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Crash Test Dummies

Primary seatbelt laws shouldn't win without a fight.

By 6.4.03

It would be a first, but the next time this column is in neighboring Skagit county, I may look up Superior Court Judge Susan Cook and offer to buy her a drink -- caffeinated or otherwise.

Why? Because Judge Cook recently held that Washington's primary seatbelt law -- passed under the radar last year by the nearly universally reviled Washington State legislature -- is "invalid." Cops who come to her court who have pulled people over just to see if they were wearing their shoulder straps will be lectured back out onto the street, and any evidence collected of other malfeasance will be deemed inadmissible for trial.

Though her ruling is not legally binding on other courts, several defense attorneys in a handful of Washington counties have introduced the ruling in the hopes of getting their unbuckled clients off. According to the Skagit Valley Herald, the lack of a definitive ruling has created countywide confusion. However: "If you are on city streets in Anacortes, Mount Vernon or Sedro-Woolley, you won't be pulled over just for failing to buckle up."

Hey, it's a start: The thing that made Cook's ruling newsworthy was its impeccable timing. It came right smack in the middle of the U.S. Department of Transportation's massive "Click It Or Ticket" campaign. Millions of dollars of federal and local government resources were dedicated to forcing motorists to buckle up. Or else. There were radio and television ads, billboards, and, for all I know, sock puppets. Advocacy groups used the occasion to press more states to enact primary seatbelt laws to "save lives."

It's hard to argue against saving lives. But even if we are willing to discount the massive expansion of police powers that primary seatbelt laws engender -- and we shouldn't be -- it's hard to know how seriously the self-appointed experts should be taken. Economist Sam Peltzman published an (in)famous essay in the Journal of Political Economy in the '70s which looked at the early results of the effects of mandatory safety devices (e.g., seatbelts, padded dashboards, collapsible steering columns, one gets the idea) in automobiles. At the time, Peltzman outraged public safety advocates by finding that there wasn't a huge difference in fatalities for commuters, before and after. Drivers and passengers were both more likely to get in accidents, and more likely to survive them, but pity the poor pedestrians.

Though Peltzman's work has been much misused ("See, seatbelts cause accidents!") and subject to methodological scrutiny, the basic insight has held up. Drivers who feel insulated from harm are more likely to drive recklessly and smash other cars up. Many safety advocates argue for precisely this point in their ongoing campaign against SUVs, and then turn around and insist that it's ridiculous as applied to seatbelt usage.

It's far from a ridiculous idea, in theory or practice. As Bloomberg News national affairs correspondent Andrew Ferguson recently reported, last year saw both the highest increase in seatbelt usage in eight years, and traffic fatalities at their highest level since 1990 (the figures, respectively, are from the American Automobile Association and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).

If those results sound too counter-intuitive to wrap your brain around, think of seatbelt-buckling scenes in movies. When someone yells "buckle up!" is this more likely to precede (a) a drive in the park or b) a chase scene? Granted, individually, seat belts can and do save lives, but the upshot of seatbelt safety campaigns may be anything but.

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About the Author

Jeremy Lott is managing editor of The American Spectator, a contributor to EconStats, and the author of several books and a haiku.