Personal Liberty Concerns Stall New Seat Belt Law

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), three of every five unrestrained people who died in motor vehicle accidents in 1997 would have survived if they'd been wearin

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), three of every five unrestrained people who died in motor vehicle accidents in 1997 would have survived if they'd been wearing seat belts. The Ohio Department of Public Safety estimates that buckling up increases the chance of surviving a crash by 45 percent.

The decision to not buckle up also carries a financial cost. Auto accidents cost more than $50 billion per year in lost productivity and higher insurance premiums for employers and $14.3 billion per year in medical treatment, 85 percent of which is borne by society through health insurance and public assistance programs. Medical costs for unbuckled crash victims are 50 percent higher than for those who are buckled.

To save lives and minimize these costs, 17 states and the District of Columbia have enacted primary enforcement seat belt legislation, laws that allow officers to stop and ticket drivers solely for violation of seat belt mandates. Under secondary enforcement laws, such as Ohio's, officers can issue tickets to unrestrained drivers and front seat passengers only if the car has been stopped for another infraction.

Nearly all of the primary enforcement states reported significant increases in seat belt usage, with some claiming jumps of 10 to 30 percentage points, when changing from secondary enforcement. North Carolina's Click It or Ticket program, an aggressive enforcement and education effort, has raised usage 83 percent in that state.

Influenced by these successes, Jon Peterson, R-Delaware, has introduced legislation that would allow primary enforcement of Ohio's seat belt law.

The legislation would undoubtedly save lives and money, although proponents of primary enforcement, like the state attorneys general who calculated the financial impact of smoking, might have overstated these savings by ignoring that death precludes future healthcare consumption. Additionally, when citing the financial impact to society of not buckling up, primary enforcement proponents often include all costs associated with unrestrained victims.

Many of these "costs," however, don't represent outflows from society as a whole but rather redistributions to other members of society — such as healthcare company workers and shareholders — that are eventually re-circulated.

But the magnitude of the financial impact of buckling up, overstated or not, shouldn't determine whether the government dictates citizens' decisions. Our society is based, to a great degree, on individual rights and self-determination.

The boundaries of this liberty have generally been drawn where our decisions directly affect others. Laws prohibiting murder, assault, rape, theft and libel protect us from such direct impact, as do building codes and product safety standards.

But we don't generally consider the financial costs to society of individual decisions when limiting autonomy. In response to public outcry, lawmakers raised the speed limit, even though 55 mph has been proven to save lives and money. In ever-growing numbers, we drive sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks, even though these vehicles, which comprise less than 30 percent of all passenger vehicles, are responsible for 50 percent of accident fatalities and 60 percent of side-impact fatalities.

We even ride motorcycles without helmets, even though helmets reduce brain injuries by 67 percent and fatalities by 35 percent.

Unlike laws that would regulate these risky and societally costly activities, however, seat belt mandates are politically easy for lawmakers to pass. More than 70 percent of Americans already buckle up, and wearing a seat belt doesn't require drastic behavioral changes.

In addition to limiting the autonomy of drivers, Peterson's proposed legislation could also encourage unwarranted police intrusion. The bill allows law enforcement officers to stop any vehicle "for the sole purpose of determining whether" a seat belt violation has occurred. Officers need not witness such a violation or have any reason to believe one has occurred before pulling drivers over. Like sobriety checkpoints, this bill continues a trend of using random police intrusion to enforce the law.

In the past two Ohio General Assemblies, primary enforcement seat belt bills didn't gain lawmaker approval. The House Transportation and Public Safety Committee recommended Peterson's current version for passage this past January, but no action has been taken on the bill since then. Given the time constraints facing the current General Assembly, passage of the seat belt bill is unlikely this year.

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