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seat belt laws

Live a little. Unbuckle your seat belt. It’s the only state left where you can “un-click it and not ticket.” The other 49 have either primary or secondary seat belt laws. “Secondary” means that the gendarmes cannot pull you over only for failure to buckle; they can cite you for not wearing the device, but only if you have committed another offense first. “Primary” means they can stop you if they suspect you are not buckled up (they don’t have to have clear visual proof, since so many of today’s cars have tinted glass that would make it hard for the officer to be sure) and ticket you for no other reason.

New Hampshire has held out so far, but the pressure has been on since 2007, put on by the Feds and emigrants from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts. The good citizens of the Granite State probably know they would have to remove their slogan (see above) from their license plates if they cave.

Having just had imposed by Congress what is arguably the worst single piece of legislation in the history of the republic (Obamacare), perhaps it is time to take a moment to reflect on what law is all about, using seat belt law as example because it 1) affects all of us, 2) is in most cases rather low on the liberty laundry list, and 3) shows exactly how governments tend to make bad laws worse.

Restraint devices in transportation vehicles go back a long way. I suspect that somebody suggested them for war chariots, but the serious era of vehicular restraint begins in the 1950s, when almost no drivers thought that belts were a good idea. The aftermath of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed in the 60s produced Nader buzzers, those little screamers that went off a few seconds down the road if you failed to buckle up. We all learned to disable them within minutes of buying a new car. But Nader and his Raiders made safety a Serious Matter. When something becomes serious in a democracy, those-who-will-do-us-good take notice, and inevitably start a program of education that leads to legislation that leads to coercion.

Tocqueville noticed in the 1830s that in a democracy, “laws are almost always defective or unreasonable.” With a few exceptions, such has always been true under any form of government. Tocqueville again: “The whole art of the legislator consists in discerning well and in advance these natural inclinations of human societies in order to know when one must aid the efforts of citizens and when it would rather be necessary to slow them down.” The problem is, this requires considerable prudence, which democracies are not noted for, and it also assumes that legislators understand that there are indeed “natural inclinations of human societies,” or, more basically, that there is such a thing as human nature. Troublesome things aside, Tocqueville recognized that the legislator’s biggest problem is doing good; “that by wanting to improve everything around him, he will finally degrade himself (my emphasis).”

Many people since Aristotle have been convinced that good law can improve morality in the polis. While that may be true (and it is not my task here to prove or disprove it), it should be beyond dispute that bad law, like bad ideas, can have bad consequences. Bad law often leads to tyranny. Bad law erodes respect for law in general. Even good law cannot take the place of what Tocqueville calls “mores,” and bad law that tries to replace what should be the responsibilities of the church and the family also weakens them.

We might start with the definition of a bad law by saying that any law that is 2700 pages long cannot by definition be a good law. But, in practical terms, a working definition of a bad law is one that runs counter to the clearly accepted wisdom of the community, one that cannot be enforced except by extreme measures, or one that drastically changes existing arrangements for the sake of an anticipated goal.

Seat Belt laws came about entirely because legislators were convinced that they would improve things, namely, the safety of the general public. Death and maiming by automobile has been with us since the internal combustion engine put vehicles powered by gasoline on the roads. By the 1960s zealous reformers learned to focus on one aspect of the problem, the quickest fix and the one most likely to gain public acceptance if not public favor. Restraint, they reasoned, equals safety. They had no research to prove the theory; it just seemed right. It wasn’t until 1984 (!), despite millions of public dollars spent on “educational” campaigns, that New York finally enacted the first primary clickit law. In the quarter century since then, every state except New Hampshire has followed with some kind of law, although they vary wildly (see here for current status Safety belt use laws).

And guess what? Deaths by automobile, measured in millions of miles driven, have gone down. You can easily find dozens of websites that “show” how you are 63% less likely to die in a car crash if you are properly restrained. Last year the number of highway deaths fell to 34,000 (somewhere near the battle deaths in the Korean War) for the first time since 1954, when, of course, the number of highway miles driven was much smaller. Nobody does much research on the issueit’s one of those, you know, “settled questions,” like global warming was about a year ago.

