Freedom Forced to Buckle, Part 1

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”
— Thomas Jefferson

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed — and hence clamorous to be led to safety — by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
— H.L. Mencken

After “Lives in the Balance (Sheet),” my essay on the utter needlessness, negative economic impact, and insidious reason behind motorcycle helmet laws, I was amazed at how many folks wrote in asking me to apply the same kind of analysis to seat belt laws…

These requests warmed my heart. After all, I thought I was the only one out there still nursing a grudge against my home state for forcing me to buckle up some 20 years ago. In protest, I stopped wearing my belt — and didn’t start clicking regularly again until the year 2000, despite being ticketed three times!

I thought I was the only one who was still incensed that the nanny state would take away my own accountability for what happens to me in my own vehicle — especially since no one but myself could be harmed (or saved, depending on the situation) by my actions.

But as always, Whiskey & Gunpowder readers proved what they’re made of. It’s the same stuff all good Americans used to be made of — a robust spirit of self-determination, a healthy distrust of big government and its propaganda, and more than a dash of orneriness and grit.

And so I invite you to strap yourselves in as I grant my readers’ wish…

To Buckle or Not to Buckle?

One of the starkest examples of our government’s inexorable usurpation of personal liberties in the name of the “greater good” has been the near-universal adoption of mandatory seat belt laws in the 50 states and the District of Columbia over the last two decades. Only one U.S. state, New Hampshire, whose fitting motto is “Live Free or Die,” continues to put the individual’s freedom and accountability above overreaching state power and federal fiscal coercion (more on this in a minute).

And not surprisingly to anyone who hasn’t been brainwashed by the nannyish government into believing they’re in mortal danger if they don’t buckle up, the Granite State is perennially among the three or four safest states from a fatalities-per-vehicle and fatalities-per-mile standpoint — despite having among the lowest seat belt use in the nation — just 49.6% in 2003…

However, this being the age that it is, when principles are the redheaded stepchildren to pragmatism and when revenue is sovereign instead of rights, it takes numbers to make a point. One cannot simply argue the rightness or wrongness of anything these days — at least not with any hope of being taken seriously. And so let’s start off by considering the issue in purely numerical terms:

Do seat belts really save as many lives as everyone says? Do they save ANY?

At First Glance, a Clean Win for Big Brother

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), seat belt usage has saved around 120,000 lives between 1994 and the end of 2004 in the United States. They also claim that a front seat occupant’s statistical odds of dying in a vehicle collision are 45% greater if not belted in.

Now, to get a handle on whether these assertions are accurate or not, we need to know two things: the approximate rate of seat belt usage over time and the number of occupant fatalities per mile of highway travel over the same period of time…

According to the NHTSA’s own data, seat belt use has increased nationwide from 58% in 1994 to roughly 78% at the end of 2004. That’s a 20% (or one-fifth) increase in participation over a decade.

Therefore, if a person’s odds of dying really are 45% greater beltless than restrained, then owing to this one-fifth increase in belt use we should see a reduction in occupant fatalities per mile traveled of around one-fifth of this figure (9%) over the same 10-year period, all other things being more or less equal, right?

Now, bear in mind that I’m not a statistician, and I’m not factoring in every single possible variable or looking for an exact cause/effect relationship here — just a basic identifiable correlation between rates of seat belt use and reduced fatalities…

OK, now have a look at this chart, paying special attention to the row entitled “Fatalities per 100 Million Miles Traveled” near the bottom of the page.


Source: NHTSA

According to these data, the downward trend from 1994-2004 in deaths per mile is 15.6% (1.73 per hundred million miles in 1994 down to 1.46 in 2004). It would seem, looking at this, that the NHTSA’s estimate of seat belt efficacy is not only well within the realm of reason, but likely conservative in light of the facts.

But hold on just a minute. The NHTSA claims a 45% reduction in death risk for vehicle occupants, not dog walkers, street crossers, or what have you. Therefore, one must adjust for the “nonmotorist” fatalities — which decreased at a lesser rate than occupant deaths over the 10-year span (14.1%). Backing this figure out, the difference is still a 12.7% decline in roadway fatalities per driven mile nationwide from 1994-2004.

A clean win for the feds and the do-gooders, right? Not even close.

The Empirical Strikes Back

For anyone, especially the NHTSA or other government-affiliated entity with a clear conflict of interest (I’ll explain this in a minute), to suggest that seat belts alone are the operative factor — or even a main factor — in the decline in domestic fatalities per mile over the last 10-15 years is ludicrous — and bordering on misinformation.

