Among the many inalienable rights Americans cherish and hold dear are the rights to be stupid, to be free of government interference, to abuse ourselves when and how we please and to be comfortable when riding in our motor vehicles, and they all come together in the matter of our most dearly held right: the right not to wear seat belts.
"I'm not going to have the government telling me what to do in my car; this isn't Russia, you know," is the national motto of the "Save America from the Seat Belt Conspiracy" crowd, which cuts across the political spectrum -- from the most unreconstructed Yahoo in a pickup truck to your basic enlighted Volvo-liberal who would die on the spot if you served him red meat. Just try to get a seat belt on him, though, and you'll find that your cholesterol-conscious friend is one of those proverbial optimists who is sure he will never have an accident, or someone who is an inveterate wiggler who can't stand restraints, or a closet anarchist. Along with the vast majority of Americans, he won't buckle up.
This unyielding obstinacy in the face of mountainous data supporting the merits of seat belts (the National Safety Council estimates that 9,000 lives could be saved each year if Americans wore belts) has finally provoked the federal government and several state governments to take the matter in hand and toughen up on those who refuse to buckle up. The cheery little media campaigns on the subject simply have not turned the tide: Only 15.3 percent of the drivers use belts in 19 cities surveyed by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Last July, DOT Secretary Elizabeth Dole announced that the government was going to start requiring auto manufacturers to equip some cars with passive restraints such as air bags or automatically closing belts by 1986 but would suspend the rule if two-thirds of the states enact mandatory seat belt laws by April 1989.
DOT has said installation of air bags would cost an additional $320 per car, and the auto industry has fought proposed regulations on airbags precisely because of the cost and argued further that seat belts would be as effective as passive restraints if everyone used them.
New York became the first state to enact a mandatory seat belt law that requires all front-seat occupants to wear a belt or face up to a $50 fine. The regulation went into effect on Jan. 1. A similar law went into effect on March 1 in New Jersey, and Illinois, Missouri and Michigan have passed mandatory restraint laws in recent months. Eight states, however, including Maryland and Virginia, considered such bills and killed them. A mandatory seat belt bill has been introduced in the District, but no action has been taken.
A state survey of four metropolitan areas in New York during the first month the law went into effect showed that between 63 and 70 percent of the drivers were buckling up. There is no question that legislative action requiring drivers to wear belts is government intrusion, bound to rub the anarchist streak in all of us the wrong way. But the compliance statistics in New York are an impressive argument on the other side of the ledger.
The Highway Users Federation, a private group, has estimated that if 80 percent of the population buckled up, 12,000 lives could be saved, 330,700 injuries prevented and $5.2 billion in medical bills would be saved.
Pamela Kostmayer, a transportation safety activist and the wife of Rep. Pete Kostmayer (D-Pa.), makes a further point: Suppose she was driving her car on an icy road, she was buckled up and she hit another car in which the occupants were not wearing belts. They are badly injured or killed as a result of the accident. Had they worn belts, they might have lived or certainly been less seriously injured. Yet, she would live with that accident on her conscience for the rest of her life, not because she had done something wrong, but because the occupants of the car had failed to ride safely.
Her argument deserves attention even from the most hardened seat belt anarchist. It is not merely their own lives they are playing auto roulette with: it is huge sums of money in medical, disability and various other injury and death-related bills and it is other lives: the dead and injured, and the survivors who have to live with what has happened. In the common interest, there are certain inalienable rights we ought to shelve: being free to ride and drive in constant jeopardy is one of them.