Why Not Let Cops Stop People for Unbuckled Seat Belts?


Yesterday I discovered two things: 1) Israel has a mandatory seat belt law, and 2) like the law in 32 U.S. states, it authorizes primary enforcement, meaning police can pull you over simply for failing to buckle up. Although the experience turned out to be no more than an inconvenience, it illustrates what can happen when the law gives police an all-purpose excuse to detain motorists.

Driving my parents' 1990 Mitsubishi station wagon on Route 1 between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with my wife, two of our daughters, and one of our nieces, I was puzzled to see a police car with flashing lights pull up alongside us. I knew I hadn't been speeding or made any illegal maneuvers, and I wasn't even sure the cops were targeting me until they announced it over their P.A. speaker. The officer who approached on the passenger side accused us of letting our daughters (who are 6 and 9) ride with their seat belts unfastened. When we pointed out that both had their belts on, he said that was because we had fastened them after we were pulled over. What had actually happened, I discovered, was that my wife, riding in the back seat, had unfastened her belt while half asleep because she was having trouble breathing, then refastened it as the cop approached our car. Seeing my Texas driver's license, the officer asked for my passport, which I had left back in Jerusalem at my brother's house. "So how do I know you're really an American?" the officer said. Um, because I have a Texas driver's license? Also: Why does it matter? After initially threatening to take all of us to the nearest police station until the question of our citizenship could be sorted out, he decided to let us go with a lecture about the importance of seat belts after confirming that we had in fact arrived in Israel on June 8, although it's not clear why he deemed that better evidence of my nationality than my driver's license.

Why did it matter whether we were American? Presumably because we could then be excused for not knowing that "Israeli law requires the use of seat belts for all occupants of a motor vehicle," as the U.S. State Department helpfully explains here. In Texas, by contrast, adults are free to travel unrestrained in the back seat. Given the possibility of dual citizenship, of course, neither my Texas driver's license nor my U.S. passport proves that I am not also an Israeli, fully knowledgeable of the relevant law but recklessly choosing to disregard it. Perhaps my crappy Hebrew saved us.

In any event, although Israel's law applies to adults as well as children, the cop's avowed concern was that our kids were bouncing around in the back seat, ready to fly through the windshield in the event of a collision. He stopped us based on a suspicion that the children were not wearing seat belts—a suspicion that proved to be unfounded. Thus does primary enforcement of seat belt laws provide an excuse for stopping anyone at any time, especially since the cop can always claim you buckled your belt only after you saw him. And once you've been pulled over, there are further opportunities for harassment investigation, such as vehicle searches based on an odor the officer claims to have smelled, a drug dog's alleged "signal,"  or your "consent" to a "request" from an armed agent of the state who has the power to deprive you of your freedom. A search might not even be necessary if the cop claims to have seen something suspicious "in plain sight."

Assuming you're not carrying anything that justifies detaining you further, in some states, including Texas, you can be arrested (and maybe, if you're lucky, strip-searched!) simply for driving with your seat belt unbuckled—a violation that rests entirely on an officer's word. In Arizona, you can be detained based on suspicion that you are in the country illegally, an authority that is apt to disproportionately affect people with dark skin and foreign accents (which is why the Supreme Court, in rejecting a Supremacy Clause challenge to this provision, left open the possibility of a challenge based on the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause). Elsewhere police might decide to confiscate your cash, jewelry, or car based on a hunch that it is connected to drug dealing in some way—a hunch you then have to disprove through a process that probably will cost more than the property is worth. 

These are some of the consequences that flow from a policy of protecting people from their own lack of care by letting police stop them for not wearing seat belts. Back in 2005, when I wrote a feature story for Reason about seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws, I asked an advocate of primary enforcement about the possibility of such unintended consequences:

As states move toward primary enforcement (which the transportation bill signed by President Bush in August encourages them to do with a promise of extra highway money), seat belt laws may arouse more resentment and concern, especially since traffic stops can lead to further hassles, such as interrogation and examinations by drug-sniffing dogs. Fear of racially tinged police harassment was the main reason New Jersey, the second state to adopt a seat belt law, did not follow New York's lead in allowing primary enforcement, and most states copied the New Jersey model. "Do I think racial profiling is an issue?" says MADD's Chuck Hurley, who lobbied for stricter seat belt laws when he worked at the National Safety Council. "Yes, I do." But Hurley doubts primary enforcement of seat belt laws will noticeably worsen the problem, and he argues that it makes sense as a matter of consistency: If you can be pulled over for a broken tail light, why not for failing to buckle up? One answer is that the broken tail light poses a potential hazard to others, while the unbuckled seat belt does not. But unless they want to repeal existing seat belt requirements, says Hurley, politicians who oppose primary enforcement are left to argue, rather implausibly, that it's "the Maginot Line between enough government and too much government."

Yet even those who see nothing wrong with requiring motorists to wear seat belts may reasonably perceive a distinct risk from letting cops use that policy as yet another excuse to mess with people.