Charlotte Observer, The (NC)
April 8, 2001
Edition: ONE-THREE
Page: 2C
Column:For The Record


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 government.

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 seat belts.

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 foods.

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 deserves neither."

Eric Peters is a nationally syndicated automotive columnist. Write him at 11 Wicker Court, Sterling, VA 20164.