The freedom to die in your car


It’s always a good sign when you get attacked by someone who has made a career out of being wrong. Last week, David Strom of the Minnesota Free Market Institute called me to task for putting the word freedom in quotation marks in a piece comparing our state’s resistance to reasonable driver safety laws with the disastrous U.S. policy in Iraq.

Opinion: The freedom to die in your car

In both cases, we’ve sacrificed far too much blood and treasure for the sake of things that don’t deserve the hallowed name of liberty.

To hear war supporters tell it, we’re fighting for “freedom” for the Iraqis by occupying their country with more than 100,000 foreign soldiers. Would the neocon hawks maintain that fiction if the roles were reversed and Iraqi soldiers were here?

When it comes to proven safety measures such as putting teeth in Minnesota’s mandatory seatbelt law, Strom and other “freedom fighters” of all political stripes are insisting on a God-given right to go through your windshield in a traffic crash.

While I’m tempted to leave them and their followers to the not-so-tender mercies of natural selection, the hard fact is that the decision to buckle up or not affects more than the individual alone. Studies show that greater seatbelt compliance would save more than 100 lives and $100 million a year in Minnesota money the rest of us pay in higher taxes and health insurance premiums.

So we get to fork over so that a clueless minority can stay “free” to be stupid on publicly funded roads? Roads that are already regulated with dozens of traffic laws, all but one of them subject to full enforcement by police? In cars that by law must be equipped with live-saving seatbelts?

Under Minnesota law since 1986, not wearing a seatbelt can bring a $25 fine, but cops can’t stop you for it unless they spot another infraction. For the umpteenth time this year, the Legislature rejected attempts to change that to the way every other Minnesota law is enforced.

A lot of this obstructionism springs from a sandbox libertarianism that takes for granted all the conveniences of a complex, interdependent society while resisting the rules and responsibilities and taxes that make it possible. Some of it comes from progressives who think a real seatbelt law would give police license to arrest anyone anytime especially young people and minorities even though studies in 1999 by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators found the exact opposite effect. Blacks in states with primary enforcement seatbelt laws reported less police harassment.

More on that question later.

Strom opines that the logic of an effective seatbelt law would compel the state also to reduce highway speed limits to 25 or 40 miles per hour to save more lives. That’s nonsense. Enforcement would be impossible and the cost in lost economic efficiency would be enormous. There’s no comparable downside to really requiring folks to buckle up.

But Strom and the rest of the merry pranksters at the Free Market Institute and Taxpayers League have been willfully wrong plenty of times before, most recently when they branded this year’s transportation funding package 83 percent of it dedicated to roads and bridges the “transit bill.” That’s not just wrong; it’s a vicious lie.

Some people, however, can make the journey from ignorance to insight. Take U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who opposed primary seatbelt enforcement on the bogus grounds of combating racial profiling by police when he was in the Minnesota Legislature.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Congressman Ellison told me last week as we appeared together on Mark Haney’s “Minnesota Matters” radio show. “In all my years as a defense attorney, I’ve learned that the cops can always find a reason to stop you if that’s what they’re intent on. They don’t need a primary seatbelt law to do that.”

But Minnesotans do need a primary seatbelt law to reduce the senseless slaughter and waste on our highways. Here’s hoping the 2009 Legislature finds the wisdom to enact it.