HAVRE DE GRACE -- They won't quit until they're made to, and it's naive to hope otherwise. Members of the Maryland legislature, needing a fresh regulatory fix and hooted on by the likes of this newspaper, are trying again to criminalize quintessentially private conduct. By expanding an already-offensive seat-belt law, they would bring the police power of the state harder than ever down on the heads of free people going innocently about their lives.
It makes no difference to them that highway safety is improving in Maryland, perhaps not coincidentally since irrationally low speed limits were raised on major roads. It makes no difference to them that some seven out of every ten drivers already use seat belts.
They see 100 percent seat-belt usage as an achievable and important goal, and despite sharp increases in non-traffic crime, they want the state police out on the highways working on it -- stopping law-abiding drivers and ticketing them for failure to buckle up. It's the old helmet-law mentality ratcheted up one more notch, powered by the notion that your personal safety is your government's concern, whether you like it or not and whatever that may mean for your liberty.
Under present law, the police can ticket drivers if they or their passengers haven't fastened their seat belts, but only if this is discovered at the time a driver is stopped for another violation. That's called "secondary enforcement," and it's bad enough, but at least it doesn't open the door to police intrusion into the lives and vehicles of drivers posing no threat to the safety of others.
It was said about motorcycle-helmet laws, and is being said about this seat-belt measure, that state action to limit risk is justified by fiduciary reasons. The evacuation and medical treatment of traffic victims often costs public dollars, this specious argument goes, and so it's right and proper for government to do whatever it chooses to reduce the number of injuries on the roads.
But this issue isn't about saving money. It isn't even about saving lives. It's about expanding the role of government, using whatever cover is available. It's advancing statism camouflaged up as thrift.
"Politics and ideology need to take a back seat to scientific proof and saving lives," preaches The Sun on the seat-belt issue, kicking its old editorial concerns for civil liberties under the desk. Its nannyish tone sounds astonishingly like that of Congressman Richard Gephardt when he recently explained that the First Amendment should be, um, adjusted to allow Congress to interfere more effectively in election campaigns by deciding who can spend how much on behalf of whom.
There are countless ways, though not necessarily politically palatable ones, to make the highways far safer than will ever be attained by buckle-up-or-we-lock-you-up seat-belt laws. All could target those drivers who, statistically, pose a danger to others on the highways, not to themselves alone.
Those once convicted of drunk driving could lose their licenses for five years, or permanently. The same could apply to convicted drug abusers. Teen-agers, especially teen-age boys, cause a disproportionate share of highway accidents; they could be denied licenses entirely, or be required to have a parent or guardian in the car with them.
These steps would certainly save lives, but they won't be taken because they appear drastic, and political opposition would be volatile. The seat-belt proposal, on the other hand, only nibbles away at the margins of individual liberty, and its sponsors hope it will seem easier to accept than to fight. Thus freedom subtly erodes, year after year, and government subtly grows.
Scatter the costs
Thomas Jefferson saw that. "The natural process of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground," he wrote. And much more recently, James Buchanan won a Nobel Prize in economics for showing in great detail exactly how that happens -- how politicians and their allies reap benefits from the system by keeping the costs, whether calculated in dollars or in loss of freedom, so diffuse as to be almost invisible.
David Boaz of the Cato Institute found an ad in a Colorado newspaper, seeking to rally public support for a federal dam and irrigation project, which perfectly illustrates this principle. Coloradans should back the dam, it said, "because someone else is paying the tab! We get the water. We get the reservoir. They get the bill."
Maryland legislators, like most career politicians, typically imagine government as a precision machine, and themselves at the controls. They imagine they can use it to scratch every itch, or floss every tooth, and be re-elected on the basis of their expertise. If there's a cost to all this, the idea is to keep it spread out so thinly that no one is truly outraged.
The seat-belt issue is in that tradition. Yes, it's well-intended. No, by itself it's no big deal. But if it passes, what's the next little step? Inspection of our medicine cabinets to be sure we're taking our tranquilizer pills? Legislators ought to think long and hard about where the buckle-up bill is nudging us, if only for their own children's and grandchildren's sake.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 2/20/97