Who Are Legislators to Save Our Lives?

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A couple of weeks ago, it came to Matt Allen’s attention, on his WPRO radio talk show, that some local police departments were setting up seat-belt traps, eying drivers to ensure compliance with a law effective June 29, 2011, that made failure to buckle up a primary offense.  Previously, only drivers pulled over for other reasons could be ticketed.  Each offense comes with an $85 fine, with the city or town receiving half of its total collections.

Based on listener outrage, Allen set up an online petition that over 1,000 people signed.  And in response, RI House Speaker Gordon Fox (D, Providence) issued a statement making the following case for the law:

I understand the concerns you have expressed regarding personal freedoms. However, I supported this legislation because of the lives that can be saved and the potential medical costs that can be reduced by the increased usage of seat belts. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, crashes cost the nation about $230 billion each year in medical expenses, lost productivity, property damage and related costs. Rhode Island pays $767 million of these costs, which accounts for $732 for each Rhode Island resident per year. About 74 percent of the costs are paid by citizens not involved in the crashes. Employers in the state pay about $63 million annually, or $350 per employee.

Although your petition contends that the state has a seat-belt compliance rate of 80%, statistics provided to us by AAA show that the rate is 75%, which is 10% below the national average. It is estimated by AAA that a compliance rate that is increased by 10% will result in three to four lives being saved per year in Rhode Island. In 2008, there were 55 fatal car accidents in the state. Of those, 19 victims were not wearing seat belts.

That’s been the argument for the legislation all along, just as it was the argument for the law making seat belts mandatory in the first place, just as it was and is the argument every time legislators and other public officials seek to expand the reach of their commands.  And except where specific criticisms apply, the argument against the encroachment is typically couched in abstract terms of freedom.  During the June 29, 2011, floor debate of the bill, Charlene Lima (D, Cranston) gave full-throated voice to the defense of adults’ liberty.

But Lima doesn’t have it quite right when she imagines “health police” ticketing picnic-goers for eating chicken with the skin on it.  The focus of objections shouldn’t be on the people who enforce the laws, but on the people who impose them.  A better example than police is all too familiar:  the acquaintance who lectures you on your behavior, passing judgment on others who choose taste over health, who smoke, who drink, or who do not wear seat belts.

In the face of saving lives and medical costs, “freedom” is an abstraction that falls with frightening ease once the barriers proscribed for government have eroded, as they have over many decades. So instead, consider the process behind this law.  Here is Janis Loiselle, of the Department of Transportation, offering testimony on the bill when it was before the House Judiciary Committee on March 2, 2011.

It isn’t surprising that various groups with an interest in fostering a public image of involvement would support such legislation.  It also isn’t surprising that police organizations would want another way to promote their value as revenue-generating departments.  And it isn’t surprising that the Department of Transportation would advocate for a bill sending millions of federal dollars its way, as this legislation accomplished.

As Loiselle testified, the $3.7 million that Lima would later call “a bribe” was a limited-time offer.  In other words, the annoying neighbors glaring at you for eating chicken skin are not just legislators elected by slim majorities in districts in which you do not live.  They are also appointed bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., handing out money as a way to micromanage the lives of their fellow Americans.

Their motivation for doing so may be as insignificant as wanting something to show when it’s time for an employment review.  The incentive to dictate doesn’t have to be very strong, because the money expended is indistinguishable within the mountain of federal spending, and more importantly, it isn’t theirs.  Increasingly, it isn’t even the money of people who can currently vote, but that of their children.  That’s $3.7 million (plus interest) that will not be available in the future to help grow the economy — to create economic space allowing the risks that yield rewards of progress, from iPhones to adult stem cell treatments.

The loss of a single life is tragic, but it is only by a failure of our own vision that we do not see the consequences of “life-saving legislation,” which measure on a scale of thousands upon thousands of lives.

In December, Frank Fleming wrote in the New York Post that driving is “basically a grandfathered freedom from back when people cared less about pollution and danger and valued progress and liberty over safety.”  In other words, if the car were a new invention, our regulating betters would never permit us to have such far-reaching liberty.  Speaker Fox’s totals for medical costs and deaths are for all crashes; imagine the debate at the State House if the legislators were discussing the introduction of a new technology (the automobile) that would risk those costs from zero.

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision their saying, “no.”  And it doesn’t take much imagination to think of the consequences for modern society if broad access to cars and trucks had not been a driving characteristic of the last century.  Life would be meaner, less advanced, and more dangerous.

The real tragedy of our current approach to governance is that we will never know what opportunities we, as a society, have missed because we let part-time, temporary elected officials attempt to save lives with legislation.  Most of them see such things as seat belt laws as mere horse-trades for bills that they really care about — which are apt to be just as meddling, if not more corrupt — and none of it comes with a true accounting of the costs.



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