriate child restraint in cars and goods vehicles if available. If not available then they must travel in the rear and use the adult belt, where that is fitted. Children under 11 but over 150 cms height may use the adult belt.

For cars (other than taxis) and goods vehicles where seat belts are fitted, children 3 years to 150 cms (4' 11") in height shall use child restraint. Those over 150 cms may use the adult belt. For exemptions see below.

Derogation to drop height threshold (ie to move up to adult belt) to 135 cms (4' 5") if wanted.

Air bags. No legislation. But UK publicises that rear-facing restraints should not be used up against frontal airbags.

Rear-facing child restraints not to be used in seats protected by a frontal air bag unless airbag deactivated.

UK requires child restraints to comply with any of the versions of UN-ECE44 or other national standards.

Child restraints must be type approved to UN-ECE 44.03 standard or its successors. 5 years to phase out old restraints.

UK requires drivers and front seat occupants of mini-buses and coaches to wear seat belts where they are fitted. Rear seat passengers must use seat belts where provided in minibuses under 3.5 tonnes. No wearing requirement for rear seat passengers in coaches due to driver liability issue.

(Currently, seat belts must be fitted if children are carried. New fitting regulations from Oct 2001 will require all such vehicles to be fitted with seat belts (except for vehicles designed to carry standing passengers)).

All drivers and passengers over 3 years in mini-buses and coaches to wear seat belts or child restraints where provided while seated and vehicle in motion. Adult belt to be used if no child restraint available. Research required on the optimal means of securing children in these vehicles.

Passengers to be informed of wearing requirement when seated and vehicle in motion by audio/visual means or signs or pictograms.


No specific exemptions because the UK requires children aged 3 and over to use an adult belt where a child restraint is unavailable. For under 3s (except in the front where a child restraint is mandatory) there is no alternative to a child restraint and therefore they can be carried unrestrained (nevertheless wearing rates for this age group are 95% plus).

Neither UK legislation nor the 1991 EU Directive limit the numbers of passengers to the number of restraints available. (However, other UK legislation deals with issues of over-capacity or carrying passengers in an unsafe manner.)

UK legislation and 1991 Directive provides general exemptions to deal with medical conditions, specific practical situations (such as reversing) and for the emergency services.


Specific exemptions, when adult belt in rear to be used by children 3 years to 150 cms as the alternative:

3.  for short and occasional trips when a child restraint is unavailable;

4.  for cases where the fitment of 2 child restraints prevents the fitment of a third in the rear seat of a vehicle;

5.  for carriage in taxis (as mentioned above) when child restraints may not always be available. Applies also to hire cars and hotel courtesy vehicles.

After a 6 year transition (to allow for publicity), passenger numbers limited to the number of restraints available (ie no-one can be un-restrained, except for taxi passengers).

General exemptions carried over from the 1991 Directive.

Source: Department for Transport

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