1954 is an interesting year to come up for comparison. It was two years before the National Highway Act (almost as big a transfer of power from the states to the national government as the current Obamacare law) and just before the Volkswagen started to revolutionize the American car market. It was also twenty years before the oil cartel decided to squeeze us into at least a measure of gasoline thrift. In 1954 we could still work on our own cars (my friends could take them apart and put them back together blindfolded) and the new model year was an event as anticipated as the World Series. Cars ruled! By 1984 government regulation, big oil, technological “advances,” and early globalization had transformed a cultural icon into an international utilitarian commodity that required a mega-dollar computer to change the oil. Chevy v. Ford was important; who really loves a Toyota?

Now that GM stands for “Government Motors” who can love a Chevy? In many ways, seat belt laws paved the way for this transformation. Government straps me in, government keeps me safe. Government protects the air, so government mandates emission controls. The car companies get used to being in bed with government, so they both can keep me safe. They have improved everything around them.

People die in cars because they drive too fast and/or are distracted by tiredness, drink, drugs, or talking on cell phones. The latter will inspire the next round of “improvement” laws, and we will be even safer.

But has anyone asked hard questions about why death by automobile has gone on a downward trend, or what it has cost? I suggest that it is because of improved roads, improved automobile design (which is the history of the machines long before government got involved), improved understanding of safety principles, and, maybe, just a little to do with seat belt laws. Common law principles would have arrived at a similar position to the one we find ourselves in, and with much less cost to limits and liberty. Think about it: if seat belt laws as they now exist were to be strictly and uniformly enforced, law enforcement agencies would be increased by a factor of at least ten and we would be in a police state. Is this likely to happen? Probably not soon. Are seat belt laws likely to be repealed or significantly modified? Probably not ever. The Iron Law of Government is, once you’ve got it, it’s really hard to get rid of it. True of seat belts, true of much more consequential laws.

Meanwhile, drive to New Hampshire and unbuckle, and cheer the Granite staters on. They’ll probably cave soon, and pass a bad law. By the way, their death by automobile rate is very low.

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18 replies to this post
  1. This is a really silly Libertarian-addled argument. It's not do-gooders in the government that push for these laws, but insurance companies.

  2. "Libertarian addled?" That's an interesting thing for someone to say who is terrified of signing his name.

    Do you really think insurance companies have the clout to get 49 states to pass progressively draconian laws like this? Laws that started from the impetus of Ralph Nader (a real insurance company shill, I bet) and were implemented in every single case and in every single state by liberal-dominated legislatures? Who profess, of course, to hate insurance companies.

    Either you are too young to remember that there was a time not long ago when real communities made laws and not distant do-gooders, or you fell in love with the TSA a year or so ago. Do you also think that there is a "scientific consensus" on man-made climate change?

    There is, in fact, only a small amount of research on the effectiveness of seatbelts, and that research is flawed at best. Do your homework before you start calling people names.

  3. Terrified, yes. Thank you for the diagnosis senor pontificador profundo. Folks with credentials are always apt to make this silly ad hominem, especially folks who rely on a Yosemite Sam-like bravado in their rhetoric.

    I am, in fact, too young (mid-30's) to remember when real communities made laws. Unfortunately, I'm also too young to have know such communities at all. I'm old enough, though, to recognize that the battle between individualistic anarchy and centralizing government is the falsest of the many false choices causing our social schizophrenia. Picking a side in that mad battle reinforces both as your article does here.

    The feds destroyed local community so that they could regulate the heck out of our lives or local community atrophied and the feds had to step in to try to create some half-baked modicum of human-ordered life? Since Tocqueville has been cited I think I'll go with his premonition that it's more the latter and that both the atrophy of local community at the expense of individual rights and egalitarianism and the resulting ever-expanding and encroaching State are symptom of the American idea rather than aberrations from it. So is asserting your right not to wear a seatbelt or to text while driving (within the context of your argument here, at least).

    Sorry for being belligerent. The tone of rhetoric you've applied here always pushes my buttons.

  4. John,

    Yes, I have noticed the younger folks seem to have an aversion to attaching their names to their boldly stated opinions. Sometimes it is legit, such as with conservative professors without the protection of tenure or grad students fearful of losing departmental support because of conservative opinions.

