- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

Seat belt enforcement campaigns are becoming more aggressive oppressively so. Over Memorial Day weekend, for example, a nationwide dragnet involving 10,446 law enforcement agencies issued literally thousands of tickets solely for the failure to "buckle up for safety."

These people were subjected to traffic stops by armed cops with all the menace that attends such an experience for the kind of thing your mommy used to insist you do. Guns, sirens, the weight of the state all for failing to buckle up like a good little boy or girl.

This Labor Day, we can expect more of the same.

Steve Dasbach, national director of the Libertarian Party, justifiably called the 2001 Memorial Day campaign which used 15,000 checkpoints and so-called saturation patrols to nab these oh-so-dangerous n'er-do-wells an "outrage."

"That's not public safety; it's public harassment," he said, adding, "It's a criminal misuse of law enforcement resources, and Americans should be outraged by it."

Indeed.

The National Safety Council (NSC), a private organization that describes itself as dedicated to protecting life and health, worked in tandem with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency, to promote what was called the largest-ever crackdown on drivers who fail to buckle up. The busybodies at the NSC crowed with glee, saying cops were blanketing roadways with checkpoints and safety patrols. You'd think someone had committed a crime.

And this is precisely what's at issue here. Not "safety," not "our children." Simply put: Is it a legitimate use of police power to compel people to wear their seat belts? More to the point: Do we want to authorize the state to waylay, fine and perhaps jail people for non-criminal "offenses" that involve personal decisions, actions or lifestyle choices decisions that have nothing to do with the safety or well-being of others?

Individuals may increase their chances of being injured or killed by not buckling up, just as they may increase their chances of dying from an early heart attack by indulging in fast food and becoming overweight. But is this the proper business of authorities?

The Libertarians say no, and it's hard to argue the point, at least if you believe in the concept of freedom as the founders of this country understood it.

By that standard, the cops would leave you alone unless and until your actions affected the rights of others. This, sadly, has become a quaint notion in today's America, where more and more we countenance interference with each other on the basis of some ardent need to control or inflict our notion of goodness on people who do not agree with our way of doing things.

Without a principled line drawn in the sand, this kind of thing can and will spread to include other areas of our lives, beyond merely "buckling up for safety." The possibilities are truly endless. There is no defense against such busybodyism other than a firm commitment to the principle that people should be left alone unless there's a legitimate reason to not leave them alone. The absolute minimum standard should be a clear and present danger to other people.

There's a darker side, too. Seat belt laws give police a legal pretext to waylay motorists, physically detain them, inspect their persons and their vehicles and interrogate them. Such laws are a way around what's left of the Fourth Amendment, the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

No one disputes the contention that wearing a seat belt is a good idea, and most drivers do, indeed, buckle up. The NHTSA estimates that 71 percent of Americans use their seat belts regularly. But that is beside the point. It's also a good idea to keep your weight down, steer clear of fatty foods, avoid drinking too much and so on. As with the decision to stay fit and eat well, the consequences of buckling up, or not, are borne by the individual making the decision and no one else.

The decision should, therefore, be beyond the scope of state authority. You may not approve of your neighbor's hobby of motorcycle racing or bungee jumping, either but it's none of your business, and least of all the business of the police.

Live and let live is a pretty good philosophy. If the guy in the next lane isn't buckled up, why not leave him alone? He's not demanding that the cops investigate the contents of your takeout lunch.

Let's let the police focus on catching criminals you know, people who harm other people and leave the rest of us the heck alone.

Eric Peters is a nationally syndicated automotive columnist and an editorial writer for The Washington Times.


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