Scott Tibbs
Hoosier Review, October 16, 2003

Back to opinion page.

Apply seat belt law evenly, or better yet, not at all.

The Indiana's Court of Appeals recently ruled that sport utility vehicles (SUV's) are exempt from Indiana's seat belt law if the owner registers his SUV as a "truck". Trucks were exempted from the seat belt law in 1998, according to the Indianapolis Star. The legislature did not want to inconvenience farmers who might be getting out of their vehicles by forcing them to put on a seat belt.

This reasoning is silly, and contradicts the legislature's own logic. Is it any more of an inconvenience to an average motorist who drives three blocks to the grocery store? If the purpose here is to save lives, then what justification is there for creating exceptions to the law based on inconvenience? Are lives not important if saving them is inconvenient? Really, how much time does it take to put on a seat belt?

The Ft. Wayne Journal-Gazette reports that trucks are exempt because they are not considered passenger vehicles, and the definition of a "truck is "a motor vehicle designed, used or maintained primarily for the transportation of property." SUV's do not fit this standard if its primary use is transportation of persons. In many (if not most) cases an SUV is a passenger vehicle, not a cargo vehicle. Of course, this raises the question: how many pickup trucks are used primarily for the transportation of persons?

If the legislature is going to be passing laws mandating seat belt usage to save lives, then the law ought to be evenly applied. In the case of SUV's, it makes no sense that paying more for a truck plate should change the classification of the vehicle in the eyes of the law, especially considering that most sport utility vehicles are classified as cars. It makes no sense to have the seat belt law apply based on what the owner of the vehicle decides to classify his vehicle as. If the legislature is determined to have a seat belt law, it should remedy this situation. It is important that laws be applied evenly, and that all citizens are equal under the law.

However, a better solution is not to have a seat belt law at all. It is perfectly reasonable to have laws mandating that children be restrained while in a vehicle. Children are under the care of their parents, and the parents have a legal responsibility to keep them safe from harm. Seat belt mandates for children are an extension of negligence laws. But for adults, this law is not justified. The state should not be mandating people wear seat belts "for our own good". The state is not our nanny, nor should it be.

Some would say that the government has a right to mandate seat belt usage because of the burden on taxpayers created by people who suffer injuries due to not wearing a seat belt. Costs for Medicaid and other social programs can be inflated by injuries people incur because they are not wearing a seat belt. This, argument, however is an example of how intrusive big government can be when it begins to act as our nanny.

Should government be providing health coverage to people who arte injured through their choice to not wear a seat belt? Should government be providing such coverage at all? Perhaps these are the questions we should ask instead of saying that the costs created by a government program gives government the right to mandate personal choice.

No one disputes that seat belts save lives and reduce the severity of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Not wearing a seat belt is foolish, but government should not be regulating foolishness if that foolishness harms only the person engaged in it. Having nanny state watch over us to make sure we are wearing our seat belts is overly intrusive.

With the ruling on sport utility vehicles, the legislature has an opportunity to revisit the seat belt issue. Let us hope that the legislature decides that Hoosier adults are mature enough to take care of ourselves.