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Legal Lawbreaking

by Al Boyce  
2/17/2007 / Politics

In the mid-1980s, North Carolina was among the states that did not require seat belts in cars. At the time, I believe North Carolina also allowed unrestrained infants to be tossed in the backs of pickup trucks (bowing to pressure from the agriculture lobby) but that is another story.

Under the threat of losing federal highway funds, state legislators drafted a seat-belt law they hoped would pass federal muster without infringing on personal freedom and liberty. One of the little-known liberties apparently guaranteed by the Bill of Rights (in the South, at least) is the freedom to be thrown headlong through one's own windshield at a high rate of speed.

The bill was pretty straightforward: People riding in cars would wear seat belts or face a $50 fine. Lawmakers were quick to scribble in exemptions for deliverymen (because they would have to unbuckle too many times) and for farmers. But Sen. Ollie Harris -- a strong opponent of the law -- was neither of these.

Sen. Harris was, in fact, a mortician who had "undertaken" politics late in life. I don't personally believe the rumors that his campaign slogan was: "I'll be the last one to let you down." But it could have been.

Ollie was determined to find a way to keep the law from affecting his constituents. Barring that, he was doubly determined to see that the law didn't affect HIM.

But morticians, even busy ones, can't argue that they deliver their products often enough to be discomfited by constantly buckling and unbuckling their seat belts. And the passengers in the backs of hearses were already exempt for a number of reasons -- including the difficulty of collecting the $50 fine.

Ollie testified that many people could not wear seat belts because they had an unreasoning fear -- a phobia -- about lap restraints. I have been unable to find this particular phobia listed among the hundreds of known fears, although there is a fear of sitting (kathisophobia).

Nonetheless, Ollie testified that he was terrified he would be in an automobile accident, that the car would overturn in a body of water and that he would be unable to save himself because of his seat belt. Expert testimony in support of his position was slim, but Ollie had been in the Legislature quite some time, favors were owed and the session was getting long, so he prevailed.

There was much conjecture how Ollie would actually back up his phobia claim if he was ever pulled over for not wearing his seat belt. It wasn't long before those questions were answered.

Here I have to admit that I am revealing a journalistic secret -- a story Ollie told me when I was a reporter that was strictly off the record. It is my sincere wish that Ollie, born in 1913, is no longer in public life (if he is in life at all) and thus cannot be harmed by what I am about to reveal.

Not long after the seat belt law was enacted, Ollie was stopped by a state Highway Patrol trooper, who attempted to cite him for not wearing his restraint. Ollie quickly quoted him General Statute 20-135.2 subsection C.1 (about the phobias). The trooper pointed out that the statute refers to "Persons with a certified phobia of seat belts."

Ollie reached into his worn leather wallet and triumphantly pulled out an equally worn sheet of paper, which he handed the trooper.

I can envision the trooper's lips moving and the corners of his mouth quivering as he read the following:


"Senator Ollie Harris, a patient of mine, has told me he has a phobia about wearing a seat belt.

"I have no reason to believe this is not true."

This was signed by Ollie's dentist.

I go into all of this with a point (you will be relieved to note).

The Bible is nothing if not a document describing the myriad ways people have found loopholes in God's original covenant with us.

Since Eden, we have been lawbreakers by nature. We look for ways to say the law doesn't apply to us, that we are exempt from the parts we don't like.

God recognized our inability to follow the old law and provided us with a new one. Like the seat belt law, it is designed to save lives for eternity!

How many of us, I wonder, will be groping in our wallets for a good excuse on Judgment Day?

Al Boyce is a former writer and reporter for The Associated Press. He lives in Raleigh, NC, where he now writes for God.

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