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What about Ö?

Ted Balaker
May 27, 2004, 11:45am

Here are some reader comments on my anti seat belt law article, along with my respones: What about the children? How policy should address children has always been a gray area in libertarian theory. My argument applies to adults, as I noted in the article: But if an adult does something risky–like tightrope walking, smoking or driving without a seatbelt–that person alone is responsible for the consequences. What about enforcement problems? One reader used to be a judge and found seat belt laws difficult to enforce: The law [in Arizona] did not allow tickets solely for no seat belt ...Often motorists contested tickets when they were stopped because they claimed that they unbuckled after the patrolman pulled them over, and before he came up to the car. I always found them not guilty on that count when they used that defense, because my question was--how did the officer know whether they were buckled up as they weredriving? Though this ambiguity issue probably wouldn't be a big deal with primary enforcement laws (where cops can pull you over just because you weren't wearing a belt), it strikes me as a huge issue for secondary enforcement (which would affect 29 states). What about the fact that you choose to drive on public roads? Some think that since we drive on government roads we shouldn't complain when the government enforces the rules it wants to enforce. The problem here is the tacit acceptance of government provided infrastructure. Our choice to drive on public roads isn't like the choices we make it the marketplace. Except for very specific areas, government has essentially taken away our ability to choose to drive on anything but public roads. Few areas are as dominated by government as transportation policy, and we see the results in politicized decision making (nothing is more of a porkfest than transportation legislation) and technological backwardness. Compare the safety features of the car you drive (provided by the market) to the safety features of the road you drive on (provided by government). Property maintained roads would likely save many more lives than seat belt laws. And the most frequent criticism ... What about those of us who have to pay for unbuckled drivers? Some are uncomfortable with the nanny state aspect of seat belt laws, but will tolerate them because they don't want to pay for the risks unbuckled drivers take: [A]utomobile insurance is mandatory in the U.S. In this context, an overall increase in risk translates to increased cost, spread across the driving population. If I have to pay for people who don't buckle up, I want there to be fewer of them. And: [T]here are rational reasons to enforce the seat belt laws even if the only immediate benefit is to the irresponsible driver. For starters, if the driver is only injured the cost of medical treatment is NOT being paid for by the driver. His medical costs hit either my private insurance costs or, if he has no insurance, my taxes. Also the cost of supporting his family often falls on the community. It would help your argument if all irresponsible drivers were fully insured millionaires with in the final stages of terminal cancer. But since they are not, all the free individuals choosing to wear selt belts have an interest in forcing the irresponsible individuals to do the same. All good points. When everyone's forced to subsidize everyone else, it gets tough to emphasize personal responsibility. (On a related note a reader from Louisiana notes that in his state it's legal to ride a motorcycle without a helmet, but only if you get extra insurance). Of course the excusing of nanny-statism on health and insurance cost grounds would seem to excuse all sorts of awfulness. Join me on the slippery slope. What about fat people? Should we use laws to get them to put down their buckets of chicken? What about lazy people? Should we force them to exercise because it will make them less of a drain on the rest of us? Those whose lives would be saved because they are forced to buckle up would probably number a few thousand. (Although I think there are significant problems with the numbers) the CDC says that obesity accounts for something like 300,000 deaths per year. (NOTE: I don't think this would apply to smokers since their untimely deaths make them rather cheap as far as the rest of us are concerned.) Moreover, I would still rather have cops let the unbuckled be (besides most of us would buckle up even without laws ordering us to do so) and focus on the dangerous drivers. If someone doesn't wear a seat belt, drives into a telephone pole and suffers injuries worse than he would have if he had been wearing a seatbelt, that increased expense may very well be dispersed among us all. But what about that dangerous driver who smacks into a good driver? In this case the person doing the right thing has to endure the concentrated costs (including possibly death) of a bad driver's behavior. I'd rather have cops crack down on the dangerous drivers, even if it means ditching seat belt laws and enduring somewhat higher insurance rates (and I'm not yet convinced that seat belt laws lower our rates, anyhow). Plus, often the government will not allow insurance companies access to motor vehicle violation records that might increase rates for bad drivers. Private businesses can reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. Highways are a common area, which makes it tougher to keep out the riff raff. The solution to all this will probably include some way to make costly people pay their own way (perhaps some form of restitution). Finding a policy that works and is politically feasible is always the trick. In all policy areas, it's important to avoid mission creep and continue the drumbeat that laws should protect peaceful people from dangerous people, not careless people from themselves. Now go buckle up!

Ted Balaker is Producer


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