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We have all done something stupid – or imprudent, to use a kinder adjective. Bicycling without a helmet, driving after too much wine, swimming beyond the lifeguard’s vision, hiking off the mountain path. The list goes on. Part of being human is being rash. While computers always act rationally, we humans are innately unpredictable; indeed, sometimes we find joy in those irrational moments of stupidity.
Yet the freedom to be stupid is not an inalienable right. We may accept the consequences to ourselves of our inanity, but the calculus shifts when we harm others. And when people get behind the wheel of a car, the cost of stupidity soars.
So most states have tried to restrict drivers’ freedom to be stupid.
The easiest, and least effective, recourse is nagging. Most states, via health departments and highway councils, have urged “safe driving.” But as nagging parents recognize, many drivers ignore all those admonitions with impunity.
Not surprisingly, states that back up their admonitions with penalties have fared best at squelching stupidity – and, in turn, cutting the incidence of highway injuries and deaths.
Here are some legislative actions that work.
• Primary seat belt laws. We know that seat belts save lives. We also know that not everybody buckles up. In 32 states, the police can stop, and charge, a driver for not buckling up; those are “primary laws.” Eighteen states have “secondary” laws: police can charge a driver with “not buckling up” only if the police have stopped the driver for another reason, like speeding, or driving erratically. No surprise: in states that have switched from “secondary” to “primary” laws, fatalities fell.
• Children benefit from seat belts. Indeed, booster seats can anchor a child who, in an accident, becomes a projectile, with terrible consequences. Thirty-three states require them.
• Drunk drivers are generally a repeat menace. Ignition controls, attached to the car, can keep drunk drivers off the roads, because taking away a driver’s license often does not. A driver breathes into a tube. If the driver has been drinking, the car won’t start. Only 16 states make ignition controls mandatory for repeat offenders.
• Motorcycle helmets take some of the thrill out of riding, but they also remove some of the danger. Nineteen states require them.