The Instigator
Pro (for)
5 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
0 Points

Seatbelt Laws

Do you like this debate?NoYes+1
Add this debate to Google Add this debate to Delicious Add this debate to FaceBook Add this debate to Digg  
Post Voting Period
The voting period for this debate has ended.
after 1 vote the winner is...
Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 8/1/2012 Category: Politics
Updated: 5 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 6,772 times Debate No: 24943
Debate Rounds (4)
Comments (4)
Votes (1)




In this debate I will defend laws that require drivers and their passengers to wear seatbelts. I accept the burden of proof since I am making the claim that it is preferable to have those laws than not to have them. However, I hope that my opponent will provide evidence for any claims he or she makes in opposition.

Round 1 is not substantive, just for stating rules and definitions and that sort of thing. My opponent may post a brief introduction to her/his position if she/he wishes, but otherwise wait until round 2 to begin arguing.

Please do not get stuck in semantics or unreasonable standards of proof. I consider this a casual but evidence-based debate.

Thank you to whomever accepts :)


I accept. My refutation will focus on the philosophy behind the decision rather than on the evidence that it saves lives. This is a more fair approach because it challenges the utilitarian assumptions behind my opponent's case. We shouldn't presume utilitarianism.
Debate Round No. 1


First, I will explain why seatbelt laws are justified and preferable according to Western legal norms, namely utilitarianism and paternalism. Then I will defend this standard against common objections regarding individual liberty.

My hope is that my opponent is prepared to debate seatbelt laws, and not redirect the conversation into solely a challenge to utilitarianism. That argument would be beyond the scope of this debate as I intended it, as utilitarianism is one of the ethical foundations of a secular, liberal society. In short, I already disagree with her -- it is entirely reasonable to presume utilitarianism in this context.

The basic premise in favor of seatbelt laws is that they improve seatbelt use, and it is an empirical fact that they do.[1][2][3] Seatbelt laws improve how frequently drivers and passengers use seatbelts primarily through fine-based deterrence and police enforcement, but also indirectly through promoting a culture of good habits.

Improving seatbelt use provides two major benefits to society and individuals:

1) Saves lives and protects health.[2]
Not wearing a seatbelt is extremely dangerous to a person's health and livelihood. An individual is not only less likely to die or be injured in a car crash if she is wearing a seatbelt, but also less likely to kill or injure other individuals involved in the car crash. To be clear, a person who chooses not to wear a seatbelt not only risks her own safety; she also risks the safety of other passengers in her car (if her body were to be tossed around inside the car and hit other bodies) and the safety of motorists and pedestrians (if her body were to be thrown from the car).

2) Saves money.[1]
Individuals dying and being injured is expensive to the state and the people.[1] Insurance premiums go up, hospitals use their resources for ambulances and ER visits, the state pays for disability claims, and injured or disabled people can be less productive. Money is needlessly spent on these things when motorists don't wear a seatbelt and get into a crash.

The cost of seatbelt laws is small: the state must spend money to enforce them, and individual citizens are required to give up the personal liberty of choosing whether or not to wear a seatbelt. I argue that this personal liberty should not be protected above the health, livelihoods, and money of other citizens. Typically individuals do not forfeit their seatbelt because of a thoughtful objection to authoritarianism -- rather, their decision is irrational and they merely need a nudge from the law to be more safe.[4] What's more, this is a decision that has serious consequences for other individuals -- they may be injured, die, lose a loved one, or have to pay for medical services that could have been easily avoided by wearing a seatbelt.

Modifications to seatbelt laws could even be made to account for objections on behalf of liberty. For example, it would be possible to implement a conscientious objector provision that would allow individuals to pay a fee (similar in cost to that of other government issuances, so around $50-200) to have a sticker on their car that exempted them from this law. While providing for ethical objection, this provision would keep the beneficial nudge of the law intact because most people would rather buckle up than get the sticker.

The liberal, democratic state has the authority--indeed, the obligation--to serve the people's interests in legitimate ways.[5] In this case, it is in the people's interest not to needlessly be injured, killed, or spend money. Protecting this interest via seat belt laws is legitimate because it improves well-being (utility) [5] and does not deny the people of a critical liberty.[6] In fact, it protects their capacity to exercise their liberties in the future because they won't have suffered irreversible self-injury.[6]

In sum, the benefits of seatbelt laws far outweigh the small costs they potentially impose. Therefore, seatbelt laws are a justified application of paternalism under utilitarian ethics, and it is preferable to have them.

