You might want to sit down

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | September 8, 2021

This month, Wisconsin celebrates an anniversary. On Sept. 25, 1961, we became the first state to require front seat belts be installed in all new cars from 1962 onwards.

The law was very controversial. People did not want to be told to wear seat belts. Reasons varied, ranging from seat belts being too new and unproven to comfort to various safety concerns. A September 2017 retrospective on Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) reported that people even cut seat belts out of their new cars in protest.

The controversy continued for years. WPR quoted a 1964 Appleton Post-Crescent letter to the editor: “As long as the life risked is his own, I believe the individual should decide whether or not the use of safety belts is wise.” A 1957 letter from the Wisconsin State Journal (when the law was being discussed) noted that it was better to be thrown clear of a car in an accident, because of the fire risk. We now know better. A 2017 report from the Insurance Information Institute noted that, in fatal crashes that year, about 83% of vehicle occupants, who were totally ejected, died.

It’s 60 years later and the debate goes on. New Hampshire still lacks any seat belt law for adults — although it does have one for those under 18.

Reporter Ben Henry of New Hampshire Public Radio randomly surveyed people in late 2017 about seat belts. “When I asked people to settle the question of whether state government has the right to police their personal safety choices,” Henry said, “I heard the state motto a lot. It’s a dramatic phrase — an ultimatum.” 

New Hampshire’s motto is “Live free or die.”

Seat belts were first used in aircraft. Sir George Cayley of Yorkshire, England, developed a lap belt for the first manned glider flight in 1853. Belts in race cars followed — not surprisingly. Racer Barney Ohldfield used one at the Indy 500 in 1922.

Still, resistance continued. In 1973, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) turned from trying to convince the public to pressuring business. It issued a requirement that new cars be equipped with an interlock to prevent starting if seat belts were not engaged. That was overturned by Congress in 1974. So, in 1977, NHTSA decided to require automakers to install “passive restraints” (air bags) that would protect an occupant in a 35-mph head-on crash.

That did not go smoothly either. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan became president on a deregulation platform, his administration blocked NHTSA’s rule. But insurance companies sued in support of the legislation and the Supreme Court overturned the administration.

In 1985, Reagan’s transportation secretary Elizabeth Dole proposed a compromise. This required new cars be equipped with airbags unless, by April 1, 1989, two-thirds of the states passed seat belt laws. Automakers supported Dole — largely because belts cost less than bags. Still, the 1989 deadline came up short by eight states, who protested on largely ideological reasons about freedom of choice.

So, 28 years after Wisconsin’s seat belt law, on April 1, 1989, driver airbags became mandatory. By then, many — but not all — states had seat belt laws. Even today, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration, only 10 states do not require rear seat belt use and 35 allow police to issue tickets solely for not wearing one.

What have we learned since 1961? That we all agree that safety is important. But also that it can take a long time to reach consensus on what safety looks like from any one person’s perspective.

This is where the Golden Rule can help. While we all value our feelings and opinions on safety, we also must realize that other people are affected by our safety choices. When we, as a group, reach consensus on safety issues, laws go smoothly into place. When we don’t, regulations, such as airbags, can happen. And, when we can’t reach consensus even on regulations, we can end up with nothing at all, like New Hampshire.

Today, most New Hampshire residents, 70%, do wear seat belts. The national average, though, is 90%. In the end, it turns out, saving lives and preventing injury is important to most of us.

The Insurance Information Institute estimates that seat belts saved 14,955 lives in 2017 alone. That’s an important statistic to sit up and take notice of when one of those 14,955+ people this year might be your neighbor, child or grandchild. Or even you.

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