ENTERPRISE EDITORIAL: Seat belts and other laws: How far is too far?

Montana lawmakers on Jan. 13 tabled a bill that would have allowed police to stop you simply for not wearing a seat belt.

Right now officers can cite you for a seat belt violation only if they stop you for some other cause.

A hearing on the bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee included testimony from Pat Goldhahn, who said the life of his 15-year-old daughter, who was not wearing a seat belt in the accident that caused her death, could have been saved if there’d been a stricter law in place, the Associated Press reported. He said his daughter was a “rule-follower,” and believes she would have otherwise been wearing a belt.

The proposed law, SB 9, sponsored by Sen. Dick Barrett of Missoula, raises a critical question about government’s role in our lives: How far should the government go in making you do or not do things for your own good and the good of society at large? 

In the case of the stricter seat belt law, it could be argued it could not only save your life — in more than half of Montana’s 224 highway deaths in 2015, people were not wearing seat belts, according to the Montana Highway Patrol — but also reduce the financial burden on society to care for people injured in accidents who were not wearing belts.

And if a law like that seems too restrictive, consider how “the government” — be it federal, state or local — already orders us to do many things related to vehicles: We must have a license, insurance and pollution controls, we can’t drink and drive, and there are some restrictions on cell phone use.

And the government tells us what to do on a myriad of other aspects of our lives: from food (no transfats), to our homes (meet building codes), to work (follow many workplace safety rules). 

But how much is too much? At what point do laws for our own good move from being acceptable to an intrusion into our personal lives?

This question was famously highlighted by then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to make it illegal to sell soft drinks more than 16 ounces in size.

A reasonable person would instinctively know this silly proposal enters the area of intrusion. 

However, using food as an example here, we do want the government to enforce some things, like telling food manufacturers they can’t use cancer-causing ingredients in food. But do we want the government telling you, say, you can eat red meat only once a week, or not at all, because it increases your risk for heart disease and it’s not fair to make taxpayers help cover the cost of your open-heart surgery?

That’s the eternal conundrum of a democracy. 

No such conundrum exists in authoritarian governments. The person in charge tells you what you’re going to do, and that’s it. It’s simple, but not bearable.

The Montana seat belt proposal to make you wear your seat belt is actually not a bad one, but you can see why it got tabled. People get nervous giving the government too much power. It’s an American thing — it’s in our DNA, going all the way back to what started the Revolutionary War.

And, unless we want to be ruled by a dictator, the fight will always continue. 

As well it should — for your good, and the good of society at large. 

— Dwight Harriman
Enterprise News Editor