One year ago Illinois began enforcing a tougher, "primary enforcement" law, which allows cops to pull over those whose only offense is not buckling up. Police officers set up special checkpoints and enforcement zones, and doled out 43,000 more tickets than the previous year. The results: seat belt use is up 9 percent and, most importantly, there were 63 fewer automobile fatalities. Sounds like a success.
But are streets getting safer because of the new law, or has the law simply jumped in front of long developing social trend? After all, Illinois' streets have been getting safer for a long time. In 1982 there were 2.51 highway fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Twenty years later the fatality rate fell to 1.34, an impressive 47 percent drop which preceded the new law.
Most states have enjoyed progressively safer streets, often regardless of the harshness of their seatbelt laws. In 2002, of the 10 safest states, five had primary enforcement laws and five did not. Of the top five, only one had primary enforcement. And New Hampshire, the only state with no seat belt law, had nation�s third safest streets. In other words, the link between tough seat belt laws and lives saved is more tenuous than politicians let on.
So why waste cops' time with seatbelt laws? After all, laws shouldn't protect careless people from themselves, they should protect the peaceful from the dangerous.
If an adult does something risky—like tightrope walking, smoking or driving without a seatbelt—that person alone is responsible for the consequences. And since drivers who don't buckle up aren't making anyone else less safe, laws that bear down on these people don't make other motorists any safer either. Yes it's tragic when someone dies because he refused to wear a seatbelt, but it's much more tragic when a reckless driver kills innocent people.
Some of us decry the paternalism of seat belt laws, but such nannying doesn't just make us less free. If it distracts law enforcement from more important duties, it can also make us less safe. When government assumes many duties, it's tougher to do the important ones right.
While an officer takes time to give the seatbelt scofflaw a scolding and a ticket, plenty of other drivers embark on the kind of harebrained maneuvering that often ends with a reckless driver colliding into a good driver. It's these red-light-running, left-turn-at-any-cost daredevils who enrage and endanger good drivers.
Officials are more on the mark when they call for enforcement of drunk driving laws. But here again law should focus on recklessness, whether it's encouraged by alcohol, fatigue, or high-speed lipstick application.
So is Illinois truly better off for having issued 43,000 more seatbelt tickets or would the effort spent on seat belt checkpoints and enforcement zones been better spent protecting good drivers from bad?
Some argue that seat belt laws do benefit good drivers—for those who refuse to belt themselves in may stick the rest of us with higher insurance and health care costs. But excusing nannying on such grounds would excuse all sorts of awfulness. Those who eat too much and move too little cost our nation much more than those who refuse to buckle up, yet most of us would consider it absurd if laws forced chubby people away from the fridge and onto the treadmill.
The good news is that most people do buckle up. In Illinois, about 83 percent of motorists use seatbelts, a decision probably based less on government nagging and more on a simple understanding of the safety benefits. After all, the word is out—seatbelts make you safer. Why wage an ever-intensifying campaign against the remaining holdouts?
We must accept that—even when armed with all the facts—some people will still choose risky behavior. Instead of saving us from ourselves, regulators should take a deep breath, allow beltless motorists to put themselves at risk, and go hassle the dangerous drivers.
Ted Balaker is the Jacob's Fellow at Reason Foundation.