Repeal mandatory seat belts

The National Motorists Association once issued a statement reading, “At each stage of the evolution of mandatory seat belt laws, we warned that this was an incremental process that would eventually lead to heavy handed enforcement practices and onerous penalties.” They were recalling the original sales pitch used for seat belt laws—that they were secondary enforcement (tickets could only be written when a car was stopped for a different offense), “educational” and not meant to be punitive.Well, here we are. The Nevada Legislature—following the lead of state law enforcement, which has long since become heavy handed with the state’s secondary enforcement law—is considering legislation to make it a primary enforcement law.We might assume that Nevada has its current law because state lawmakers observed a need and met that need. That would be incorrect.

On July 11, 1984, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole, under heavy pressure from car makers who did not want to install airbags, caved in to their lobbyists and cut a tawdry deal: “If states representing two-thirds of the United States population enact mandatory seat belt usage laws by April 1, 1989,” the car manufacturers would not have to install airbags.

Auto lobbyists fanned out across the land like locusts, hiring local contract lobbyists as fronts to lean on state legislators. Soon, seat belt laws were being enacted, though the smell of the political deal offended some locals. That’s why some states made their laws secondary enforcement.

When it was all over, several things happened. Many states had new seat belt laws. Highway deaths were affected, though not in the way expected—they had been going down before the new laws and continued going down after the new laws—but the rate of decline slowed. And the courts overturned Dole’s deal, so the car companies had to install airbags anyway.

In Nevada, the drafting of the law had been very sloppy. Trying for secondary enforcement, the lawmakers wrote a law that said seat belt tickets could only be written “when the vehicle is halted or its driver arrested for another alleged violation or offense.” For a long time, law enforcement respected legislative intent, but that “when the vehicle is halted” section became too tempting. Then the trick became to get vehicles to halt. Soon, drunken-driving checkpoints were being used to write seat belt tickets. (Many journalists continue to report that seat belt tickets are issued “only if you are stopped for another offense.")

Now, law enforcement wants it made plain—a primary enforcement mandatory seat belt law. Clark County Sen. Dennis Nolan has sponsored Senate Bill 42. This is the same senator who is sponsoring legislation for cameras to enforce traffic violations, snapping pictures of offenders’ vehicles with the tickets later mailed to the vehicles’ owners. Try mounting a defense well after the fact.

Enough. This is all well beyond the line that should exist between free people and their overreaching and too easily influenced government. The camera bill should be killed and the legislature should return us to “go” on seat belts—un-ring the Dole bell, and repeal the mandatory law, with its tawdry history, altogether.