Refusals to wear masks in pandemic echo the fight to wear seatbelts

If the resistance by some Americans to wearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic feels vaguely familiar, you may be recalling the decades-long campaign to persuade vehicle occupants to wear seatbelts. A feature in The New York Times this week takes us back to those days when people routinely ignored the risk of being slammed into a dashboard or ejected through a windshield during a crash. The excuses? The seatbelt was uncomfortable, it wrinkled clothes. Or especially: “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do, especially not the damn government.” You’ve probably heard complaints of comfort and individual freedom regarding masks.

The comparison isn’t perfect, of course. Wearing a seatbelt is about ensuring your own safety. (Though, just like wearing a motorcycle helmet, there is a societal benefit to avoiding serious, costly injuries that we all bear through higher insurance rates.) But while a mask helps protect the wearer, its most important benefit is in preventing the spread of coronavirus to others: strangers in a store, friends, those with health risk factors, and especially one’s own grandmother. Refusing to wear a mask, just because someone’s telling you to, is cutting off your nose to spite not just your face but everybody else’s, and disrespects health-care workers trying to treat the disease.

But both situations do share the personal liberty argument. And both share an element of ignorance or denial. There’s a failure of imagination about what happens when one’s body accelerates from 0 to 60 and back to 0 in a fraction of a second. And there’s the mistaken belief that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, or it’s fake news. Or that not following public health guidelines is some kind of liberal-vs.-conservative badge of honor. (There’s also the ignorance of those who wear a mask but don’t cover their nose, but that’s a somewhat different problem.)

On the flip side, wearing a seatbelt and wearing a mask have one other important thing in common beyond safety: In both cases, you’re modeling responsible behavior for your children.

The first state seatbelt law was enacted in 1984. Today, the only state that still doesn’t mandate the wearing of seatbelts is live-free-or-die New Hampshire. Laws or no laws, most people have wised up. And once you’ve acquired the seatbelt habit, you almost feel naked without one.

That said, a study from 2017 indicated that women wear their seatbelts 90% of the time, while men wear them 82% of the time — in other words, we’re still not at 100%. Seatbelt use is more lax in states that have “secondary compliance” laws, meaning police can’t pull over a motorist for not wearing a belt but can issue a citation if the driver is pulled over for a different infraction. Compliance is best in states with “primary” laws — that is, where you can be pulled over for not buckling up.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that of the 23,714 people killed in car crashes in 2016, 48% were unrestrained. Surprisingly, the 13- to 15-year-old age group had the highest rate of unrestrained deaths, at 62%. When broken out by vehicle type, pickup truck drivers had the highest rates of going without seatbelts, at 60%.


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Like masks or even vaccinations, seatbelts aren’t perfect, but they make a major difference in keeping us safe. Seatbelts reduce fatalities in crashes by 40% to 60%. The Times piece recaps the effort to convey that message over the decades in three states: New Hampshire, of course, being the outlier; Massachusetts, where a seatbelt law was enacted, overturned and later reinstated; and auto-centric Michigan.

Robert Ford, a libertarian sign painter who led the fight to repeal Massachusetts’ law, is quoted in the piece. He wears a seatbelt — he just didn’t want the government to force him to. Yet he doesn’t see a libertarian case for not wearing masks. It’s different, he said, because of the harm such a refusal can cause others.

In other words, one person’s rights end where another’s begin.

“You choose to wear a seatbelt, and you are only hurting yourself if you make the wrong decision,” Ford said.

As for Michigan’s law, legislators who initially resisted a mandate came around when proponents set up a demonstration on the Capitol grounds that showed pumpkins exploding. “It was the force of a head hitting the windshield at five miles per hour,” said former Michigan lawmaker David Hollister. “People were sitting around eating sandwiches at lunch hour.”

He continued: “The thing that really did it was we started arguing that the opponents were arguing for the right to go through the windshield.” 

Hollister ends on a hopeful note about mask-wearing becoming as accepted as seatbelts. “It is going to save lives and reduce costs. People eventually are going to come around.”

Stay safe. And check out the full Times piece here.

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