By David Weinstein
Late last month, a Libertarian gentleman reached into his suit jacket, pulled out a dog-eared, pocket-sized U.S. Constitution and waved it in my face. Now, this wasn't some random act of constitutional awareness. Instead, it was surely scripted because it occurred on live TV. He was responding to the AAA's position on seat-belt use and enforcement. You likely can guess in what context this subject arose.
Full disclosure: AAA is unequivocally for seat-belt use and robust government regulation.
In response to that long-standing AAA position, my fellow guest, the Libertarian, wanted to know if I'd read the Constitution - thus the waving of the Document. He said something like: "You're outside the law, my friend. No law allows this type of intrusion into our lives."
I didn't reply. I froze. I was somehow speechless. Whig in the throat? Hard to say, but luckily another guest jumped in and saved our side's argument. On remote from Washington, D.C., he unloaded a truckload of ancillary traffic-crash data that illustrated the pain beyond ordinary pain and suffering - such as medical and insurance bills, lost time and efficiency at work, lost mobility - unbuckled drivers and passengers could face. While my dignity was intact, the irritating eloquence of hindsight left a bitter taste these last couple of weeks.
With that bitterness in mind, this is how I would have replied if the Constitution hadn't got my tongue:
"Yes, I've read the Constitution. But more important, so, too, have the nine fine folks who sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. They've ruled over and over that government does have the right to enforce seat-belt regulations for the general welfare and for the public interest.
"Beyond that fact, no driver is an island unto himself. One crash, we know, can delay thousands of people. No driver deserves the freedom to 'make a bad decision' such as not wearing a seat belt. If you're thrown from your seat, how will you brake or steer or even see? You can't. You'll injure others and destroy infrastructure, an annual billion-dollar-plus investment we collectively make. This investment promotes influence and affluence - in our own backyards. Why shouldn't the government help protect lives and protect this investment through traffic-safety laws?"
My point is that consequences on the road are severe - for drivers, for passengers and for collaterally damaged surroundings. We taxpayers abhor paying for transportation infrastructure, which is far from free. But traffic safety is free. It remains the lone free way to care for our collective investment in roads, not to mention our investment in family, friends and ourselves.
We New Jerseyans have seen firsthand what happens when we are not properly buckled up. When crashes occur, as they will, horrible injuries occur. Prices are paid in many ways.
The truth is that most of us buckle up - nine in 10 New Jersey drivers, in fact. But this remains a troubling statistic because it means 600,000 do not. Yikes!
Our law requires all front-seat passengers to buckle up. Our law requires children to buckle up in the back seat. Our law, in your car and mine, requires all children who are not yet 8 years old or 80 pounds to be buckled into a child-safety seat. No exceptions.
When laws like these are set in type, as they are in New Jersey, 12 percent more drivers and passengers use seat belts, resulting in 8 percent fewer motor-vehicle crash deaths annually. That is reason enough for government to be involved. No hindsight necessary.