Freedom Forced to Buckle, Part 2

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”
— C.S. Lewis

It wasn’t all that long ago when seat belt laws didn’t exist. In fact, as recently as 1984, no U.S. state (or D.C.) had a mandatory seat belt law of any type. And even though driving in America had gotten progressively safer on its own since the mid-1960s, a national movement toward seat belt legislation began in 1985 that has continued to this day.

The state in which I live, Maryland (ironically called the Free State by many), passed its mandatory seat belt law for drivers and front-seat passengers in 1986, amid much uproar from those opposed to the law, who cited both its infringement of personal liberties and that it was nothing more than a way to extract additional fine money from otherwise lawful drivers. At that time, nationwide seat belt usage was only around 35%, so it stood to reason that with a single stroke of the pen in the State House, cops could rake in untold millions in additional revenues…

And make no mistake — the goal of this trend is revenue, despite all the rhetoric about saving lives. I’ll prove it to you in just a minute. Now, here’s the kicker:

In order to appease rankled freedom advocates (like me) and ensure passage of the seat belt law, Maryland legislators swore up and down that it would only ever be a “secondary enforcement” measure, meaning that seat belt fines could only be levied in the process of enforcing other moving violations. An officer couldn’t pull someone over simply because they weren’t wearing their seat belt — the police could only write the ticket if they observed front-seat occupants unbelted at the time of detention for other offenses.

But by 1997, the state legislature had evidently decided they weren’t making enough money from secondary enforcement of the seat belt law, so they double-crossed liberty-loving Marylanders (who’d rolled over for them 11 years earlier) and upgraded the law to “primary” enforcement — making nonuse of seat belts a stoppable moving violation in its own right.

This same betrayal has been repeated in many other states since. See the chart below:

U.S. seat belt laws by type and number (50 states and D.C.)


Keep in mind that this chart shows only the progression of seat belt laws from 1984-1999. Since then, nine additional states have switched from secondary to primary seat belt enforcement, for a total of 24 today.

States Cash in — Whether You “Cash out” or Not

So how much do these laws generate in revenue for states?

I don’t know. Apparently, this figure is more closely guarded than the combination to the vault at Fort Knox. Hours worth of Web searching yielded only a few tidbits with which to extrapolate a guesstimate. For instance, according to the Florida DMV online traffic ticket fact sheet, I learned that troopers in that state levied an average of 290,571 fines for seat belt nonusage in 2003 and 2004…

Using the NHTSA’s estimate of $25 as the average seat belt fine nationwide (this is probably on the low end — California’s fine is $96 for a first offense), that means Florida alone — a secondary enforcement state in 2003-2004, mind you — banked around $7.25 million on its seat belt law in each of those two years. Extrapolating based on population and the likely revenue increase between primary and secondary enforcement, I’m all but certain that the 49 belt-law states and the District of Columbia are raking in at least a quarter billion dollars a year on seat belt fines, and probably more like double this figure.

Beyond these millions in seat belt fine money, consider:

· 1991’s Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) ties millions in federal grant money for state highway construction to the presence of seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws

· 1998’s Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) provides millions more in grant money to states that initiate new seat belt laws and other safety programs

· The U.S. Department of Transportation offers grant programs to states through the NHTSA to promote seat belts and other safety programs — 48 states availed themselves of more than $44 million worth of these grants in 2002 alone

· 2005’s $244 billion Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU) provides one-time grants of up to 4.75 times a state’s annual safety budget (totaling as much as $500 million) to states that achieve sustained belt usage of 85% — mainly by passing primary enforcement seat belt laws.

Clearly, in addition to the massive windfall seat belt fines pour into state general funds, there’s also a multibillion-dollar river of pork-barrel cash flowing out of Washington to states that have enacted seat belt laws — especially primary enforcement versions of those laws…

And indeed, these laws have increased seat belt usage dramatically, in an almost mirror-image reflection of the passage of new belt laws:


As you can see, seat belt use hovered at around 10-12% in the early ’80s. After the passage of the first seat belt laws in the mid-1980s, belt usage spiked upward to around 35%, climbed steadily to around 70% by 1998, and then went up to approximately 80% today.

Again, this increase in belt usage has resulted in a substantial fattening of state coffers more than any significant trimming of highway fatalities (which I proved to you in Part 1 of this essay) — which is how these “greater good” measures have always been sold to us…

But in the eyes of most state legislatures (viva lone holdout New Hampshire!), there’s no downside to the passage of seat belt laws…

Because their definition of the “greater good” means only greater cash in their pockets.

A Win-Win for Insurance Companies

Another way seat belt laws are sold to us is with the “cost to society” argument.

