Kilroy Was Here
May 31, 2004
Sometimes We Need a Nanny
In Reason, Ted Balakker argues against seatbelt laws. Ted feels that the enforcement of seat-belt laws not only sacrifice our liberty to a paternalistic state, but distract law enforcement officers from doing the real work.

Unfortuantely for Ted's argument, there's one critical aspect to seat belt laws that undermine his whole theory: they work.

Ted mistakenly states

The good news is that most of us do buckle up. About 80 percent of Americans use seatbelts, a decision probably based less on government nagging than on a simple understanding of the safety benefits. After all, the word is out...

But if you follow Malcolm Gladwell's articles in the New Yorker (as I do), you may remember this article on this very subject. Gladwell finds

In the early nineteen-seventies, just at the moment when Haddon and Claybrook were pushing hardest for air bags, the Australian state of Victoria passed the world's first mandatory seat-belt legislation, and the law was an immediate success. With an aggressive public-education campaign, rates of seat-belt use jumped from twenty to eighty per cent. During the next several years, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, France, and others followed suit.
Even as late as 1984, Claybrook was still insisting that trying to encourage seat-belt use was a fool's errand. "It is not likely that mandatory seat belt usage laws will be either enacted or found acceptable to the public in large numbers," Claybrook wrote. "There is massive public resistance to adult safety belt usage." In the very year her words were published, however, a coalition of medical groups finally managed to pass the country's first mandatory seat-belt law, in New York, and the results were dramatic. One state after another soon did likewise, and public opinion about belts underwent what the pollster Gary Lawrence has called "one of the most phenomenal shifts in attitudes ever measured." Americans, it turned out, did not have a cultural aversion to seat belts. They just needed some encouragement. "It's not a big Freudian thing whether you buckle up or not," says B. J. Campbell, a former safety researcher at the University of North Carolina, who was one of the veterans of the seat-belt movement. "It's just a habit, and either you're in the habit of doing it or you're not."

Today, belt-wearing rates in the United States are just over seventy per cent, and every year they inch up a little more.

It's not invasion of our freedom, it's just a habit. And sometimes we need a little encourgaement.

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