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Owning yourself

Earlier this week, in Massachusetts, a miracle occurred.

For years, the drive towards an absolute seat belt law has won incremental victory after victory. First, seat belts were mandated for children. Then, after a bitter fight, including a public vote against it, they were made mandatory for adults. The only last two hurdles were making them a primary-enforcement offense (meaning that the police can pull you over for not wearing your belt, instead of having to find another reason to detain you) and making it a surchargeable offense (meaning that a seat belt violation would adversely affect your insurance rates).

Despite repeated promises to the contrary (which no one believed anyway), last year the legislature started once again to make the seat belt law a primary offense. And it looked like a done deal: the leaders of both houses of the legislature were strongly backing the measure, and Governor Romney (to the disappointment and outrage of many of his supporters) announced he would sign it.

But somehow, when the House came to vote on the final form of the bill and send it off to the Senate and Governor for rubber-stamping, it failed.

The backers of the measure cited that Massachusetts has the 48th worst record for seat belt usage of the 49 states that require seat belt laws, and that the federal government could withhold highway funds if they don't do something about those numbers.

The sole state without a mandatory seat belt law for adults is, of course, New Hampshire.

In Massachusetts, as in many places, the prevailing mentality is that it is the duty of government to advise people about the proper way to do things. They study matters extensively, then choose the one solution that they believe works best for most people and recommend it. And then, they start urging it. Then they start compelling it. Finally, they reach the point where they mandate that one solution, regardless of its applicability.

Auto safety is a prime example. Air bags are required on all new cars, and it is a violation of federal law to disable the air bag. It took years for the law to get changed so those people who feel threatened by air bags (such as the very short, who would most likely be killed by a deploying air bag, if not decapitated outright), and even then they wrapped the process in so much paperwork and red tape that the chances of finding someone who will actually deactivate your air bag is almost impossible.

It also forced parents to start carrying their children in the back seat, out of sight, because passenger airbags would almost certainly kill any child sitting there. Whether or not it is a good idea, the government took that decision out of parents' hands.

Here in New Hampshire, we put the brakes on that process early on. We did the studies, published the recommendations, and passed a law requiring seat belts for those under 18. And then we stopped.

We do not believe in having the government do all our thinking for us, taking care of us from every possible danger. We do not WANT that to happen -- we want to learn for ourselves what is good and what is bad, because in that process we learn HOW to take care of ourselves. We do not want to become dependent on the government.

So, here in New Hampshire, if you're over 18 and you don't want to wear your seat belt, fine. Hell, if you want to ride your motorcycle without a helmet, go for it.

Yes, some people will make the wrong choices. Some of those will pay for those wrong choices. Some will learn from them, and some will not. Some will even pay for those wrong choices with their lives.

But it is not the place of government to protect people from themselves. Only in extreme cases, when the individual has proven themselves so incompetent to care for themselves should government intervene -- that's why we have civil commitment procedures, to protect the incompetent, the infirm, the insane from doing harm to others and themselves. But to extend that to the general populace is fundamentally wrong.

In Massachusetts, as well as in many other places, a case can be made that the general populace has become so incompetent that they cannot care for themselves, that they need to be "wards of the state" for their own protection. But it was the state that led to that infirmity, as they slowly, over years, began intervening more and more into what rightly should be personal decisions "for our own good" or under the guise of "promoting the general welfare."

In the end, the one thing we own, the one thing we possess that cannot be taken from us, is ourselves.

But it can be given away.

Here in New Hampshire, we still own ourselves. We still view government as a necessary evil, and eye it suspiciously. We trust it so little because, for the most part, our government is made up of our neighbors -- and we KNOW them. We know we wouldn't trust ourselves with the kind of power people in other states give their governments, so we're sure as hell not going to trust others.

Here in New Hampshire, we don't believe in protecting people from their own stupid decisions. We will tell them not to do something stupid. We will shout at them. We will spell out just why it is stupid, and what the likely consequences of their stupidity will be. We will even offer incentives to get people to do the smart thing.

But if, after all that, someone still wants to be an idiot, then that is their free and fair choice. We don't own them, and if they want to put themselves in that kind of danger, that is their choice. At that point, the only thing we can do is hope for the best -- and perhaps their bad example will teach others about the folly of their deeds. The more you make something "foolproof," the better the odds that you'll end up discovering a greater fool than you thought possible.

My mother always used to say that everyone in life has a purpose, even if it's just to be a bad example. And she was so very right.

Comments (28)

Normally, I agree that laws... (Below threshold)

Normally, I agree that laws protcting people against themselves are bad and unenforceable, but the seat belt law as it applies to drivers does not fit that description.

