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Opinion Profiling, oppressive fines and creating opportunities for escalation: The case against mandatory seat-belt laws

The ACLU of Florida just released a report showing that in 2014, black motorists in the state were pulled over for seat belt violations at about twice the rate of white motorists. The discrepancy could actually be higher, because police agencies in some the counties where the disparity has been highest in previous years (such as Escambia County, where in 2011 blacks were four times more likely to be cited) have stopped providing such information, even though they’re required to under state law.

Differences in seat belt use don’t explain the disparity. Blacks in Florida are only slightly less likely to wear seat belts. The ACLU points to a 2014 study by the Florida Department of Transportation that found that 85.8 percent of blacks were observed to be wearing seat belts vs. 91.5 percent of whites. The only possible explanation for the disparity that doesn’t involve racial bias might be that it’s easier to spot seat-belt violations in urban areas than in more rural parts of the state. More stoplights, lower speed limits, and more stop signs give cops more opportunities to peer into car windows. But that’s just speculation. And even if it did explain part or all of the disparity, it still means that blacks in Florida are disproportionately targeted.

This was all entirely predictable. But to understand why, here’s a bit of history:

Back in the 1980s, then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole wanted to increase seat-belt use on America’s roadways. She and a number of other public health officials wanted to make failure to wear a seat belt a finable offense but didn’t have support, either in public opinion polls or in state legislatures. So Dole made a deal with the automakers. If they’d help her push states to pass laws requiring drivers to use seat belts, she’d lay off requiring them to install air bags. (The federal government later required air bags, too.) It worked. The heavy lobbying from the automakers, along with financial incentives from the federal government, persuaded state lawmakers to begin passing seat-belt laws in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Even when the states began passing laws making it a primary offense to not wear a seat belt, there weren’t many objections. (A primary offense means a police officer can pull you over solely for not wearing a seat belt. In states where it’s a secondary offense, you can be cited for not wearing a seat belt only if you’re first pulled over for something else.) The only real dissent came from a small group of libertarians and other hard-core civil liberties advocates.

The are a couple of arguments against these laws. The first is a pretty straightforward civil libertarian position: The government has no business protecting us from ourselves. The decision not to wear a seat belt really affects only the person who opts not to wear it. Yes, you could argue that if that person dies in a car accident, there are secondary effects on family and friends. And perhaps it has a negligible impact on insurance rates or health care. But in terms of highway safety, the decision to to not wear a seat belt doesn’t negatively affect other drivers, passengers or pedestrians. In fact, some studies have suggested that the added feeling of safety that comes with a buckled seat belt may cause drivers to act a bit more recklessly.

But there’s another argument against seat-belt laws that’s much more pertinent to the policing issues now in the news: Seat-belt laws create an entirely new class of police-citizen interactions. They’re another excuse for pretext stops. Moreover, unless there’s clear dash-camera footage, whether you were wearing a seat belt at the time the police officer spotted you is basically your word against the officer’s. It’s another opportunity for police to look for probable cause for a search, or for behavior that could justify a forfeiture of your cash, your car or anything inside of it. And as we’ve seen in South Carolina, Indiana, California and elsewhere, they create more interactions that could potentially lead to escalation, violence and even death. (Note that the article in the last link is from Florida.) The U.S. Supreme Court has even ruled that police can arrest you, handcuff you and jail you even if your only crime was to fail to buckle your seat belt. In 2012, the court ruled that you can be strip-searched, too.

Of course, beatings, shootings and seat-belt arrests are fairly rare. The real damage these laws do is inflicted in much more mundane ways — poor people can’t afford the fines. In California, a single seat-belt violation can be as much as $490. In other areas, it’s closer to $25. But that can still be a lot of money for someone on a tight budget. As we saw in St. Louis County, Mo., and then in subsequent reports from all over the country, failure to pay even a small fine can lead to a larger fine, a license suspension, or an arrest warrant. It can make it impossible to drive your kids to day care, to hold down a steady job, or even to get to a court or the DMV to pay off the fine. (St. Louis County residents and attorneys have told me stories of driving to court to pay the fine so their licenses could be reinstated, only to find a cop in the parking lot who fined them for driving to court on a suspended license.) Black Americans are disproportionately cited for seat-belt violations, disproportionately searched after such stops, and have a disproportionately difficult time paying the fine.

Our highways have gotten remarkably safer over the past 30 or so years. Fatalities have dropped dramatically. Even the most ardent libertarian can’t help but admit that federal efforts had something to do with it, though I tend to think public education and PR safety campaigns have been more effective than more punitive policies. But we should also be cognizant of unintended consequences, especially with laws that are more about protecting people from themselves than from other people. If a seat-belt violation causes a low-income man to be pulled over, searched, fined and fined again for nonpayment, then results in a suspended license, and then arrest and incarceration for driving on a suspended license, the state is no longer protecting him — it’s ruining him.