In Fights Over Face Masks, Echoes of the American Seatbelt WarsBreaking News
tags: public health, libertarianism, COVID-19, public safety, seat belts
A legislator in New Hampshire called it constricting. A Michigan man said it messed up his look. A sailor in Massachusetts argued the government has no right to force him to wear it.
Though they might sound familiar, those were not the refrains of people rebelling against face masks during the pandemic. Instead, they came from the seatbelt 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 seatbelt 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 up to repeal their state’s seatbelt 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 seatbelt.
The fight over seatbelt 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 seatbelt laws with those of vaccination opponents, noted that seatbelts 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 seatbelt 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 seatbelt 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 seatbelt. Others made it secondary, meaning a driver stopped for another reason can also be given a seatbelt citation. Only 31 states extend the requirement to adults in the back seat.