- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

Seat belts do save lives but that's entirely beside the point when it comes to the question of whether buckling-up should be enforced at ticket-point.
Several states around the country have adopted or are considering so-called "primary enforcement" laws most recently, Virginia that would empower the police to pull over and issue people tickets for no other reason than their failure to wear a seat belt. "Points" levied against one's driving record the same as for offense such as speeding, etc. are also part of the deal in some areas.
Advocates of primary enforcement argue that seat belt usage decreases the risk of injury or death in the event of an automobile accident and of course they're absolutely correct. It is smart to wear your seat belt. But it's also smart to eat right and exercise and the consequences of failing to do either are at least as serious in potential and in fact as failing to buckle-up.
Obesity has become a serious health problem in the United States exacerbated by our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. The health-care costs of such maladies as premature cardiovascular disease, diabetes and so on are astronomical. Thousands of lives are "lost" each year as a result of people cramming too much of the wrong foods down their gullets and failing to exercise far more, in fact, than are injured or killed as a result of not buckling up.
So should dietary codes and exercise regimens be enforced at ticket-point?
When police sport an obviously obese person walking down the street with a super-sized order of fries in his pudgy fingers, should they be able to stop him and issue a "fatty fine?"
If you say no but favor primary enforcement of seat belt laws you're taking the position that it's OK for the government to harass some people (other people), but not pester you for the personal decisions and lifestyle choices you've made even if they are objectively as harmful to your health and safety as is the failure of the guy in the car sitting next to you to buckle his seat belt.
Neo-puritanism works both ways and if the increasingly overused "for your own good" argument is going to become the standard by which we permit government to henpeck us, there will be no aspect of our lives private as well as public that won't eventually come under the scrutiny of some Dudley Do-right with a badge and the authority of the state behind him.
It's appropriate to discourage and, if necessary, punish behavior that imperils others, or infringes upon their rights. Running red lights, getting behind the wheel liquored-up, reckless driving these are examples of actions that threaten others and that should therefore be the concern of the authorities.
Not wearing a seat belt, on the other hand, may increase your individual risk of being injured or even killed in the event of an accident but it doesn't threaten the safety, rights or well-being of others. It should therefore be left to the discretion of the individual just as our diet, exercise habits, recreational pursuits and hobbies are.
It's a distinction worth making and an ideal worth protecting.

Eric Peters is a syndicated automotive writer and the auto columnist for America Online, Netscape and CompuServe.

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