March 29, 1999
By Bill Blomberg
The legislature went at it again, doing its best to make the world a better place. This time, they were going to improve the existing seatbelt law by making failure to buckle up a primary offense. (Right now, you can be cited only if you are first pulled over for another violation.) Although the measure is dead for this year, it will probably be resurrected one day. If this day comes, we would be better served if our lawmakers would consider a different approach to this matter.
The reason given for this legislation is that those who motor around unbuckled suffer greater injuries and death rates when involved in accidents. The medical and other costs of their folly are borne by society. Therefore, says the legislature, lets make not wearing a seatbelt even more illegal than it already is.
Because the issue has been presented this way, i.e. that all of us have to incur an expense because of the decisions of a certain number not to wear seatbelts, we accept that either we are faced with this expense or an increase in government regulation. Thus the mandatory seat buckling sounds good to most people, while making libertarians cringe.
In fact there is a third way to approach this matter force the market to resolve things, with governments only role being to assure that the market is enforced.
How would this work? Simply as follows: the state would require that each vehicle insurance policy be classed “Seat belts required” or “Seat belts optional” based on what the owner purchased from the insurer. If riding around without seat belts is truly more costly than buckling up, then insurance industry data will reflect this and the “belts optional” package will cost more.
The role of the state would be just as it is now when a vehicle is stopped (for some legitimate reason) and the insurance card is checked, if the card showed “belts required” and there were unbuckled occupants, a summons would be issued just as it is now when there is no insurance.
This approach is preferable to the legislation being proposed because it minimizes the intrusiveness of the state while at the same time protecting our right not to have to pay for the choices of others. Those who want to ride free of constraint could do so all they wish as long as they are the ones paying.
This same idea would extend to the wearing of helmets by motorcyclists. Here the issue is the same helmet-less bikers cause greater economic damage in the form of more severe injuries or more premature deaths than do helmet-clad bikers. It would be a simple matter to issue a “Helmet optional” insurance card which would allow the rider to cruise free and easy.
In fact, the motorcycle debate has an added twist – there is an on-going controversy over whether helmets might actually increase danger by causing more accidents to occur in the first place (by obscuring the hearing and field of vision of the motorcyclist). Certainly this point gets advanced in hearings every time helmet laws are proposed. The fact is that no one knows the answer to the question: are helmets an asset or a liability to the motorcyclist?
The best way to find out would be through the gathering of actuarial data over time. The state could impose and enforce the “Helmet classification” for insurers, who would then be able to get meaningful statistics on the net effect of wearing helmets. Rates would then be set accordingly in a free market. The states sole function would be as it is now to assure that people are carrying the appropriate required insurance for their particular situation, per their free choice. And if it were to turn out that wearing a helmet is actually more dangerous every safety-conscious rider would be well served to know that.
Under this proposal, seat belt enforcement would remain a secondary “offense.” At present a driver is assumed to be insured and cannot be stopped solely on a suspicion of lack of insurance in general; being stopped on the lone assumption of a lack of seatbelt insurance in particular would be just as unacceptable.
The policy proposed here uses a tool that legislators seem to forget exists the market. A market mechanism often occurs naturally – in those cases the private sector steps up and responds. Sometimes markets cant be used providing for the national defense cant be “marketized” for example. But in many cases a market solution can be sculpted where one doesnt exist naturally.
Markets work. Wouldnt it be nice if our representatives could remember this from time to time?
Bill Blomberg wrote this article for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, https://i2i.org.
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