My logic here is this: if you're driving a car and encounter an emergency situation requiring evasive maneuvers, you are far less likely to lose control of the car and hit something else because the seat belt would help keep you in your driver's seat and not allow you to be thrown around by the car's wild movements.

If one wants to kill themselves by not wearing a seatbelt, that's fine, but when they threaten me on the road by not wearing a seatbelt I start to take issue.

Very intelligent, well-argu... (Below threshold)

Very intelligent, well-argued article. And the first comment, with an objection, is also really sharp!

I'm not sure how I feel about this issue. But I guess we are all probably all on the same page in principle: We want to maximize personal freedom while promoting safety.

After spending several year... (Below threshold)

After spending several years pulling mangled bodies from vehicle crashes i started wearing my seatbelt full time. There is definetly a higher rate of 'massive trauma' injuries and fatalities to those without seat belts. Hold an infant/child in your lap and watch them being scraped off the interstate after a few 18 wheelers run over them and you'll change your mind, too late. No billion dollar study needed. If you don't want to wear a seatbelt, fine, then you should be 100% responsible for the cost of your medical care (burial), the taxpayers and insurance companies should be left off of the bill. Fire/Med.

Who pays for the (often tim... (Below threshold)
Jay S:

Who pays for the (often times extensive) medical care when a driver enjoys his personal freedoms sans belt, but doesn't enjoy the personal responsibility of paying for insurance coverage and then has an accident?

The question Jay S begs is ... (Below threshold)
Mrs. Davis:

The question Jay S begs is is it better to make two wrongs or to deny medical assistance to the clearly mentally deficient?

Pro Cynic...I agree to a po... (Below threshold)

Pro Cynic...I agree to a point, but again, you're extrapolating what all should do from what happens sometimes...a dangerous trend, by any measure. It would be akin to saying that "since some people can't swim, everyone needs to wear life jackets at all times when driving, in case they crash into a body of water (hope no government agencies read this and start thinkin' about it). Most accidents don't involve water, and most accidents don't involve the scenario you describe.

Jay S and Scrapiron, the same people pay for their care who pay for folks who don't have insurance when they get sick through no fault of their own. The differences are unremarkable.

I have no problem admitting that it's stupid to not wear a safety belt in an auto of any type. I also have no problem asserting that it's stupid to make it a law to do so.

I'm not saying where to dra... (Below threshold)

I'm not saying where to draw the line with mandated protections, but a counter argument is that people who put themselves in danger cost all taxpayers more for more police, rescuse, fire services, etc. From a cost argument it is cheaper to require protections, such as seatbelts and helmets, than paying to scrape their body off the highway while 5,000 commuters fume in bumper to bumper traffic.

I have absolutely no proble... (Below threshold)

I have absolutely no problem with people deciding on their own whether they want to protect themselves against personal danger or not.

As long as those same individuals make it very clear that they also would not accept state aid if they're injured or debilitated as a result of that decision.

Or, as per Hestrold's post, they are willing to pay higher "user fees" to suppor the cost to society for their "personal" decision.

It isn't a question of "YOU... (Below threshold)

It isn't a question of "YOUR" freedom when you expect "ME" to come behind you to pay the bills and clean up "YOUR" mess.

IF those who fail to wear seatbelts and are injured thereby were to be forever barred from taxpayer subsidy of their treatment and/or resulting disabilities, and from suing other parties, including insurance companies, as a result, then FINE, let 'em go beltless. Let 'em climb up on the suspension bridges, too, for all I care.

BUT ~ so long as I am required to pay for your indulgences, they are NOT "simply a matter of personal freedom."

In fact, allowing personal irresponsibility with a guarantee that society will pay the costs isn't "freedom" at all. Sounds more like socialism to me.

My logic here is t... (Below threshold)
My logic here is this: if you're driving a car and encounter an emergency situation requiring evasive maneuvers, you are far less likely to lose control of the car and hit something else because the seat belt would help keep you in your driver's seat and not allow you to be thrown around by the car's wild movements.

No set of tires would hold to the road that well. If you are being throw about to the point that you can not keep control of the steering wheel then you have already hit something, probably a very large something at that.

So-I have two questions:</p... (Below threshold)

So-I have two questions:

1-Why do you even bother mandating seatblets for those under 18? Are 18 year old not covered under your constitution guraunteeing personal freedom from our oppressive government?

2- Why not just repeal all traffic safety laws? Is it not my GOD given right as an American to do whatever I damn well please in MY car? Why must I stop at a "stop" sign? Why can't I drive Northbound in the Southbound lanes of I-95? These are my rights! My freedoms are being denied! Speed limits? HA! we shouldn't even license drivers or require them to past exams----no where in the constitution does it say we have to be licensed to drive--unless YOU are an immigrant-in which case we dont want you here anyways.

