Exploring the Relational Domain: The seatbelt story

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
-John Donne (1572—1631)

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Different roles played by individuals and their place in society is central to the Can-Do Wisdom Framework.

A few years back I got into a bad habit of not always putting my seatbelt on when driving just locally on nearby back streets. It’s so quiet in my neighbourhood that it’s rare to see a police car and there’s not a lot of traffic anyway.

One day I took my Golden Retriever to the local vet for a checkup and out of habit I forgot to put on my seatbelt. On the way home I passed a police car parked in a side street. In 40 years of driving along this street at various times I have never seen a police car before this occasion nor since. Anyway we spotted each other at the same moment and although I managed to put my seat belt on by the time he pulled me over I couldn’t deny that I had not been wearing the belt when he first saw me.[1]

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Can-Do Wisdom Relational Domain

The patrolman got his knowledge that I wasn’t wearing a seat belt through his observation of me—that’s a ‘learn’ for him in his I Can quadrant and that’s part of his job. Nelson Highroads Dictionary shows “learn: to get knowledge; to gain skill; to make better or to make progress”.

As a policeman he is an agent of the law enforcement system (institute) so he is also part of the collective social systems in the We Do quadrant. Based on his training (learn) and his oath to administer the law, he is given the authority in his I Can quadrant to follow through (live) with his observation of an offence being committed and so of course his action in his I Do quadrant was to issue me with an on-the-spot-ticket for the fine (lead).

Thus he is at the same time a member of the collective as part of the law enforcement institution in the We Do quadrant as well as being an individual dealing with a member of the public.

On my part I did learn a lesson from the experience. There’s also a warning sound which I hear (learn) in my car until I buckle up and I drive with the seat belt on (live) and others can see my correct behavior (lead).

Peter Joubert — Seatbelt Change Instigator

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Prof Peter Joubert AM (1924—2015)

Seatbelts were one of the car industry’s first major safety devices but wearing them wasn’t always compulsory and still isn’t in some states of the USA.

Vehicle seat belts started appearing in cars in the 1950s as options in some makes or as a standard feature in others. Actually seat belts in one form or another goes back to the 1800s, prior to the motor car.

Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin designed the modern three-point seatbelt system in 1959. In place of the lap belt he wanted a safety restraint that could be operated easily with one hand which would stop people being violently thrown out of cars or smashed into steering columns in an impact.

During the 1960s Victoria’s roads were among the most dangerous in the world. Each Monday morning the daily newspapers would announce the “lottery” results: the list of names and ages of the 18 or 20 road death victims over the weekend. It was mayhem but most people just thought “it can’t happen to me!”

There was clear evidence to show that those people who wore seat belts had a greater chance of survival in a crash. But surveys showed few bothered to wear existing seatbelts.

One person with a long-time commitment to the mandatory wearing of seatbelts was the late Peter Joubert, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Melbourne. In World War Two he had firsthand experience of being saved from becoming a paraplegic or worse by wearing a seatbelt. This was during his initial training to be a Royal Australian Air Force fighter pilot when he was involved in a crash landing. The Tiger Moth aircraft ended up-side-down with Joubert still safely strapped in his seat. He later went on to fly with No. 76 Squadron RAAF in New Guinea.

In 1968 Joubert was an expert witness for Victorian Parliamentary Committee on Road Safety which resulted in a recommendation for the Government to introduce legislation for the compulsory wearing of seatbelts.

It was a radical proposal. No other government anywhere in the world had attempted to force car users to wear seatbelts. The opposition was widespread with claims such as:

  • Such a law is a breach of civil liberties.
  • Seatbelts will encourage even more reckless driving.
  • A car occupant trapped in water or fire would not release himself in time.
  • Seatbelts are a danger for pregnant women.
  • A belt presses on the stomach and worsens an occupant’s stomach ailment.
  • On a hot day, it presses sticky clothes uncomfortably against the sweating body, or crushes a fashionable dress.

Initiatives were required on two fronts: a change to a culture that accepted road deaths were a fact of life—the current worldview—and the need for political will to introduce new laws.

A campaign instigated by Harry Gordon, editor of Melbourne’s Sun News Pictorial in November 1970 was called “Let’s Declare War on 1034.” It’s aim was to create awareness of the scale of road deaths and keep the figure below the number of deaths from the previous year. While the number of road deaths in 1970 ultimately reached 1061 the campaign went on for several years and did make an impact.

Blocking the legislation were two powerful politicians—the Premier, Sir Henry Bolte and the chief secretary of the Legislative Council Sir Arthur Rylah—who personally disliked wearing seatbelts. It took a visit by Rylah to the spinal unit at the Austin Hospital to become aware that the quadriplegics in the wards wouldn’t be there if they had been wearing seatbelts. He was finally convinced of the need for the legislation and in December 1970 Victoria became the first government in the world to introduce a law requiring the use of seatbelts in cars.

In the first year the death toll was down by 13 percent—a remarkable reduction. Other Australian states followed soon after and by January 1, 1972 the wearing of belts was compulsory throughout Australia. Other countries also introduced similar laws.

Today, Victoria is one of the safest places in the world for road users with many advances besides seatbelts contributing to the safer environment. In 2015 the number of drivers and passengers killed was 179 with most deaths being on country roads. The long-term goal is zero.

We owe a lot to Peter Joubert and others for their scholarship, commitment and leadership for change – examples of operating in all four quadrants of the Can-Do Wisdom Relational Domain.

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[1] Of the thousands of drivers who are picked up by police in Australia for not wearing a seatbelt many say they don’t need one because they are only travelling a short distance. But statistics show that almost half of accidents that cause serious injury or fatalities happen within five kilometres of home.

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One Comment

  1. Hi Adrian. I enjoyed reading your trip down memory lane re the introduction of seat belts. I liked the way you put your own (honest) experience into the change/leadership scenario. Your referral to instances involving the quadrant was also useful
    Many thanks for the opportunity to read your work. I am finding it very interesting and will delve further into writings. Best regards, Geoff

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