Do Seatbelt Laws Save Lives?

Regulators should target dangerous drivers

We know that seat belts save lives, but what about seat belt laws?

One year ago Illinois began enforcing a tougher, “primary enforcement” law, which allows cops to pull over those whose only offense is not buckling up. Police officers set up special checkpoints and enforcement zones, and doled out 43,000 more tickets than the previous year. The results: seat belt use is up 9 percent and, most importantly, there were 63 fewer automobile fatalities. Sounds like a success.

But are streets getting safer because of the new law, or has the law simply jumped in front of long developing social trend? After all, Illinois’ streets have been getting safer for a long time. In 1982 there were 2.51 highway fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Twenty years later the fatality rate fell to 1.34, an impressive 47 percent drop which preceded the new law.

Most states have enjoyed progressively safer streets, often regardless of the harshness of their seatbelt laws. In 2002, of the 10 safest states, five had primary enforcement laws and five did not. Of the top five, only one had primary enforcement. And New Hampshire, the only state with no seat belt law, had nation—s third safest streets. In other words, the link between tough seat belt laws and lives saved is more tenuous than politicians let on.

So why waste cops’ time with seatbelt laws? After all, laws shouldn’t protect careless people from themselves, they should protect the peaceful from the dangerous.

If an adult does something risky-like tightrope walking, smoking or driving without a seatbelt-that person alone is responsible for the consequences. And since drivers who don’t buckle up aren’t making anyone else less safe, laws that bear down on these people don’t make other motorists any safer either. Yes it’s tragic when someone dies because he refused to wear a seatbelt, but it’s much more tragic when a reckless driver kills innocent people.

Some of us decry the paternalism of seat belt laws, but such nannying doesn’t just make us less free. If it distracts law enforcement from more important duties, it can also make us less safe. When government assumes many duties, it’s tougher to do the important ones right.

While an officer takes time to give the seatbelt scofflaw a scolding and a ticket, plenty of other drivers embark on the kind of harebrained maneuvering that often ends with a reckless driver colliding into a good driver. It’s these red-light-running, left-turn-at-any-cost daredevils who enrage and endanger good drivers.

Officials are more on the mark when they call for enforcement of drunk driving laws. But here again law should focus on recklessness, whether it’s encouraged by alcohol, fatigue, or high-speed lipstick application.

So is Illinois truly better off for having issued 43,000 more seatbelt tickets or would the effort spent on seat belt checkpoints and enforcement zones been better spent protecting good drivers from bad?

Some argue that seat belt laws do benefit good drivers-for those who refuse to belt themselves in may stick the rest of us with higher insurance and health care costs. But excusing nannying on such grounds would excuse all sorts of awfulness. Those who eat too much and move too little cost our nation much more than those who refuse to buckle up, yet most of us would consider it absurd if laws forced chubby people away from the fridge and onto the treadmill.

The good news is that most people do buckle up. In Illinois, about 83 percent of motorists use seatbelts, a decision probably based less on government nagging and more on a simple understanding of the safety benefits. After all, the word is out-seatbelts make you safer. Why wage an ever-intensifying campaign against the remaining holdouts?

We must accept that-even when armed with all the facts-some people will still choose risky behavior. Instead of saving us from ourselves, regulators should take a deep breath, allow beltless motorists to put themselves at risk, and go hassle the dangerous drivers.

Ted Balaker is the Jacob’s Fellow at Reason Foundation.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.

Ted is the director of Can We Take a Joke?, a Korchula Productions feature documentary about the collision between comedy and outrage culture featuring comedians such as Gilbert Gottfried, Penn Jillette, Jim Norton, Lisa Lampanelli, and Adam Carolla. Ted is producing Little Pink House, a Korchula Productions feature narrative about about Susette Kelo's historic fight to save her beloved home and neighborhood. The film stars two-time Academy Award nominee Catherine Keener (Capote, Being John Malkovich, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and Emmy nominee Jeanne Tripplehorn (Big Love, The Firm, Basic Instinct).

Ted produced the award-winning shorts The Conversation and Cute Couple. He is an executive producer on the feature documentary Honor Flight, and produced the film's first trailer, which attracted more than 4.5 million views. The Honor Flight premiere attracted an audience of more than 28,000 and set the Guinness World Record for largest film screening in history.

Ted is a founding member of ReasonTV, where he produced hundreds of videos and documentary shorts, including Raiding California, which introduced a nationwide audience to the Charles Lynch medical marijuana case.

Ted is co-creator of The Drew Carey Project, a series of documentary shorts hosted by Drew Carey, and creator of the comedic series Don't Cops Have Better Things to Do? and Nanny of the Month.

His ReasonTV contributions have been featured by The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, Fox News Channel, and on the he John Stossel Special Bailouts and Bull, a first-of-its-kind joint project between ABC News and ReasonTV.

During Ted's tenure, ReasonTV received the Templeton Freedom Award for Innovative Media and in 2008 Businessweek recognized his short Where's My Bailout? (created with Courtney Balaker) as among the best of bailout humor.

Prior to joining Reason, Ted spent five years producing at ABC Network News, producing hour-long specials and 20/20 segments on topics ranging from free speech to addiction.

Ted's written work has appeared in dozens of publications, including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Reason magazine, The Washington Post, and USA TODAY. He is the author or co-author of 11 studies on topics ranging from urban policy to global trade, and his research has been presented before organizations such as the Mont Pelerin Society and the American Economic Association.

Ted is co-author (with Sam Staley) of the book The Road More Traveled (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), which Chapman University's Joel Kotkin says "should be required reading, not only for planners and their students, but for anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive."

Ted has appeared on many radio and television programs, including ABC World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News, and has interviewed hundreds of thinkers and innovators, ranging from X Prize recipient and private spaceflight pioneer Burt Rutan to Templeton Prize-winning biologist and philosopher Francisco Ayala.

Ted graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California, Irvine with degrees in political science and English.