If it sometimes seems as if we keep writing the same editorials, it’s because in Maine we keep re-arguing the same issues.

Now the Legislature is thinking about rolling back the law passed just three years ago making failure to use a seat belt a primary offense.

Up until 2008, it was a secondary offense, meaning a driver could be cited only when stopped for another offense.

Since 2008, police have been able to cite drivers for nothing more than failure to wear a seat belt. The first-offense fine is $50, although police often let offenders go with a warning.

Still, the change rubs some people the wrong way, including self-described libertarian Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, who believes in seat belts, but does not believe in government ordering him to wear them.

But there is a problem applying libertarian approaches to human health-care issues. While no one likes government telling them what to do, nobody believes we can turn away mangled or sick people at the emergency room entrance.

At least we hope nobody believes that.

However, when non-seat-belt-wearing accident victims show up at our hospitals, their injuries are nearly always far worse than seat belt wearers.

What’s more, driving under the influence, speeding, reckless driving and failure to wear seat belts also seem to be a cluster of behaviors common to risk-taking individuals.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Committee says more than half of fatal crashes occur at night and two-thirds of the people killed at night are not wearing seat belts.

So, non-seat-belt-wearers are more likely to become involved in serious accidents.

When that happens, prudent seat-belt-wearing, insurance-carrying members of society too often end up paying the hospital bills of non-seat-belt-wearing people. And those bills are often eye-poppingly large.

Dr. Erik Steele, chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, told the Legislature’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday that Medicaid paid out, on average, $24,500 for crash victims who were wearing seat belts at the time of their accidents.

Medicaid paid out roughly $74,000 per patient for people who were not wearing belts, according to a story appearing in the Bangor Daily News.

Steele also said in a previous review of Medicare patients at EMHS, 10 of 11 accident victims whose bills were in excess of $100,000 were not wearing seat belts at the time of their accidents, according to the BDN.

“I would like to remind you that this is a tax, this is a fee to subsidize the unwise decisions of other people,” another doctor, Kenneth Christian, told lawmakers.

People who do not wear seat belts are much more likely to be thrown from vehicles as they roll or collide, and are far more likely to suffer debilitating head injuries, some of which require lifelong care — again, often at taxpayer expense.

There is, of course, a libertarian streak in most Americans. Nobody likes government interference in their lives.

But, when one group of people must pay for the foolishness of another, then we all suddenly have an active interest in discouraging their foolish behavior.

The Transportation Committee should follow the advice of police, physicians, hospitals, automakers, emergency personnel and insurance companies.

This bill ought not to pass.

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The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.


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