Unbuckling Seat Belt Laws

Why waste cops' time with seat belts?

Who’s the bigger threat to your safety, a murderer or someone who attempts suicide? The answer is obvious, and we’d certainly jeer any mayor who suggested lowering a city’s death toll by cracking down on suicides. Yet something strange happens when death comes to the highway. Politicians lock arms with law enforcement, and come up with campaigns like “Click It or Ticket,” which began Monday and aims to reduce highway fatalities through stricter seat belt law enforcement. Suddenly, the murder-suicide distinction vanishes, and it’s perfectly acceptable to reduce deaths by punishing those who put only themselves at risk.

Like other do-gooder efforts that plead with us to turn off our TVs or put down our cigarettes, Click It or Ticket rolls around once every year (May 24 to June 6). But unlike many other campaigns, CIOT doesn’t stop with pleading. Cops from over 12,000 law enforcement agencies scope out violators, set up checkpoints and mete out fines as high as $200. In order to emphasize the seriousness of their intentions, they’ve even adopted the hallmark of all ham-fisted safety crusades—zero tolerance. As one police chief put it: “America should be on notice—Click It or Ticket. No exceptions. No excuses. No warnings.”

But 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. CIOT supporters figure that since so many people die because they refuse to wear seatbelts, the government could save many lives by strapping them in with laws. The implicit rationale is that all of last year’s 43,220 highway deaths were equally tragic.

But 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. We should be allowed to ruin our own lives, but we shouldn’t be allowed to ruin the lives of others. So, 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. Public policy should not concern itself with decreasing all highway deaths, but with decreasing the deaths of innocents.

Even though fans of individual liberty often (and rightly) decry the paternalism embedded in seatbelt laws, most Americans take little offense at such state-sponsored nannying. However, nannying does not just make us less free; when it distracts law enforcement from its proper role, it can also make us less safe. When government assumes many duties, it’s tougher to do the important ones right.

Government 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, general stupidity or high-speed lipstick application.

Forty-nine states have seatbelt laws, and in many cases, the laws allow officers to pull over motorists whose only crime is not wearing a seatbelt. While the 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.

And seat belt laws come with their own set of unintended consequences, which further complicates the principle that policy should protect the peaceful people from the dangerous. Seat belt laws may make drivers and children safer, but economists such as Christopher Garbacz suggest that greater safety can make drivers more comfortable with dangerous driving, which puts the lives of more innocents—like pedestrians, cyclists and other passengers—in jeopardy. Risk assessment researchers have long pondered this paradox, and some have even suggested (only half jokingly) that the best way to promote cautious driving would be to attach a twelve-inch buck knife to all steering wheels.

Of course, the government’s crusade to convert the unbuckled does not stop with seatbelt laws. For decades, mandates have forced automakers to take up the cause. At one point, interlocks actually prevented drivers from starting their cars if their seatbelts weren’t snapped on. Public outrage spurred Congress to outlaw such mandates, but the crusade continued.

Today government-mandated lights, chimes and text messages hector drivers when they turn the ignition, and often all the ringing and flashing doesn’t stop when the car starts. In many models, chime and light seatbelt reminders can persist for up to five minutes, and safety pushers have even decided to take another stab at interlocks. A proposal before Congress would up the agitation ante by mandating “entertainment interlocks,” where drivers could listen to the stereo only if they buckled up.

The good news is that most of us do buckle up. About 80 percent of Americans use seatbelts, a decision probably based less on government nagging than on a simple understanding of the safety benefits. After all, the word is out—seatbelts make you safer. We get it. Why wage an ever-intensifying campaign against the remaining holdouts?

Perhaps one day regulators will understand 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.