Continue enforcing seatbelt law

Published 10:25 am Friday, April 22, 2011

It seems like 50 percent of state laws are conceived entirely to protect the unluckiest 10 percent of Minnesotans from themselves, usually in response to some bizarre, one-time event. Think “swimming pool drains.”

Half of the rest of new laws are put in place to protect the stupidest 10 percent. Think “seat belts.”

Taken together, these add up to what has long been labeled “the nanny state,” meaning that it has become the government’s job to keep us from hurting ourselves.

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For those who believe a certain element of risk is part of life, and who figure that if we mess up it’s their own fault — not someone else’s — the nanny state is a vast annoyance.

I count myself among that group, and I occasionally write about some of the excessive safety/nanny measures that our friends in St. Paul and Washington are contemplating.

So it surprised me when I did not immediately agree with a bill that, should it become law, would tell Minnesota law enforcement agencies to stop cracking down on those who don’t wear their seat belts.

It’s rather widely recognized these days that driving (or riding) without a seatbelt is unwise — and, indeed, a good way to ensure that merely a bad accident will be elevated to “fatal.” In fact, it’s so obvious that it would be easy to argue that anyone who chooses not to wear a seatbelt pretty much deserves whatever consequences life dishes out as a result.

Or, to put it another way, the only one who not wearing a seatbelt hurts is the one who doesn’t wear it. That’s pretty much what the reduced-enforcement bill seems to mean when it says, “seat belt violations do not constitute a hazard to the traveling public.”

And let’s face it, Minnesota is rather inconsistent when it comes to being a nanny state. If we were doing a first-rate job of protecting fools from themselves, we would require motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Yet for all that our state’s seat belt laws are an intrusion into the privacy of our cars and trucks, for all that they only require something that anyone with half a brain would do anyway, for all that they are the ultimate in nannying … it’s hard to feel good about taking a step back.

Unlike laws that might actually help one person every 100 years, while inconveniencing tens of thousands, seat belt use does work. When a seatbelt is in place during a crash, it often saves a life. It happens over and over again, every year, right here in Austin and throughout the country. That’s a big deal.

There’s also an economic argument. Although the bill’s author seems to believe that it will save money to stop enforcing seat belt laws, it wouldn’t take many fatal crashes to push law enforcement’s costs and workloads well beyond that of a few seat belt sweeps.

One Herald web sit reader explained it clearly, and graphically, in a comment about our story on the law: “Ever rolled up on an accident? A bad one? One that they were not wearing their seat belts? Ever had the pleasure of looking for a lady’s husband in the dark …? I found him 100 feet away, unrecognizable, because he got ejected and the car, his own car rolled over him, killing him.

“I would rather see law enforcement spending time running down drug dealers and thieves over spending hours writing reports about accidents.”

The fact that most law enforcement leaders, the ones who have to figure out how to stretch limited resources to meet many demands, favor seatbelt enforcement ought also to be a clue.

Being forced to do the smart, safe thing is always annoying and not something we want the government doing to us. Seat belt laws are the exception that proves the rule.

Here’s hoping that the Legislature doesn’t mess with something that is working.