    Often, however, it appears to me that young people today seem to think the internet is a place where they can anonymously say the things they would never have the guts to say to your face. It is like arguing with a guy wearing a paper bag over his head. The first thing you want to do is knock the damn thing off his head, then maybe he's worth arguing with.

    As you know I follow the great philosopher Popeye: "I said what I meant and I meant what I said." Because "I am what I am what I am." Some of these guys need to watch some John Wayne movies and reform their metro-sexual ways.

    By the way Mr. "Anonymous" John Willson is no libertarian. He is a faith, family and local community conservative. Take care, he is one old guy who could kick most of our asses, rhetorically or physically.

    (By the way Mr. "Anonymous", I don't know you so don't take my remarks personally. Unless they fit.)

    W. Winston Elliott III

  5. Didn't say John was a Libertarian, just that the adventure-in-missing-the-point argument of his essay has a Libertarian stench to it. And see above about this pathetic "anonymous" ad hominem. This is the internet. Deal with it. Oh, and I couldn't care less whether John can kick my or your ass.

  6. Perhaps "young people" are more likely to understand that blog comments are not statements made in someones face. Rather, they are statements made in potentially thousands of peoples faces, including clients, prospective employers and anyone else who might Google their name.

    Perhaps "old people" are more likely to misunderstand prudent consideration in light of that fact as an indication of their prowess.

    The bottom line is that, in a discussion of this nature, there is no reason for anyone to know someones real name that isn't dubious. The arguments either stand on their own. Or, they don't.

  7. Well, Mr. Anonymious, you haven't yet addressed anything I said in the piece. You have only ranted. Do you have a suggestion about what good law is? Or why seatbelt laws are good? Or what the relation between the state and the community should be? I would, and this is serious, really love to hear your suggestions. By the way, today is my 71st birthday, so I really think you could kick my ass, which has gotten a lot smaller in the last two decades. And no, there is nothing ad hominem in my proposals–only in your response.

  8. 1)Mr. "Anonymous" don't take offense. Keep your sense of humor and we can disagree and still have fun.

    2)You might have noticed we are dealing with the internet (you are enjoying the fruit of our work as a matter of fact). You might also have noticed all kinds of rot on the internet (porn, frauds, etc.) I criticize the internet with the hope to improve its character. My small contribution to redeeming the time. No charge.

    3)Regarding your anonymity: Come out of the shadows into the light. Then, the Truth will set you free. Or not. No coercion in the TIC community. Just don't be surprised when those bellying up to the identity bar wonder about those sitting at the tables in the corner under the cover of shadows.

    4)As to John Willson's ability to kick our collective asses, well I appreciate truth combined with humor myself. Not to everyone's taste I understand. Sometimes the thin branch of humor holds us up for adulation. Sometimes it breaks and we go tumbling to the abyss. Ah, courage to enter the arena with nothing but our sword held high. Let the battle begin. Glory calls. Occasionally we answer by name.

    Warm handshake extended Mr. "Anonymous." Perhaps some day we can draw a smile on that paper bag you wear.

  9. John, like I said, I do apologize for being an ass. Especially during Lent.

    My reaction, which I see I didn't make at all clear, was triggered by the blaring siren of my BS detector. I put myself through school working as an EMT. I saw with my own eyes enough times that I still have nightmares the disparity of results of flying though a windshield at 50+ mph vs. not flying through a windshield under said conditions (this is also, Winston, why I've seemed rather humorless on the subject). Your request for scientific evidence in the face of the Obvious and aspersions cast on Nader and his co-travelers just brought to mind the kind of special pleading usually shoveled by Leftist sociology profs and the rhetoric of conspiracy theorists, respectively. And it’s a specific argument I’ve only ever seen on nutter Libertarian sites.

    Anyway, as much as it weakened your post it wasn't core to it. The rest of the essay isn't really objectionable, just simplistic and confused.

