Wear a helmet, use your seat belt, but choose to do it
An Australian rancher was recently found guilty of violating worker safety laws when a cowboy working for him died from head injuries sustained when the rider fell from his horse during a cattle drive.Apparently, the rancher should have provided the cowboy with an equestrian helmet of the sort used in steeplechase competitions and jumping competitions which served Christopher Reeve so well as a piece of safety equipment.It’s hard to imagine John Wayne in the movie “Red River” herding cattle across Texas in a black equestrian helmet, complete with a little 1-inch brim and a chin strap, slugging it out with Montgomery Clift.If they’d been wearing black equestrian hats, the movie would be remembered not as the cattle drive classic, but something closer to Three Stooges comedy. Ronald Reagan would never have won re-election in 1984, riding off into the sunset on horseback in a little black hat with a knob on top.But even though it looks nontraditional if not downright silly, society has decided that cowboys should be wearing helmets and not hats; cowboys are, after all, industrial workers like the guy in a hard hat on a construction site. A Stetson hat may be more romantic, but it’s a useless piece of safety equipment although as shown in the Reeve case, the recommended piece of safety equipment, the little black equestrian helmet, isn’t very safe either, and overlooks the fact that regardless of what head gear cowboys do wear, accidents will still occur that no head gear can prevent.There are few head injuries among cowboys in Australia or the U.S., but when they do happen, the results are traumatic and costly, and so society has decided that it has a community interest in worker safety by imposing common worker safety requirements that override freedom of choice.Society requires folks to wear seat belts and sometimes motorcycle helmets as means of providing the greatest good for everyone by reducing the severity of car and motorcycle accidents when they occur.By requiring individual liberty to take a back seat to the common good, society achieves the benefit of fewer traumatic accidents and their high cost.Libertarians scream bloody murder when seat belt laws or motorcycle helmet laws are introduced because society is taking away individual freedom of choice, which is true.The problem with giving motorcycle riders the freedom of choice is that in our society the freedom of choice is divorced from the burden of responsibility. If motorcycle riders and cowboys were given freedom of choice to ride without helmets, but were required to pay for their own health care and couldn’t sue society or its members when they were injured, then helmet laws wouldn’t be needed.Alas, the cost of head injuries isn’t borne by the individual, but by everyone. “Group” health insurance sounds good because lumping everyone together at the same insurance rate makes coverage available to everyone who can afford it.Group health insurance, however, penalizes the healthy individual and the ones with the common sense to wear a helmet by forcing them to subsidize the risks taken by others, and to bear the burden of responsibility of the choices made by others they don’t know and have never met. It’s senseless that a healthy 25 year old working in Summit County who wears a helmet snowboarding pays the same health insurance as a 25-year-old fat guy who smokes on a motorcycle in Commerce City.The healthy 34-year-old Keystone employee who eats reasonably well but makes the occasional use of cannabis is saddled with the same burden of responsibility as the woman in Aurora who thinks McDonald’s has made her fat and unhealthy.By assuming the burden of individual responsibility in the name of the community good, society has made the freedom of choice trivial by allowing many folks not to have to face hard choices at all – about safety, about diet, about illogical laws.So, cowboys should have the choice to wear a helmet or not provided they bear the burden of responsibility of their freedom of choice. The right to choose to be stupid is, after all, an individual freedom and society has not always made smart choices.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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