DR. ERIK STEELE

16-plus questions about watering down Maine’s seat belt law

Posted March 21, 2011, at 9:35 p.m.
Last modified March 22, 2011, at 9:34 a.m.

Like many of you, I hope this is the last seat belt column I ever write. Sometime in the next few days, the Maine Legislature will decide whether to water down Maine’s seat belt law. Here are 16 questions to ask Maine legislators who might vote to do that:

1. In the last two years, when a Maine Medicaid patient has been injured in a car crash and admitted to Eastern Maine Medical Center, how much more were the average hospital bills for unbelted patients than seat-belted patients? Answer: about $33,000 more per unbelted patient.

2. How much did the hospital bills for those 44 unbelted Maine Medicaid patients total in two years? Answer: over 2.2 million bucks.

3. How much did Maine taxpayers pay of those bills? Answer: just about every darn cent, through their taxes, health insurance premiums and higher medical bills.

4. When Maine Medicaid is already hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, does it make sense to pass a law that will ultimately add even more costs to its already busted budget? Answer: … Do I really need to answer that?

5 and 6. When a state legislator votes to allow more people to go unbelted because the seat-belt law gets turned into an unenforceable joke, more people get injured as a result, and then I have to help pay for those higher costs through my taxes, isn’t that legislator effectively voting to raise my taxes? And isn’t this the Republican-controlled Legislature that got elected in part because it was supposed to protect me from tax increases? Answers: Ayuh, and I thought so, but …?

7. When the state’s budget already has to be cut by about $800 million over the next two years, and a legislator votes to do something we all know will just add to the state’s budget deficit, isn’t that legislator perhaps ducking responsibility to do everything possible to hold state budget costs under control?  Answer: If it looks like ducking, sounds like ducking, probably is ducking.

8 and 9. Why should it be OK for someone to break the law, which watering down Maine’s current seat belt law basically would allow by making it essentially unenforceable? If we have a law on the books, shouldn’t it be enforceable by police officers?  Answers:  It shouldn’t be OK, and abso-darn-lutely.

10 and 11. Why should someone’s freedom to go unbelted and suffer more costly injuries at my financial expense trump my freedom to keep more of my money in my pocket instead of having it wasted for taxes and health insurance premiums for preventable injuries? Answer: It should not, and yet it almost always does trump it for those voting to overturn seat belt laws and their enforcement. Why is that?

12 and 13. What else will be cut from the state budget to make up for the added costs and lost revenue that result from watering down the seat belt law? Shouldn’t anyone voting to do that have to put up a list of what they will cut in order to afford this freedom?  Answers: yes, and you betcha.

14. When just about everyone who wants the right to go unbelted would give that right back in the split second before they or a loved one gets hurled through a windshield at 50 mph, is it really a right worth defending? Answer: No, and that’s the split second legislators should be thinking about when they vote this week.

15-plus. I know blood must occasionally be spilled in the name of freedom, but that of our teenagers and young adults, who are most likely to go unbelted? To “protect” us from police enforcing a simple seat belt law in our cars (an already regulated place) on the public roads (an already regulated space), while driving (a privilege and not a right)? Our blood, for that freedom? Really? Answer: You tell their families it was all in “freedom’s cause.”

16. What should you tell your legislator about a seat belt law change that will add to our taxes and health care bills, add to an $800 million state budget deficit, allow people to scoff at the remaining seat belt law with impunity, and result in the maiming and deaths of more Mainers? Answer: Vote No on LD 64.

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

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