4. On Liberty and Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill
6. Mill's Utilitarianism: Critical Essays. David Lyons


“Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” With these words, philosopher John Stuart Mill established the Harm Principle, which notes that the “Only purpose for which individuals can be divested of their liberty is to prevent harm to others.” Because I adhere to this principle, I oppose seatbelt laws.

First, the right to individual liberty does not permit the adoption of seatbelt laws. All individuals are born with three natural rights (life, liberty, and property), simply by virtue of being human, and not because the government chooses to grant these rights to its citizens. The reasons that states exist is to protect natural right; this is the only incentive for society to form. Protection is twofold: First, the state must not violate natural rights, even to help the citizens, and second, they must protect citizens from external harm. Since protection can cause violations of natural rights to liberty, however, there must be a substantial risk of harms to others in order for a violation of liberty to be justified. If there is a small or rare risk and the action is not done with the intent of harming others, the restriction of liberty is unjust.

The implication of this is that seatbelt laws are unjust because they are targeted at preventing individuals from causing harm to themselves. This is a restriction of the right to liberty and of the Harm Principle; people have a right to do whatever they please to themselves as long as they do not pose a malicious, substantial threat to others.

Second, according to the principle of liberty, the state cannot force individuals to harm themselves. Seatbelts cause frontal injuries to the muscles, ribs, and sternum, can cause head injuries, can cause internal damage to the intestines, can fracture and dislocate arms, and in some cases, can strangle or slice off the heads of individuals [1]. The difference between these harms and the harms caused by not wearing belts as that those harms are done by free choice while these harms are imposed by the state. Since the state cannot force individuals to harm themselves, the state is acting in an unjust manner by implementing seat belt laws.

Third, seatbelt laws have caused more accidents and have caused more pedestrian and cyclist deaths. A study funded by the U.S. government noted the following :

Restrained (wearing seat belt)

2002 deaths: 12,719
2006 deaths: 12,874

Unrestrained (not wearing seat belt)

2002 deaths: 18,269
2006 deaths: 16,037

Source: NCSA, FARS 2002-2005 (Final), 2006

Source 2

There are two important things to notice from this data. First, while my opponent may claim that it proves his case since there are fewer restrained deaths, in reality the difference is 3163 deaths, a number that is statistically insignificant. In fact, it demonstrates that seatbelts aren’t making a significant difference in saving lives. Second, the fact that there was a 10% decrease in deaths among individuals who did not wear seatbelts while there was simultaneously an increase in deaths among individuals who did wear seatbelts indicates an insidious harm of seatbelt laws, namely that seatbelt laws cause individuals to be more likely to engage in risky driving and thus experience injury and death [2]. This is because they feel that the seatbelt will protect them from harm, so they are not disposed to being careful. My opponent may attempt to claim that this result is simply a byproduct of the fact that more people are wearing seatbelts, but this is not the case because another measure indicates that seatbelt laws have caused people to become riskier drivers, namely that cyclist and pedestrian deaths have increased. From the British Medical Journal. Compulsion to wear a seatbelt cut deaths among drivers and front seat passengers by 25% in 1983. But in the subsequent years, the long established trend of declining deaths in car accidents reversed, and by 1989 death rates among car drivers were higher than they had been in 1983. Evidently the driving population “risk compensated” away the substantial benefits of seatbelts by taking extra risks, putting others in more danger. This period saw a jump in deaths of cyclists (fig ​(fig1).1). Although temporary, the jump can be explained fully only by cyclists having adapted to a more dangerous road environment through extra caution, retreat, or giving up. Is it coincidence that the long decline in cycling began in 1983? [3]

Between 1974 and 1982 cycling mileage in Britain increased 70%, but there was no increase in fatalities until the seatbelt law was introduced in 1983 (fig ​(fig1).1). The more cyclists there are, the more presence they have, the less individual danger there is. This truth is confirmed by experience in the Netherlands and Denmark, where cycling is far safer despite a tradition of segregation. All road users should gain. Pedestrians benefit because (skilful) cyclists are little threat to them and because a large increase in cycling should reduce traffic speeds and thus risks to all. Then there are the health benefits. [3]

Responses to opponent’s case.

