Maybe We Need Protection from Protection

by Lynda Lambert
Convincing people to wear their seat belts is one thing. Requiring them to do so is quite another
Last week, on TV, I saw a news conference. A mother stood at the microphone, her 10-year-old quadriplegic son nearby in his wheelchair, blowing into its mouthpiece, trying to roll it forward.

She spoke to the crowd about her son's seatbelt injury. When her car was crashed into from the side, her son fell along the seat. With no seat belt, she said, he probably would have been thrown onto the floor, breaking a collarbone or an arm, getting a concussion. But as it was, the seatbelt stopped him, snapping his spine like a dry twig in a hurricane.

What amazed me about her was that she wasn't announcing that she'd filed suit against the State of Maryland.

I would have expected that. It is, after all, the State that requires us to risk the lives of our children and ourselves by wearing seatbelts.

But, no. What she was doing was trying to get legislation passed to require a five-point seatbelt.

Perhaps a five-point seatbelt would have prevented his spinal injury. Maybe not. We don't know. What we do know is that, even in minor crashes, seatbelts are known cause bruising. Called "seat belt syndrome," this causes injury to soft tissue. But sometimes, if enough force pushes the rider into the seatbelt, it can bite into soft tissue, severing breasts, causing spontaneous abortions, and in some cases disemboweling.

In fact, what alerted me to the true danger of seatbelts was a story last year in a women's magazine about a woman who was disemboweled by her seatbelt. She lived, but at that writing had had 17 operations to re-situate her bowels.

Children are particularly at risk. In a 1992 study of only 10 cases of verified seat belt injury in Ottawa, Canada, reported in the Wheeless' Textbook of Orthopaedics, the Division of Orthopaedics at Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario said that, "Four distinct patterns of injury were observed, most commonly at the L2 to L4 level. Paraplegia, which was thought to be uncommon, occurred in three of our ten cases. Four children had intra-abdominal injuries requiring laparotomy.... all had contusion of the abdominal wall, the 'seat-belt sign'."

Linda Gorman, in an article for the Independence Institute written in 2000, notes that data gathered between 1984 and 1996 when New York, to verify the effectiveness of its mandatory seat belt law, found that 46% of fatally injured occupants were wearing seat belts. In Iowa, which also required seatbelts, 50% of all fatalities were wearing seat belts; but, in Wyoming, which had no primary law about seat belts but which reported 74% compliance with a secondary law, found that only 28.8% of its fatally injured were belted.

Patrick O'Malley of the National Motorists Association says, "There is little doubt that seat belts... have prevented thousands of injuries and many deaths. There is also little doubt that these same devices have probably injured and killed more people than Ralph Nader's Corvair, Ford's Pinto gasoline bombs, or GM's belly-tanked pick-up trucks. The one key difference is that no one was forced by government mandate to buy a Corvair, Pinto or GM pick-up."

Seatbelts may save lives, but they can also take them. There is, therefore, a proven risk involved in wearing them, and, as I see it, the State does not have the right to make us assume this risk.

As Linda Gorman of the Independence Institute put it, when writing about another mandatory seat belt law, "The real question is whether, and how much, government should seek to regulate the risk that a free adult chooses to incur. Trying to convince people to wear their seat belts is one thing. Requiring them to do so... is quite another."

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This story was published on August 7, 2002.