Buckle Up -- Or Else

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Buckle Up -- Or Else

by Ari Armstrong, February 24, 2000

Westminster Democrat Ann Ragsdale's bill 1131 died on a floor vote February 22. That bill would have allowed police to pull over drivers merely for a seat-belt violation. Now drivers are required to wear seat-belts, but police cannot pull over someone just for that offense. Instead, if an officer pulls over a driver for another offense he or she can then issue a ticket for a seat-belt infraction as well.

Police search an African American's car on I-76. Would Ann Ragsdale's bill have made it easier for police to stop and search drivers using the seat-belt law as a pretext?

It turns out I live in Ragsdale's district, so I called her up to learn the status of the bill -- she was happy to discuss the details. I have opposed the bill since I learned of it, because I believe it would give police another pretext for pulling over drivers absent just cause.

Ragsdale said police weren't likely to abuse the law, but I'm skeptical. For instance, as reported in The Rocky Mountain News, Denver police pulled over Jimmy West allegedly because his tail-lights were partly covered by snow. Give me a break! The much more plausible explanation is that the Denver police pulled over West because he has dark skin and long hair and his car was loaded with sound system equipment late at night. How many white people do you know who have ever been pulled over on such a ridiculous pretext?

In reality, police can pull over drivers and come up with a reason after the fact. Ragsdale's seat-belt law would make this practice that much easier.

I told Ragsdale that, while most police officers are decent people, laws such as the one she proposed empower the bad apples to violate citizens' rights. She replied that every profession has its bad apples. Of course, that's not relevant: we still don't want to enable unscrupulous police officers to victimize others. Nor do we want to tempt the usually good officers who might be having a bad night.

The other analogy Ragsdale used was speeding: she suggested that we have low-speed zones near schools, which implies that life-saving laws are generally a good thing. However, as I noted to her, it's pretty hard for an officer to act contrary to the information provided by the radar. In addition, seat-belt laws affect only the driver, whereas speeding can endanger the lives of others. (Of course, speed laws are often used as cash-cows rather than to promote safety, but that's a different issue.)

Ragsdale gave me some additional information of which I wasn't aware: in Colorado, seat-belt infractions are currently "secondary" offenses for adults, which means police can only issue tickets if they pull over a driver for another offense, but for children they are a "primary" offense. In other words, if an officer sees your child moving around the back seat, he or she can pull you over.

Ragsdale supported her bill by saying California passed a similar bill and saw a decline in deaths. I have not reviewed the evidence she cites, but I'm skeptical at the outset. Those advocating statist solutions often cite declines in something bad, or increases in something good, as justification for a particular measure. But often the decline or increase is merely part of a longer trend. For instance, some claim the higher age limit for buying alcohol reduced deaths, but the decline in alcohol-related deaths had been declining steadily since long before the higher age law was implemented. (In fact, the implementation of that law actually saw a temporary increase in the numbers of fatalities.) So Ragsdale would have to demonstrate to me that her statistics took into account prevailing trends.

Ragsdale would also have to show that the decline in deaths was due to the law in question, rather than to some other factor, such as an educational campaign. If the California law was passed at the same time as heightened awareness about the safety of seat-belts, a likely scenario, then I would be inclined to chalk up the improved safety to the increased education.

But even if Ragsdale could meet those standards of proof, she would also have to show that, a) the harms of expanding police power were low, and b) there is no better way to achieve the results in safety she desires. For instance, perhaps the state could merely add a criminal penalty to cases where a child is injured in an accident, when he or she was not sensibly restrained. In general, I'm much more open to after-the-fact penalties than prior restraints.

An even better solution would be to allow private insurance companies to handle the matter of seat-belts. If insurance companies were unregulated, they could require their customers to wear seat-belts in order to receive benefits. That is, if you got in a wreck and you weren't wearing your seat-belt, you wouldn't be covered. Of course, those who didn't want to wear seat-belts could choose to pay a higher premium for full coverage. The main problem with this proposal is that currently people can seek bankruptcy, which is another problem entirely. Faced with this kind of financial incentive, people would generally choose to wear their seat-belts.

But of course this would require altogether too much individual responsibility for the comfort of social-engineers such as Ragsdale.

There is the issue of children, however. It's one thing for a driver to endanger him or her self, and another thing entirely for a driver to endanger a child. Certainly I want some type of legal restraint on negligent parenting, and this includes the matter of vehicle safety. I don't think the answer is a host of laws specific to individual actions, but rather a single, general framework that applies to negligent parenting on the whole.

There's another possible short-term reform that I would favor (short of the total privatization of the roads). That is the separation of traffic police from criminal police. That is, it would be a great idea to have a special unit of officers whose sole task was to handle traffic violations. If these officers ran into a problem beyond traffic matters, they would be required to call in the criminal police. Such an arrangement would largely eliminate the practice of using minor traffic laws as a pretext to pull over drivers for other matters or for blatant harassment.

Safety is an important goal, but it is not the only important goal. Freedom, safety from police abuses, and self-responsibility are values incompatible with Ragsdale's recent proposal. I'm glad the House saw fit to reject her bill.

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