Old School Americana & Nostalgia


The Right To Not To Wear A Seatbelt: Why Ronald Reagan Fought To Deregulate The Automotive Industry

The Right To Not To Wear A Seatbelt: Why Ronald Reagan Fought To Deregulate The Automotive Industry

The Controversy Begins

Back in the 1980s, State Representative David Hollister introduced a seat belt bill in Michigan that would fine drivers and passengers for not buckling up. Although it seemed like a simple law to help keep drivers and passengers safe, this bill outraged the state’s residents. So much so that Hollister received letters comparing him to German dictator Adolf Hilter. Back then, it was discovered only 14% of US drivers wore seat belts, even though lap and shoulder belts were put in all cars starting in 1968.

So, why such uproar at a seemingly innocent law? Many claim it was because wearing a seat belt was uncomfortable. This bill and other seat belt bills caused such a controversy, calling out the issue of government regulation in a free society. Although the bill was introduced in 1980, the issues first arose in 1973. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated all cars to have a seat belt interlock mechanism, which would prevent the driver from starting the car unless the driver was safely buckled up.

As expected, the backlash was swift and intense. Jerry Mashaw, professor emeritus at the Yale Law School, recalled how “Congress received more letters from Americans complaining about [the interlock mechanism] than they did about Nixon’s ‘Saturday Night Massacre.’”

Shutterstock / Orhan Cam

Congress Responds

After such intense fallout, Congress quickly backpedaled. After redacting the interlock mechanism, they mandated the buzzing sound to represent an unlocked seat belt would only last for eight seconds. The NHTSA, however, was not willing to go down without a fight. A new law was passed in 1977 that required Detroit to install a “passive restraint.” Designed to protect a test dummy from getting hurt when hitting the wall at 35 miles per hour, this system worked without driver intervention.

Naturally, automakers didn’t take too kindly to this rule. There were only two solid choices, an airbag or an “automatic safety belt.” This was a belt that ran along a track, and would automatically fasten when the door closed. After choosing to go with the safety belt due to cheaper costs, the public immediately found issues with this choice. Citing the issue of the belts trapping passengers in the car in the event of a fire, carmakers opted to add in a release hatch so drivers could easily release themselves. However, this move would made the automatic belt ineffective.

Before any changes could be put in place however, Ronald Reagan took office.

Flickr / pingnews.com

Then Along Came Reagan…

After winning his presidency, Reagan immediately acted on his promise of deregulation. Focusing especially on the automotive industry, his administration was quick to rescind the NHTSA rule that required passive restraints. Insurance companies sued the administration, taking the case so far as the supreme court. Shockingly, the court sided with the insurance companies and enforced the NHSTA’s rule.

However, that wasn’t the end for Reagan. Not willing to back down, but also not able to justify proclaiming that passive restraints were ineffective, Elizabeth Dole, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, came up with an interesting solution.

Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Dole, former Secretary of the Department of Transportation

Dole’s New Rule

In 1985, Dole passed a law requiring automakers to install driver’s side airbags in all new cars unless at least two-thirds of the states passed mandatory seat belt laws by April 1st, 1989. While this may seem like a harsh regulation, this was a blessing in disguise for the auto industry. Since cars already were built with seat belts, Detriot just had to focus on getting states to pass the required seat belt laws, and then they would not have to worry about installing the belts or expensive airbags.

With this move, of course, came issues. General Motors allegedly pressured states to pass the law, or be taken out of consideration for a Saturn plant. G.M, of course, was quick to deny these rumors.

Shutterstock / sebra

States Begin To Pass The Laws

It wasn’t long after Dole passed the law New York became the first state to make seat belts mandatory, followed soon by New Jersey. Drivers caught not wearing a seat belt would be subjected to a $50 fine. Due to the steep price of the fine, people wearing a seat belt while in a vehicle skyrocketed over 70% in a little under a year. However, that doesn’t mean everyone was a fan.

“This is not supposed to be Russia where the government tells you what to do and when to do it,” stated one salty Bronx citizen.

Flickr / Mike Babcock

Airbags Become A Requirement

While in theory, Dole’s law sounded like a great resolution, it fell short by eight states. Even if those missing eight states did agree to the law, many of the states who did agree did not meet the requirements for Dole’s law. The fine for not wearing a seat belt didn’t hit the minimum standard ($25), or it wasn’t a “primary offense” to not be wearing one. This meant people could get a ticket if they were speeding or another traffic violation.

Since two-thirds of the states didn’t meet Dole’s conditions, carmakers were forced to comply with her original law and install airbags in the driver’s side in new cars starting in the early 1990s.

As expected, there was much resistance to this new law, as people saw it as an infringement on their rights. Some went so far as to create t-shirts that made it look as though the wearer had buckled their seat belt.

Fast-forward 30 years and New Hampshire is the only state to still not have obligatory seat belt laws for adults. Seat belt use in New Hampshire was found to be at 70%, while the rest of the nation is at 90%.

So, what do you think about all of this? Was this seat belt law blown way out of proportion, or did the people have a point? Let us know in the comments below!