K. K. YONG’S letter, “Don’t be too hard on those who fail to use seat belt” (The Star, July 31), suggesting that lower penalties be imposed for not adhering to the seat belt law reflects a common belief that failure to wear a seat belt is a personal matter.
In my early career, I worked as a medical officer in an emergency department in Britain. This was when Britain did not have compulsory seat belt legislation. In fact, for a number of years after other countries including Malaysia implemented seat belt legislation, Britain had no such legislation because they held the stand that wearing a seat belt was a personal right.
My experience in the emergency department convinced me that not wearing seat belts was not a personal choice but a societal issue. We often had to deal with the injuries of drivers and passengers who were not wearing seat belts when they were involved in a road traffic accident. Our task might be to spend the rest of the night picking slivers of broken glass out of a person’s face after they had gone through the front windscreen.
Alternatively, we might have to arrange for the patient to go straight to the operating room because of serious head injury that even with urgent surgery might leave the patient brain-damaged.
We might also have patients going straight from the emergency department for spinal surgery which, if unsuccessful, would leave them paralysed from the waist, or even neck, down.
We doctors asked the question that if patients were not prepared to wear seat belts, should they expect healthcare which was largely, if not completely, funded by the taxpayer?
Our salaries were paid by the taxpayer and we too were taxpayers; and our tax was being used to pay for the care of patients who felt it was their personal right not to wear a seat belt. Of course, there would always be other patients waiting, some of whom we felt were more deserving of our time, while we dealt with these accident victims. They might include young children with breathing difficulties.
The other aspect was that some of these accident patients did not recover from their injuries and were left brain-damaged or paraplegic and the cost to society of looking after these disabled people for the rest of their life was huge. They often went back to the hospital for rehabilitation or with recurring medical complications from their accident and many were never well enough to work and contribute to society (meaning they were never able to pay back the cost they incurred to society in exercising their personal right).
Fortunately, Britain did eventually enact seat belt legislation after their effectiveness and cost benefit was clearly shown.
Failure to wear a seat belt, as Yong states, doesn’t cause accidents but it is more than a personal matter. Society bears the brunt when a person is injured or dies due to this failure.
PROF DR JACQUELINE HO
Deputy Dean (Academic Affairs) and Head of Paediatrics
Penang Medical College