Scoppe: Buckling up, texting while driving and aiming badly: How laws change our behavior

Associate EditorOctober 17, 2013 

Cindi Ross Scoppe

— NEXT TIME someone says you can’t change people’s behavior with a law, tell them about seat-belt use in South Carolina.

Back in 2005, when the Legislature finally allowed police to enforce the law, just 70 percent of drivers and front-seat passengers in South Carolina were using safety belts — significantly below the national average, which then was 82 percent.

Then our rate began a steady climb, slipping past the national rate for the first time in 2010 and, according to figures released last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, reaching 91 percent last year. The national rate for 2012 was 86 percent — which put us in a strange place when it comes to highway safety: significantly ahead of the national average.

The increase is important in terms of public safety because buckling up reduces the risk of collision deaths by 45 percent in cars and 60 percent in trucks, SUVs and minivans. So it helps explain why highway death rates are dropping in South Carolina, with fatalities down so far this year by 11 percent from last year, even as miles driven continue to increase.

It’s important in terms of public policy because the “can’t change human behavior” argument continues to hold sway at the State House, most notably of late in repulsing efforts to prohibit people from texting while driving.

By fixating on questions about how police will be able to tell who is and isn’t texting, the pro-texting apologists ignore the fact that the primary purpose of laws isn’t to produce arrests. Arrests are made only when a law fails in its primary purpose, which is — as it is doing quite nicely with the seat-belt law — to set clear guidelines for the vast majority of people who obey the law just because it’s the law. That is, to change social norms.

Of course, laws don’t always change social norms in a positive way.

A classic example of a negative effect on social norms involves anti-poverty programs. While I think it’s immoral, and short-sighted, to punish babies and children for the reckless choices their parents made, the unfortunate fact is that by providing a robust social safety net, we’ve helped change a social norm that used to say out-of-wedlock births were unacceptable.

Today, I fear we’re seeing the beginnings of a similarly negative change in social norms, this one thanks to the stand-your-ground laws in South Carolina and other states.

I was reminded of this last week, when Circuit Judge Maite Murphy ruled that a Columbia man couldn’t be charged for mistakenly killing an innocent bystander after a carful of menacing girls followed his daughter home. The man’s attorney, S.C. Rep. Todd Rutherford, said someone facing what he perceived as a life-or-death threat “cannot be expected to shoot straight always because they are not supposed to have their life in jeopardy.”

Even if Mr. Rutherford isn’t correct about the law, he’s correctly stating the mindset behind it. Just think for a minute about what we’re telling people with this law: Shoot first, and don’t worry. If you’re such a bad shot that you kill someone you weren’t even aiming at, don’t worry. Even if you aim correctly, but you’re just flat wrong about who’s threatening you, don’t worry. That’s collateral damage.

What’s important is that, by golly, you don’t ever need to consider anything other than whether you feel threatened. And we as a state feel so strongly about this that we’re not even going to let prosecutors bring charges against you to explore the question of reasonableness.

As the prosecutor put it, the ruling means that someone who claims to fear for his life “could shoot a 4-year-old playing in her front yard and still be immune from prosecution.”

People had a legal right to defend themselves in their own homes even before the stand-your-ground law was dreamed up. But under traditional self-defense law, they still could be tried if there was any question about whether the killing was justified. Like in this case.

More importantly, under traditional self-defense law, there was broad public agreement that we should let police deal with criminals unless it is clearly and unequivocally and immediately dangerous to do that. We understood that vigilante justice presents a danger not just to the person trying to deliver it but also to the rest of the community.

If you don’t think that agreement is eroding, consider that the main argument at the State House for letting people with concealed-weapons permits carry their guns into bars is that it would be dangerous to go into some bars and restaurants if they had to leave their guns in the car. Which begs the question: Why in the world are they going to that bar or restaurant?

Rep. Rutherford’s client might well have been found not guilty even if we didn’t have our stand-your-ground law — just like George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, after a special prosecutor reversed the police decision not to bring charges because of that law. But as with Mr. Zimmerman, that decision would have been based on the facts in the case — whether he really did fear for his life, whether he was acting with reckless disregard for the safety of innocent bystanders, for instance.

Instead, the decision about Mr. Rutherford’s client was made by our Legislature, based on the dubious theory that we are better off if well-meaning, law-abiding citizens shoot people whenever they perceive a threat. Even if their aim isn’t particularly good. Even if they’re wrong about whether there was an actual threat. Even if they kill innocent bystanders.

It’s one thing to shoot when someone breaks into your house. Or when a thug on the street points a gun at you and there’s no way to escape.

But shouldn’t we at least consider not talking to strangers, and not hanging out in places we know to be dangerous, as our parents taught us as children? When we find ourselves in an argument that’s escalating toward a fight, shouldn’t we at least consider walking away? When a carload of rowdy girls follows our daughter home, even if one of them fires a shot, shouldn’t we at least consider simply getting everyone inside, and calling 911?

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com or at (803) 771-8571. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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