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Mandatory Seat Belts

Mandatory seatbelt (and helmet) laws do not generally arouse my passion, for two reasons. First, although I consider them paternalistic invasions of my autonomy they also have no immediate or practical effect on me: I use seatbelts and helmets by choice, as do most people I know. Second, given the very real benefits they provide and the relatively low costs they entail — and given that, on such bases only one state in the Union currently does not mandate the use of seatbelts — I consider them largely a fait accompli. That doesn’t make me agree with such laws or embrace them; it merely makes worrying about them a poor use of my time and energy.

That said, I happen now to live in that one state (New Hampshire) and, when the issue arises — as it does from time to time — proponents of such laws tend to be particularly dismissive of any concerns about civil liberties, to characterize those who raise such concerns as egocentric simpletons, and to trivialize their opposition as merely a childish and irrational reaction to “being told what to do.” That dismissive and disrespectful tone does stir my passion. This letter was written in response to such an editorial in the local newspaper, Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, NH. It was submitted to Foster’s the day the editorial ran and published as an “Editorial Response” a couple of weeks later.

4 November 2003

I use a seatbelt. Always. I won’t drive my car until myself and all my passengers are buckled in. I think everyone else should do the same.

But I disagree with your editorial that they should be forced to by government fiat.

Notwithstanding the dismissive tone with which you describe the “Free Staters” and a “libertarian dislike for government”, there is a legitimate and important principle at the root of opposition to such measures: the freedom to choose your own fate. To belittle the defense of political liberty as merely “not wanting to be told what to do” is disrespectful and ignorant.

There are many things people do that are potentially bad for them. Some smoke. Some drink coffee. Some drink alcohol. Some eat too much fat. Some get too little exercise. Some race cars, or jump out of airplanes, or scuba dive, or rock-climb, or hike in the mountains solo. Some drive cars on the public thoroughfares, an activity in which tens of thousands of people die each year; some ride motorcycles, which is even more dangerous. Some play football or hockey or soccer, or baseball, or they ski or surf or box or hang-glide. Most of those activities have no particular redeeming social value beyond personal satisfaction. What, in principle, is the difference between the government prohibiting driving without seatbelts and government prohibiting those and myriad other hazardous activities?

The answer is: nothing. Mandating seatbelt use would undoubtedly save lives, but so would mandating exercise, mandating low-fat diets, prohibiting smoking or drinking, banning auto racing or sky-diving — and on and on. We are not currently in danger of having most of those activities banned — except, perhaps, smoking — but that is only because most of those are still too popular or too obscure to be politically vulnerable. Bans on every one of them have been proposed either seriously (tobacco, alcohol, fast food, boxing) or less so by some person or group who believes they are infused with a special insight and righteousness unavailable to the rest of us.

People who value free speech — and particularly the press — understand why it is important to defend even the ugliest kinds of speech against “reasonable” censorship. Why, then, are they blind when other freedoms are at issue? Mandatory seatbelt use seems like such a high-value and low-cost regulation that anyone who opposes it seems extreme. But it is the exception that undermines the principle. If the government can regulate that personal behavior, why not the next one, and the next one, ad infinitum? It is the existence of such principles — the existence of boundaries government is not allowed to cross — that keeps us free from a tyranny of the majority. Once they are breached to usurp the simplest freedom, our remaining freedoms are protected only by fickle political will. And, as free-speech advocates well know, that protection is at best unreliable and, in the long run, is no protection at all.

As for the specious question, “if mandatory seatbelt use for minors is a good idea, why isn’t it a good idea for adults?”: because they are adults. Children are protected and restricted — a lot by government, even more by their own families — because they are presumed too inexperienced and too immature to exercise rational judgment about their own interests and about their responsibilities to others. As they grow up, we gradually relax those protections and restrictions: at some point we let them cross the street on their own, then stay home alone; at some point we allow them to handle money, then to work a restricted schedule at “safe” jobs, then to drive, then to quit school, join the work-force, and make contracts, then to face punishment in the adult penal system, then to drink; at some point we allow them to have sex, to get married, to vote. This is the process of growing up, of becoming an adult: the process of growing into your freedoms and learning to exercise them responsibly. And once you are an adult, those freedoms are yours to exercise, not your parents’ and not the government’s.

Seat belt use should be universal, but it should be so because we convince everyone to buckle up, not because we force them to through the police powers of government. I, like you, would support the governor if he were to “choose to use the moral authority of his office to make a difference in highway safety.”

But only his moral authority, not his legal authority. That goes too far.

© Copyright 2003, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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