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Away with fascist seat belt laws

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The laws about seat belts and motorcycle helmets should trouble you. They're a direct infringement on your liberty by an overweening nanny state.

There are 2055 potential charges under South Africa’s traffic legislation. This is no joke. It means that almost everyone, at some stage, will break the law – usually without even knowing it.

Granted, many of the regulations are justified, despite the mind-numbing complexity of the law. They are designed not only to ensure orderly traffic flow, but also to ensure the safety of other road users.

Some, however, have nothing to do with the safety of others. Take seat belts. What business does the government have to force people to wear them, and to punish them when they do not?

The law exists to protect your life, limb and property from unjust infringement by others. It does not exist to tell you how to live your life. If you want to drive without a seat belt, you should be perfectly free to do so.

Of course, it would be sensible to wear a seat belt anyway. Anecdotal stories about people injured or killed by their seat belt do not wash. Statistically, if you wear your seat belt in an accident you will have a significantly better chance of survival, and considerably less serious injuries when you do survive.

But that’s not the government’s business. If you don’t wear a seat belt, the only person you’re likely to harm is yourself. You’re not putting anyone else’s life, limb or property at risk. It’s your problem.

An argument could be made for a law that requires children to be buckled up, because they are unable to make informed choices for themselves. In this case, the government is acting to protect them from their parents’ stupidity or carelessness. Fair enough. But once you’re old enough to drive, you’re old enough to make your own decisions about your own safety.

A similar argument goes for motorcycle helmets. If you want to be an idiot and ride without one, be my guest. Just don’t come crying to me if you come off your bike and smash your skull. Doing so does not harm me, nor anyone else. Your risk-taking is your problem.

So why does the government intrude so on our private decisions about our own lives and safety?

The only plausible reason is that you’re likely to cost the state – and consequently your fellow taxpayers – more if you’re more seriously injured because of your own stupidity. The cost of emergency services are not the problem. That cost is incurred anyway. It’s the subsequent medical bills that the government has a problem with. The additional treatment that you’ll need will cost more, and it will at least in part be subsidised by the state.

The solution to this problem is not to compel you to live your life with minimum risk. It is to abolish socialised healthcare.

But doesn’t the same argument go for private healthcare and private insurance?

It does indeed, but with one major difference. Your insurance company might require you to take certain safety precautions, in the same way insurance companies mandate vehicle tracking systems and burglar alarms, and some health insurance plans do not cover injuries sustained during dangerous activities such as skydiving or hang gliding, unless you pay a higher premium.

In the private sector, you can choose not to insure with companies that set requirements you are not willing to meet. You can choose to pay higher premiums. You can agree to exclusions if you are found not to comply with the insurance policy’s rules. The choice is yours.

What about back seat passengers? Frankly, it is up to the front seat passengers in a vehicle to require them to wear their seat belts. After all, they are the ones at risk of head and neck injuries as a result of the negligence of the back seat passengers who refuse to buckle up. If the driver is okay ferrying passengers in an unsafe manner, that surely is the driver’s problem? They have a choice.

The problem with socialised healthcare is that you do not have the choice. You cannot opt out. It only works if it is mandatory, and if the rules of the state monopoly on healthcare or health insurance can dictate your every decision which might affect your health in a way that becomes a burden to the state.

The logical consequence is creeping fascism. Today, you’re forced to wear seat belts. Tomorrow, the government might decide that you’re required to maintain a healthy bodyweight or a certain level of fitness, because your unhealthy lifestyle affects other taxpayers. The day after, it might ban drinking, or fatty foods. Next week, it could issue regulations about mandatory safety equipment to be used or worn around the house or garden. The week after, it could ban a wide range of leisure activities that are not necessary and involve some risk.

All of these would be justified in exactly the same manner as seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws, and all of these would be perfectly reasonable under a regime that provides socialist healthcare.

That’s the risk of agreeing even to limited forms of socialised welfare. It gives the government justification to intrude deep into your private life, and impose rules for what risks you may and may not take.

It’s hard enough for the average citizen to comply with the thousands of laws and regulations they are presumed to know and follow. Opening the way for a nanny state, with all the petty fascism that it entails, will make life far more miserable. Eventually, we’ll all be criminals, and the government’s power over us will be absolute.

Fascism starts with seat belts. DM


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