Reining in seat belt enforcement

THIS WEEK, the Massachusetts House of Representatives will face a telling test: Can it resist a progressive Legislature’s ever-present impulse toward pesky paternalism?

The issue is seat belts, and whether the police will be allowed to stop motorists upon suspicion that someone in their vehicle is not wearing a seat belt or only ticket them for that grievous offense if they have first been pulled over for something else.

The rhetoric, of course, is about saving lives; proponents of primary enforcement note that seat belt usage in Massachusetts lags the national average by 17 percent.

That would be a stronger argument if our highway fatality rate were higher than the national average. Actually, it’s lower. According to a recent Globe story, in 2004, the state had 7.42 driving-related fatalities per 100,000 residents, the lowest rate in the nation.

Would greater seat belt use save some lives? Undoubtedly.

But so too would, say, reducing the highway speed limit to 55, to name another nostrum whose inconvenience would outweigh the safety gains it would bring about.

Now, I support reasonable laws to crack down on drivers whose actions endanger others. Thus I applauded recent efforts to toughen the state’s drunk-driving law.

However, though failing to wear a seat belt increases your own risk, it doesn’t render one a menace to other drivers. It’s the sort of behavior that philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his essay ”On Liberty,” describes as ”self-regarding conduct.” That kind of conduct shouldn’t be regulated at all, Mill thought. Certainly the threshold for justifying a crackdown on that sort of behavior should be far higher than it is for penalizing behavior that could well prove injurious to others.

Some proponents, however, are dismissive of the philosophical distinctions that justify tougher punishment or enforcement for one category of conduct, but not the other.

State Representative Michael Festa, a Melrose Democrat and cosponsor of the primary-enforcement legislation, displays that mindset in offering this rationale: ”If we believe that as a society we should require everyone to wear a seat belt, then we ought to mean it by enforcing it.”

There, unfortunately, Festa proves exactly what opponents of the seat belt law predicted when the secondary-enforcement compromise was offered back in 1994.

”We always said that once they get the law passed in any form, they won’t stop until they get primary enforcement,” notes Chip Ford, who led the fight against seat belt legislation back then. Although proponents downplay those concerns, the potential erosion of liberty here is real. Giving police the power to stop a motorist upon suspicion that a seat belt isn’t being worn would grant them an excuse for stopping anyone anytime they desire.

As it happens, I had an experience with that sort of excessive law enforcement in rural upstate New York last fall. Driving from the tiny hamlet of De Kalb Junction to the small village of Gouverneur, we encountered a midmorning police roadblock. At first, we thought a convict must have escaped from the nearby correctional institution to occasion such an intrusion.

Noticing our Massachusetts plates, the New York State Police officer wanted to know why we were in the North Country. We were there to visit a hospitalized family member, I told him. What I wanted to say was: That, really, is simply not your business.

What were the police looking for, my sister asked?

”Anything and everything,” replied the officer, fairly brimming with his own sense of authority.

And by that time, he had found something: I had forgotten to fasten my seat belt on the short drive. And so my wife and I and two siblings were ordered to wait on the shoulder for 20 minutes or so while the police ran checks on me and other, equally baleful, offenders.

It was ridiculously intrusive and time-consuming for such a minor infraction.

I realize we’re not talking roadblock enforcement here. Not yet, anyway. Of course, back in 1994, we weren’t going to have primary enforcement, either.

But if the Legislature allows primary enforcement, scores of Massachusetts residents will soon find themselves cooling their heels in the same way.

And that might just shift the balance from a seat belt law the state can live with to one that voters decide, once again, they want repealed.

Which is just one more reason why the wise way to encourage seat belt use is more public persuasion, and not more police invigilation.   

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