Henry Louis Mencken once wrote that “The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic.” That seems a bit harsh, but not by much. Oftentimes, some action might be a good idea, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that government should force it upon us.
Take wearing seat belts, for example. There’s little argument that use of the restraining devices can prevent serious injuries and deaths in vehicle crashes. The motoring public has known this for a few generations. In recent years, however, government at the national and state levels decided it was their role to force people to do what’s good for them in this area. Their efforts were bolstered recently with the publication of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study.
The study examined accident data from 2000 to 2004 and concluded that drivers have a lower chance of being killed in a crash in states that have primary enforcement of seat belt laws; that is, police can pull over drivers for not wearing seat belts. In states having primary seat belt enforcement laws, the rate of fatalities in crashes was 1.03 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, while the rate in secondary enforcement states (police can issue seat belt citations only if they stop drivers for another offense), was 17 percent higher — 1.21 fatalities per 100 million VMT.
Nanny-statists are using the data to push for more government intrusion into the lives of Americans. Phil Haseltine, executive director of the National Safety Council’s Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, said in response to the study, “It’s time for our elected leaders to treat seat belt laws like any other traffic laws, enact laws and eliminate crippling secondary enforcement provisions.”
Haseltine obviously takes his job of saving lives very seriously, and rightfully so. What he’s missing, though, is that the power of government shouldn’t be used to save people from themselves. Seat belts save lives. So do lower speed limits on highways. If the federal government were to blackmail the states into lowering the speed limit to, say, 45 mph on the highways, it would likely save many lives. No one would propose that, though, because of the enormous cost such a move would impose on the economy. But many lawmakers don’t think twice about imposing additional costs on our freedom by requiring everyone in a vehicle to wear a seat belt.
We’re aware of the costs — in insurance payouts, medical costs and lost productivity — of people injured because they weren’t wearing seat belts. The proper remedy for that is to make people more responsible for their foolish actions, not more government regulations. Folks would likely give safety a second thought if they thought their actions would financially ruin their families.
Haseltine is wrong; seat belt laws are not like other traffic laws. Laws that require us to stop at red lights, drive at or below the speed limit, be sober when we get behind the wheel, or any number of other traffic laws are meant to protect us from the careless actions of others. Seat belt laws are meant to protect us from our own careless actions.
Rather than have government dictate our actions, we’d prefer to see market forces nudge us to do the smart thing. Nonsmokers often get discounts on their life and auto insurance, and many insurance companies offer discounts for other safe driving habits, why not for seat belt use? A little financial incentive can go a long way toward making driving a safer activity. We’d prefer it came from the industry in the form of discounts rather than from the state in the form of citations.