Safety trumps individuality

Published 8:29 pm Friday, January 30, 2009

America has always been a nation of people with independent minds and spirits. From the earliest settlers looking for a place to escape religious oppression to the many ambitious souls who headed west looking for their fortunes in the land where the sun sets, one thing that has characterized us throughout most of this American Experiment has been, if you will, our collective sense of individuality.

With a regrettably growing number of exceptions, Americans take their own risks, write their own agendas, pursue their own dreams and goals. Especially in times past, our nation boasted a near-libertarian spirit of “live and let live.”

In general, we consider any movement away from that ideal to be dangerous to personal rights in the near term and to our nation’s future in the long run. The most slippery slopes usually are paved with the good intentions of those seeking to protect others from themselves. On the other hand, a robust free market — and a grown-up citizenry — demands a level of self-responsibility.

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In some cases, however, a nation’s, a state’s or a community’s needs outweigh the need to allow individuals to make their own choices. Seat-belt laws are a good example.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 15,100 lives nationwide were saved by seat belts in 2007. More than 320 of those people were Virginia residents, including seven who were 4 or younger at the time of the accident. Not only do seat belts save lives directly, they also give drivers more control during an accident or aggressively evasive maneuver, thereby giving pedestrians and other drivers more protection.

Virginia’s secondary-offense classification of seat belt laws (which prohibits police from stopping a vehicle because its driver isn’t wearing a restraint) was a good start. Now it’s time to make failing to wear a seat belt a primary offense. There are 15,100 or so good reasons to do so, more than 320 of them in Virginia.