“Experts blast bill to nullify seat belt laws.” This recent headline in a statewide newspaper was supported by the record of the recent legislative hearing on L.D. 112.

Many of the bill’s opponents likely were spurred to testify by the recent titanic interstate vehicle pile-up, in which first responders attributed the relatively small number of injuries to likely seat-belt usage.

On hand to blast the bill were two trauma surgeons and representatives from the Maine Sheriffs Association, LifeFlight of Maine, the Maine Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association, the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, the Maine Department of Public Safety, AAA of Northern New England and the Maine Medical Association.

Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, was in the blast zone as L.D. 112’s author. The bill also has support from Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, and Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, but no expert of any description showed up to support him, only a lone resident of Sidney.

Let’s for a moment ponder the words of Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury: “No lesson seems to be so deeply inculcated by the experience of life as that you should never trust experts. If you believe doctors, nothing is wholesome; if you believe the theologians, nothing is innocent; if you believe the soldiers, nothing is safe. They all require their strong wine diluted by a very large admixture of insipid common sense.”

In this case, it seems, insipid common sense requires the experts to explain why drivers need coercion to take precautions. Less insipidly, common sense asks why experts expect idiots to buckle up when faced with the threat of a fine while they remain indifferent to the threat of the death, maiming or broken bones if they remain unbuckled.

More than 20 years ago, my vehicle was rear-ended by a driver (drunken, drugged or maniac) outside Farmington, Conn. I recovered consciousness securely buckled, inside a cocoon of wreckage. I did not require the threat of a fine to buckle up back then, still less now. Yet, I support L.D. 112.

Brakey also favors the use of seat belts, agrees they save lives and fastens them around himself regularly. He does not agree that law has the power to cure people of recklessness, thoughtlessness or absent-mindedness.

There’s no telling whether those experts testifying against his bill believe law can do those things. They just went ahead and argued that seat belts are a good thing, as if they thought Brakey did not.

Brakey has a libertarian’s philosophical resistance to the unnecessary exercise of governmental coercion. I doubt those experts opposing L.D. 112 wish to promote coercion as an end in itself. They probably prefer persuasion to force but, finding that a fraction of the population always ignores them, turn to legal penalties to enforce what they believe is for the best. In this, they may overlook the dangers of confusing intent with results.

There is no conclusive evidence that seat belt usage relies on the threat of fines. James Tanner of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety reports that Maine had 130 “road fatalities” in 2014, of which 41 were people who were not wearing seat belts. In 2013, there were 56 unbelted dead out of 144, and in 2012, 63 out of 164.

Even though the law commanded them to belt up, 160 people died beltless over three years.

So what can we conclude from this? That all would have survived if they had obeyed the law? Since 278 people died with their seat belts on, we have no means of knowing how many among the unbelted dead would have survived if they had obeyed the law. Nor do we have an accurate method of determining how many accident survivors were wearing their belts because of the law and how many were wearing them because it is the sensible thing to do.

The experts appear untroubled by such questions. Brakey cites statistics from New Hampshire, where seat belts are not compulsory for adults, to show the a lack of conclusive evidence about the usefulness of coercion. His argument for L.D. 112 rests primarily on a libertarian’s principled insistence that government has a heavy burden of proof to justify use of force and coercion. The experts, as Lord Salisbury implies, may think, “Why take a chance? Let’s make the idiot public act as we see fit.” Personal freedom and the Dictatorship of the Expert are misfits.

L.D. 112 has no chance of passing, but there’s an argument here that is worth making, and Brakey deserves credit for making it.

John Frary of Farmington is a former congressional candidate and retired history professor, a board member of Maine Taxpayers United and publisher of www.fraryhomecompanion.com. Email to [email protected].


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under:

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.