    Of course seat belt laws are ridiculously stupid, mildly unjust, and a sign of both bad government and social decay (and my contention that they have been imposed at the behest of insurance companies—the only beneficiaries besides morons and their children who might otherwise be killed and politicians who get a one-time photo-op demonstrating their Keeping Us Safe—is not a controversial claim). The government mandating that seat belts be in cars and spending money to encourage citizens to wear them, however, is not unjust. And imagining that not wearing a seatbelt while in New Hampshire is an affirmation of freedom is silly and entirely misses the point. It’s no more a victory for freedom than would be crossing a street without checking traffic in a state that threatens to ticket you for not doing so. Ten thousand Washington state residents refusing to pay their seat belt fine? Now there’s a stab for freedom. The essay just convolutes all of this.

    “People die in cars because they drive too fast and/or are distracted by tiredness, drink, drugs, or talking on cell phones. The latter will inspire the next round of ‘improvement’ laws, and we will be even safer.”

    More convolution. Some people die in cars for these reasons. Other people die in cars because other people drive too fast and/or are distracted by tiredness, drink, drugs, or talking on cell phones. Almost no one dies because another person was not wearing their seat belt (I say “almost” because a coworker did respond to an accident once in which a woman was killed when the man who hit her family’s car was ejected and collided with her body with enough force to break her neck). These insipid seat belt laws are not comparable to speed limits or drunk driving restrictions, or even to the anti-texting laws many states are adopting. It would be nice if nanny-state laws were not needed even in these circumstances but, honestly, what’s the alternative? Is there a social fabric or binding sense of social obligation to restrain such behavior otherwise? Channeling deTocqueville’s point, “the immense being that rises alone in the midst of universal debasement” may well be “the unique and necessary support” left to us. God, that it weren’t so, but honestly, what’s the alternative besides anarchy (to be clear, I’m talking drunk drivers and sixteen year olds texting at 80 mph on the freeway, not mandating the wearing of seatbelts)?

  10. Seat belt, drunk driving, drug use and sales. All are examples of the state engaging in pre-crime. One is guilty based on what "might" have happened. I live in N.H. and while the free-est state in this federal tyranny, thats like saying your validictorian of summer school. A dubious distinction.

  11. No, I'm sorry, there is nothing "simplistic or confused" in my argument. OK, you worked your way through school as an EMT. I have three doctors, seven nurses, an EMT, and a combat medic in my family. When I was ten years old my daddy called me into his home office to hold tendons and ligaments so that he could sow up a guy who was in a knife fight. My nephew stopped on an interstate and pulled a family out of a car that was about to blow up, and did just after they got to safety. My grandson-in-law cleared roads in Iraq in two tours there, and his wife, my granddaughter is the combat medic I mentioned above. Don't tell me about bloody bodies. I've seen as many as you have.

    Now, when you say that "Some people die in cars for these reasons," and then just repeat what I already said–it doesn't matter whether it is the primary driver or an opponent on the highway, it is still tiredness, drink, drugs, or cell phones. And none of these things has anything to do with seatbelts, or bad law. You admit that the laws are stupid, but then insist that I am, too. Who's confused?

    You mention speed limits. Do you follow them? Do you know anybody who does? How many policemen would it take to enforce that one law? And you still haven't addressed a very central question: Where is the evidence that seatbelt laws are needed to protect us? And why give the state the authority to fine or arrest us if there is no such good evidence? Over the last fifty years, there is no discrepancy between localities that have seatbelt laws and those who don't, if you are willing to adjust for better roads and better cars.

    This is not a libertarian argument. It is a prudential one, one that asks us to be self-governing instead of looking for the nanny state to take care of us. If it is outdated, a term I hear about kitchens on HGTV, then it is like most responses from young people who think the world was invented at their birth. Furthermore, if you are willing to accept seatbelt laws, you are probably also willing to have your wife groped in airports (or strip searched, as my 62 year old wife was a few years ago because she had a pair of cross-stich scissors around her neck).

    God bless you, but you have a very different understanding of family, church, and local community than i do.

  12. Willson.

    Just trying to discern your principles here. You are saying here that people don't need a nanny state to tell them to wear seat-belts. However, in another thread, you argue that 18-year-olds think they are invulnerable and can't be expected to understand the potential consequences of serving in the military during war.