His case rests on utilitarian principles. First, he claims that he agrees with Mill, but Mill clearly establishes in On Liberty that libertarian calculations precede utilitarian calculations and that rights must be protected before the utilitarian calculus applies. Insofar as this is true, the moral structure of my case is the one he must adopt. In practice, however, he ignores rule utilitarianism and uses act utilitarianism to make his calculations. Act Utilitarianism is fundamentally unjust because it ignores the basic reason that society was formed in the first place, namely to preserve natural rights and to not violate them. Act utilitarianism would justify killing innocent individuals in order to harvest their organs if a greater number of people needed them, and would also justify enslaving minorities for majoritarian benefits. The government cannot reasonably engage in act utilitarianism. Either way, the moral structure of my case is the one we must adopt.

He then says that seatbelts protect health. It doesn’t matter; the laws are not justified because they violate liberty. He then says that he can 1. protect drivers and 2. protect others on the road. The first response again violates liberty. When the driver drives an individual who is not wearing a seatbelt, he consents to the risk of harms that may result from that decision. Since he consents to those harms, we have no business using coercion. In the second case, those instances are so rare that they do not pose a substantial intended harm and thus we cannot violate liberty to prevent them. In addition, the reckless driving and harms to pedestrians caused by seatbelt laws outweigh the harms caused on those instances, so even on a utilitarian scale, you still negate.

He next argues that it saves money. This is false. Insurance premiums increase with accident rates, which increase as a result of reckless driving that is induced by seatbelt laws. In addition, economic calculations do not weigh into the justness of an act. It might be economic to capture individuals and force them to work to death in factories instead of hiring people with wages, but that doesn’t mean it is just or fair.

He then decides to impose a penalty on individuals who want to opt out of programs. First, he contradicts his own analysis about preventing unwanted deaths by doing this, so don’t let him get away with claiming that I am allowing for them while he is not since he allows for them to. All harms that he pins on me go on him as well. Second, this is unjust and a violation of property rights. The state cannot impose a tax on such decisions because doing so unfairly curbs liberty.


Debate Round No. 2


My position is that seatbelt laws are extremely beneficial to society, and that it is ethically justified for the state to enforce them through legislation. I will show how this is true.

Seatbelts improve safety.

To be clear, my opponent has not contested the claim that seatbelts provide a major safety benefit by saving people from being killed and horribly injured. I believe the literature supporting this is indisputable. She merely asserts that this benefit is offsetted by other factors, that it is not a net benefit, and I will show that this is untrue.

My opponent’s own sources show that wearing seatbelts is much safer than not wearing them. First she says that, in a sample of 28,911 deaths (combined restrained and unrestrained from 2006), a difference of 3,163 is statistically insignificant. That’s ridiculous. It’s 11% of the total 2006 deaths and 20% of the unrestrained deaths. This means that, in 2006, 20% fewer people died who were wearing seatbelts than weren’t. In 2002, the difference is even greater: 30% fewer restrained people died than unrestrained. She then goes on to claim that the marginal increase in restrained deaths from 2002 to 2006 (155, or 1%) is statistically significant -- an obvious double standard. What my opponent’s data really shows is a consistently present benefit of wearing a seatbelt.

Contrary to my opponent’s argument, the safety increase of seatbelts is not “negated” by the increase in risky driving that they cause. She cites an article that blames a temporary spike in cyclist deaths on “risk compensation” from seatbelts. First of all, there is no evidence to support the claim that seatbelt laws made drivers more risky -- the authors simply assert it as the cause. Second, the authors even admit that the seatbelt law had an immediate benefit of reducing deaths by 25%, and the graph shows a consistent improvement in safety after 1989 [1]. That one datum spike doesn’t prove any of my opponent’s assertions.

Also, it’s true that seatbelts themselves can cause injury, but as my opponent’s source notes, “almost all seat belt related injuries are caused by defects in the belt or improperly wearing them. And most injuries caused from the belts are still better than what happens to people who don't wear them at all” [2]. So the safety costs of seatbelts are mistakes, not inherent to the utility. No one is being forced to hurt himself.

