Friday, January 20, 2017

Schooled by a Schoolgirl

Last week, when I presented a bill to the Judiciary Committee providing for primary enforcement of the state's seat belt law, Isabelle Earl, who's 15, showed up to testify.

It's important to know something about the hearing room, the august former Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol. The committee sits on elevated benches. The floor is carpeted. There are murals on the ceiling and ornate brass lamps on the wall. In short, a solemn setting which is bound to faze a bit just about anybody who shows up to testify.

But Isabelle did just fine. She spoke in a clear eyed, articulate  and moving way about her cousin, Lauryn Goldhawn, who died earlier this year when the car she was riding in, unrestrained, crashed outside of Fairfield. She pleaded with the committee to pass the bill in the hope that other kids like Lauryn wouldn't lose their lives. She did a great job.

But when it came time for questions from the committee, Sen. Nels Swandal, a former district court judge, had a question for Isabelle. To start with, he didn't remember her name, so he asked for the "young lady in pink" to come to the microphone. And then he asked her, tendentiously, why she thought government should require citizens to do something that's in their own best interests. He didn't insist or expect her to answer the question, in essence instructing her to run along and think about it some more. It was a gratuitous performance and a violation of the unwritten rules of decorum legislators are supposed to follow in dealing with the public.

But Isabelle took it in stride. She did go back and think about Sen. Swandal's question and she came up with an answer. Here it is:

Dear Senator Swandal,

On Thursday, January 12th, I made the decision to testify in front of you and your committee members on behalf of Senate Bill 9. I was extremely nervous to speak in front of people with such power and knowledge, but I did it because I thought that if my voice was heard, it might make a difference and people’s lives may be saved. I understand you Tabled this bill, but what I have to say in response to your question is still important.
After the proponents and opponents spoke, you called me back up to the podium. You asked me, “Why do we need to pass a law to make you do something that is our own best interest?”
I see that you have just started your second term as a Senator, so I am sure you remember your Oath of Office. You swore to support and uphold the Constitution of the United States as well as the State of Montana. In Article 2 Section 3 of Montana’s Constitution, it states:All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life's basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways. In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.”
The phrase “corresponding responsibilities” means that people's decisions affect people other than just themselves. We need laws to prevent chaos. If everybody acted on their own wants and wishes, their actions would undoubtedly infringe upon others’ rights. For example, everyone understands littering is not in our best interest, yet we created laws against this act because it infringes upon other’s rights to a clean and healthful environment. There are many other laws that reinforce our best interest, because even though social responsibility may seem intuitively obvious to some, laws are necessary to clarify it for others. (i.e. shoplifting, trespassing, rape, murder, etc.)
It ultimately is up to our Legislature to pass laws to protect the people of Montana. Wearing a seatbelt is important to protecting the safety of Montanans as was clearly defined by the overwhelming statistics shared by several of the many proponents who spoke in favor of SB9. If you are in an accident, and not wearing your seatbelt, you can endanger the safety of the passengers in your car, anyone in a vehicle around you, the responding emergency crews and healthcare workers. The decision to buckle up is not a decision to be taken lightly.
The point of this law is not to strip someone of their rights, as was claimed by the mere three opponents to this bill. First of all, wearing your seat belt is already the law. In its current capacity, however, we have restricted police officer’s ability to enforce it effectively. People have “lost the right” to NOT wear their seatbelt a long time ago. I believe the opponents forgot this during their testimony, especially when Mr. French admitted to only wearing his seatbelt a portion of his three hour drive to Helena that day.
The fact that this law did not pass completely shocked me. You heard overwhelming testimony from a multitude of experts in their respective fields and on this subject, with minimal meaningful opposition, yet, your committee overwhelmingly made the decision to Table.  Not only does a primary seatbelt law save lives, it saves our state and its taxpayers’ money. (Utah’s statistics prove this to be true, as stated in one of SB9’s proponent’s testimony.) Also, as the representative from the trucking industry stated, we are infringing upon their ability to do business in Montana, because of their increased insurance costs. Therefore, they are incentivized to avoid doing business in our state.
Senator Swandal, just the fact that lives could be saved without financial costs should be convincing enough to pass this law. I’ve lost someone close to me, and I know you understand how hard that can be. This law can help prevent families from these types of tragedies. SB9 (Lauryn’s Law) is what this state needs. Please reconsider and take this bill off the table.

Isabelle Earl
The young lady in the pink.


  1. Nicely stated Isabelle!! I would also like to point out that it costs the state and ultimately the taxpayers huge amounts due to the overwhelming medical costs from those who sustain head injuries and yet somehow survive being thrown out of their vehicle. Most have to resort to Medicaid for lifelong care. If you want to waive your rights to Medicaid eligibility for yourself and your passengers, then by all means, don't wear your seatbelt. Since we all know that's not going to happen--enforce the seatbelt lives and reduce injuries. Elizabeth Woods

  2. So eloquent! Thank you Isabelle for your courage and strength.

    Anne Foster

  3. An outstanding response from Isabelle. She's the daughter of a position in Great Falls who treats my father. Her mother, dr. Anna Earl, is raising an intelligent, empathetic, thoughtful "young lady in pink".

  4. I am proud of the fact that the initial seat belt law campaigns were initiated by my aunt while she was Coroner of Gallatin County back in the 1980s ... dealing with traffic fatalities as well as losing a teen aged daughter to a drunk driver in her own driveway led her to imploring state law makers to take action in holding drivers accountable and increasing highway safety. As a staunch Republican herself she was routinely met with a 'there - there lil lady' pat on the head condescension from lawmakers some three decades ago that apparently continues to this day ... nice job in standing up to this sort of inexcusable treatment by someone who is Supposed to be there SERVING you!

  5. Isabelle very nice job on your response. In my life I worked in ICU and saw the effects of so many accidents. More people were there because they did not wear their seat belt. T watched the pain of the realities of that decision first hand as I know you did. My occupation changed later on because of having a family but that picture has never left me. I saw young and old die. Never did I hear "it was a good thing he did not wear his seatbelt" they all had the same question, "why did they not buckle up". Sadly some people need to learn the hard way and obviously the right to live a full life for years because of a seat belt is not as important as saying "I just don't want to." You are a strong young lady and we are all proud of your effort. Some day you may be the person sitting there listening to testimony and I know you will treat those who speak with respect.

  6. Way to go Isabelle. Very clearly and articulately put. I am so very proud of you for standing up and speaking out. I am honored to know "The young lady in the pink"