The Right to Choose Wrong

March 31, 1994|By LYNDA CASE LAMBERT

About 6 years ago, as my daughter and I were cleaning her room, we heard the squeal of tires and looked out the window just in time to see a motorcyclist fly from his bike and hit the side of a car. The momentum turned him, head over tincups, landing him flat on the blacktop on the other side of the car.

The helmet that he'd been wearing snapped off in the force of the impact and, following an immutable law of physics, was thrown in the direction whence it had come. It rolled like a fumbled football across the street toward the gutter.

As best we could figure, the cyclist was going at speed -- not too fast, not too slow, but just at the right speed to catch the timed light at Maryland Avenue and 28th Street. He should have braked for the light, but he knew it would turn green, and so he continued through at speed. Just as he went under it, it turned.

Meanwhile, a woman was driving up 28th Street, also at speed. As the light turned yellow, she was too close to it to stop, so she continued through. Just as she went under it, it turned.

She didn't see him coming at her. He should have seen her coming -- should have heard her -- but he could not. The helmet blocked his peripheral vision and muted his hearing.

He had done what everyone had told him was safest. He wore the helmet because he thought it was the best thing to do.

Back in the 1960s, a friend of mine was out driving one night and got lost in a heavy fog. Someone else got lost in that fog, too, and ended up on the same road. They met head-on.

I don't know what happened to the other driver, but my friend HTC was thrown through the windshield. His arms and face were cut, but he was otherwise unhurt. When he looked at his car, he thanked his lucky stars that he had not been wearing his lap belt. The force of the crash had dislodged the engine from its block, driving it through to the passenger compartment. The steering wheel of the car had been forced through the back of the driver's seat and the engine rested where his feet would have been. Had he been belted in, his legs would have been crushed and his body torn in half by the steering wheel.

One man made the ''right'' choice -- he wore a helmet -- and it contributed to his death. One man made the ''wrong'' choice -- he didn't buckle up -- and it saved his life.

Right and wrong are personal and individual. Each of us should be allowed to decide what risks to take. We should have the right to make the wrong choice. That is the basis of all our inalienable rights.

Right now, Maryland is considering a rule that would ban smoking in a car if a child is present, and Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is considering the next step -- prohibition of smoking altogether.

Federal regulations are being undertaken to reduce the availability of vitamins and alternative medicines by requiring the withholding of pertinent information from the consumer. It is assumed that we are incapable of making intelligent decisions about the vitamins and herbs we use. It is assumed that we are swayed by product claims. Just as it is assumed that we smoke because Joe Camel told us to, or we drink liquor because we saw it on a billboard.

The personal choices we are allowed to make are shrinking because our government has gotten the idea that we are incapable of deciding for ourselves. By accepting the seat-belt law and the helmet law, we allowed our government to think that we want to be saved from ourselves. A minority of people who feel they know best got from us the mandate to make their choices into law.

It is time to rescind our permission and insist that we retain our right to choose.

The first step is to repeal the helmet law and the seat-belt law in Maryland. The second step is to lobby our senators and congressmen to make sure they understand that -- on tobacco or reproduction, vitamins or alternative care -- we want to retain the right to choose wrong.

Lynda Case Lambert writes from Baltimore.

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