When a Radio Host Led an Uprising Against Massachusetts’s Seat Belt Law

Buckling up was once a political statement.
Buckling up was once a political statement.
Comstock/iStock via Getty Images

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!”

Shanina/iStock via Getty Images

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.

Nothing like a rhyme to make a law more fun.MelissaAnneGalleries/iStock via Getty Images

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.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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When a Long Island Housewife Handed Out Arsenic to Kids on Halloween

This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
Douglas DeNatale, Lowell Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

On October 31, 1964, 13-year-old Elsie Drucker and her 15-year-old sister Irene returned to their Long Island home after an evening of trick-or-treating and dumped their spoils onto the table. Among the assortment of bite-sized sweets were two items that looked like bottle caps and bore the warning: “Poison. Keep away from children and animals.”

It wasn’t an ill-conceived, Halloween-themed marketing ploy—the tablets were “ant buttons,” which contained arsenic and could help rid a house of insects and other pests. They could also seriously threaten the life of any small child who accidentally swallowed one.

Alarmed, the girls’ father called the police.

A Criminally Bad Joke

The authorities notified the community, and people immediately began spreading the word and inspecting their own candy bags, unearthing another 19 ant buttons around town. Meanwhile, Elsie and Irene helped the police trace the toxic treats to 43 Salem Ridge Drive, where a 47-year-old housewife named Helen Pfeil lived with her husband and children.

Once other trick-or-treaters confirmed that Pfeil had indeed doled out the poison—and police discovered empty boxes of ant buttons in her kitchen—she was arrested. Fortunately, none of her would-be victims ingested any hazardous material, which meant that Pfeil was only charged with child endangerment. If convicted, however, she could still face prison time.

At her arraignment on November 2, Pfeil tried to explain to a baffled courtroom that she “didn’t mean it maliciously.” After having spent most of Halloween bestowing actual candy on costumed kids, Pfeil had started to feel like some of them should’ve already aged out of the activity.

“Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” she had asked the Druckers, according to the New York Post.

So Pfeil had assembled unsavory packages of ant buttons, dog biscuits, and steel wool, and dropped those into the bags of anyone she deemed “a little old” to be trick-or-treating. She maintained that it was a joke, and her husband, Elmer, reiterated her claim to reporters at the courthouse. While she had been “terribly thoughtless and she may have used awfully bad judgment,” he said, she hadn’t planned to cause harm. Elmer himself wasn’t in on the scheme; at the time, he had been out trick-or-treating with their two sons—who, ironically, were both teenagers.

Her spouse may have been sympathetic, but Judge Victor Orgera was not. “It is hard for me to understand how any woman with sense or reason could give this to a child,” he said, and ordered her to spend 60 days in a psychiatric hospital.

Dumb, Not Dangerous

The following April, Pfeil went on trial in Riverhead, New York, and switched her plea from “Not guilty” to “Guilty” when proceedings were already underway. With about two months until her sentencing date—and the possibility of up to two years in prison looming overhead—Pfeil’s neighbors got busy writing character references to send to the judge.

Though Judge Thomas M. Stark was just as bewildered by Pfeil’s indiscretion as everyone else, the letters convinced him that she was not a danger to society, and he suspended her sentence. “I don’t understand why she had done such a stupid thing as this,” Stark said, “but I feel incarceration is not the answer.”

So Pfeil got off with nothing more than a guilty conscience, and Long Island teenagers continued to pound the pavement for Halloweens to come. But the misguided ruse did scare at least one child into giving it up forever: Little Elsie Drucker never went trick-or-treating again.