We should now be able to put to rest the unsupported claim that seatbelts are unsafe. The reality is that they drastically improve safety in automobile crashes.

Seatbelts save money.

While this benefit is secondary to safety, it is factual and deserves defending, as it is a utilitarian concern and a legitimate consideration in legislation. My opponent ignored the main financial cost of not wearing a seatbelt, which is hospital and medical service costs. Unrestrained car occupants are a burden to the whole health care system. They are injured much more severely, so they require much more attention in emergency services, long hospital stays, operations, and rehabilitation care.

Seatbelts do not unjustly violate liberty.

Let me briefly say that John Stuart Mill’s philosophical works are useful in determining whether those laws are just and appropriate according to utilitarianism, but his opinion is not the final word. Western legal systems sometimes -- and to the popular benefit of the societies they govern -- disagree with Mill in what degree of paternalism is acceptable.

That being said, seatbelt laws are justified even under Mill’s libertarian utilitarianism. “Freedom can be restricted ... when its exercise would cause substantial or irreversible self-injury or would otherwise substantially compromise the agent’s ability to exercise her practical reason effectively in the future (weak paternalism)” [3]. For this reason, Mill does not support voluntary admittance into slavery even though it harms no one but the enslaved [3]. Accordingly, he would agree that seatbelt laws are just because they protect a person’s future capacity for agency.

Even Mill’s harm principle applies to seatbelt laws: not wearing your seatbelt harms other occupants. As I said before, unrestrained car occupants can become projectiles within the car. This situation is not “rare” as my opponent claims, but it in fact has been studied and named “human collision” [4].

For clarification, my opponent misrepresented the ethical implications of the opt-out provision that I suggested. As I said, most people would rather buckle up than get the sticker, so it would still result in a major safety improvement. People may exercise their liberty to not wear a seatbelt, but they do so at a cost to the rest of society and thus would be legitimately taxed.

To conclude, seatbelts are undoubtedly a safety improvement and there are no substantial negating effects. It is justified to require the public to use seatbelts because it protects their lives and thus their agency. Therefore, seatbelt laws are preferable.

3. Mill’s Utilitarianism: Critical Essays, David Lyons. (available free on Google books)


I don't think my opponent did a good job justifying utilitarianism, but I'll go ahead and concede based on the fact that the risk of human collision is not rare and that it does fit my criteria. I was playing devil's advocate anyways.
Debate Round No. 3


Thank you for your time debating this, Helter! I know it's difficult with the limited resources for anti-seatbelters.


No problem.
Debate Round No. 4
4 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 4 records.
Posted by ravenwaen 4 years ago
Why should that decision be left to the occupants? You acknowledge it's harmful and it costs money, so I don't understand why you think allowing people to make that choice for themselves is better than preventing people from dying, being injured, and costing people lots of money. Just the personal liberties principle, I imagine? IMO that's not reason enough, and I refuted that reason in my arguments.
Posted by MisterB 4 years ago
While "human collision" can be a factor, the decision to buckle-up should remain with the occupants. I personally believe that it is safer to buckle-up than not, and I will not drive when the occupants in my car are not buckled-up because I want to decrease the chance of human collisions. The choice to buckle-up should remain solely with the occupants. I think a valid financial incentive should be left to the insurance companies and the insured; some companies could have contractual requirements that pass more costs onto the insured if they are not buckled-up previous to a collision and other companies could allow people to make their own choices.
Posted by ravenwaen 5 years ago
Good debate, sorry it couldn't have lasted longer.
Posted by ravenwaen 5 years ago
Just FYI, I made the effort to look at your profile before I used a gendered pronoun. You may want to get in that habit, since this time you got wrong.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by Yvette 5 years ago
Agreed with before the debate:-Vote Checkmark-0 points
Agreed with after the debate:Vote Checkmark--0 points
Who had better conduct:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Had better spelling and grammar:--Vote Checkmark1 point
Made more convincing arguments:Vote Checkmark--3 points
Used the most reliable sources:Vote Checkmark--2 points
Total points awarded:50 
Reasons for voting decision: Con conceded.