Buckles and bucks


It was the day after a New Hampshire blizzard. The trees had bent into drooping white mounds under eight inches of new snow. The unplowed street was crunchy and slippery beneath the wheels of my Volkswagen Bug as I drove through an unfamiliar town. I didn't see a stop sign partly obscured by a drift.
There was a sudden crashing and slamming of metal a blur of motion I have never clearly remembered but have never been able to forget.
When the two cars came to a stop I was sitting in the passenger seat of my Bug. The driver's side door was crushed all the way to the stick shift, which I had somehow flown over. The front end of a large sedan occupied most of the left side of my totalled VW, which was now jammed into a snow bank. I rolled down the window and climbed out. My left leg was bruised.
I am absolutely certain that my life was saved that day 20 years ago because I was not wearing a seat belt. That experience has made me a little superstitious, and certainly very skeptical about mandatory seat-belt-use laws. Seat belts may save lives, but they didn't save mine. This has contributed to my deeply held religious conviction that St. Francis was right; we cannot lengthen our lives by our own efforts. Our fate is in other hands.
Here, though, we run head-on into the vindictive tyranny of statistics. In the real world we are each as unique as snowflakes. But taken as a crowd, we are a bunch of painfully predictable crash test dummies.
And based on lots of data accumulated by people who take crash test dummy crashes very seriously, most states have decided to tell drivers they must buckle up.
I know that somewhere, sometime, one of those naked mannequins was probably tossed over a gear shift to safety. But all of his buddies went through the windshield, or lost control of the vehicle and skidded over a bridge embankment and plunged into a river.
If I had been strapped in that day and squashed, my death would have been a meaningless blip in the great graph of life. But the real me seems to be alive and well, while the theoretical me who was strapped in, is a vegetable, hooked to a machine in a white room, wishing he could pull the plug, yet unable to remember what a plug does.
Why should anyone else care whether or not I become a statistic, as the saying goes? My friends might miss me, but ought to be happy if I died doing what I believed in. I don't have any debts, so VISA and Mastercard wouldn't be in mourning. My dog and cats depend on me, but they aren't allowed to make laws. Who is it that takes such great concern for my well being?
Insurance companies, of course. Insurers are vitally concerned with the cost of medical treatment, and if there is a better-than-even chance that seat belts will help reduce medical costs they are for them. A government that acts as an insurer, through Medicaid and Social Security among other programs, has the same rationale.
Insurers aren't dummies. They favor laws that limit their financial risk as much as possible. Seat belts, overcooked restaurant food, antismoking laws, and warning labels on virtually every consumer product don't necessarily protect you and me, but they sure protect profits.
Liberal political language, with its rhetoric of concern and care, is sometimes used to peddle protective laws. And conservative arguments about fiscal responsibility support mandatory insurance. But both reflect a deep political commitment to wealthy campaign contributors.
If everyone is forced to buy insurance, then it benefits everyone if we buckle up, since low costs translate to lower rates.
The state of New Hampshire requires neither but, of course, that state's motto is "Live Free or Die." New Hampshirites don't want to be treated like crash test dummies which reminds me of my own attitude toward seat-belt laws and mandatory insurance coverage. They both violate my deepest beliefs about God and fate, and therefore abridge my constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.
"Click it or ticket?" Tell it to the judge.

Duck Soup is also served up twice each Tuesday on WNCW-FM.

Seat belts may save lives, but they didn't save mine. This has contributed to my deeply held religious conviction that St. Francis was right; we cannot lengthen our lives by our own efforts.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 3/11/95