    Wouldn't your second argument make a strong case for seat-belt laws for 18 year olds?

  13. All of a sudden where are they all coming from? Is it some virus carried over the border by infected chickens?

  14. Goodness John,

    Nowhere did I argue that seat belt laws are good or efficacious. I said precisely the opposite. I did attempt to argue two things:

    1. That questioning the efficacy of wearing a seat belt (not the efficacy of seat belt laws) is nutter based on my own experience and that of any cop, EMT, or even tow truck driver you might care to speak with (your response suggests you took my EMT story as some kind of emotive manipulation or attempt to present "macho" credentials…um, no) and that you may as well be asking for studies showing the efficacy of checking traffic before crossing the street (not the efficacy of laws requiring that one check traffic). This special pleading seriously undermines your larger argument.

    2. Classing seat belt laws which, except in the rarest of exceptions, "protect" us only from our own stupidity with speed limits, drunk driving laws, vehicle maintenance laws, etc. which, to some extent at least, mitigate the dangers posed to us and our loved ones by the irresponsible and life-threatening disregard of others makes your argument spin into confusion. These laws may also be unwise and/or unjust, but not for the same reasons as seat belt laws are. You apparently agree: "none of these things has anything to do with seat belts, or bad law."

    "You mention speed limits. Do you follow them? Do you know anybody who does? How many policemen would it take to enforce that one law?"

    Okay. The core disagreement is about law then and this is the source of the Libertarian stench. These kinds of laws are not invitations to police state enforcement. Why must a law be absolutely enforced to be just or needed? Abortion proponents are wrong when they make this argument (“women will always have abortions…” “are you going to station police officers at every clinic, hospital, and doctor office in the country?”) and you're wrong here. Many laws are expressions of communal standards and/or a thumb on the scale in the decision making process intended to restrain or limit the bad behavior of individuals. I understand why Libertarians abhor both of these but why do you? Rebuilding a world in which self-governance means something beyond personal moralism and actually shapes society is not a quick task. I’ve asked this several times now without response, but until such a world again exists is there an alternative force for ameliorating our social dysfunction other than the state? It’s a nasty and ham-fisted beast but in the world in which we actually live is there any other force holding anarchy at bay?

    Any of these laws (speaking not of the ridiculous seat belt laws but of the others you've conflated them with) might be wise or unwise, just or unjust. That's an argument well worth having. I'm not defending any specific law just pooh-poohing your categorical rejection and the argument behind it. We both apparently hate the disease (the death of real community under modernity). I yearn to live in a world in which communal norms and common law naturally and organically place the limits and obligations that a society needs to function and persons need to thrive. But that world ain't ours. And obviously I say that not because I'm a young person who thinks the world was invented at my birth but because I'm aware of how much was lost by the generations that preceded me and of the erosion that has continued through my own lifetime.

  15. Dear Mr. Anonymous,

    Finally, you are trying to make an argument rather than just calling me names. I hoped that if I were patient enough you would do that.

    I just read through my piece again, trying to figure out what pushed your buttons. For the life of me, I can't. The rhetoric is rather subdued, I use only arguments and don't attack any group of people except by indirection, call no names, and while the subject is on the surface seat-belts, it is really about the rule of law and how we move almost without realizing it to a nanny state. I chose seat-belt laws as an example precisely because it is, as I said, low on our liberty radar. I could just as easily have used health care, school laws, redefining marriage, or a hundred other subjects that do-gooders are convinced will improve our lives, and which I am old enough to remember when we wouldn't let them.

    Which "categorical rejection" are you talking about? I'm actually in favor of many sumptuary laws, as long as they emerge from the community and not from the abstractions of ideologues. The problem is, once you start down the slippery slope of federal nannyism, apparently people like you buy into thinking that people like me are like 1970s kitchens, "outdated."

    Yes, there is an alternative to the state. It's called by some people "civil society," a term that makes me a little nervous but one that I will accept. But we must first clear away a lot of muck and mire before the "little platoons" can operate the way they always have. If we are not willing to challenge seat-belt laws (there are SO many better ways to approach highway safety) then how can we challenge pro-death laws, choking regulation, and the boot-heel of national government on neighborhoods?

