New York was the first state to mandate the wearing of seat belts in passenger automobiles in 1984. At present, front passengers and drivers over the age of 16 must buckle up or face a fine of $50. A fine of up to $100 and 3 points on the driver’s license can also be levied for failing to properly secure a child under 16; children under 10 must be secured by a seat belt whether they ride in a front or rear seat, and children under 4 must be restrained in a child safety seat.
To date, every state except New Hampshire has enacted some form of seat belt law. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the use of seat belts decreases the chance of traffic death by 50 percent, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) credits seat belts with saving some 13,000 lives per year. These are impressive numbers that certainly provide more than a rational basis for states to require seat belt use under their broad police powers as a means of protecting public safety. Notwithstanding these statistics, however, there are a number of valid reasons why individuals may rationally choose not to wear seat belts. For example, seat belts offer the greatest protection for drivers and front passengers in front-impact collisions, especially at highway speeds, when drivers not wearing seat belts may be ejected from their vehicles through the windshield. But seat belts may offer less protection or become an outright liability in side-impact collisions, especially when a car is struck directly on the driver’s or passenger’s side.
The NHTSA does not compile statistics on injuries caused or exacerbated by seat belt use; yet such injuries undeniably occur. I can offer two quick examples from my own experience. Some 35 years ago, I was a passenger in the rear of an automobile hit on the driver’s side by a car traveling at approximately 35 mph. The impact caused the side of the car to buckle inward by some 18 inches into the passenger compartment where I had been sitting. My injuries were very minor and required no medical attention; had I been buckled in, however, I would have been crushed by the impact and quite possibly killed. More recently, an eerily similar accident occurred to my parents in which their Lincoln Continental was struck on the side by a car traveling at a high rate of speed; despite that vehicle’s exceptional side-impact protection, the rear passenger compartment where my mom had been sitting was crushed inward into the spot my mom had been occupying. Although she suffered serious injuries, she would almost certainly have died had she been wearing her seat belt.
Seat belts may also prove counterproductive when automobiles burst into flames or fall into water as a result of an accident, where the precious moments it takes to unbuckle a belt while fighting the shock and disorientation that results from a serious accident may mean the difference between life and death. Likewise, seat belts may prove harmful in cases involving rollover accidents; a good friend and colleague rolled his pickup truck in a weather-related accident that resulted in the roof of the truck being completely crushed. He walked away from the accident unscathed by throwing himself onto the empty passenger’s seat at the time of the impact; had he been wearing his seat belt, it would have locked on impact and he would have been restrained in an upright sitting position and crushed when the car roof collapsed. the year of my friend’s accident, NHTSA statistics on passenger vehicle occupant deaths in New York published in December 1997 show a total of 989 deaths by occupants 5 years of age or older; of these, 426 victims were wearing seat belts, while 563 were not. The statistics don’t tell us how many of the 426 accident victims who perished while wearing their seat belts might have lived had they not been restrained. Even if we assume such deaths are relatively rare, should drivers–including my friend whose lack of obeying the law may have saved his life–not be free to decide for themselves which risk they would rather bear?
Finally, the most compelling reason of all for overturning the mandatory seat belt law is that it represents a governmental intrusion into purely private conduct. Not wearing a seat belt in many circumstances may be foolish and perhaps even irresponsible. But a free society must protect the rights of citizens to make purely personal, private choices that do not pose a danger to others, even when these may be foolish or irresponsible. When we allow government to regulate private conduct on public policy grounds, we shove our civil liberties down a precipitous slippery slope. If we can regulate the wearing of seat belts based on health and safety concerns, can we not also prescribe the use of condoms for all non-procreative sexual activity? (Is the threat of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases or the economic disruption and drain on our medical resources any less serious a public health issue than the wearing of seat belts?) Should we criminalize participation in unnecessary dangerous activities such as skydiving, skiing, auto racing, football and swimming because of the safety risks they pose? Should we fine people who consume too many fatty foods or fail to eat enough leafy green vegetables for the collective drain their poor eating habits cause our medical care system? And what punishment should we impose on those irresponsible members of society that choose to drink moderate amounts of alcohol or smoke cigarettes? Is it not true that far more people require medical treatment every year from smoking-related illness alone than from failing to use seat belts?The government has a right to persuade people to buckle up, eat right and quit smoking, but ought not paternalistically place its judgment above that of the adult citizens it seeks to protect.
Governmental intrusion into purely private conduct may, indeed, save lives; but it does so at the cost of something far more precious: our civil liberty.
Note: The above article appears with very minor updates as I wrote in more than a decade ago when it first appeared in The Daily Star (Oneonta, NY). Since then, seat belt laws have doubtless saved many lives. And they have most certainly brought large sums of revenue to the states through the countless number of tickets issued every year to violators. I still wear my seat belt every time I drive, and support the requirement that children be buckled up for their personal safety. But I find the requirement that adults buckle up an offensive intrusion by the state in what ought be a matter of choice. As I write this, some are agitating for laws to outlaw eating and drinking while driving, New York City has recently floated the idea of taxing sugary beverages for the express purpose of discouraging their consumption (and the implied purpose of raising revenue), and people in Washington DC with apparently little else to do have weighed in on the appropriate number of potato servings to school children. Surely there are more pressing public safety issues for police and elected officials to concentrate on than limiting the civil liberty of law-abiding citizens whose actions affect no one but themselves. If the concern is dollars spent on health care costs, I respectfully submit that catching and keeping in jail violent criminals, illegal drug dealers, and securing our borders would all yield greater bottom-line benefits than ensuring that I wear my seat belt or stay away from soda pop.