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Crashing to the Bottom of the Country

November 26, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
We all know that Minnesota is the state where absolutely nothing is allowed, a benighted place in oppressive thrall, to quote a recent online post, to "all this busybody namby-pamby Big Brother regulation."

But let's check that conventional wisdom against reality, starting with a new report that found the Gopher State's traffic safety laws tied for fourth loosest in the country. According to the Emergency Nurses Association, 44 states and the District of Columbia - among them Alabama, Mississippi, Wyoming and even the "Live Free or Die" state of New Hampshire -- are more restrictive of liberty than Minnesota in pursuit of reduced carnage on public roads.

Laws in this large majority of the states actually force drivers to buckle their seat belts, wear helmets when motorcycling and strap their small kids into car booster seats. Oh, the horror!

Freedom-loving Minnesotans will have none of this foolishness. We're tied with Idaho and Ohio with just five of the nurses group's 13 recommended traffic safety measures on the books. Only Arkansas and the Dakotas have fewer.

Thirteen states, including Georgia, Tennessee and New Mexico, have enacted 10 or more of the model laws. Alaska, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Utah and West Virginia have nine each.

When the nurses, the people who get the daily chore of patching up traffic crash victims, announced their findings and recommendations last week, libertarian outrage spewed forth like blood from a fractured skull. Here's a sample of comments added online to the Star Tribune's news article:

  • "Can't all the Johnny do-gooders of the world just worry about themselves and let me exercise personal liberty?"
  • "I don't need a bunch of nurses telling me how to live."
  • "We need LESS, not more, government intrusion in our lives!"
Well... Freedom is certainly a good thing, but, as conservatives have reminded us, it isn't free. That applies in spades to the freedom bestowed by Minnesota law to disregard life-saving advances in vehicular safety. Traffic crashes cost the nation more than $200 billion a year - 2.3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - as well as 41,000 deaths and 2.5 million injuries in 2007.

If you're belted in, your risk of death in a collision is reduced 45 percent in passenger cars and 60 percent in pickup trucks and SUVs. Seats belts also reduce the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50 percent in cars and 65 percent in light trucks. Without a belt, you'll be thrown from the vehicle in 29 percent of crashes, while only 1 percent of belted occupants are ejected. Three-quarters of those who are ejected die.

Motorcycle helmets, meanwhile, cut the risks of fatality in a crash by 37 percent and of brain injury by 67 percent, according to NHTSA. When Florida, Louisiana and Pennsylvania repealed their helmet laws, motorcycle deaths and serious brain injuries skyrocketed in all three states. Louisiana reenacted its law, and motorcycle fatalities declined.

Seat belt-positioning booster seats for children 4 to 7 years old reduce their crash injury risk by 59 percent compared with belts alone, which actually can be more dangerous for kids that small.

Minnesota doesn't have enforceable laws to require the use of any of these proven devices for safeguarding life and limb. Despite this, our state has the nation's second-lowest rate of traffic deaths. Does this mean we couldn't, or shouldn't, do better? The No. 1 state, Massachusetts, has twice as many of the traffic laws called for by the nurses.

Besides, profound injuries, not sudden deaths, can produce the biggest financial drains and the ones most likely to hit the public purse and everyone else's health insurance premiums. Health care spending has long been identified as the fastest-rising government budget item, a point expected to be emphasized in the Minnesota Legislature's forthcoming Budget Trends Study Commission report.

Interestingly, the folks who rail against smart traffic laws tend to be just as angrily outspoken about the growth of government spending. But I'm not holding my breath for any of them who splatters his unhelmeted noggin on the pavement to forgo taxpayer-funded medical care.

So maybe it's time to introduce some market discipline into people's choices about whether to protect themselves and their loved ones from unnecessary traffic injuries. How about, to borrow an idea from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, charging a Crash Impact Fee for going without safety belts, helmets or booster seats?

Pawlenty added 75 cents to the cost of a pack of cigarettes, calling it a Health Impact Fee to help defray the disproportionate burden smoking puts on the health-care system. Smokers remained free to wreck their heart and lungs, but they paid for the privilege of tapping the state's medical safety net.

Minnesotans' freedom to risk senseless death and brain injury on the road isn't free, either. It's time for those who claim that as a right to start paying what it really costs when their carefree ways turn them into vegetative freeloaders.

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