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 buckling up.
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 it? 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 as 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 lives.
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 to 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.