In fights over face masks, echoes of the seat belt wars

Christine Hauser, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 16 2020 02:24 PM

A legislator in New Hampshire called it constricting. A Michigan man said it messed up his look. A sailor in Massachusetts argued that the government has no right to force him to wear it.

Although they might sound familiar, those were not the refrains of people rebelling against face masks during the pandemic. Instead, they came from the seat-belt debates of the 1980s, another era when some Americans pushed back against rules meant to keep them safe.

Capitals, legislative halls, petitions and radio shows were the stages for battle over state seat-belt laws, the first of which passed in 1984. Medical workers and police officers gave firsthand accounts of how people not wearing belts died in wrecks. Opponents wondered if it was safe to be strapped into a hurtling vehicle, or complained about discomfort and government overreach.

In Massachusetts, a talk radio host and a sign painter teamed to repeal their state’s seat-belt law. A state legislator in Michigan was called hateful names. And for decades, bills have floundered in New Hampshire, which has so far lived up to its “Live Free or Die” motto in remaining the only state that does not force an adult driver to wear a seat belt.

The fight over seat-belt laws in the United States was fraught with trying to strike a balance between individual and public interests. Those concerns have also been reflected in similar matters of health and safety, including vaccinations, helmet laws — and masks.

Alberto Giubilini, a public health ethics scholar who has compared the arguments over seat-belt laws with those of vaccination opponents, noted that seat belts and helmets are mostly meant to protect an individual, while vaccinations and face masks are also intended to prevent harm from spreading to others.

That gives seat-belt opponents more room to argue for their personal right to imperil themselves, he said.

“Many are worried about the state becoming more authoritarian,” he said. “It is refusal to follow certain authority, just because it is authority.”

Since 1984, when New York became the first state to have a seat-belt law, they have continued to be an uneven patchwork. Some have made it a primary violation, meaning officers can pull over a driver only for not wearing a seat belt. Others made it secondary, meaning a driver stopped for another reason can also be given a seat-belt citation. Only 31 states extend the requirement to adults in the back seat.

Legislative records, government reports and interviews show how the efforts to draft seat-belt laws have pitted grim fatality statistics against personal complaints about comfort, freedom and efficiency.

Here are three snapshots of those efforts and their outcomes.

Massachusetts: Seat Belts by Choice

In Massachusetts, the fight over seat-belt laws was spearheaded by a sign painter and a radio host.

Robert Ford, who goes by Chip, is a 70-year-old libertarian who wears a seat belt — but he doesn’t want the government to force him to.

In the mid-1980s, he teamed up with Jerry Williams, a pioneering talk radio host who was once called “the dean of ‘radio activists,’” on a crusade to repeal the state’s seat-belt laws.

Their partnership began in 1985, the year of the state’s first seat-belt law. Ford had dropped out of college, sailed and restored boats, and turned to sign painting. One day, he was working in Beverly Harbor when he turned on WRKO.

“I used to listen to talk radio when I was out lettering boats,” he said. “I heard Jerry Williams talking about the seat-belt law.”

Inspired, Ford contacted Williams, who encouraged him to get involved in efforts to repeal the legislation.

“I had never done anything political before,” Ford said. “I had no idea what a ballot committee was.”

Alan S. Tolz, a former producer of Williams’ show, said the host devoted most of his airtime in that period to encouraging people to petition against seat belts.

“It was a long civics lesson,” he said. “I think he was looking at this as a libertarian issue — ‘I am an adult, I will wear a seat belt, and you don’t have to force me to.’”

“And that is how we won,” Ford said. “I used that argument in every debate, every talk show.”

The law was repealed in 1986, making Massachusetts the first state to do so.

Williams, who died in 2003, credited what he called the “ragtag band of citizens who understood what the American Revolution was all about” for the win.

A second law passed in 1993, and Ford, who went on to testify against seat-belt laws in other capitals, gave up on fighting the Massachusetts law when his effort to repeal the new law failed.

“I washed my hands of that issue and moved on to others,” he said.

But not government-mandated masks. Ford said he does not see a libertarian parallel with today’s mask mandates, because their purpose is to prevent harm from spreading to others.

“You choose to wear a seat belt, and you are only hurting yourself if you make the wrong decision,” he said.

Michigan: ‘The right to go through the windshield’

More than 30 years ago, David Hollister, a legislator representing Lansing, was working on budget and social services issues when Richard H. Austin, the secretary of state and chairman of the Michigan Safety Council, asked him to work on the state’s first seat-belt legislation.

Armed with research on how seat belts could save lives and a survey that showed 65% opposed mandatory use, he proposed his first bill in 1982. It did not pass.

So he and other safety advocates got creative. Hollister put legislators in speeding cars at a General Motors testing facility. He erected a slide at the Capitol for people to experience a landing at 5 mph.

In another stunt, or what Hollister refers to as a series of “eye-openers,” he and supporters demonstrated impact by dropping pumpkins on the Capitol grounds, where they exploded.

“It was the force of a head hitting the windshield at 5 mph,” he said. “People were sitting around eating sandwiches at lunch hour.”

Gradually, opposition yielded. Michigan’s first seat-belt law took effect in 1985.

“The thing that really did it was we started arguing that the opponents were arguing for the right to go through the windshield,” Hollister said.

“That is where it was similar to the mask,” he said. “It is going to save lives and reduce costs. People eventually are going to come around.”

New Hampshire: No sacrificing some to save others

New Hampshire is the only state that still does not have a mandatory seat-belt law.

In 2018, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seat belts saved about 14,955 lives of people ages 5 and older nationwide. If everyone involved in crashes had worn seat belts, an additional 2,549 people could have been saved, it said.

But just as wearing a mask cannot guarantee protection from infection, wearing a seat belt has not prevented deaths in some crashes. Belted passengers have died in rollovers, been partly ejected and crushed. Some died trapped in cars in water or fire.

In 2018, opponents of seat-belt laws in New Hampshire seized on those examples in defeating a bill that would have made them mandatory, saying education and advertising would be better than a law.

Testimony from citizens and lawmakers mirrored debates over mask mandates: The “government should not protect me from myself,” one said. Another called them an “example of a nanny state.”

Advocates spoke of soaring medical costs or safety for the greater good.

The bill lost, 10 votes to 9.

In 2020, another seat-belt bill died, not because of votes but for another reason: The pandemic shutdown legislative sessions. Citizens Count, a nonprofit organization connecting people with elected officials, asked Facebook followers how they felt about this year’s attempt. Most made sneering criticisms of government infantilization, or quoted the state motto “Live Free or Die.”

“Can we finish the debate on masks first, please?” wrote one of the more than 300 people who replied.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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