How Mask Fights Echo Seat Belt Fights: ‘The Right To Be Splattered All Over Their Windshields’Breaking News
tags: public health, 1980s, automobiles, COVID-19, Elizabeth Dole
Back then, as today, there were lawsuits and protests alleging that the government was infringing on personal liberties by mandating what citizens do with their bodies. The divide was stark.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., a judge refused to fine drivers ticketed for not wearing seat belts. Some conservative judges publicly said they would declare seat belt laws unconstitutional if anyone brought a case in their courts. Opponents were especially incensed in New Hampshire, where the state motto is “Live Free or Die.”
Liberals saw it differently.
Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe testified in a 1986 Massachusetts legislative hearing that “a seat belt law simply removes a rather unimportant element of freedom.” State Sen. Salvatore Albano echoed that argument in slightly more blunt terms, saying those opposing seat belt laws wanted “the right to be splattered all over their windshields.”
Stephen Teret, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University, remembers giving presentations on the benefits of seat belts during those times. He heard a lot of pushback.
“People were really offended by the government telling them what to do,” Teret said in an interview.
Mandates regarding seat belts and face masks aren’t totally analogous, he said, in that asking people to wear masks is an effort to protect not just individuals but society at large. The argument against them is the same, though.
“We are a country that very, very much values personal freedoms,” Teret said. “And there are always some people who see their personal freedoms as being more important than the common good. And that’s the fight public health has always had.”
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