Long before face masks became an attack on personal freedoms, the seatbelt suffered the same level of illogical criticism.
With face masks and vaccine mandates being the battleground for the war against what opponents are calling ‘freedom’ and ‘personal liberty’, we might cast our eyes back a few decades to when the then-hot button issue about said freedoms was over mandating the seatbelt.
Car-safety pioneer Ralph Nader told Business Insider that there was a libertarian streak among those opposed to seatbelt laws as it became part of the national conversation in the late 1960s, culminating in America’s Congress creating what eventually became the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), requiring all vehicles (except buses) to be fitted with seat belts in 1968.
Typical of the laws governing people’s daily lives, the use of seatbelts in America was at first strictly voluntary, and many Americans didn’t want to use them. As late as 1983, fewer than 15% of Americans said they used seat belts consistently. In 1984, New York was the first state to pass a mandatory seat-belt law, with other states soon following. Thanks to the law, New York’s seat belt compliance jumped to 70% in less than a year (the threat of a $50 fine will do that to you).
The parallels between anti-maskers’ arguments (they say, among other things that they make you more susceptible to covid, that they deprive your body of oxygen, or cause carbon dioxide poisoning; all false) and anti-seatbelt wearers is eerily similar. In a survey over Mandatory seatbelt law support and opposition in New England, “Some argued – incorrectly – that it was safer to be thrown clear from a wreck than trapped inside one.”
Drivers and passengers complained that seat belts were uncomfortable and restrictive, but the uproar over mandatory seat belt laws was mostly ideological. Opponents of a similar law in the Michigan State House called the seat belt bill “a pretty good lesson in mass hysteria created by a corporate-controlled media”.
Seatbelt debates have been a hot-button topic in the US for decades, despite increasing scientific research perpetually affirming their value in saving lives. Among the arguments against them included that they could cause internal injuries; that they prevented easy escapes from cars submerged in water; and that the devices frequently failed. All were disputed by researchers, but the opposition remained fierce.
When Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election on a deregulatory platform, the automotive industry was a key player. One of the first things his administration did was to rescind the NHTSA rule requiring passive restraints; insurance companies promptly sued and the case went to the Supreme Court. The justices voted unanimously to block the Reagan administration and enforce the NHTSA’s seatbelt rule.
New Hampshire is the only US state without a mandatory seat belt law for adults, a product of its “Live free or die” libertarian ethos. There is, however, a regulation that anyone under 18 must use a seatbelt.
Since 1975, seat belts are estimated to have saved 374,276 American lives, with 14,955 saved in 2017 alone, according to the National Safety Council. The national use rate was at 90.3% in 2020.
If it’s not one thing, it’s another. It’s somewhat unsettling, yet perplexingly reassuring that the crowing of a vocal minority against the thing that’s a net good for society isn’t anything new. Vaccination numbers show how widespread our acceptance of the jab is, while attitudes to face masks are changing, showing how interventions make a difference.
Just like they did with seat belts.