A cop stops you at a checkpoint. The officer peers inside. What's he looking
for? A kidnapper? A terrorist? This week, chances are good the officer is
looking for a less frightening perpetrator-the unbuckled motorist.
We are again in the midst of Click It or Ticket season, the time
of year when law enforcement focuses extra-hard on forcing us to buckle
up. Nationwide over 12,000 agencies participate in the federally-backed
campaign, and checkpoints are just one part of the effort.
Other elements include 26-million worth of tough-talking PSAs, steep fines,
and lots of lobbying for "primary enforcement" laws, which allow
cops to ticket those whose only offense is not
Most of us have seen enough dummy smashing to be convinced that seat belts
save lives. But what about seat belt laws? Do they save lives? Illinois
officials say yes. In 2003 the state switched to primary enforcement. A
year later cops had written 43,000 additional tickets and
there were 63 fewer automobile fatalities. Sounds like a success. Or is
it more like a jokester who jumps in front of a parade and pretends to lead
In the 20 years preceding the law, the state's highway fatality
rate dropped by nearly half. Take a wider view and the progress is even
more impressive. In 1924 America, there were about 24 deaths for every 100
vehicle million miles traveled. By 1984, when New York became the first
state to pass a seat belt law, the nation's highway fatality rate had already
fallen 90 percent to about 2.5. Today it stands at about 1.5.
Click It supporters say tougher seat belt laws will
help make highways even safer, but the nationwide trend toward safer streets
has continued with or without them. Take New Hampshire, the only
state without an adult seat belt law. It might seem like the "Live
free or die" state has chosen death, but drivers there actually enjoy
the nation's fourth safest roads. Neither of the two safest states have
primary enforcement, and of the top 20 safest states, 10 have primary enforcement
and 10 do not.
Of the states with the most dangerous roads, many do not
have primary enforcement, but here higher fatality rates have much to do
with the fact that these states also tend to be rural. Risks common to rural
driving, such ss narrow roads, sharp curves, and steep drop-offs from pavement
to the shoulder
make for treacherous travel. And when accidents occur in these remote locations,
it's difficult to get ambulances to the scene in time to save l ives.
Many factors make driving dangerous. Naturally, public officials like to
highlight what we're doing wrong, but they could do a lot more good by tending
to the highway safety aspects they've been neglecting. Getting to accident
sites quickly saves lives, yet many local governments allow their emergency
medical service to grow sluggish and complacent. Properly maintained roads
make driving safer, yet our roadway system managed only a D grade from the
American Society of Civil Engineers. Reversing the trend of ever worsening
traffic congestion would also help. Congestion makes drivers desperate,
and desperate drivers do stupid things that endanger all of us.
And that's the central folly of seat belt laws. They don't protect safe
drivers from dangerous drivers; they protect careless people from themselves.
Beltlessness does not cause accidents and, "except in extremely rare
circumstances", one driver's decision to go beltless does not make
anyone else less
safe. Most importantly, running down seatbelt scofflaws keeps officers away
from more important public safety duties. It takes time for an officer to
pull over a beltless driver, check license, registration, insurance, and
then write up a ticket and deliver a finger wagging. A recently ticketed
Californian told me that the process took about 15 minutes, not too much
of a diversion on its own, but law enforcement's opportunity costs add up.
In just two days, officers in the Mid-Atlantic organized over 1,200 seat
belt checkpoints and roving patrols. In Weslaco, TX cops have even taken
seatbelt sting operations, three shifts per day, four officers per shift
quite a lot of manpower for a town of 30,000. As this video clip shows,
officers in plain clothes hang around traffic stops and report unsuspecting
seat belt law violators to their colleagues on the road. One officer proudly
reports that this effort yields about 200 tickets per day. Beyond all the
safety talk, why do authorities bother? There's the lure of federal
cash, typically the payoff for bowing to federal regulations.
This year the Bush administration is backing a bill that would give more
transportation funding to states that pass primary enforcement laws and
achieve 90 percent seat belt use. But local governments need not covet federal
funds to warm up to tougher seat belt laws. With fines as high as $200,
all that ticket writing makes for quite a nice revenue stream all by itself.
Officially it's (wink, wink) all about saving lives, but money has a way
of sidetracking the pursuit of safety. Take red light cameras, which are
supposed to reduce side-angle collisions. Like primary enforcement seat
belt laws, they are growing in popularity. But there's evidence that some
cameras are positioned, not to maximize safety, but to maximize revenue.
Also like seat belt laws, it's unclear how well red light cameras work.
Some studies have found that the reduction in side-angle collisions has
been offset by increases in rear-end accidents. But with so much cash a-flowin'
will local officials be able to examine the issue with cool objectivity
and side with safety regardless of the fiscal impact?
Yet most people don't get riled up about seatbelt laws. Even those who usually
grit their teeth at nanny state policies often don't mind having Nanny on
the highway. And it's easy to see why. Those who refuse to belt themselves
in stick the rest of us with higher insurance and health care costs. Since
the government forces responsible people to pay for the actions of the irresponsible,
forcing the irresponsible to shape up becomes easier to justify. But if
we were bent on using policy to lower such costs, the beltless driver wouldn't
be our first target. Even with the government's recent admission that obesity-related
deaths have been overstated, those who eat too much and move too little
likely cost our nation much more than those who refuse to buckle up. Yet
most of us would object to stationing cops at chubby checkpoints. The problem
isn't the 20 percent of Americans who refuse to buckle up; it's a system
that forces everyone to subsidize everyone else. The solution is making
everyone pay his own way. If we don't figure out how to fix this particular
tragedy of the commons, we'll likely continue down the Nanny State path
of more checkpoints, stiffer fines, and more stringent laws. Then again
the Nanny State may have already morphed into the Therapeutic State. Most
of us think of the seat belt as a strip of fabric, but the DOT recently
explained that they're actually "vaccines" that protect us from
the "disease" of auto fatalities. Perhaps future checkpoints will
be manned by men in white coats.
Ted Balaker is the Jacobs Fellow at Reason Foundation. He blogs at Out of
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