Vivienne Vermaak is an award-winning investigative journalist, director and writer. This article is part of the Free Market Foundation’s opinion pieces. By Vivienne Vermaak an award-winning investigative journalist, director and writer. This article is part of the Free Market Foundation’s opinion pieces. 

A traffic cop stopped me for not wearing a seatbelt recently. I offered him R50 and thanked him for reminding me not only of the traffic rule but of the dizzying array of non-essential legislation attempting to govern us and for an opportunity to save money by choosing a discounted payment option.

Many will have an instinctive reaction to what is “wrong” in the above picture. The only real concern here should be that potential policing resources are being deployed to pursue victimless “crimes”.

We live in a violent country. Let’s all agree to do something about that. The endless reams of traffic violations and other meaningless red-taped herrings are distracting us from what is important. The metro car with the siren, the trained person with the uniform and that valuable instinct to contribute to a better society should be allocated to protect against real harm to the vital interests of liberty and property – that is what true “crime” should be. The rest is administrative fluff. No harm, no foul.
South Africa is over-criminalised. This results in us often feeling, unnecessarily perhaps, that the country is lawless. Is it that there are too many people breaking the law, is it that there are too many laws?

We can’t help breaking them. Most of us don’t have a clue what all the regulations and municipal by-laws are in the first place, so we walk around perpetually dazed and revert to obeying simpler, smaller rules to make ourselves feel virtuous.

All laws are not equal; we have to stop behaving like they are. We can choose the things we allow ourselves to be upset about. Murder, assault, rape – get mad about that. Destruction of vital assets like electricity infrastructure; we must hold each other accountable for those. We should demand the government hold all of us accountable.

South Africa is not in a position to pick peripheral battles because we don’t dare to fight the real ones.

We blame the government for everything but then keep ourselves beholden to them by submitting and expecting interference to the level of minutiae, including personal safety whilst in a vehicle. It can be argued that wearing seatbelts is safer for you than not wearing them, but the stats are not as absolute as the belief in them.

A BMC (BioMed Central) Public Health analysis spanning a decade’s worth of international cohort studies showed that seatbelts appeared to reduce the risk of facial injuries, abdominal injuries and spinal injuries. They did not, however, reduce the risk of head, neck, upper limb and lower limb injuries.

This is not the point, though. If I decide to take the risk and expose myself to facial injury then let me. Get out of my face and take the government with you. You have no business here. People don’t fly out of their windscreens and land on other people – they hurt themselves.

A more important insight into road safety is in understanding that the attitude of the driver outranks any mechanical aspect of the car. Safe driving is a feature of the driver, not the vehicle. People who drive safely are aware, reactive and defensive, with or without a belt. Prof John Adams of UCL (University College London) researched the effects of seat-belt laws on accidents and deaths in 26 countries around the world. In a detailed longitudinal analysis, Adams clearly and convincingly can show that the adoption of seat-belt laws was not responsible for a decrease in auto fatalities.

He introduced the world to the concept of risk compensation. In essence, risk-takers assess their risks and balance them out so they experience a sense of riskiness in life that is appropriate for them. So, if they feel that safety belts are less risky, they might compensate by driving faster or driving closer to the car in front of them. Over a large number of drivers, the net effect of belts as a safety feature is mostly negated. This insight suggests safety devices might cause accidents.

Even that is not the real legislative issue, though. The essence of the argument should be whether my personal safety choices have to be policed by you or the government. The answer, in a country that is under-policed with an overburdened justice system, should be a resounding, “No.” Stay out of it.

If someone breaks into my house and tries to strangle me with a safety belt or they become the tool of choice in dismantling power pylons, that is where law enforcement should step in, pronto. It has nothing to do with the safety belt but the behaviour of the perpetrator in a non-consenting situation.

Let’s talk about it. I once discussed it with the traffic officer himself. I asked him, in a nice tone, whether they think this is the most productive use of their time and skills. He let me go. My other options would have been to offer the KFC admission of guilt levy or pay the fine. Small price, a trivial issue.

On a bigger scale, let us show up. Lobby with your chosen political party to start concentrating on crime that matters. Argue passionately, engage deeply.

We are all going down this road together. Whether we buckle up or not, it is going to be a bumpy ride. Let us concentrate on where we want to go and not get lost in the fog of small things on the way.