In 1968, the U.S. federal government began requiring automobile manufacturers to outfit every vehicle with seat belts. They complied, but it didn’t do much good; according to a 19-city survey conducted in 1982, only about 11 percent of front-seat occupants actually wore their seat belts.
So, with car accidents as dangerous as ever, President Ronald Reagan’s administration launched an extensive campaign to encourage state governments to pass legislation mandating seat belt usage (partly as a way to avoid forcing manufacturers to install airbags in every car). New York became the first to enact such a law in 1984, and a couple dozen states followed suit in the next few years.
Massachusetts was one of them. On January 1, 1986, the state began allowing police officers to issue a $15 fine to passengers who weren't wearing their seat belts [PDF]. Though they could only be fined if they had been pulled over for a different reason, it was still an important and necessary step toward safer roads.
But a Boston radio host named Jerry Williams didn’t exactly see it that way, and he had the power to do something about it.
Big Brother Says "Buckle Up"
Jerry Williams, known as “The Dean of Talk Radio,” began his career in Tennessee in 1946 and spent the next four decades bouncing between Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and Boston, amassing a dedicated following with each new program.
By 1986, he was living in Boston and hosting an afternoon radio show on WRKO, where listeners enjoyed his characteristic incisiveness on topical issues. He had a longstanding reputation for butting heads with Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who happened to be leading the charge on mandatory seat belts.
But Williams didn’t decide to stage an uprising against the seat belt law because of a personal vendetta against Dukakis; in fact, he didn’t even oppose wearing a seat belt. Instead, he simply thought it was unconstitutional for the government to make him buckle up.
“We wear seat belts, but we don’t want to be forced to do so,” Williams told The Berkshire Eagle in 1986. “We are smart enough to buckle up without police, tickets, and Big Brother.”
Other Massachusetts residents agreed with him. Bikers from the Modified Motorcycle Association began lobbying for a repeal, and a professional sign painter named Robert Ford even established a “Committee to Repeal the Mandatory Seat-Belt Law.”
To quash the law, they’d have to clear two hurdles: First, they’d need at least 30,754 people to sign a petition calling for a referendum on the matter. The referendum would then be included on November’s election ballot, where the opposition would need a majority vote to repeal the law.
And that’s where having a celebrity radio host on their side really came in handy.
The Loud-Mouthed Libertarian
As soon as the seat belt law went into effect on January 1, Williams devoted himself to lambasting it on the radio. His talk show was usually only four hours long, but an extra hour had been added to account for the increase in callers. Those who challenged him got an earful of libertarian zeal.
“We’re going to win this fight, you dummy!” he shouted at one. “I’m going to repeal this law on the basis of justice!”
He promised to cover the legal fees of the first person who’d take the government to court over a seat belt citation. He likened Massachusetts to a “police state.” He dared police officers to try to prevent him from driving sans seat belt. And when Dukakis was caught on tape joking to a reporter that his New Year’s resolution would be “stopping Jerry Williams at a roadblock and telling him to put his seat belt on,” Williams replayed the recording on air, ad nauseam.
“The governor can slap a belt around my mouth,” he said.
Williams’s remarks may seem malicious, but his tone was less so; he just earnestly believed that the government had no right to make this decision for its citizens, and he knew how to galvanize people into agreeing with him. His tactics worked. By January 7, a volunteer force 1000-strong had fanned out around Massachusetts, gathering signatures.
“There’s no way we would have gotten the volunteer corps without Jerry banging away on the radio,” petition organizer Greg Hyatt told The Boston Globe in early 1986.
Nine days later, Williams and Hyatt arrived at the office of the Massachusetts Secretary of State bearing a petition with more than 56,000 signatures. About 44,000 of them qualified, which was still thousands more than they needed to secure a referendum.
In other words, Williams and his laissez-faire posse had cleared the first hurdle with plenty of room to spare.
Not Quite Sold on Safety
In the months leading up to the vote in November, Williams continued promoting the cause on his show, while the Massachusetts Seat Belt Coalition and similar groups spent as much as $400,000 on advertising and publicity in favor of the law.
The proponents scrambled to come up with compelling statistics showing the seat belt law reduced the number of accident-related injuries and deaths. According to one state-sponsored study released that September, deaths were down 8 percent and serious injuries had dropped 23 percent since the law took effect. It might’ve been a more impressive decrease if more people actually obeyed the law, but they didn’t. Less than 40 percent of Massachusetts's residents wore seat belts, poking a massive hole in Williams’s earlier assertion that people were “smart enough” to buckle up … even with the threat of a $15 fine from Big Brother.
Seat belt supporters also enlisted accident victims to attest to the efficacy of strapping in. “My doctors tell me that I would not have survived had I not been wearing my seat belt,” a car accident survivor named Deborah Bradbury shared at a press conference for the Staying Alive With Seat Belts Committee, co-chaired by Boston Bruins hockey legend Bobby Orr.
Despite the star power of Orr and the human-interest angle of stories like Bradbury’s, the referendum was still anyone’s game once November rolled around.
A Short-Lived Victory
On November 5, 1986, Williams and Ford sat beaming at a post-election press conference.
“Governor, it’s all over,” Williams said smugly. The previous day’s ballots had been counted, and the band of dissenters had eked out a win: 53 percent of voters opted to repeal the law. Within a month, buckling up went from being an order to a mere suggestion.
Over time, however, it became clear that not all Massachusetts residents could be counted on to choose safety over comfort. By November 1993, the national average for seat belt usage was at 62 percent, and 45 states had mandatory seat belt laws. Massachusetts, meanwhile, hovered around 32 percent, and still had no law.
“We’re tied for 47th in the nation for seat belt usage,”' Massachusetts Senator James Jajuga told The Christian Science Monitor. “Something has to be done, and it has to be done now.”
The state legislature finally approved a law on February 1, 1994, striking down then-Governor William Weld’s veto. This time, an infraction cost $25, though drivers still couldn’t be stopped for a seat belt violation alone. Ford once again led the resistance—under a new organization called No Means No—and secured a referendum on the next ballot. But Williams didn’t resume his original role, and support for the movement had waned considerably.
“This is not an individual rights problem. This isn’t a freedom problem,” seat belt advocate Myra Herrick told The Boston Globe. “It’s a safety and health problem.”
That November, the majority of voters seemed to concur: 59.5 percent chose to uphold the law, which still exists today. As of 2018, the state’s seat belt rate for drivers and other front-seaters sat at almost 82 percent. The national average is 90.7 percent.
In the moment, the 1986 referendum victory was evidence that grassroots movements could truly affect change at a high level. But in hindsight, it reads more like a cautionary tale about how the line between individual rights and the government’s responsibility to keep us safe is often blurry. And sometimes, it takes years—and more than a few avoidable deaths—for people to see it clearly.