Observer, The (NC)
April 8, 2001
Column:For The Record
SEAT BELT NAGS SHOULD LAY OFF
Eric Peters, Knight Ridder/Tribune
Safety enforced at gunpoint is hardly worth our freedom. But
state lawmakers increasingly think otherwise.
Lawmakers in several states around the country have passed or are considering
legislation that would give police authority to turn on their sirens and
pull motorists over - for no greater "offense" than the motorist's
decision not to wear his or her seat belt.
This represents the next step in a gradual process that, as termites quietly
eat away at the structural supports of a home, undermine our cherished
freedoms - our right to be left alone by the busybody nags of ever-present
The new laws being passed in states such as Virginia and Michigan confer
primary enforcement powers upon the seat-belt patrol - enabling the police
to interfere with a motorists' trips, hassle them, inspect their persons
and vehicles - all solely because they happened not to be wearing their
Minority drivers should be especially alarmed by this development, given
police profiling problems. But it's an issue that ought to concern anyone
worried about the shift from a live-and-let-live society based on the
ideal of individual rights to a society where government bureaucrats increasingly
view themselves as our parents, endowed with authority to compel us to
behave a certain way for our own good.
Safety - the benign-sounding catch phrase that the state legislators
in favor of the heightened seat-belt enforcement have trotted out as their
trump-everything argument - is beside the point. No one disputes that
wearing a seat belt is a good idea. So are exercise and eating low-fat
The question here is whether the state should be able to compel us to
wear seat belts for our own good. It's an important distinction because
the decision to wear or not wear one's seat belt, like the decision to
exercise or not, is a personal choice, the consequences of which are borne
by the individual.
Only in the vaguest, most abstract sense can society be said to have
a stake in the outcome of this private, personal choice. It is certainly
not a compelling, immediate interest, such as getting drunken drivers
or those with poor vision off the road. Drunken driving or failing to
wear eyeglasses affects others. Failing to wear a seat belt does not.
If police have a right to force us to wear our seat belts for our own
good, then perhaps dietitians should be sent to the homes of every officer
and legislator in the state to make certain that no unhealthy foods are
consumed that may lead to heart disease and arteriosclerosis. After all,
society has an interest in the well-being of its public servants.
And arguably, it isn't safe if Officer Friendly is clogging his arteries
with greasy cheeseburgers while on the job; he might have a heart attack
and wreck his car.
The point is simply that the police should have authority to interfere
with private conduct only when such conduct clearly threatens third parties
- other people or their property.
Inside one's automobile, the decision to wear or not wear one's seat
belt is as personal and private a right as what food to select at the
drive-through window. Neither is any of the state's business.
If these burgeoning new forms of law are not strangled in their crib,
worse will almost certainly follow. As Benjamin Franklin is said to have
quipped: "A people that values security (safety) more than freedom
Eric Peters is a nationally syndicated automotive columnist. Write him
at 11 Wicker Court, Sterling, VA 20164.