At the risk of being too controversial, let me stipulate something off the bat: Wearing a seat belt is a good idea. Each person in a moving vehicle should wear one because, hey, being alive is pretty alright.
Personally, I came to this conclusion after watching a video online years ago, in which a big, strong guy gets thrown around his car like a rag doll during a roll-over. "Hmmm," I thought to myself, "I doubt I’d fare much better against gravity and its forces-of-physics friends; I think I’ll start wearing my seat belt."
Cue my inner Dr. Seuss: I do not wear it for good zen. I do not wear it for policemen. I do not wear for a friend. I wear it to avoid the mend.
Humans are rational creatures interested in self-preservation, which leads most of us to buckle-up. But don’t tell that to the myriad government organizations and their high-priced consultants who beat us over the collective head with "Click it or Ticket" campaigns this time of year. For them, the best way to influence us to wear our seat belts is to use their standing army of cops to scare us into taking care of ourselves.
"This year’s ‘Click It…’ campaign could result in more citations than ever before!" brags a consultant-written email that landed in my inbox this week, as if more $200 traffic tickets is a preferable outcome for anyone but the city treasurer.
It’s shameful for a government to use fear and threats to get what it wants. (Heck, the Russians at least had the good sense to appeal to people’s national pride in Soviet propaganda campaigns.) But it’s even more distasteful for our government to use our own tax money to levy those threats across mass media.
Television ads aren’t cheap. Radio ads aren’t either. And for our state transportation departments and federal agencies to use the funds with which they are entrusted to threaten us is downright wrong — no end could justify the means.
And even when the stakes are raised, the return-on-investment from government propagandizing remains de minimis.
Take for instance, a billboard near my work that proclaims "STOP DOMESTIC VIOLENCE" in size quadrillion-point font. Who could argue with such a noble goal?
Well, me, apparently, because billboards, too, cost money, usually several thousands of dollars per year. Does anyone really think some guy will cruise past that billboard and think to himself, "Gee, I was planning on slapping my family around tonight, but that billboard really made me see the error of my ways."
Of course not.
Such ostensibly do-gooding government ads are the equivalent of civic cotton candy — they’re all empty calories that taste good at first but provide exactly zero sustenance to society. And they waste a whole lot of money in the process.
Imagine if the local health department took the $5,000 it spent on that billboard and instead gave it to an area women’s shelter. Is there any doubt those dollars would go farther toward helping victims of domestic violence?
Similarly, whatever millions of dollars are spent on Click it or Ticket ads every year — not to mention the countless man-hours wasted by police playing the role of finger-wagging parent to unsuspecting motorists — could unquestionably be better spent on other things.
Maybe the money for that radio ad could fix a pothole and prevent someone swerving to avoid it, causing a pile-up in the process. Maybe the dollars spent producing the latest patronizing TV spot could instead fund a road project to add an extra lane on a dangerous stretch of road.
The permutations are unbounded. But short of buying little nanny-shaped bobble-heads for everyone’s dashboard, virtually any use of our tax dollars would be better than the vapid tsk-tsking of Click it or Ticket.
Nate Strauch is a reporter and columnist with the Sherman-Denison (TX) Herald Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.