- The Washington Times - Friday, September 1, 2000

Americans will be stuck in hundreds of federally financed traffic backups this Labor Day weekend. The U.S.
Department of Transportation is bankrolling state and local police checkpoints to stop cars and to issue tickets to all violators of mandatory seat-belt laws. This crackdown is another example of government as public nuisance.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is awarding tens of millions of dollars to local and state police departments and highway patrols to increase punishments of unbelted drivers. The feds are fixated on "high-visibility" crackdowns. A 1998 DOT report proclaimed that "highly visible enforcement … is more effective because the perceived risk of receiving a seat-belt citation is increased, even if the actual risk is only slightly higher." DOT's website warns that the feds have "zero tolerance for unbuckled children."
Federal safety czars have far more faith in penalizing people than in educating them. The names of the federally financed crackdowns illustrate how military-style intimidation is the goal. A New Mexico intensive enforcement effort was named Superblitz. In North Carolina, seat-belt crackdowns have been carried out by "Operation Wolfpack" roving groups of police cars with the same name used by German submarine groups in World War II.
Federal subsidies for seat-belt crackdowns encourage local law enforcement agencies to mulct citizens rather than protect them. After D.C. resident Gary Kettler got hit with two $50 tickets for seat-belt violations by him and his wife, he complained to The Washington Post: "My wife saw a young man with a gun beating up an old man, and we had to walk through a gang of people dealing drugs to report the assault to the 10 police officers who were standing on another corner handing out tickets for not wearing seat belts." Mr. Kettler was bitter about how he was treated at the seat-belt roadblock: "You find yourself surrounded by all of these police officers who are armed and geared up to hassle you. You are presumed guilty as they search to find anything to justify making the stop."
DOT is even giving bonus awards to local and state agencies that inflict the most tickets on citizens the ultimate triumph of your tax dollars at work. The agency also suggests offering free hats, T-shifts, and coffee mugs to "enthusiastic officers who are personally committed to increasing seat-belt and child safety-seat use" i.e., who write the most tickets.
Naturally, "the children" are the pretext for this latest expansion of government power. One press release for the crackdown on seat-belt violators proclaimed that the campaign "represents the largest coordinated effort by law enforcement to protect children in America's history." Apparently, nothing government has done in the last two centuries is as benevolent as making parents pay $50 for unbuckled kids. Yet the vast majority of tickets are written because of adults not wearing seatbelts.
Seat-belt laws can turn police into despots. The Supreme Court will soon hear the case of Gail Atwater, a Lago Vista, Texas, mother who was nabbed driving unbuckled by a policeman two blocks from her house as she was taking her 4-year-old and 6-year-old children home from soccer practice. The policeman refused to let her take her kids home, handcuffed her and impounded her car. She was released after spending an hour in jail. Mrs. Atwater sued, claiming her constitutional rights had been violated. Though the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her arrest, Judge Jacques Weiner dissented, warning that upholding the arrest gives the police "officer on the street carte blanche to be a one-person cop, judge, jury and executioner."
Some judges have struck down seat-belt laws as a violation of citizens' constitutional rights. Hendricks County, Ind., Judge David Coleman ruled in 1998 that the state seat-belt law violated the state constitution because it "grants unbridled discretion to all police officers in the state of Indiana." Judge Coleman observed that "such unbridled power is exactly what our forefathers fought against in the American Revolution, both world wars, the Korean War, as well as the so-called 'Cold War.' "
Seat-belt roadblocks epitomize politicians' passion to punish people in order to save them. What is the logical conclusion of this trend? Raising the fines for noncompliance from $50 to $500? Confiscating the car of any adult who fails to snap in his 11-year-old? People may laugh at the preceding question. But a decade ago, who would have believed that major cities would confiscate the autos of drivers merely suspected of drinking more than two beers?
Wearing a seat belt is an excellent safety precaution. But seat-belt roadblocks are Nanny State nonsense that must be abolished. The feds have no right to use tax dollars to promote the harassment of non-drunk, non-reckless drivers.

James Bovard is the author of the just-published "Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion & Abuse of Government Power During the Clinton-Gore Years." (St. Martin's Press).

James Bovard is the author of the just-published "Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion & Abuse of Government Power During the Clinton-Gore Years." (St. Martin's Press).

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