    Except for your "Libertarian stench" gratuitous insult, I actually like the argument you are trying to make in your last two paragraphs. I would take care, however, to avoid assigning blame to the generations that came before you, which is an ahistorical "stench."

  16. "Finally, you are trying to make an argument rather than just calling me names. I hoped that if I were patient enough you would do that."
    I figured that on the second reiteration your ire would have gone down enough to consider the criticism. 😉

    "I would take care, however, to avoid assigning blame to the generations that came before you"
    Ah. I meant that those prior generations suffered the losses, not that they're to blame for them.

    "I just read through my piece again, trying to figure out what pushed your buttons. For the life of me, I can't."
    The opening two sentences probably led me to give the rest an uncharitable reading–given my experience, you may as well have been praising Russian Roulette as an exercise in liberty–and paragraphs 8 and 9 in which you suggest that the accepted wisdom that wearing a seat belt is the safe and proper thing to do is unsubstantiated myth left me dumbstruck. I'd have had no disagreement had you stuck to calling into question the efficacy of seat belt laws, but the life- and limb-saving benefits of the belts themselves in the vast majority of scenarios is incontrovertible.

    "Which 'categorical rejection' are you talking about?"
    Okay. Reread the article and it's not there. I had assumed there was a categorical rejection when you expanded your reasonable rejection of seat belt laws to talk of more defensible highway safety laws without any kind of bridge or recognition of difference of kind.

    "The problem is, once you start down the slippery slope of federal nannyism, apparently people like you buy into thinking that people like me are like 1970s kitchens, 'outdated.'"
    Sir, I can assure you that that is the last thing I would say or think of you. You're a relic, in the good (actual) sense of the word. You carry the spirit of what was. You knew and lived the kind of community we're both talking about here and the old norms and obligations still have real force in your life. Thank God! Exposure to such relics has had a very healing and encouraging effect on me and on other semi-youngens (I'm mid-thirties not one of your undergrads) I know who would like to see a return to sanity.

    Our experience is just different. You still possess this old spirit and feel its force in your life. We see its lingering effects in the better of our elders and long for it ourselves, but we look around and don't see those little platoons (except for the damn military), and we certainly don't feel any actual compelling fact of belonging or real society. You watched society atomize. We've known nothing but life as an atom. Give us hope and example. Please!

    RE: civil society vs. federal nannyism, is the latter not a scab rather than the wound? That was Tocqueville's suggestion and I find his argument compelling. People don't want a federal nanny because they like Leviathan (speaking of those under it, of course, not those directing it) but because they're alone and defenseless. The nanny state is the result of the loss of civil society rather than its cause. Rebuild civil society (and the social habits and assumptions that make it possible) and the nanny state withers. Destroy the nanny state without first rebuilding civil society and there's anarchy. Or so it seems.

  17. This is all good. Your point about the potential for anarchy is especially troubling, and one for which I have no answer. I hadn't yet thought of myself as a "relic," but I guess I would accept that, too.

    Let me tell you what I did this afternoon. I still coach the punters and place kickers on our college football team, an avocation for about 45 years. I was a kicker (high school, college, seven years of rugby) and I think I know more about the subject than maybe anybody now alive. I have four young men who have, all in their own ways, tremendous talent. We have a head coach who is serious about the kicking game. When you win the kicking game, you usually win football games. The young men have not yet learned to teach themselves. The point about this is that kickers are a lonely bunch, part of the community but terribly alone. If they don't learn how to cross the chasm between loneliness and community nobody else will do it for them. I learned a long time ago that that was in essence the American dilemma. Simplistic? Yes. But it made me think hard about the relation between the individual, civil society, and the state. This afternoon, the second day of spring football practice, I took my great granddaughter to the field before practice to introduce her to my kickers and to the coaches. She charmed them, of course, and I didn't have to say that I was bringing into the equation the unbreakable contract between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn. They understood.

    Good law is a reflection of that contract, and yes, I still feel that force in my life, and will fight to the very death of me to pass it on to every single member of my extended family and to young people like you who are obviously searching seriously for ways to make the nanny state wither.

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