Saturday, June 12, 2010

Education and Reduced Speeds Are Greater Deterrents than a Mandatory Seatbelt Law

To his last broadcast in 1998, I was a regular listener of the Jerry Williams program, Boston’s “Dean of Talk Radio”, and muckraker extraordinaire. As Howie Carr of the Boston Herald once surmised, I do remember sitting in the driveway, not wanting to turn off the ignition because I was “annoyed” (one of Jerry’s signature words) over, or enthralled in, the discussion.

I have great appreciation for Jerry Williams. I did not always agree, many times he ruffled my feathers, but, whatever the issue, my impression was always that he deeply cared. It never seemed to be about ratings.

Then there was Grace, Queen of the Cockamamies, a regular caller to Jerry’s program who provided great comic relief whenever Grace and Jerry bantered.

But, putting comedy aside, Jerry was an indomitable opponent on issues close to his heart. In 1986, he was infuriated over a Massachusetts law that mandatorily required drivers and passengers to use seatbelts. He led a campaign to repeal this law, and his supporters collected signatures to place a repeal question on the November ballot. Consequently, a veto referendum of the statute succeeded. His leadership was one of Jerry’s legendary achievements.

Eventually, as Jerry predicted, the law was reinstated in 1994. Under that law, all seatbelt violations are secondary offenses. Since then, attempts have been made to make seatbelt law violations a primary enforcement.

Recently, Massachusetts Democratic State Senator Patricia Jehlen sponsored a bill making seatbelt compliance mandatory. Fortunately, it has not advanced beyond the Joint Public Safety Committee.

Is it that lives could be saved, or is it as viewed by Republican Representative George Peterson, “… something of a federal blackmail issue." States that implement primary enforcement are eligible for nearly $14 million in federal money, which could be a greater incentive to lawmakers than the mandatory seatbelt law predictions of lives saved.

In my life, I have had two significant automobile accidents. On a Bethel, S.C., highway in 1960, as a passenger in a van that tipped over, I was ejected out of the passenger side window. Other than lacerations, I was not seriously injured. And, in 1964 at about 2:00 in the morning, I rear-ended a car in the passing lane just before route 3’s exit 13, rolled down a 50-foot embankment and slammed into a tree (the driver had been at a Christmas Party, and on his way home, he parked there and fell asleep). I was cascaded to the passenger side floor. I eventually forced the door open and pulled my way out. My injuries were serious, but I was alive. In retrospect, in either accident, if I had been wearing a seatbelt it would have probably caused greater injury, or very possibly, it could have been fatal. So, my perception of any seatbelt safety declaration is ambiguous.

Being that as it may, excessive speed, distracted driving, or other driver incompetence cause accidents. Mandatory seatbelt laws are reactionary; they do not solve root causes. What should be done is a better job of educating motorists, and zero tolerance of DUI.

Through education, reducing highway speeds to within reasonable limits (55 mph or so), and improving the structural integrity of automobiles, we would proactively go much further to marginalizing the tragedy on our roadways.

We do not have Jerry Williams, who died in 2003, or anyone who has clout in the public square to lead Massachusetts out of another attack on our freedom. No one else except the power of we the people, which, by Jerry’s example, should be exercised in every state that mandatory seatbelt legislation is under consideration.

However, if seatbelts must be a part of our life, then as Jerry proclaimed, “…wear them, but do it voluntarily."