Proving Maryland Has the Smarts

ERNEST B. FURGUSON

November 01, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

Washington -- In this enlightened world, an intelligent person can easily judge the intelligence of those around him by noting whether their habits match his own. At least that's the way I do it.

There are times when this personal measurement of IQ agrees with established authority, and others when the two collide head-on. In the case at hand, they are in complete accord:

By my standards and those of the federal Transportation Department, Marylanders are the most intelligent citizens in the continental United States. The only smarter state is Hawaii. The dumbest is Rhode Island.

Traditional methods of judging intelligence often relate to education -- Connecticut or Minnesota or someplace up north has a higher percentage of college graduates, and Mississippi or South Carolina or someplace in deep Dixie has a higher percentage of functionally illiterate. But our yardstick in this case has little to do with formal schooling.

L It's a matter of common sense: Buckling up before you drive.

The Transportation Department says seatbelt use is up to 59 percent across the country, which suggests that people are gradually getting the message everywhere. But of course that figure means that 41 percent still don't get it.

In Maryland, 72 percent were found using their safety belts. The only state that placed higher in the survey was Hawaii, at 85 percent. The only others that reached 70 percent were California and Oregon.

Running down the state-by-state figures, I have tried to draw conclusions about the smartest and dumbest parts of the country, but they defy regional breakdown. One might argue that salt air is a powerful stimulus to brain cells, because all the Pacific coast states including Alaska are in the higher seatbelt-use range. But states up and down the Atlantic run from near-high to absolute low.

New York has 68 percent, for example, and Connecticut 61. But next-door Rhode Island is at 28, and Massachusetts 35. Anyone who has ever driven to or through Providence or Boston will immediately recognize that these figures merely hint at the quality of auto drivers in those states. But Maine and Vermont are down toward the bottom, too, so what does that prove?

The anti-seatbelt prototype is the rugged individual who says ''The gummint ain't gonna tell me what to do.'' There may be just as many young people who have not realized yet that they are mortal, and old codgers who have survived 60 years since firing up their first Model A and see no reason to change their habits now.

Some of those tough nuts are educable. They respond to figures like those offered by Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner, who says seatbelts have saved 4,800 traffic deaths so far this year alone, and 25,000 in eight years since since the first state law requiring their use was passed. But somebody has to do the educating.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Skinner gives credit for the increased rate of use to his department's safety campaign. But if that was a national campaign, why do the figures vary so drastically from state to state? The answer is that governors, mayors and state and local police play the key role. Some states have believers in office, and others don't.

Thus seatbelt use as a gauge of state intelligence applies two ways: It shows voters have the sense to elect conscientious officials, and then to pay attention to what those leaders say.

A few social scientists may think I place too much emphasis on seatbelts to measure community common sense. But this is only one of the ways in which lifestyle discloses intelligence.

Mr. Skinner's department is not the one to conduct all the following surveys, but a government long on studies and short on actions should be glad to commission task forces on questions like:

What percentage of citizens in each state continues to smoke cigarettes, almost 30 years after the first surgeon general's report about the link between tobacco and deadly disease?

How many decibels of noise does a community tolerate from automobiles and motorcycles, either from souped-up amplifiers or gutted mufflers?

What is the local per-capita consumption of greasy fast food, in an era when cholesterol has become a dirty word?

It's obvious that Baltimore, site of Lexington Market, the foot of Broadway and dear Memorial Stadium, wouldn't come out looking equally smart in all these surveys. But we would find out the true mettle of any Maryland politician if duty told him to campaign against Polish hot dogs.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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