There is substantial evidence that too many of those in car crashes were not wearing their seatbelts, despite it being a significant protective factor. This is puzzling. There is no doubt that wearing a seatbelt reduces injuries and deaths in car crashes. It requires only a few seconds to lock the seatbelt in place for driver and passengers so why are people not doing this?

I once had a conversation with a person who worked in health (who should have understood the implications) who declared that they never wear their seatbelt. The reasoning being (a) It was an individual decision, a personal right and (b) the government could not tell people what to do.

I was somewhat blindsided by this response. When it was pointed out that this 'individual' decision' affected the rest of us she was stunned. The thought that the rest of us would be funding her health care should she exit her vehicle via the windscreen and be severely injured had clearly not occurred to her. Yes, it was a choice but one that involved not just her but all of us. If she was prepared to pay for her own car crash injury consequent on refusing to wear her seatbelt that would be taking responsibility for that decision rather than the rest of us picking up the bill. At this point she looked quite shocked. She had clearly never thought how her 'right' to make the decision to never wear a seatbelt impacted on others. To her credit she then acknowledged this and went away looking thoughtful.

Ever since that conversation I have wondered how widespread this notion is across the wider population? Do those who, as a matter of principle, never wear their seatbelt think this is kicking against the 'nanny' state, a way of rebelling against being told what to do by government?

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Is this the same attitude that motivates the anti-vaccination ideology and those against fluoridating our drinking water? Their anti-views are not supported by good science and create risk in the population because public health measure such as vaccination and fluoridation act as an umbrella over the population - the more there are under its shelter, the greater the protection for all.

The challenge we need to make to those holding these anti positions is to say - you have the right to hold these views and be free to express them but are you willing to pay the extra costs related to your stance? Are they willing to pay the cost of dental care for the kids who have not been protected by fluoride in the water? Are they prepared to pay for the health care of those children exposed to disease as a consequence of their anti-vaccination views? The notion that they might have to pay to balance that individual right against the social contract is a valid question. The answer to this is probably no as rhetoric is cheaper.

This sense of individual rights and entitlements is evident every time a driver overtakes near a blind corner or pulls out to pass a truck that is going slower than they think it should. We have seen cars used as weapons in terrorist attacks, domestic violence and road rage events here and overseas. One way to shift the NZ view of driving would be to classify cars as a lethal weapon with consequences that reflect this status in terms of the law? As another columnist pointed out the other day, cars are our equivalent to the US obsession with guns. Cars are just as deadly and for some reason we accept the road toll with no regard for how we manage such dangerous pieces of machinery.

Terry Sarten (aka Tel) is a writer, musician and social worker. Feedback: tgs@inspire.net.nz