The partisan hack who keeps getting elected for the House of Representatives from my district posted on Facebook about the summer road season. Interestingly enough, some of his most ardent supporters starting criticizing laws in Pennsylvania that mandate seat belt and helmet use. They seemed to be upset that they’re not allowed the “freedom” to not wear seat belts, and they were also upset that bills are being proposed to mandate helmets for motorcycle riders. Just like anti-vaxxers, they don’t like ounces of prevention and apparently prefer pounds of cure.
Seriously, anti-vaxxers must be in league with Big Pharma, because vaccines cost way less than the hospitalizations and drugs required to treat the diseases they prevent. How else can you explain that they are so anti-vaccine? Anti-vaxxers trigger outbreaks, children end up going to the doctor or in hospitals, and the pharmaceutical companies compensate them handsomely. Right?
Back to the helmets and seat belts.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there were about 35 thousand traffic deaths in the United States in 2015 (the year for which the latest data are available). About 6,000 of those were pedestrians and bicyclists. (For a discussion on bicycle safety, click here.) That leaves about 29,000 deaths in motor vehicles. From the best data we have, via CDC, about half of those people would not have died if they were wearing their seat belts. The other half… Well, stuff happens.
Similar protective effects can be seen with motorcycle helmets and motorcycle accidents. And don’t even get me started on the death and injuries prevented by vaccines. More than any other intervention in public health, vaccines have prevented millions of deaths and injuries from serious infectious diseases. Don’t let anyone try and convince you otherwise.
But where is the line with regards to freedom? If you’re an adult, should you be allowed to take your life into your own hands — literally — and not wear a seatbelt or helmet? This would be okay, I guess, if you lived in an absolute bubble. You don’t. Think of what happens when a car accident happens. It usually involves more than one vehicle. Even if it wasn’t your fault, you not being restrained puts the other people around you in danger from you being ejected, from you dying in front of their eyes, and from them being charged with a more serious crime because you decided to exercise your freedom that day.
And what about the first responders that have to go deal with your mangled body? What about the time and effort spent trying to save your life? Chances are that you wouldn’t have a sign on you that stated that it was okay to let you die if you were not wearing your seat belt… And passing any kind of law or regulation saying that it’s okay to let you die would be utterly unethical.
Then there’s the fact that the rest of us would pick up the bill for your death in one way or another. Someone has to replace your loss of productivity. Another person would have to look after your family since you’re gone. And so on and so forth. Let me write it again: You don’t live in a bubble.
This whole misunderstanding of Libertarianism is a thorn on the side of public health people the world over. “We don’t want the government to tell us what to do,” they proclaim.
“Then do the right thing to keep yourself safe, because you don’t live in a goddamned bubble,” we tell them.
“Freedom!” Yeah, their conversations are full of nuance and self-introspection.
Left to their own devices, these people would kill us.
But, okay, let’s say that you don’t want to wear a seat belt or a helmet on your motorcycle. Then I propose the following… You don’t drive on public roads. See, in the real world, we took a vote, and we elected people to make laws and enforce them for us. Those laws set standards for what is safe and what is not safe on public roads. Don’t want to wear a seat belt? Don’t be on the roads that the rest of us adults living in reality paid for with our taxes. It’s that simple.
The same principle has been adopted with immunizations. Don’t want to get vaccinated because you’re afraid of something some celebrity — or fraudster of a physician — told you? Then you don’t get to go to our public schools and endanger the rest of us. You don’t get to ride on planes or trains with the rest of us.
Oh, yes, you keep your freedom, but you don’t risk our freedom to be safe from danger because of it. In other words, grow the hell up, put on the belt or helmet, get your vaccine, and stop being a petulant child. There’s work to be done and we cannot possibly be arguing this right now, in 2017.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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