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How mask fights echo seat belt fights: ‘The right to be splattered all over their windshields’

As transportation secretary in the Reagan administration, Elizabeth Dole pushed for mandatory seat belt laws. The idea created angry divisions among the public as some Americans said their rights were being infringed. (Scott Stewart/AP)

One morning in the mid-1980s, as federal Transportation Department employees pulled into their parking lot in Washington, they were greeted by their boss — Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole — holding a sign that said “STOP.”

Dole, the wife of Senate majority leader and future Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole (R-Kan.), would go on to become a powerful Republican senator in her own right. She also ran for president. But that morning, Dole was acting, as some conservative critics put it, like a “paternalistic” Democrat.


By checking whether her employees were wearing their seat belts.

Mandatory seat belt laws were one of Dole’s signature accomplishments as transportation secretary under President Ronald Reagan, who was no fan of paternalism and once famously said, “Man is not free unless government is limited.”

Dole’s fight for seat belt laws in the 1980s inspired the sort of rhetoric and division America is seeing today over government mandates to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

On July 15, the Utah County Commission postponed a meeting on masks in K-12 schools after protesters packed the room without wearing masks. (Video: Utah County Government/ Youtube)

Coronavirus mask confrontations echo San Francisco’s Anti-Mask League a century ago

Back then, as today, there were lawsuits and protests alleging that the government was infringing on personal liberties by mandating what citizens do with their bodies. The divide was stark.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., a judge refused to fine drivers ticketed for not wearing seat belts. Some conservative judges publicly said they would declare seat belt laws unconstitutional if anyone brought a case in their courts. Opponents were especially incensed in New Hampshire, where the state motto is “Live Free or Die.”

Liberals saw it differently.

Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe testified in a 1986 Massachusetts legislative hearing that “a seat belt law simply removes a rather unimportant element of freedom.” State Sen. Salvatore Albano echoed that argument in slightly more blunt terms, saying those opposing seat belt laws wanted “the right to be splattered all over their windshields.”

Stephen Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, remembers giving presentations on the benefits of seat belts during those times. He heard a lot of pushback.

“People were really offended by the government telling them what to do,” Teret said in an interview.

Mandates regarding seat belts and face masks aren’t totally analogous, he said, in that asking people to wear masks is an effort to protect not just individuals but society at large. The argument against them is the same, though.

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“We are a country that very, very much values personal freedoms,” Teret said. “And there are always some people who see their personal freedoms as being more important than the common good. And that’s the fight public health has always had.”

Health and safety rules typically have been upheld as constitutional based on the precedent established in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, a 1905 Supreme Court decision. In a 7-to-2 vote, the court ruled against a Massachusetts minister who was fined $5 for refusing to comply with mandatory smallpox vaccination.

“In every well ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand,” the majority wrote.

Nevertheless, conservatives hammered Dole on the seat belt issue. Though there were some shrewd politics at play — the seat belt push was, in part, an attempt to placate auto manufacturers that opposed air bags — just the idea of telling citizens how they were supposed to drive was too much for the liberty crowd.

An editorial in the National Review, the conservative opinion magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr., said that “one of the purest examples of paternalism is the sort of laws enacted in more than a dozen states in the past year compelling the use of seat belts.”

Still, there was Dole with her “STOP” sign at Transportation Department headquarters, being very paternal with her staff. She also appeared in television public service announcements, including one for New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (D).

Lecturing to a college classroom, Dole says, “How many of you think it’s important to buckle your safety belt every time you get into a car?"

Not everyone raises their hands.

“Do you know that every 10 minutes someone is a killed in car accident?” she asks. “Do you know that every 10 seconds someone is injured?”

The students look startled.

Dole wasn’t finished.

“Do you know that each of you in this classroom can expect to be in a car crash at least once in your lifetime?” she says.

Then the camera zooms in on her face.

“Now,” she says, “is there anyone here who doesn’t think it’s important to buckle up every time you get into a car?”

The screen goes black, and a message pops up in all-capital letters: “YOUR LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS.”

Read more Retropolis:

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The gutsy — possibly crazy — scientists who risked death testing vaccines on themselves

History’s deadliest pandemics, from ancient Rome to modern America