Jamie,The differen... (Below threshold)


The difference is that whether or not you wear a lifejacket in your car does not materially increase the likelihood that you will get into a collision with anyone else. Wearing the seatbelt makes it much more likely that you will keep control of the car.


It doesn't take as much as you think. An icy road, for one. If the car is sliding around changing directions, without a seabelt, your body will not move along with it, but will follow. Instead of using the steering wheel to regain control of the car, you would be using it to regain your balance in the seat. And the car would be doing whatever it would be doing in the meantime -- not under your control, becaue you are too busy trying to right yourself.

Simple physics.

David...point 1 is actually... (Below threshold)

David...point 1 is actually pretty interesting, as it raises the question whether a minor should be more controlled by his parents or the government. I have less of a problem with that one, because (especially considering the very young set) the subject prone to injury isn't of an age to make an informed decision. Point 2 sounds like a rant from someone who would be legally bound to be in a car seat. Driving without my seatbelt does not endanger others to the same degree of running a stop sign. To claim even a remote correlation is idiotic.

Pro Cynic...sorry, but your "physics" lesson doesn't work. The problem with an icy road is that the car CANNOT change direction suddenly. There are some control issues regarding seatbelt use, but even at that, seatbelts in civilian vehicles don't offer any resistance prior to a sudden change in physical direction, which brings us back to my point--the advantage would only be significant in rare occurances, much like the life vest.

As to the costs to the public, I still haven't heard a valid argument as to how this is different from eating 3 meals a day at McDonald's and not having health insurance, other than the fact that an auto accident happens a little more suddenly. Is the answer to that problem more government regulation as well? Where does it stop?

Jamie,Um, actually... (Below threshold)


Um, actually, the physics lesson does work. The car starts sliding on a slippery surface, so you trun the wheel and overcompensate, because you don't know when or if the car will generate enough friction with the ground to change direction. Similar to any situation where you are losing control of the car. When or if it does chnge direction, you're often not ready for it. And if your body is not strapped in by the seatbelt, it will keep going in the direction the car was going in before the change of direction.

Adjoran: In fact,... (Below threshold)

Adjoran: In fact, allowing personal irresponsibility with a guarantee that society will pay the costs isn't "freedom" at all. Sounds more like socialism to me.

Agreed. But do you realize that putting restrictions on that irresponsibility is just more socialism? The correct solution is to eliminate or restrict the "guarantee" that society will pay the costs.

The argument about the soci... (Below threshold)

The argument about the social costs of not wearing a seat belt was used re: smoking, too, and is now being used about fast food. Shall tobacco, certain foods, cell phones and who knows what else be fair game, too? How far can government/we go to protect others from themselves? Parents are already responsible for protecting their kids, aren't they? So -- extend those laws where necessary, and let me be responsible for myself as long as I am not certifiably incapable of rationality. (Yes, I realize some of us would be too 'concerned about others' to actually let them decide to do stupid things like not wear a seat belt.)

Again, the problem with smo... (Below threshold)

Again, the problem with smoking is that it hurts others, not just the user. I'm not taliing about health insurance costs to cover smokers, but the unpleasant and dangerous effects on nonsmokers. And the fact that they have no say as to whether or not to accept those risks.

"...the unplea... (Below threshold)

"...the unpleasant and dangerous effects on nonsmokers."

um..."unpleasant" is irrelevant. That's not the government's arena. "Dangerous" hasn't been conclusively proven.

Try again.

What's missing here in the ... (Below threshold)

What's missing here in the above arguments is that the magnitude of benefit of seat belt use (and motorcycle helmet use) to society, whether you look at lives saved, money saved, time and resources saved, etc. is very significant. Since it is not socially possible to make people solely responsible for the costs of their medical care or replace their lost wages/output due to death or disability solely on the basis of lack of seat belt use, the mandatory laws make sense.

I think that both sides are... (Below threshold)

I think that both sides are raising excellent points - but I have to agree with Jay that after seatbelts, what's next? Five years from now they decide we all need to wear helmets in the CAR?

Yes, it has been Jamie. Wis... (Below threshold)

Yes, it has been Jamie. Wishing it away won't make it so. Libertarian studies won't make it so.

Why should New Hampshire en... (Below threshold)

Why should New Hampshire enact an adult seat belt law when the adults here are already wearing them. I seem to recall a study done by the IIHS that showed that New Hampshire had a higher rate of adults wearing seatbelts than states that had a mandatory seat belt law. It's stupid to pass alw to force people to do what they're already doing - using common sense.

No wishing away, ProCynic, ... (Below threshold)

No wishing away, ProCynic, just the results of following the studies over the past 20 years or so, seeing tolerances broadened with every new study.

