Putting on a seatbelt is likely perfectly natural to you. It’s one of those things you just do without thinking, like adjusting your seat or fixing the mirror. And that little ritual could save your life one day, like it did for 13,941 others in 2015 alone, according to the NHTSA . Seat
belts save lives, and that’s why in 1985, bills mandating seatbelt use began to make their way into state legislatures. For the most part, people celebrated. But do these laws actually serve their purpose? Are they necessary for public safety, or are they an infringement on people’s civil rights?
The ACLU would argue that seatbelt laws are the latter, but for a different reason than one would expect. The organization found that in 2014, black motorists in Florida were on average twice as likely to be ticketed for seatbelt violations. In some areas of the state, the problem is even worse; in Escambia County, black motorists were stopped almost four times as much as their white counterparts in 2011. And the average 2014 discrepancy is likely even higher than reported, because counties with this shocking difference in rates between races, including Escambia, have stopped providing this information despite state law requiring them to do so. This difference can’t be explained by seatbelt use rates either - the Florida Department of Transportation found that in 2014, 85.8% of black motorists wore seatbelts and 91.5% of white motorists did. No matter the reason, the black motorist population is disproportionately affected by seatbelt laws, getting stopped and fined far more often. While that occasional stop or tiny fine might not seem so bad, that minor ticket could become much more: the Supreme Court has ruled that something as trivial as a seatbelt violation is grounds for a search of the car or arrest. These seemingly unimportant seatbelt violations can become something far worse, even, in one case, death. This contrast is a major cause for concern.
While systemic racism appears to be the cause of the seatbelt ticketing problem, the problem is only a symptom of a larger issue within the police force. Fixing seatbelt laws wouldn’t cause any major changes in how cops interact with people, and those laws still serve their original function of saving lives, don’t they? Conventional wisdom states that wearing a seatbelt will make you safer. Conventional wisdom is, in this case, correct. According to the Center for Disease Control, front seat occupants can cut their risk of death by 45% and their risk of serious injury by 50%, just by wearing a seatbelt. And according to the Virginia DMV, in seatbelt use in the backseat lowers the risk of death by 60%.
So yes, wearing seatbelts clearly does reduce the likelihood of death in a car accident: seatbelts make people safer. But do seatbelt laws? According to a 2006 analysis of 18 countries by John Adams, a University College London risk expert and emeritus professor of geography, laws requiring the use of seatbelts either increased or had no effect on the number of deaths in road accidents. The answer is no, seatbelt laws didn’t reduce fatalities.
If this is confusing, look at it in a different light. A study by Christopher Garbacz of the University of Missouri-Rolla reveals that seatbelt laws have no effect on total fatalities, but do lead to increased non-occupant fatalities. So while wearing a seatbelt won’t affect your chance of injury or death, it might make you more likely to get in an accident in the first place. Psychology has determined that humans make most of their decisions based on perceived risk and perceived reward; a driver is less likely to speed if he knows that there is a speed trap up ahead, but more likely to do so if he is late to work. Wearing a seatbelt is another such risk factor. If a driver is wearing one, then he will feel safer and thus make more risky decisions on the road (a claim supported by this study, which found that people seatbelts drive faster and more dangerously). Risky decisions lead to more accidents, endangering the lives of not only the driver but also pedestrians and other motorists. This doesn’t mean that motorists shouldn’t wear seatbelts, but it does suggest that seatbelt laws are not serving their intended purpose. After all, your own interest lies in reducing risk to yourself, but the government’s interest is ostensibly to reduce risk for everyone collectively.
The data aren’t entirely conclusive on this effect. Some studies, such as one conducted by Alma Cohen at Harvard University, claim that there is no evidence that seatbelts substantially affect the behavior of drivers, and that seatbelt laws do result in a decrease in fatalities. So it’s unclear whether these laws really do make our roads safer, and more research needs to be done on the issue.
Even if, however, we do assume that these laws save lives, there still is doubt as to whether or not they should be in place. The dispute comes down to consent. Putting on a seatbelt is an individual decision, one that directly affects only the wearer. Unlike driving drunk or speeding, not wearing a seatbelt does not put anyone else in danger. Should the government really be “protecting” people from their own choices? Furthermore, seatbelts aren’t always life-saving. There have been at least dozens of cases where wearing a seatbelt has actually led to death, most often when a person was stuck in a submerged or burning car. Now, I’m not suggesting that you should leave your seatbelt off in case one of those rare scenarios occurs - it’s far more likely that the seatbelt will save your life rather than take it - but consider that there is some risk involved. And when there’s risk, shouldn’t the decision be made by the person at risk?
That’s how the rules work in medicine. Informed Consent Law requires that doctors tell their patients the risks and potential effects of treatments or procedures, and allow the patient (or a family member, if the patient is incapacitated or otherwise unable to make an informed decision) to make the final decision for him/herself. Even if a treatment has a 99% chance of saving the patient’s life and a 1% chance of causing him to sneeze, the patient must first consent. So why isn’t that the case with seatbelts? It’s the same principle: the government shouldn’t be forcing potentially deadly behavior on citizens, even if that behavior in most cases saves lives instead of taking them.
Some argue, however, that not wearing a seatbelt does affect others. The American Auto Association says that not wearing a seatbelt and getting injured is a violation of the rights of those who have to pay for medical bill. However, that is an argument more against socialized healthcare than anything else. By the same logic, any risky behavior from playing football to opening a box with a knife is a violation of rights, as they can lead to a trip to the hospital paid for by other people. Choosing to not wear a seatbelt is no different.
The issue of the role of government protection extends to far more than just seatbelts. Seatbelt laws might never go away, most likely because putting on a seatbelt is only a minor inconvenience. Almost everyone wears a seatbelt by choice. The purpose of this article is more to call attention to the mindset we have become accustomed to, and to use this easily-digested line of thinking to consider similar yet more complex laws and issues. This idea of the government having the responsibility to keep us safe is, while comforting, ultimately dangerous. The government’s purpose is to protect our rights, not infringe upon them. People need to take responsibility for their own actions and their own choices, and not let the government make those choices for them. If the people become complacent and allow government to make more and more choices for them, then the government might end up serving its own interests rather than those of the people. The key to stopping corruption in government is to allow the government less power. The government is the servant of the people, not its master.
To put this into perspective, consider how seatbelt use is advocated. Billboards, in Massachusetts at least, promote seatbelt use with big, bold letters that say “buckle up, it’s the law.” Should they not read “buckle up, it’s your life?” Do we as a people value loyalty to the government more than our own lives? Ask yourself the next time you strap yourself in, “who am I buckling up for, myself or the government?”