The Wall Street Journal
March 18, 2009
Firefighter Mark Edgington drove 90 minutes in a snowstorm to a statehouse hearing here last week to tell legislators New Hampshire is no longer worthy of its motto, "Live Free or Die."
Bob Hull, a computer technician dressed in camouflage hunting gear, came to say that "the state is moving toward, basically, communism." Ivy Walker, a local restaurant owner, grew teary-eyed. "What's next?" she asked. "Will they mandate that I can't have more than three cheeseburgers next week at McDonald's?"
Their gripe: New Hampshire is considering passing a seat-belt law.
The Granite State has long been known for its plucky Yankee self-sufficiency -- it was the first colony to declare independence from Great Britain in 1776. Today it is the only state in the nation that doesn't have a law requiring adults to wear seat belts. It has resisted efforts to pass one for 30 years, and has been the proud lone outlier since 1995, when neighboring Maine became the 49th state to buckle.
But now, legislators are close to passing a seat-belt law under a push by Democrats who gained control of the state Senate, House and governorship in 2006 for the first time in a hundred years. The Democrats have been boosted in the polls by a wave of migration from other states, including famously liberal Massachusetts, over the past decade.
Under the Democratic leadership, the state has approved civil unions, a first-ever boaters' speed limit on Lake Winnipesaukee and a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. There are even bills in the legislature calling for the once-unthinkable -- a state income tax -- although the odds against it seem long for now.
Terry Stewart, a member of the town budget committee in Gilford, N.H., and a seat-belt-law opponent, has had it with the new majority. "No matter what's your pleasure in life, sooner or later they're coming," he says.
Anti-seat-belters say there is no evidence that fatalities in the state are higher because of the lack of a belt law. One key factor in the buckle-up bill is that the state, like others, is strapped for cash. The law would qualify New Hampshire for $3.7 million in federal money offered to states that pass or update seat-belt ordinances by July 30.
Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show seat-belt usage in New Hampshire is already about 69%, on par with some other states. But many here oppose the law on principle and cherish the liberty to drive unbuckled as a hallmark of individualism. "We're becoming a nanny state; we're losing our identity," says state Rep. Sherman Packard, a Republican from Londonderry. He calls the federal funds dangling over the state "blackmail money, plain and simple."
The bill needs a second house vote before going to the senate. Sen. Hassan expects passage, but in a "battle." Opponents include Sen. Robert Letourneau, head of the Senate Transportation Committee and a three-generation New Hampshirite who cruises on his Harley motorcycle without a helmet. New Hampshire has no helmet law, either.
In his office, the white-whiskered senator smacked a plastic motorcycle model that started blaring the Steppenwolf song "Born to be Wild." Then he flipped through a stack of phone messages from constituents who he says are against the seat-belt law. "Every day my mailbox is flooded," he says. "People don't want it. It's an insult to their intelligence, that's what they tell me."