The only studies that showed a scientifically significant link between "second hand smoke" and disease were studies that subjected lab animals to high concentrations 24/7 for an extended time...not "real world scenarios."

Don't take my word for it...do some digging yourself.

SeanF ~ I will not dispute ... (Below threshold)

SeanF ~ I will not dispute that the ideal solution would be to stop social liability for the consequences of individual irresponsibility.

When you get that passed, get back to me. Until then: wear yer gosh-darned seat belt!

Beyond the social costs of picking up the pieces of the offender, it has been pointed out that not wearing safety equipment can endanger others as well.

Besides, if you want a hunting license, your state is perfectly within its rights to require you to wear blaze orange. No one seriously contests that. Why should a drivers' license be any less subject to safety rules?

Since the financial side of... (Below threshold)

Since the financial side of the argument keeps coming up...

In an auto crash, there are three options: someone will be uninjured, injured, or killed. Two of those situations cause little or no cost to the public. The middle one is the sticking point. Consider, though, that in a potentially fatal crash, the chances of the occupants jumping from the "expired" to "uninjured" category because of a seatbelt are slim-to-none. They will be injured, and will still need medical care.

In one sense, you shouldn't want someone without medical insurance to wear his seatbelt, because there's a greater chance he'd die in the crash, saving the public a lot of money in healthcare costs as he would have been treated for his injuries if he had survived.

Like it or not, laws of this sort are 99% driven by the government's zeal to legislate personal (as opposed to public) safety. The arguments of "safety of others" and "public costs" are sidebars. The former is too rare to be significant, and the latter is only a sliver of the amount being paid by the public for scores of other irresponsible behaviours (dollar for dollar, care to compare costs between injured uninsured motorists and payments to unwed mothers and their kids?).

In a perfect world, everyone would drive with all safety measures observed, but did everyone here put a pressure gauge to their tires before they drove to work today? Did everyone check their brake fluid level, then physically test their brakes in the driveway before they entered the road? Everyone check belts, hoses, and other fluid levels? If a belt breaks, or if the engine dies, you may find yourself without power steering and brakes at interstate speeds. Did everyone properly secure all passenger-compartment cargo? If not, you've increased your chances of having an accident and increased the likelihood of serious injury in an accident. None of these things, however, are mandatory by law. Nevermind whether you were distracted by the radio, a cell phone, the morning paper, or breakfast while you were on your drive.

But you had your "gosh-darned" seatbelt on! Oh, I swoon at how safe you are!!!!

So please take a moment to check your rear view mirrors closely, lest you turn my government-mandated motorcycle helmet into a 600-lb weight on my head and neck by cutting into my lane and forcing me off the road. Of course you can observe how well my head and face is preserved as I take my last few breaths and realize that my neck's been broken and I won't be going home to my wife and kids today after all.

Adjoran: When you... (Below threshold)

Adjoran: When you get that passed, get back to me. Until then: wear yer gosh-darned seat belt!

I do wear my seatbelt, all the time - it's the law I'm objecting to. At any rate, I don't need to succeed in taking a step in the right direction in order to object to taking another step in the wrong direction.

And you're right that people don't object to the hunting license orange vest requirement, but if they thought about it logically, they probably should. They should object to motorcycle helmet laws and boating life-vest laws as well. That doesn't make the anti-seatbelt-law position wrong or invalid, though, it just means that some people don't apply it consistently. :)

SeanF: There is a minor dif... (Below threshold)

SeanF: There is a minor difference between this debate and the orange vests, in that not wearing one does make the person choosing not to actually more likely to be injured, but in many states (mine included) it's not mandatory during "primitive weapon only" season. I suppose it's better to get shot by an arrow or a slug from a black powder rifle than a shotgun or hunting rifle somehow...lol.

Personally, I do tend to apply my "personal choice" philosophy to all the things you mentioned (as well as to numerous other issues), but you bring out a good point in that many people don't...generally because it doesn't affect them personally and/or they don't know all the facts & considerations regarding the issue (motorcycle helmets stand out in that way, as the non-motorcycling and uninformed majority pass and support helmet laws).

As I've said before, not wearing a seatbelt is stupid. Laws requiring seatbelt use are stupid too. And to re-hash my financial beliefs, it's wrong to single out one bunch of stupid people and say you don't wanna pay when you're already footing the bill for a monumental number of 'em.

The one accident I had woul... (Below threshold)
bill R:

The one accident I had would have most likely killed me if I WAS wearing a seatbelt. A slow rollover - I was able to get down on the floor as the roof caved in. For those that think the seatbelt law is good should now pass a mandatory exercise law it would save even more lives. I hope all future laws will be aimed at those who take liberty so lightly.






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