There Oughta Be a Law

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peter_sagal_and_riding_motorcycleA common generalization holds that political conservatives favor personal responsibility over big government while liberals support more of a “nanny state.” In reality, however, people are more nuanced. My father, for example, who was a lifelong Democrat, refused to wear a seatbelt while driving, even after it became mandatory in the state of Illinois. He was a big proponent of personal responsibility.

Both the federal and local governments have numerous laws and regulations designed to keep people safe. Certain drugs are illegal, others are available only with a doctor’s prescription, and yet others are considered safe enough to be sold over the counter. The Food and Drug Administration requires labeling on food. The Surgeon General’s warning features prominently on cigarette packages.

There are safety standards for clothing, furniture, toys, automobiles, air transportation, building materials – and the list goes on. Certainly there are those who argue that many of these regulations are overkill. And in recent years, there has been a push to legalize heretofore illegal substances such as marijuana. Furthermore, some recent laws have struck citizens as being downright silly, such as banning large soda sales in New York City.

Many safety regulations vary by state and municipality. Motorcycle and bike helmet laws, for instance, are not uniform nationwide. About 20 states have mandatory helmet laws  for motorcycles and for children riding bicycles. On this blog I have bemoaned the fact that Illinois is not one of them, and consequently, I have had to battle my children over the need to wear a helmet while riding their bikes.

It seems to make sense that parents should have the right to make that decision for their children. And if I don’t want to wear my seatbelt while in a car, isn’t that my business? Well, not quite.

Years ago, a friend of mine and I were discussing the issue of mandatory seatbelt use. She was staunchly in favor of laws requiring it because her own mother had been severely injured in a car accident due to not wearing her seatbelt. Because of the severity of her injuries, my friend’s mother was confined to a wheelchair and the burden of caring for her  had fallen to my friend.

Therein lies the problem. We assume that when individuals decide not to take certain precautions, they are only potentially hurting themselves. But as their loved ones and as a society, the rest of us ultimately bear the responsibility for their folly. The financial and social costs of drug use, smoking, gun violence, and accidents due to negligent behavior are high and are paid for by all of us, whether in the form of higher insurance premiums or higher taxes.

In an interdependent society, the choices we make affect many more people than just ourselves. That is why I think it’s important for the government to pass common sense laws and regulations designed to keep us safe.

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