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Soon, I’ll be leaving New Jersey—the state in which I was born—to live next-door in Pennsylvania. It’s an I’m-getting-married-and-need-a-new-place-to-live thing. More on that in a later column. What’s important to note is that, while in Pa. over the weekend, I sat down to watch Saturday Night Live on Philadelphia’s NBC 10. It was a rerun, actually. The host was Ben Affleck. It had its moments. Nothing spectacular. But the point is, while watching, I saw a commercial for Pennsylvania’s “Click It or Ticket” seatbelt enforcement program.
Immediately, I thought to myself, “They call this network ‘NBC 10,’ yet it’s on Channel 5. That’s like moving SNL to Thursdays and still saying, ‘Live, from New York, it’s Saturday night.’ It isn’t exactly true.”
Networks in other cities always seem weirder than the ones you’re used to.
Then NBC 10 ran the Click It or Ticket commercial again, and this time I heard them say, “Cops write tickets because safety belts save lives,” as a bunch of drivers—or actors paid to act like drivers—fastened their belts after being pulled over. It was the word “because” that led me to write this article, because it, too, wasn’t exactly true.
“Cops write tickets because safety belts save lives?” I said to myself.
No, they don’t. They write tickets because they make money. All that safety jazz is a bonus.
Now, for those who don’t know, Click It or Ticket is an annual, nationwide program, which this year runs May 24th through June 6th. According to Buckle Up America, it “combines strict enforcement of safety belt laws with targeted advertising.” It includes “checkpoints,” “saturation patrols,” and a $30 million TV and radio ad blitz—funded, of course, by Congress.
“Most people buckle up for safety,” says New Jersey’s Division of Highway Traffic Safety (whose home page shows a cop standing next to the Grim Reaper with the words, “We’re both watching,” as I write this). “But for some people, it is the threat of the ticket that spurs them to put on a safety belt.” Thus, Click It or Ticket is a “zero tolerance” program.
You know who else ran “zero tolerance” programs? Adolf Hitler. But never you mind that. Buckle Up America brags that 81 percent of Americans support the Click It or Ticket campaign. So apparently they’re doing something right.
I wish they’d asked me, though. I would’ve given them a different answer.
I’m part of the other 19 percent.
Now, let me say upfront that I wear my seatbelt every time I get in a car. In fact, I urge others to do the same. For me, it comes down to personal experience. A few years before I was born, a drunk driver ran a red light and plowed into my dad’s car. My dad woke up in a hospital bed. His seatbelt saved his life, and in turn it saved mine, too.
More recently, I walked away from a potentially fatal crash of my own. I’m convinced I wouldn’t be writing this right now if my dad hadn’t taught me to buckle up. So I support the effort to get out the word about seatbelts. Inasmuch as Click It or Ticket builds seatbelt “awareness,” I think it’s a good thing (though it’s hard to imagine anyone sitting on big blocks of metal and plastic without being “aware” of it). What I don’t support, however, is the effort to criminalize those who fail to strap themselves in.
Do I believe seatbelts save lives? Yes. But I also believe Jesus saves lives, and I’d oppose an act of Congress requiring you to believe in Him.
I can rattle off a bunch of statistics supporting my pro-seatbelt stance. Hell, I can list a hundred reasons why I’m a Yankee fan. That doesn’t mean I think Red Sox fans belong in jail. (Some do, I suppose. But not all of them.)
Someone I know once told me we need laws to make people do the “right” thing. This came at the end of an argument on mandatory motorcycle helmets. We agreed it makes sense to wear a helmet, but we parted ways when I said riding without one shouldn’t be penalized. This same person says adults should be forced to wear helmets while riding ordinary bikes. Why? Because she hasn’t ridden a bike in years and wants a law to ensure she’ll protect herself if she ever gets on one again.
So she knows—yes, knows—wearing a helmet is a good thing to do, but still needs a law to tell her to do it. Does she also need laws to remind her that murder, rape, and theft are wrong? I’m afraid to ask.
Be that as it may, though, this is the kind of thinking that leads 81 percent of surveyed Americans to support seatbelt enforcement checkpoints. They have so little faith in themselves that they’d sooner invite cops to poke around their glove compartments than apply forethought to using heavy machinery. With that kind of attitude, I’m not sure these people ought to use heavy machinery at all.
But as for people who purposely don’t wear seatbelts and helmets, I say let them do as they please. They obviously don’t think seatbelts and helmets can save their lives. Or they think it’s worth the risk of not wearing them. This is their opinion, and they’re entitled to express it—either by leaving their helmets at home, or by pushing their shoulder harnesses aside.
“Who’s the bigger threat to your safety, a murderer or someone who attempts suicide? The answer is obvious,” writes Reason‘s Ted Balaker. “Yet something strange happens when death comes to the highway… Suddenly, the murder-suicide distinction vanishes, and it’s perfectly acceptable to reduce deaths by punishing those who put only themselves at risk.”
Indeed, and the Click It or Ticket program makes ordinary seatbelt laws seem like a joke. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, “only” 20 states and the District of Columbia allow cops to pull people over specifically for seatbelt violations. But in at least one of those states—New Jersey—I’ve seen folks get seatbelt tickets even while wearing their seatbelts. Cops do this sometimes as a way of “letting you off” for more serious offenses. Yet how serious can it be if it’s negotiable? How serious can it be if it’s only enforced when convenient (i.e., 14 days out of every 365, or 366 in a leap year)?
Modern cars are like rolling computers. Someone should find a way to have them record seatbelt use, and then drivers can choose—I stress, choose—to report their records to their insurers for savings incentives. People will want to buckle up if it means 5 to 10 percent off their insurance. You won’t have to force them.
As for cops, if they’re going to sit by the side of the road just waiting for folks to mess up—a la “Pre-Crime” in Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report—they should at least focus on the stuff that affects other drivers. While driving in Pennsylvania the other day, I saw someone signal left from the middle lane only to move to the right. This was an improvement over other drivers in the area, who, to my knowledge, tend not to signal at all.
Where I come from, we’ve hurt men for less. I’m going to miss New Jersey.