According to the NHTSA’s safety belt use “Fact Sheet,” the fatalities and serious injuries prevented by seat belts resulted in “savings” of $50 billion in 2000 alone. This is such a ridiculous statistic, I’m not sure even where to begin to pick it apart. Here are just a few cicadas in the ointment…

· The estimate attempts to quantify a negative — things that didn’t happen (deaths and injuries) because something else did (seat belt use). Anyone with half a brain knows that this kind of conclusion is next to impossible to prove

· This dollar figure lumps together several unquantified variables: medical treatment expenses, loss of productivity, and “other injury-related costs” (whatever that means). This is no doubt done to artificially inflate the number

· This figure is extrapolated from the agency’s own grossly skewed estimation of the effectiveness of seat belts — a factor that the hard data show may have little (if any) real-world bearing on fatality rates

· This figure is based on a comparison against 100% nonuse of seat belts, a rate only achievable in the modern U.S. if they were outlawed and banned from cars altogether. Even in “lawless” New Hampshire, voluntary use of seat belts is nearly 50%.

My point is that even if some unbiased entity could definitively prove the percentage of seat belt efficacy at reducing fatalities and serious injuries (assuming they do in this day of air bags and safer cars) and then pinpoint the precise domestic economic impact of accidents in which seat belts weren’t used (I guarantee it’d be miles below $50 billion), there would still be this to consider: Beyond the hundreds of millions in revenue to states from violations (and federal pork), the mandatory use of seat belts and other restraints generates untold sums in domestic revenue for everyone’s favorite beneficiaries — insurance companies.

How is this possible if seat belts don’t really save so many lives?

Automobile insurance companies can often capitalize on seat belt laws to keep their liability settlements low. In 15 U.S. states, the “seat belt defense” enables insurance carriers whose drivers are at fault to mitigate their payout of claims by arguing in courts that injuries to plaintiffs wouldn’t have been as severe had they not been breaking the law by failing to wear their seat belts…

Lovely, isn’t it? If some moron crosses the centerline and takes you out before you’ve had a chance to rebuckle after digging around in your pocket for the change to pay a toll, you might not get sufficiently compensated. This defense would not be possible were seat belt laws not the norm.

And how’s this for a capper: If there is a measurable real-world benefit to seat belt use despite the inconclusive numbers, seat belt laws do nothing but save insurance companies money by forcing greater buckling…

So basically, the already filthy-rich insurance companies get even richer because of seat belt laws (they certainly aren’t refunding us the money they save by lowering premiums, are they?). And like it or not, this boost to the economy offsets to one degree or another whatever the net cost may be for the medical treatment of accident victims who MIGHT not have been as seriously injured had they been buckled in.

Liberty Strapped (Scrapped?)

It’s a fact that in a certain number of accidents, seat belts cause more harm than good.

People CAN be seriously injured by belt restraints in crashes that otherwise may not have been. There are a lot of common seat belt-related injuries (like whiplash and “seat belt syndrome”) that may not be necessary to endure in the era of the air bag — which a good deal of evidence indicates is a better defense against serious injury in many types of crashes.

Beyond this, seat belts can make exiting a submerged or burning car (rare, but not unheard-of) more complicated — not to mention make it more difficult to get away from a vehicle in a hurry, like if you’re being carjacked (a not-so-unheard-of occurrence these days)…

Here’s what I’m getting at: Seat belt laws may be aimed at the greater good — and may even be proven statistically to serve that end (though they haven’t yet) — but they also surely result in a certain number of additional deaths or injuries that may not have happened if seat belt use were strictly voluntary.

And the way I see it, if EVEN ONE person is harmed by the seat belt law — through an unnecessary belt-related injury, an insufficient insurance settlement because of the “seat belt defense” loophole the law creates, or because he can’t escape a carjacker quickly or surreptitiously enough — that blood is on the state’s hands…

Bottom line: It’s a very dangerous condition for liberty (and democracy) when “greater good” is the sole measure of a law’s worth. As you’ve seen over the past few weeks in my analysis of both motorcycle helmet laws and automobile seat belt laws, statistics can be manipulated to prove any point of view — and no one foists this kind of numerical charlatanism over on you more effectively (or more often) than the government.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be made into a statistic by being forced to comply with laws forged from skewed statistics or a misinterpretation of them!

It all comes back to a point I made at the beginning of the first part of this essay: That nowadays, freedoms must prove themselves worthy in a war against numbers to carry any weight in argument at all. In today’s USA, liberty can no longer be its own reward — it must also be expedient (or more accurately, lucrative to the state) in order to prevail…

That’s a far cry from the America the Framers of our Constitution envisioned — a land where freedom truly rings and the individual is self-governing to the greatest extent possible, not only insofar as is pragmatic for the state’s balance sheet.

Apparently, only in New Hampshire do they still understand this concept.

Belting, but never buckling,

Jim Amrhein
Contributing editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
May 31, 2006