The Nation's Pulse

Seat Belt Lashes

"Click It or Ticket" crackdowns have become the closest thing to a major tax hike in the Bush era.

By 8.7.06

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If you think those "Click It or Ticket" seat belt enforcement drives are all about your safety, give it another think. State and local law enforcement agencies have a huge financial incentive to dole out as many tickets as they possibly can -- in order to qualify for the federal grant boodle dangled before their noses like a savory pork chop in front of a hungry blue tick hound.

The more tickets they write, the more money they get -- and each year, the prize gets fatter. Successful departments (those that crank out the most tickets) qualify for ever-larger handouts of taxpayer dollars -- in order more thoroughly to fleece those very same taxpayers via trumped-up traffic charges that have grow ever more penny-ante as the years roll on. Literally millions of dollars are being spent -- at a time of mammoth federal deficits, the huge fiscal strain of a war on terror and burdensome federal taxes -- to use law enforcement as 9 millimeter-packing nannies ensuring we're "buckled-up for safety."

California alone went through $2.6 million this year to fund its May 15-June 4 "Click It or Ticket" dragnet. This in a state with a huge crime problem (real crime; you know, murders, rapes, assaults and that kind of stuff) and a teeter-tottering fiscal situation that, you'd think, would call for austerity and reordering of priorities to the essentials. Do "seat belt checkpoints" qualify? What about it, Ahhnoold?

The same situation obtains in other states as well. The federal Department of Transportation aggressively markets its nation-wide "Click It or Ticket" grant program to every state in the land -- including gaudy (and sort-of Plah Doh-style softly fascistic) TV commercials in which infantilized motorists are given an in loco parentis browbeating by Johnny Law before being issued the obligatory piece of payin' paper.

The late conservative intellectual Sam Francis came up with an excellent term for all of this stuff -- "anarcho-tyranny." In brief, he meant a situation in which the truly lawless (violent criminals, big-time crooks) are increasingly treated with kid gloves while at the same time, ordinary schlubs who never commit serious personal or property crimes are increasingly hassled over Pecksniffy technical fouls and "lifestyle violations" such as failing to wear their seat belts.

Invariably, the punishment involves money.

The reasoning and motives are easy enough to understand. Real criminals are potentially dangerous, after all; John Q. driving along unbuckled in his family van almost never is. The first might put up a fight -- and will often try to run. If caught, he certainly has no money in wallet -- so what's in it for the Feds? But John Q. has a job. His wallet, credit cards. He will be fined.

"Click It -- or Ticket"!

IT OUGHT TO BUG US (we John Q's) that with child molesters and serial killers splattering their hideous deeds all over the TV nearly every day, with violent gangbangers penetrating even formerly quiet suburbs, millions of dollars and untold hours' worth of law-enforcement time is being used to make sure we're wearing our seat belts. But it doesn't.

And it ought to infuriate us that, at a time of alarming federal and state budget deficits and a groaning tax load on the average middle class American, our leaders see fit to expend millions upon millions of dollars on nationwide, dragnet-style enforcement campaigns directed not at public menaces, not at desperate needs -- but rather, at folks whose only crime is having the temerity not to "buckle up."

It doesn't.

Part of the reason may be that many of us have come to accept a level of do-gooder busy-bodyism in our lives that would have appalled our grandfathers. We're as passive as Ned "we don't want any trouble here" Beatty. Not content to live our own lives as we see fit, according to our own lights -- and to extend the same courtesy to our neighbors -- we increasingly feel obliged to cram our notions of what's "safe" and "proper" down the gullets of our fellows. (You might call this the HOA Fuhrer Syndrome writ large; i.e., the stretch-pants-wearing neighborhood termagant who loves to waddle around with her clipboard noting violations of the HOA rulebooks transposed onto society at large.)

Another is that that we've accepted much of the propaganda fed to us about seat belts -- which can injure a motorist as well as save his life. One study found that seat belts cause injuries 10-30 percent of the time. Seat belt-caused aortal tears are not common -- but they do occur. There is no question that people have actually died as a result of wearing a seat belt.

Without question, seat belts can save lives -- and usually do. But not always. So shouldn't the choice to wear or not to wear be ours to make?

The same issue obtains with air bags -- which have caused scores of deaths and, literally, thousands of injuries ranging from minor to severe. Yet the government has arrogated to itself the right to make a potentially life or death choice for us -- and for many of us, against our will. (And at our expense; air bags have added anywhere from $400 to $1,000 or more per car since they became mandatory.)

BUT THE REAL BOTTOM LINE with "Click It or Ticket" is the precedent it (and programs like it) sets for government meddling in areas where the individual was (formerly, anyhow) sovereign. If the government can make us buckle up for safety, why not issue tickets to sedentary people for failing to maintain an ideal body-mass index? How about mandatory jumping jacks each morning -- monitored by cameras in our homes, with tickets issued to "cardiac fitness scofflaws"? After all, being overweight and sedentary have clear-cut health and well-being consequences every bit as severe (indeed, more so) than failing to wear one's seat belt. The former, for example, is a real and definite risk -- the latter, at best a theoretical one. A person could go his whole life without buckling up and suffer no adverse consequences and impose no costs on "society." But eat a pound of bacon every day, smoke two packs and put on 50 pounds of excess blubber -- and you will absolutely suffer health ill-effects. And "society" will get the tab.

Perhaps a ticket-writing campaign (and many federal dollars) is in order. All those blubber-powers need to be protected against the consequences of their risky and dangerous behavior. Don't you agree? If it's good for the (seat belt) goose, it's good for the big-boy gander, eh?

Or would that be too philosophically consistent?

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.