One of the most successful public health campaigns in U.S. history took the form of a nationwide decision to simply buckle our seat belts.
We formed that habit primarily because every state in the country passed a law that made it mandatory.
Every state, that is, except one.
This week for Only in NH, the series in which we answer listener-submitted questions about the Granite State, producer Ben Henry explores our state’s staunch insistence on remaining the unbuckled frontier.
Not too long ago, the legal drinking age was 18, smoking was touted as "good for you," and everyone rode bikes without helmets.
And, nowhere in the United States would you be pulled over for not wearing your seat belt.
That started changing in 1984. New York was the first state to pass a law that required everybody to wear their seat belts, and most other states followed suit within a couple years.
Watch: One of many delightful PSAs designed to inspire 1980s America to buckle up
In a relatively short period of time, we went from no laws on the books to pretty much every state having a law that said if you’re an adult, you have to wear your seat belt.
Before those laws, around 14 percent of people wore their seat belts. Within a decade, that number was up to 60 percent, and today it’s around 90 percent--a cultural change that, along with automobile safety regulations, drastically reduced traffic deaths.
Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, lawmakers decided to sit this one out. While the state requires that drivers and passengers under 18 wear seat belts, a law for adults never made it through the legislature.
Most recently, the House of Representatives considered a seat belt bill in 2009, and shot it down.
There’s no anti-seat belt lobby, and it's hard to make the case that seat belts aren't effective. But, opponents to safety belt legislation will argue that it’s simply not the government’s place to make you wear your seat belt. In keeping with New Hampshire's libertarian streak, plenty of Granite Staters prefer to defend their right to engage in reckless behavior.
As a result of never having had one of these laws, fewer people wear their seat belt in New Hampshire than in any other state. The national average is 90 percent. In New Hampshire, it’s just 70 percent.
Watch: The Flintstones get in on the Buckle Up PSA game
And since 2009 was the last time we really had this public discussion, I wanted to know how people feel about it today.
I spent an afternoon in Concord walking around, hanging out in a parking lot, and just asking people.
"Do you wear your seatbelt?"
“Yeah, of course.”
"Why is that?"
“...I don’t know. Habit? Safety?
“We wear ours all the time. We taught our kids to do that when they were little. I think it’s just a wise measure.”
“I wear it every day, all the time. I do it because I have grand children, and they watch what I do.”
“Yep…My car beeps at me if I don’t.”
“My car doesn’t beep and I still wear it.”
"You’re shaking your head no, you don’t wear your seat belt, why is that?"
“Laziness. It’s very hard to get it pulled around, it’s hard to get it to click in, and it’s worse to try to get it off.”
“When my grandchildren are not in the car, I don’t sometimes…I’m a rebel.”
“Well, I never liked wearing ‘em. I was in a wreck one time, and my sister was driving, the car was totaled and we didn’t even get a bruise or a scratch.”
"Were you wearing a seatbelt?"
"You may know, New Hampshire is the only state in which you’re not legally required to wear your seat belt, what do you think about that?"
“I think it’s fine…The state motto and all."
"The state motto being..?
“Live free or die!”
“I think children should be required to do it, but as adults, I mean, they’re adults. It’s their own decision to make.”
“And New Hampshire does have that reputation for being the live free or die state, you know.”
“I think it should be up to the individual person, I don’t think it should be mandatory"
"So you would oppose a seat belt law?"
“Yeah, probably, yeah.”
“Live free or die man. That’s just the way it is, if you’re foolish enough not to wear your seat belt, that’s all up to you.”
“I’m okay with it being a personal choice, but if they did make it a law that wouldn’t bother me, since that’s what I practice anyway.”
“Would I be marching in front of the statehouse if there was seat belt law? No. But if it were a ballot item, would I vote for it? No, I would vote that down."
"So it’s your prerogative to tell your children what’s safe and not safe, but not necessarily the government’s job."
When I asked people to settle the question of whether state government has the right to police their personal safety choices, I heard the state motto a lot. It’s a dramatic phrase--an ultimatum. It's also close at hand when you need to answer fundamental questions about government.
Most of the people I accosted on the street didn't already have an opinion about seat belt laws. They sorted out their views on the spot, the way most of us make political choices, and the state motto is a helpful rubric in those moments.
Despite New Hampshire’s loose seat belt laws and correspondingly unbuckled drivers, the state's traffic fatality rate is actually below the national average.
To understand why, I talked to Russ Rader at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit that does research on traffic fatalities.
Given that people in New Hampshire don’t buckle up as often as drivers in other states, I asked him why we don’t have a higher fatality rate.
“When you look at fatality rates state by state,” Russ said, “you see the highest rates tend to be in the midwest and west, where you have fewer urban areas and greater expanses of distances on more dangerous high-speed, two lane rural roads. You don’t have those vast expanses of space in New Hampshire, and your population density tends to be concentrated in the southern half of the state, in urban areas. So the roads are less hazardous in New Hampshire than they are in many other states.”
I explained to Russ that we have, as a state, collectively considered passing seat belt laws in the past and decided we preferred that the government just stay out of it. I asked him what he thought of that line of reasoning.
“Well, it works,” he said, referring to seat belt legislation.
Studies have concluded that seat belt legislation measurably increases seat belt usage.
“The motto ‘Live Free or Die’ may be ingrained in the culture of the state, but people are dying needlessly because of lack of belt use," Russ said.
"We could be saving a lot of lives if people were required to buckle up.”
Do you have a question about your community, or something you've always wondered about the Granite State? Submit it right here at our Only in NH project page, and we might feature it in an upcoming story!