Opinion

Seat belt usage shouldn’t be a police matter

Starting June 13, the long arm of the law will be reaching into your car to make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened when you drive. Can the day be far off when we expect some duly deputized public servant to make sure we eat our vegetables, burp us and tuck us into bed at night?

Washington residents are currently getting a large dose of Big Brother, as law enforcement agencies throughout the state are participating in the “Click It or Ticket” Campaign. Backed by a $500,000 media blitz, state troopers from May 20 through June 2 will be conducting an emphasis campaign intended to encourage drivers to buckle up.

This they will do by writing out an $86 ticket for every person in the car — driver or passenger — not wearing a seatbelt.

Not that anyone should blame the troopers for doing their job. Several years ago, Washington legislators made seatbelt usage a “secondary offense,” meaning drivers could be ticketed for failing to comply, but only when they had been pulled over for some other — more compelling — reason, like speeding.

In the recently concluded legislative session, however, state lawmakers — who obviously had way too much time on their hands — upped the ante, making failure to wear seatbelts a primary offense. Thus, we have the spectacle of state troopers and other law enforcement agencies taking a break from their pursuit of murderers and rapists to crack down on soccer moms and seatbelt scofflaws.

Don’t misunderstand: We think seatbelts are a wonderful idea and anyone who doesn’t wear one is a complete fool. But everything that’s a good idea shouldn’t necessarily be made into law and enforced by people carrying guns.

Advocates of seatbelt laws note that medical costs associated with traffic collisions add up to something like $276 million a year in Washington state, and analysts say state residents absorb 30 percent of those costs.

Meanwhile, an unbelted driver or passenger’s health care costs average about $11,000 more than someone who wears a seatbelt. Consequently, the argument goes, the state has a financial stake in making sure everyone buckles up.

The problem with that logic is that if you follow it to its natural to its natural conclusion, it could also be argued that people who smoke cost their fellow taxpayers hundreds of millions more in health coverage than nonsmokers; so why aren’t we using the resources of our law enforcement agencies to make sure no one smokes?

While we’re at it, we know that people who eat a balanced diet are healthier than those who don’t, and people who brush their teeth regularly have fewer cavities. Shall we make Twinkies illegal and empower some other state agency to regulate our dental hygiene?

How about instituting statewide bedchecks to ensure we all get a nice, healthy eight hours of sleep every night? Then for good measure we can outlaw skiing, sky diving and other dangerous activities that — studies have shown — result in far more injuries and death than stamp collecting or bird watching.

Where does it all end? Unless you’re prepared to ban every risky or unhealthy lifestyle choice in the name of reducing public health expenditures, where do you draw the line?

We live in a world in which there are real threats to our health and safety and, while we appreciate the wisdom of wearing seatbelts, we believe the choice to buckle up or not buckle up should ultimately be left to the individual, since the driver or passenger puts only themselves at risk.

Law enforcement officials stuck with enforcing this ill-advised law are only doing their job. But quite frankly, we wish our lawmakers recognized the main job of police, deputies and state troopers is to protect us from other people, not ourselves.

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