Brody still writes that column for the Times, but this particular exchange was not recent and was not centered on the Biden administration’s new rule mandating that businesses with 100 or more employees either require vaccinations against the coronavirus or initiate weekly testing. Instead, Brody was writing in December 1984 on a very different subject.
“Some people have raised the issue of personal freedom: their right to refuse to wear seat belts. But operating a motor vehicle is not a right; it is a privilege granted under strictly regulated conditions,” she wrote. “Failure to use a seat belt thus impinges on the freedoms of others, since it can increase their medical and insurance costs and the costs to society in general. … Then, too, a seat belt increases the chances that the person wearing it will live to enjoy freedom.”
The fight then was the fight now: To what extent can or should the government trade off individual decision-making for the broader benefit of the community?
The startling parallels between the seat belt fight and the debate over efforts to contain the coronavirus were elevated by a clip from “The Daily Show,” showing, via MSNBC, a news report from 1984, when New York became the first state to implement such a law.
Digging into news reports from the time, that pattern, equating seat belt laws to slippery-slope questions about personal freedom, were rampant.
“If they can force us to wear seat belts for our own protection, perhaps next they will tell us we have to wear our booties to keep from getting our feet wet and catching cold,” Arthur Woolsey wrote in a letter to the editors of the Chicago Tribune in January 1985.
“It is this tradition that sets our nation apart from all others. Everywhere else in this world, the individual is subservient to government. In the USA, government is supposed to be subservient to the individual and is supposed to interfere with the free choices of individuals only when they undermine the equal right of other individuals to make their own free choices,” Jeff Riggenbach wrote in a column for USA Today in February 1989. “This is why arguments for mandatory seat-belt use which are based on considerations of safety are completely irrelevant.”
“In a free society, each individual must be left free to take his or her own risks,” he added. “In a society that wishes to remain free, each individual must be left free to act foolishly.”
By then, the positive effects of such laws were already being felt. A study released in 2003 examining the effects of seat belt laws found a measurable decline in deaths of vehicle occupants (relative to miles driven) in the years that followed the introduction of new laws.
“Our results indicate that, overall, mandatory seat belt laws unambiguously reduce traffic fatalities,” authors Alma Cohen and Liran Einav wrote. “We estimate that a 1-percentage-point increase in usage saves 136 lives annually (using a linear specification), and that a 1% increase in usage reduces annual fatalities by about 0.13% (using a log-log specification).” Get seat belt use to 90 percent, they wrote, and the United States could see between 1,500 and 3,000 fewer deaths a year.
America hit the 90 percent mark in 2016.
But again, critics of the laws often didn’t dispute that seat belts saved lives, as many (though not all) opponents of vaccination standards don’t dispute the efficacy of the vaccines. The issue was what the government could and couldn’t tell people to do.
“The mandatory seat belt law is an abomination. What the state is saying is: ‘We know what is best for you. Let us save your life,'" Michael Barry wrote in a letter to the Times’s editors in September 1984. “Seat belts do save lives. Once again, that is not the issue. It is also true that exercise and a proper diet probably extend life expectancy. Perhaps the state should make it mandatory to run a mile a day, have smokers give up cigarettes and call for increased vegetable and fruit consumption. I’m exaggerating, of course, but the principle is the same.”
Interestingly, this particular counterclaim — what about nutrition? — has also reemerged during the vaccination debate. In this case, though, it’s an effort to suggest that eating better could reduce obesity, a frequent contributing factor in the deaths of those who contract covid-19.
“We must stop legislating every item of our daily lives. I assure you, friends, some freedom precious to you will be next to fall,” Rose Marie Gibbins wrote in January 1988 in a letter to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Government has plenty to do beside these personal intrusions. We need a class-action suit or petition against the seat-belt demand before the next attack on our rights.”
Then as now, there was pushback. Brian O’Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, gave a speech in December 1988 in which he excoriated one of the prominent voices against seat belt laws — a radio talk-show host.
“Jerry Williams has to face up to the issue of how many lives and injuries are worth the freedom of not wearing seat belts,” O’Neill demanded. (Williams died in 2003, not in a car accident.)
The laws faced significant political pressure. One Florida legislator told the Miami Herald in August 1985 that “there’s been no other issue that has created as much mail in my office,” almost all of it opposed to the laws. Other legislators echoed opponents’ complaints, as when then-California state Sen. John Seymour (R) told the Associated Press in 1985 that he did “not understand why we have to dance to the tune of the federal government and give up our individual freedom.”
There were also protests. In October 1988, several hundred people, many of them motorcyclists, showed up outside the Capitol in Salem, Ore., to oppose a ballot initiative in the state. One compared the law to helmet mandates, saying that “since the helmet law went into effect, I feel my right to choose has been taken away from me. … I’ve been reduced to a conehead.”
He was wearing a prosthetic cone on his head, with a small motorcycle helmet on top.
In several states, newly implemented laws faced initiatives aimed at repeal. In 1994, such an effort in North Dakota failed by a margin of nine percentage points. Opponents of a law in Nebraska were more successful in 1986; a repeal initiative barely passed.
“Opposition to the law was strongest in rural Nebraska,” the Times reported then. “Eight counties, most of them heavily populated, voted to retain the law, and 85 counties voted to repeal it.”
Proponents of the laws focused on the same two points Brody had elevated: seat belts save lives and reduce costs both to governments and to others whose insurance premiums are driven higher. In other words, the benefits to those who weren’t driving cars were somewhat indirect, making it easier for those arguing that their own decisions didn’t really affect others.
“There are many activities, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and eating too much, that are unhealthy and may harm some individuals. But self-imposed personal harm is not sufficient reason for the government to interfere,” Michael Bates wrote in a letter to the Tribune in January 1985. “Laws designed to protect us from ourselves may be well-intentioned, but they are an infringement of our freedom and are invariably counterproductive. They are often ignored because they are unjust and this leads to a disrespect for all laws.”
In the current scenario, of course, the effects on others are more immediately obvious and far more dire. The unvaccinated are more likely to contract the coronavirus and therefore to spread it. They are more likely to be hospitalized, filling intensive care units that also need to provide urgent treatment to non-covid patients — like, say, people injured in car accidents.
We can draw a clear comparison between the rhetoric of seat belt laws and the rhetoric now, but the actual changes being made are not really analogous. A better comparison, that I’ve made before, is driver’s licenses. You can drive a car without a license, but ensuring that people know how to drive before heading out onto the streets obviously keeps them and everyone else much safer.
In that 1985 report from the Associated Press, a spokesman for a pro-seat-belt-law coalition derided “the libertarian folks” who were offering the most opposition. That immediately brought to mind this clip from a 2016 Libertarian Party presidential debate (note the moderator).
Concerns about the slippery slope presented by rhetoric can work both ways.