Thanks to all who have commented on my previous piece on seat belts. I have read all of your comments and am duly informed.
On balance, the comments make me less likely to support the legislation. Many commenters echoed the strong safety arguments made in favor of the legislation by the advocates. They are potent arguments, but I think the arguments on the other side are also potent.
As I was watching the comments come in, very divided, I was looking for a compromise. As one commenter suggested, we could just raise the fine without allowing primary enforcement. Nevada, with a stiff fine, but only secondary enforcement, has high compliance.
The problem with that approach is the impact on people with lower income. I have spent too much time as an attorney for people of limited means to really want to add one penny to the potential demands of the court.
The evidence is clear that, whether or not they are disproportionate by race, the volume of motor vehicle stops will go up. That will certainly mean more people of limited means struggling to pay their fines. The pattern I have observed is that people of limited means lose their license for failure to pay fines, keep driving out of necessity and then end up in real trouble. Their difficulties are aggravated by residential housing instability — they are less likely to receive legal notices.
Several commenters emphasized how hard it is to actually see whether a driver is wearing a seat belt. And one email correspondent shared a news story of a driver being pulled over in another state for a seat belt violation while actually wearing a seat belt. Because the driver reached into the back seat to respond to his crying child as the officer approached his vehicle, the officer actually drew a weapon. In fact, every police stop is dangerous for both the officer and the driver. We don’t really want to add more occasions for stops, especially more stops based on visual guess work.
The language in the proposed bill — stating that a stop for a seat belt violation will not, in itself, justify a search of the vehicle — is really very thin protection. Once a vehicle has been stopped there are any number of additional observations which might be made to justify a search and, of course, the office can just ask for “consent”. The further good point was made that, even if the additional motor vehicle stops are not disproportionate by race, what happens after the stops is likely to be disproportionate.
Advocates for seat belt legislation argue that we should force seat belt use because the costs of injuries are borne by the public through the insurance system. However, there are many socially-costly decisions that we do not penalize — overeating probably being the most common. Further, no one has offered a cold-blooded life cycle accounting for the impact of seat belt non-use on the public fisc — people who die tragically at a young age do not reach Medicare.
Perhaps the best argument against the proposed new law is that there are a lot of more important laws on the books that we are not enforcing today. The police are already stretched too thin to stop people from cruising through red lights. Both law enforcement and the credibility of law enforcement are precious and scarce.
Thanks again to all for your feedback — I do appreciate it and welcome more of it.