10/07/2011 10:57 am ET Updated Dec 07, 2011

Anti-bullying and the Seat Belt Law

Last week at the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit, parent Kevin Jacobsen delivered a heartfelt and purposeful speech touching on the pain he's experienced and the steps he's taken since the premature death of his son Kameron this year as a result of bullying.

Kevin finished up his talk by declaring that we must make the expectation that bullying doesn't take place in our schools as automatic as we have with people buckling up when they get into their cars.

My children don't think twice when they get in to a car before buckling a seatbelt. I still need the reminder of the beep in the dashboard. Bullying needs a long-term philosophy, a change that enables every person to recognize bullying immediately in all of its forms and from all of its sources. A cohesive and comprehensive change in our individual and collective thinking.

How hard will this be?

There have certainly been great strides in highlighting the issue from columnists, pop stars, the secretary of education, and even the president and first lady, but as one can read from the range of comments entered in response to recent bullying articles, we still have some way to go to make the shift widespread and automatic.

EVERYONE FACES BULLYING. Heck, I got beat up and pushed around all through high school because I was skinny and not popular. SO WHAT!!! I didn't kill myself. I shook it off after every attack, insult, and bullying I had to face.

Yes let's turn all our children into androgynous whiney morons. This way, we can avoid war because we will just bow down to the rest of the normal world which understands life isn't all butterflies and puppy dogs. If someone (sic) is so mentally feeble that what someone (sic) says will put them over the edge then we're better off without them.

I am old school, the way to handle a bully is simply beat the HELL out of him with fists, a bat, or whatever is at hand, if a bully can dish it out he better be able to take it.

Too much government interference in our lives today, DARE to think for yourself. I hate to say it but we need bullying in society. It's what separates the weak from the strong, and motivates people to rise above.

Violence tends to solve bullying. I'd rather my kids threw someone who was bullying them into a beating, rather than have it come back to screw them later in life.

Students need to be prepared for life. Unfortunately, bullying is part of it...

Kids have always been bullied or have done the bullying and always will. The government just wants to make an excuse to run our families for us.

The Nanny State run amuck ... again.

Is this a hill too big to climb?

Certainly there is opposition to anti-bullying laws, regulations, and cries of "nanny-state" interference -- mostly from adults -- but as a result of this increased attention and policy development around anti-bullying, many reports actually depict a decline in reported bullying behavior. A recent study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (PDF) highlighted a reduction from 22 percent to 15 percent in physical bullying incidences between 2003 and 2008, as well as a 3 percent drop in emotional bullying incidences.

Increased attention to the issue and increased change in policy may actually be working.

Another recent report (PDF) by the National Center for Education Statistics also showed a string of reductions in bullying incidences, including:
  • 50 percent reduction in violent deaths since 1992;
  • 50 percent reduction in weapons on school grounds;
  • 60 percent reduction in school crime overall, and proposed that the main catalyst to this reduction was heightened awareness and changes to policy.

Let me state it again. Attention to and development of policies regarding a public safety issue appear to be working.

So where else has there been another regulated behavior that was decried by opponents as nanny-state intervention, slammed as being a waste of tax payers' money, and claimed by opponents to be an overreach of government, which subsequently succeeded in reducing suffering and changing public perception? Seat belt laws.

Some estimates state that lives saved from mandatory seatbelt laws were as high as 70 percent (Levitt and Porter 1999) while others are more conservative at around 40-50 percent (Evans, 1986 and Graham et al, 1997). However you look at it, mandatory seat belt laws have saved lives and become the normative behavior for 88 percent of the population nationally (PDF). Buckling up has become the automatic response for the vast majority of drivers once they enter the car and before they start the engine. So normal that many of us don't even realize we are doing it.

And how were these laws greeted when first introduced?

Among the letters to the editor at the Chicago Tribune was this one headlined "Seat Belt Law An Assault On Freedom" (Feb 5, 1987):

It was refreshing to read your recent editorial against expanding the Illinois mandatory safety belt use law so police officers can pull over every motorist in the state, at will, for not wearing a safety belt. Taking away personal freedom in order to adopt the personal safety standards of the governor and those state legislators who voted for the safety belt law, is not the answer to saving lives. In this country, saving freedom is more important than trying to regulate lives through legislation.

Prohibition was a good example of trying to force the personal health standards of politicians on society through the arm of law. It didn't work for Prohibition and it is not working with the Illinois safety belt law. Safety belt law supporters are misdirecting their time, talent and society's hard-earned money (much of it in taxes) in the wrong direction.

Society is paying dearly for state safety belt laws. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being wasted by safety belt law supporters in order to make accidents more tolerable -- more humane, according to the personal safety standards of the governor and the state legislature.

A safety belt law will prevent not one accident. We do not need millions for more safety belt laws, for more safety belts, for more accidents...

In an editorial, the Lakeland Ledger attacked the law, stating "It is the wolf of public health fascism in the sheep's clothing of do-goodism" (Oct 29, 1985). The Lodi News-Sentinel called it "Safety Nazis Are Loose Again" (July 5, 1984) and declared "Whatever they do, they should leave us alone. We don't need a national nanny."

The Milwaukee Journal highlighted the passion with a quote from a then state Senator, who said "Russia is another country that has a mandatory seat belt law. I can't think of a single issue which has so offended my district" (June 26, 1984).

The Bulletin in Oregon wrote, under the heading "New Laws Violate Freedom," which stated that "the regulation amounts to a form of blackmail" (Feb. 12, 1985).

And this was all before the Internet, comment posting, blogs, and 24/7 cable news.

If society has been able to overcome this "single issue that has so much offended my district" and accept the law as common sense and a common action, then Mr. Jacobsen's expectation that we can do the same for schools, our communities and our youth should not only be achievable, but also a clear, precise, and determined goal.

Read more about Kindness Above Malice, Kevin Jacobsen's foundation to stop bullying.
Read more about ASCD's work on health, safety, and the whole child.