This is not a column about how seat belts are good for you and how you should feel guilty and subhuman if you like to ride unbelted. You want that piece, complete with gut-wrenching images of weeping mothers who lost children in car crashes, may I recommend one of the fine TV newsmagazines.
This is, rather, a journey into the strange world of Virginia's legislature, which has once again decided that it would be a communistic infringement of individual freedom to let police stop motorists who fail to use seat belts.
About 30 percent of Virginians don't bother with seat belts; that compares with about 15 percent of drivers in the District and Maryland, where failure to use the belt can result in a ticket. In Virginia, police must ignore failure to buckle up unless they've already stopped you for a different violation.
National compliance rates clearly show the big bump in seat belt use in states where police can fine violators.
Even Virginia's lawmakers accept that seat belts are good. They paid rapt attention when a former cheerleader, Catherine Thomas, told them from her wheelchair that "If I would have taken two seconds to buckle my seat belt, it would have avoided over 18 years of living in my own prison." They heard Samir Fakhry, trauma chief at Inova Fairfax Hospital, describe the financial and emotional burden of treating 2,600 accident victims each year. They heard Col. Gerald Massengill, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, recall knocking on strangers' doors to deliver news of another highway death; now he asked for permission to give teen drivers the scare that might change their ways. And they heard a business lobbyist argue, "We may not be our brother's keeper -- although I believe we are -- but we are certainly paying his bills."
And then the politicians took their turn: Oh yes, seat belts are good, and I wear them all the time, but heck, said Del. Dick Black, a Republican from Loudoun County, "There are many things that people do in a free society that are dangerous." And by the way, Black added, "Janis Joplin was wrong" when she sang that "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," because in fact, "when you have freedom, you have everything."
As Black sees it, if we're not going to tell people to stop swimming or skateboarding, then who are we to tell them to wear seat belts?
It didn't much matter if Frank Hargrove, a conservative Republican from Glen Allen, noted that "swimming and skateboarding are done on private property" and that "when you use the public right of ways, they don't belong to you, they belong to all of us." It didn't matter if another Republican, Bill Carrico of Independence, a former state trooper, switched over to the pro-belt side because a seat belt saved his life and because 15 years after working his first fatalities, he can still name each person whose ejected body he had to examine.
Because this baby was DOA, in the name of freedom. The vote in the House Transportation Committee was a tie, 10 to 10, with Del. Leo Wardrup (R-Virginia Beach) spitefully killing the bill because his fellow legislators had refused his request to increase the proposed penalty for failing to buckle up from $25 to at least $100.
"It's a shame that we let ideology stand in the way of the right thing," Fakhry said afterward. "They say we're not going to let people tell us what to do. But we let people tell us that every day, otherwise I wouldn't wait in line at the cafeteria, and I'd go to work in a bathing suit."
Actually, this wasn't about ideology in the least. Because right across the hall, at the same moment, those same Republicans who argue for their ideal of keeping government out of people's lives were pushing for a bill requiring any public employee who learns about a teenager's "sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, illegal drug use, promiscuous sexual behavior, [or] contemplation of suicide" to rat the kid out to his parents within 48 hours.
So if a 17-year-old confides to a counselor that she's considering suicide because of abuse by her parent, the counselor would have to go tell mom and dad. But that's not poking into people's lives.
That bill died that day by a single vote, but a revised version came roaring back Friday and passed the House, 59 to 38, because the Keep Government Out of Our Lives crowd never dares to speak aloud the end of their slogan: Except When We Say So.