Here are just a few reasons why:

· Supplemental Restraint Systems (SRS) — Air bags have been mandatory under federal law for drivers since 1990 and for all front-seat vehicle occupants since 1997. Estimates of their efficacy have been hotly debated, with statistics ranging from 25-79% effective at reducing fatalities. The NTHSA itself has estimated SRS systems to be 40% effective at reducing traffic deaths in official documents presented before Congress by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment

· Automotive design innovation — From “crumple zones” to internal roll-cages to unibody construction to four-wheel anti-lock brakes to traction control and active suspension systems, today’s cars, trucks, and SUVs are safer than ever before in history. The vast majority of these and other safety-related innovations have proliferated through the automotive industry in just the last 10-15 years.

· Declining rates of drunken driving — Over the last 20 years, alcohol-related road fatalities have decreased steadily. Across the 10-year time period illustrated in the NHTSA chart above, alcohol-related traffic deaths declined from 43% of total fatalities in 1994 to 39% in 2004.

The NHTSA and the federal government seem to give no consideration whatsoever in their seat belt propaganda campaign to lifesaving air bags (which they’d previously claimed were 40% effective), advances in vehicle safety, or the significant decline in alcohol-related fatalities — a group that represents only around 1% of total drivers, yet whose fatality rate as a subpopulation is astronomically high when compared with the general driving populace.

Removing these fatalities from the calculation yields a much more realistic picture of the behind-the-wheel mortality rate for the vast majority of American drivers and passengers. Subtracting the drunks from the equation, the numbers look like this: In 1994, non-alcohol-related vehicle occupant fatalities drop to 0.829 per hundred million miles traveled, while similar deaths in 2004 drop to 0.775 for the same distance…

A reduction of only 6.51% over 10 years attributable to all mitigating factors — seat belts, air bags, and car design included.

Looking at it this way (especially considering the fact that air bags are so demonstrably effective), it almost appears as though at least one of the other two factors is contributing to highway deaths.

I’ll give you one guess which one it’s likely to be (hint: it rhymes with “feet smelt”).

Not All They’re Clicked up to Be

A rigorous 1981 University College London-affiliated statistical analysis of data from 18 other countries encompassing four-fifths of the world’s driving has shown that seat belt laws are NOT associated with a decrease in highway fatalities – and, in fact, may have contributed to more roadway deaths in at least three developed nations…

This stunning research provoked the pro-seat belt-law U.K. Department of Transport into commissioning a second study to predict the outcome of a mandatory belt law’s passage. This study of eight populous industrialized European nations estimated the likely effect of a U.K. seat belt law would be a 2.3% increase in car occupant fatalities (search “seat belt legislation” on Wikipedia for details on this research — you won’t believe what you’re reading)…

Now how does the NHTSA’s estimate look? Kind of makes you wonder how they’re coming up with their numbers, doesn’t it?

It’s especially puzzling when you consider the overall trend in U.S. traffic fatalities per mile (and per person) over the last 40 years or so. Consider:


As you can see, driving in America has gotten safer per mile in a relatively linear fashion since around 1965, predating when seat belts were required by law as standard equipment in all cars (1968) — and in an era when seat belt usage was nearly nonexistent (even as late as 1980, it was only around 10% among adults).

Bottom line: Neither seat belt legislation nor increased seat belt usage has ever been shown conclusively to have prevented large numbers of highway fatalities on a national scale, despite the proclamations of governments (both foreign and domestic) and their special interest handmaidens.

Does this mean seat belts won’t help you survive a crash?

I’m not saying that at all — only that their real-world benefits appear grossly overstated (like over 120,000 saved lives since 1994 and a 45% reduction in the risk of death) by federal agencies, politicians, and big-government advocacy groups when held up against even a rudimentary analysis of the facts…

And there’s a reason for that — one that has nothing to do with saving your life at all. I’ll “belt” you with it in Part 2 of this essay, coming soon.

Never buckling in the pursuit of personal liberty,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
May 30, 2006

P.S.: On May 3 of this year, just a few weeks ago, a car traveling at a high rate of speed crossed the centerline of a two-lane rural highway I was traveling on my way home from a turkey-hunting trip. The impact caved in the entire side of my new Toyota pickup from headlight to rear bumper, totaling it and sending me to the hospital strapped to a board. All of my injuries from the crash (thankfully, they were not debilitating) were caused by my mandated-by-law restraints. True.

The Daily Reckoning