Study: States with More Personal Freedom Have Higher Death Rates

02/19/2010
By For more information, contact media@uml.edu or 978-934-3224

Less Restrictive Laws on Seat Belt, Helmet, Cell Phone Use Endanger Public Health, Researchers Say

LOWELL, Mass. ߝ In a new study exploring the link between personal freedom and mortality, researchers have found that states with less restrictive laws also have higher rates of death due to injury.

“Freedom is deeply ingrained as a fundamental belief in the American character,” said Assistant Prof. Leland Ackerson of UMass Lowell’s Community Health and Sustainability Department and lead author of the study. “However, our study shows that protecting public health by regulating some health-related behaviors can be instrumental in creating a healthier society.”

The results of the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Harvard School of Public Health, were published today online in the American Journal of Public Health article, “Negative freedom and death in the United States.” It will appear in an upcoming print issue of the journal.

The study used an independent system for measuring personal freedom across states according to the strictness of laws governing behaviors such as the use of fireworks, seat belts, motorcycle helmets and cell phones while driving, as well as smoking, access to alcohol and use of controlled substances. 

The researchers reported a wide variation in state rates of unintended injury mortality in 2006 from 25.9 per 100,000 in New York, the state with the third most strict laws, to 67.1 per 100,000 in New Mexico, the state with the third most lax laws. 

The data suggests that those residing in a state with permissive laws regarding public safety run a higher risk of injury or death.

“Freedom is a human right,” said S.V. Subramanian, associate professor of Society, Human Development and Health at the Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of the study.  “We are not questioning the value of freedom with this study. Rather we are pointing out that there are multiple ways to think about freedom.  In the end it may make better sense, from a health perspective, to think about freedom as freedom from danger or death, rather than as freedom to act any way that you like, even if it is unsafe.”

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