Seat belt regulation in public space

Posted Feb. 07, 2011, at 10:31 p.m.

State legislators are forced to consider pesky issues such as personal freedom, the rule of law and public opinion when considering proposed and existing laws regulating personal behaviors. That may explain why some of them worry that an enforceable law mandating seat belts paves the way to more draconian limits on personal freedom in the name of public interest. Here’s what I advise legislators to consider when facing this dilemma.

First, the more private and personal the location where an activity under consideration for regulation occurs, the more compelling the government’s interest must be in order to justify intervening in that area. Anyone who wants to regulate what we do at home must therefore face far more barriers than someone who might want to regulate what we do in public places.

Related, a proposed law aimed at an already regulated “personal space” should face a lower threshold of compelling public interest justification than one aimed at previously unregulated personal space. Our cars and driving, for example, are already intensely regulated; we are required to inspect them, insure them and drive them safely.

A law mandating our use of seat belts in our cars should therefore reasonably face a lower threshold to justification than a law seeking to mandate our use of the railings on the stairways of our homes, even though both are designed to prevent injury.

The more personal an activity is, the more compelling society’s interest must be to justify asking its government to regulate that activity. Government should be allowed to interfere only in an intensely personal activity if the rationale for doing so is extremely important to society. Sticking things in our mouths — eating four eggs for breakfast, adult smoking where no one else is harmed, scarfing up bugs when I was a child — is such personal activity that the government should be unable to stick in its regulatory fingers and limit it.

Do the consequences of one individual’s freedom to act impinge another individual’s freedom and wellbeing? The less an activity of one person impinges the freedom of another, and the less severe the impingement if there is one, the less case there is for government to limit the freedom. Most of us, for example, would agree the government has a compelling interest in the prevention of sexual abuse of a child, but no legitimate interest in prevention of sex between two consenting adults (unless, of course, it’s while driving unbelted).

A government mandate on personal activity must provide a substantial return in social benefit for the loss of personal freedom it will cost. The bigger the impingement of freedom and the more difficult it will be to enforce, the bigger the payback must be.

In order to regulate how many eggs I eat, the government must enter my home, come between me and my food, hire legions of cholesterol cops to stop me from surreptitious egg eating, etc. In return, fewer eggs eaten might reduce my risk of heart attack 20 years from now so I generate fewer medical bills that other Americans have to help me pay. I don’t think that’s enough of a payback to justify coming between me and four eggs over easy.

A seat belt mandated while riding in a car, on the other hand? That’s a limited infringement in an already regulated space. Driving a car on a public road is a privilege and not a right nor a strictly personal activity. Checking to see whether I am obeying the seat belt law requires a police officer to just look through my car window, not my bedroom or kitchen window. The payback — lots of injuries and deaths prevented in the relatively near future, lots of other taxpayers’ money and financial freedom saved at a time when health care costs are killing our economy, etc. — is direct and substantial.

Since my conspiracy to rule the world by first mandating healthy behavior appears to be going nowhere, the opinions of people we elect actually count. Their reasoned application of these standards in debates about legal limits on personal freedom in the public interest permits an enforceable mandatory seat belt law for us all while protecting our freedom to eat as many darn eggs as we please.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

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