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The Massachusetts radio host rejected the seat belt law

In 1968, the US federal government asked automakers to equip every vehicle with seat belts. They gave in, but it didn’t help much; According to a survey carried out in 19 cities in 1982, only about 11 percent of the occupants in the front seats were actually buckled up.

With car accidents still dangerous, the President Ronald Reagan administration launched a widespread campaign to encourage state governments to pass laws mandating the use of seat belts (in part to avoid forcing manufacturers to put airbags in each Car to be installed). New York was the first country to pass such a law in 1984, and a few dozen states followed over the next few years.

Massachusetts was one of them. On January 1

, 1986, the state began allowing police officers to fine passengers who were not wearing seat belts $ 15 [PDF]. Although they could only be fined if they were run over for any other reason, it was still an important and necessary step towards safer roads.

But a Boston radio host named Jerry Williams didn’t see it that way, and he had the power to do something about it.

Big Brother says “buckle up”

Jerry Williams, known as “The Dean of Talk Radio,” began his career in Tennessee in 1946 and spent the next four decades hopping between Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Boston, building a dedicated following with each new program.

In 1986 he lived in Boston and hosted an afternoon radio show at WRKO, in which the audience enjoyed his characteristic sharpness with regard to current topics. He had a long-standing reputation for partnering with Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who happened to be leading the mandatory seat belt charges.

But Williams did not choose to riot against the Seat Belt Act for personal revenge against Dukakis. In fact, he wasn’t even against putting on a seat belt. Instead, he just found it unconstitutional for the government to buckle him up.

“We wear seat belts, but we don’t want to be forced to,” said Williams The Berkshire Eagle 1986. “We’re smart enough to buckle up without the police, tickets and Big Brother.”

Other Massachusetts residents agreed. Modified Motorcycle Association bikers began campaigning for a repeal, and a professional sign painter named Robert Ford even set up a “Committee to Repeal the Mandatory Seat Belt Act”.

To repeal the law, they would have to overcome two hurdles: First, at least 30,754 people would have to sign a petition calling for a referendum on the issue. The referendum would then be included in the November election, where the opposition would need a majority vote to repeal the law.

And this is where it has proven useful to have a celebrity radio host by your side.

The noisy libertarian

As soon as the Seat Belt Act went into effect January 1, Williams devoted himself to lambasting on the radio. His talk show usually only lasted four hours, but an extra hour was added to accommodate the increase in callers. Those who challenged him got an ear of libertarian zeal.

“We’ll win this fight, you dummy!” he yelled at you. “I will repeal this law on the basis of justice!”

He promised to pay legal fees for the first person the government would take to court for a seatbelt quote. He compared Massachusetts to a “police state”. He dared the police to try to prevent him from driving without a seat belt. And when Dukakis was caught on tape joking a reporter that his New Year’s resolution was to “stop Jerry Williams at a roadblock and tell him to put on his seat belt,” Williams replayed the tape ad nauseam.

“The governor can put a belt around my mouth,” he said.

Williams’ utterances may seem malicious, but his tone was less so; He just seriously believed that the government had no right to make that decision for its citizens, and he knew how to get people to agree with him. His tactics worked. By January 7, a 1,000-strong volunteer force had gathered in Massachusetts and collected signatures.

“There’s no way you can get the Volunteer Corps without Jerry getting hit on the radio,” said petition organizer Greg Hyatt The Boston Globe Early 1986.

Nine days later, Williams and Hyatt arrived at the Massachusetts Secretary of State with a petition with more than 56,000 signatures. Around 44,000 of them qualified, still thousands more than they needed for a referendum.

In other words, Williams and his laissez faire group had cleared the first hurdle with a lot of space.

Not entirely sold for security reasons

In the months leading up to the November vote, Williams continued to promote the cause on his show while the Massachusetts Seat Belt Coalition and similar groups spent up to $ 400,000 on publicity and publicity on behalf of the law.

Proponents went to great lengths to produce compelling statistics showing that the Seat Belt Act reduced the number of accidental injuries and deaths. According to a government-sponsored study published in September, deaths fell 8 percent and serious injuries had dropped 23 percent since the law went into effect. It might have been a more impressive drop if more people actually obeyed the law, but they didn’t. Less than 40 percent of Massachusetts residents were buckled up, which poked a huge hole in Williams’ earlier claim that people were “smart enough” to buckle up … even With the threat of a $ 15 fine from Big Brother.

Seat belt supporters have also enlisted accident victims to confirm the effectiveness of buckling up: “My doctors tell me I would not have survived if I hadn’t been buckled up,” a car accident survivor named Deborah Bradbury told Staying at a press conference Alive With Seat Belts Committee co-chaired by Bobby Orr, the Boston Bruins hockey legend.

Despite Orr’s star power and human interest in stories like Bradburys, the post-November referendum was still everyone’s cup of tea.

A short-lived victory

On November 5, 1986, Williams and Ford sat beaming at a post-election press conference.

“Governor, it’s all over,” Williams said smugly. The previous day’s ballot papers had been counted and the dissenting group had won a victory: 53 percent of voters voted to repeal the law. Within a month, buckling up went from an order to a mere suggestion.

Over time, however, it became clear that not all Massachusetts residents could expect to choose safety over comfort. By November 1993, the national average for seat belt use was 62 percent, and 45 states had mandatory seat belt laws. Massachusetts, meanwhile, was hovering 32 percent and still had no law.

“We are tied for 47th place in the nation for seat belt use,” said Massachusetts Senator James Jajuga The Christian Science Monitor. “Something has to be done and it has to be done now.”

The state parliament finally passed a law on February 1, 1994, with which the veto of the then governor William Weld was lifted. This time, a violation cost $ 25, although drivers still couldn’t be stopped for a seat belt injury alone. Ford led the resistance again – under a new organization called No Means No – and secured a referendum on the next ballot. But Williams never resumed his original role, and support for the movement had waned significantly.

“This is not a problem of individual rights. This is not a freedom problem, ”said seat belt attorney Myra Herrick The Boston Globe. “It’s a health and safety issue.”

That November, the majority of voters seemed to agree: 59.5 percent voted to comply with the law, which still exists today. As of 2018, the state’s seat belt quota for drivers and other front seaters was nearly 82 percent. The national average is 90.7 percent.

At the moment, the victory in the 1986 referendum was proof that grassroots movements can really influence change at a high level. But in retrospect, it reads more like a cautionary story about how the line between individual rights and the government’s responsibility to protect us is often blurred. And sometimes it takes years – and not just a few preventable deaths – before people see it clearly.

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