By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Jerry Williams and seat belts

We should light a candle for the late Boston talk-show host Jerry Williams today, as the Legislature and Gov. Mitt Romney are on the verge of tightening the state’s seat-belt law.

In the 1980s, Williams — then the king of afternoon drive time on WRKO Radio (AM 680) — whipped the public into hysteria over plans to make seat-belt use mandatory. Williams, a staunch civil libertarian, saw the law as an infringement on personal freedom. I disagreed then and disagree now, seeing a seat-belt law as no different from making drivers stop at red lights. But I agreed with him on principle, and cheered on his equally vociferous efforts to end such police-state it’s-good-for-you tactics as highway road blocks, where you’d be handed a pamphlet on the hazards of drunk driving — and, of course, given the once-over.

No one could make the switchboard at the Statehouse light up the way Williams could, but he was fighting a losing battle. Eventually, when his ratings started to slip and his show was rescheduled, a mandatory seat-belt law was passed, although it couldn’t be enforced unless you were observed doing something else, like speeding. The stronger law now under consideration will eliminate that anomaly.

Here is what Tony Schinella wrote about Williams at the time of his death nearly three years ago. Schinella, a one-time candidate for the Boston City Council, is now program and news director at WKXL Radio (AM 1450) in Concord, N.H. And here is anti-tax activist Barbara Anderson’s tribute.

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  1. Slaloming-Down-Storrow

    Hey, I’m all for civil liberties, too…but when you live in the state with the WORST accident rate in the nation (by far) you start to wonder whether we need those its-good-for-you checks.Of course, I’m a little biased…I was in four car wrecks before I turned 16 (no, none while I was driving) and one involved plowing into an oak tree at 50MPH. So yeah, if I wasn’t a stickler for seat beats, I’d be street pizza myself.Hmmm…then again, I’m a big fan of the Darwin Awards, so maybe those who refuse to wear a seatbeat will kill themselves in accidents and then reduce the total number of lousy drivers! 🙂

  2. mike_b1

    Yeah, down with seat belts, that awful law that saves the lives of auto occupants and cuts insurance costs for all of us. And while we’re at it, let’s just do away with mandatory innoculations, too.

  3. Rick in Duxbury

    It’s sad, (and a bit telling) that everyone is looking at the seat belt angle and ignoring Jerry Williams. Ahead of his time, Jerry would have become a fanatical blogger had he lived longer. Like him or hate him, he made Bostonians feel for a time, (inaccurately it turned out), that they could make a difference, about government’s role in our lives and the accountability of those to whom we have entrusted government policy-making and administration. When you complain about government snooping in the name of national security, remember the little guy from Brooklyn, who would be just as outraged as you are right now.

  4. mike_b1

    Maybe. But I see a big difference: We have a constitutional right to privacy. We don’t have such a right to drive a car.

  5. Paul

    I always agreed with JW but for different reasons. The state should NOT mandate seat belts. But they SHOULD be mandated. So by whom? Well,who pays when you get injured and you are not wearing a seat belt? YOU do! But, also, SO DO I!!! In increased insurance premiums to be specific. So maybe the insurance companies should enforce seat belt use. There are actuarial statistics, I’m sure, that show exactly how much extra it costs for injuries incurred when a victim has worn seat belts vs. when they have not. So make the non-wearer pay the difference. Use the statistics to determine what it would have cost if the victim was wearing belts and only pay out that much! That will make the person responsible for the extra cost pay and the rest of us are rewarded with lower premiums.

  6. Ron Newman

    Massachusetts has the lowest automobile fatality rate in the US. This means that teh seat belt law is a solution in search of a (non-existent) problem.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Paul — Your perfect libertarian worldview doesn’t work unless you can also change the system so that hospitals will refuse to provide free or reduced-cost care to those whose insurance policies have been canceled because of their failure to use seat belts. Your idea would not save any money whatsoever unless hospitals tossed these folks into the gutter to die.

  8. mike_b1

    ron newman wrote: Massachusetts has the lowest automobile fatality rate in the US. This means that teh seat belt law is a solution in search of a (non-existent) problem. Any statistician worth his salt could point out the problem with this argument. You have to include more data points than just fatalities. Moreover, you have to extend the survey to include the entire population, not just Mass.And Paul, the problem with insurers enforcing such a “rule” (it wouldn’t be a law) is — how would they?

  9. Mark

    Dan, the question I have is this: How does this subject relate to Al Gore’s speech?

  10. Steve

    Yes, Jerry Williams was entertaining. But he bequeathed to us Howie Carr, who wouldn’t be on the radio today without his stint on “The Governors” as a radio rookie. Gee, thanks, Jerry!Howie leads his column today with “How long will it be before the seat belt roadblocks begin?” Gee, with guys like Carr around, I’m surprised there isn’t a worldwide shortage of straw.

  11. Anonymous


  12. tony schinella

    Thanks for the plug Dan! I really appreciate it. BTW, I was named CEO of our company Jan. 3, which basically means that I run the radio station now, along with programming, marketing, and hosting a daily hour about local arts. 🙂 I had to give up the news direction to our assistant ND, who is doing a great job. Who would have thought that almost nine years after you featured me in your excellent “The Death of Talk Radio” expose – noting that Boston programmers wouldn’t give me a chance to break into radio – that I would be running a radio station which is live and local from 5:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., with 7.5 hours of news, all which is relevant to the listeners and the community. Thanks again for everything and good luck teaching and leading future journalism students at NU.

  13. Steve

    Anon 10:07 – see modes of argumentation, falacious. Howie and Mallard Fillmore have cornered the market on constructing straw men.

  14. Slaloming-Down-Storrow

    Ron, I can’t quote the exact phrase, but I do remember reading an entertaining bit in the Globe’s magazine feature, or maybe it was Boston magazine, a year or two ago. Of course, it was about traffic in Boston.The article also pointed out that Massachusetts had the lowest accident fatality rate in the US…but that Massachusetts had the highest accident rate overall in the US. How to explain this apparent contradiction? Simple – the traffic’s so bad that we literally can’t get up to speeds fast enough where accidents typically become fatal. Excluding the human tragedy element, that dynamic is actually WORSE for everyone…because it means more injuries, more insurance payouts, more lost productivity, more hospital costs, etc etc etc. No wonder the insurance in Massachusetts is so high. Zipcar anyone?

  15. David

    Of course a seat-belt law is different from a law making you stop at a red light. Red lights and other traffic signals aren’t about stopping you from hurting yourself – they’re about stopping you from hurting other people. Seat belts only protect you. Sure, there’s probably incidental impact on the health care system, etc., but that’s not what’s driving (sorry) this law. If it’s the health care system we’re so worried about, let’s fix that instead.

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