Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Live free or die...right?

New Hampshire is the only state in the US without a mandatory seat belt use law for adults riding in the front seats of cars. It's been the sole holdout for more than a decade. Even "macho" states like Texas, Wyoming, and Montana long have had mandatory belt use laws. Yet New Hampshire persists; after all the state motto "live free or die" appears on every NH license plate. Does this mean "live free" of belt use only to die by being ejected in a car crash?

For the first time since the 1800s, the Democrats took control of the state legislature after the elections of 2006. The New Hampshire House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill in April to require belt use. However, the bill was defeated by the Senate last week, failing on a vote of 16-8. Instead, the senators voted in favor of a measure to establish a "study commission" to consider ways to get more people to buckle up.

This seems a little silly in light of well-documented research that shows persuasion alone, such as "education" through public service ads, is ineffective in raising seat belt use. No, it seems the threat of a ticket by breaking the law is the most effective method, provided enforcement is well publicized and highly visible.

One enlightened senator, Democrat Peter Burling, countered the "nanny state" or "big brother" arguments against mandatory belt use by citing another important New Hampshire tradition -- that of the self-reliant community dealing with its own emergencies. He recalled a recent car crash in his district, "The social compact that binds us together kicked into gear," describing volunteers coming from all parts of the town to help. "You don't [buckle up], you're telling every one of those people, 'I don't care how much it hurts you to see me spattered across the road -- it's my individual liberty. And your job is to fix it.' "

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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