Seat Belts and the Rule of Law in Georgia
06 December, 2012
When you take a taxi now, the driver doesn't seem to mind if you wear a seat belt or not. Mind you, it is still officially the law that everybody in the front seat of a car wear a seatbelt, but now it is treated as one of those optional laws. Some taxi drivers still wear theirs out of habit or fear or maybe because they're just plain smart. Some don't. Many will tell you that passengers don't need to
anymore now that Georgian Dream is in power. I find this very interesting and will often ask taxi drivers about it. I have been told by several that it was Misha's law or, more often, that it was Vano's law and that they aren't in power anymore so it is optional.

I have to say I was very happy when the seat belt law was passed for several reasons. The first was out of self-interest. Georgia had one of the highest traffic death rates in the world and I didn't want to die so I wore a seat belt, as did many foreigners. But when there was no law, taxi drivers would often look at it as an insult if you wanted to put on a seat belt. The belt often didn't work and if it did, it would be covered in grime and dust. The second reason was I saw it as the triumph of intelligence over stupidity. While it was not very popular when it started, anybody who knew anything about statistics knew that several hundred lives would be saved by the law. (It is not difficult to count how many.) And finally, I enjoyed watching the culture change. Before the law came into effect, everybody—particularly men who viewed it as a point of pride not to wear a seat belt—thought that only cowards or worse would choose to wear a seat belt. Then, after the law that stopped immediately and everybody just started wearing seat belts. The whole cultural discussion which was pretty silly anyway ended immediately.

Recently, I spoke with a lobbyist who worked for a tobacco company and was in charge of discouraging the parliament of Georgia from adopting a law banning smoking in restaurants and public places. Now virtually all wealthy countries have these laws in place and the parliament of Georgia came close to enacting these laws. The way it typically worked in the last parliament was that there would be no serious public debate, it would all be decided internally within the National Movement, and then it would be passed in parliament quickly and without discussion. On many issues there was lively discussion among the leadership, even though it was invisible to the public. This was one of those issues. In the end the law wasn't even proposed. That would have been a real triumph of data over habit but we will have to wait for that one.

But what does it mean now that fewer and fewer people are wearing seat belts because this is Vano's or Misha's law and not Bidzina's? That is a cause for worry from many points of view. First of all, it indicates people may think of laws as being something transitory, connected with this regime or that. The sad thing is that here this is true to some degree. The way the National Movement passed laws, there wasn't much debate or consensus, even with those laws that were real steps forward—and there were many. So the way people feel about these laws is understandable, but it is also dangerous because it allows them to decide which laws they want to obey and which they don't. This runs completely counter to the whole point of laws at all. The second thing that is a cause for concern is how the Georgian Dream feels about this. There have been many comments on different laws where a new government official will say or hint that this or that law was part of the old way of doing things so don't worry about it too much.

And that leads us to the third big worry: crime. Certainly it seems like there is more crime. For years I haven't heard of things getting stolen. Now I am hearing about many things being stolen out in the open. Back in the Shevardnadze days people worried a great deal about crime. I remember those days very clearly. And everybody knew that the police wouldn't help and may even have been in on the crime. Then crime went away but that was traded in for a different feeling of insecurity, one in which people felt that if they ever crossed officials, or Kudi which in many places was essentially an armed wing of officials, they had no recourse. The question now is what is happening to this. If somebody is arrested and they go to court, will they get a fair trial? How will that work? How much more crime is there? A ton or not much? Are criminals just testing the water? How worried do we need to be? And the same with the arrests. Many people are happy to see some of these people being arrested but considering the charges, others feel like they've done worse things than these officials are accused with and are wondering if they too will get sucked into the criminal justice system at some point.

There is a great deal of international attention on the punishment of former officials and that attention may not be entirely fair. One could argue there wasn't so much media attention on arrests under the former government as there could have been. Maybe. But here we are now. I am undecided about what these arrests mean. We'll see what the trials end up being like and how transparent they are. But I am really more interested in whether the police start enforcing the seat belt law or, since this government didn't pass that law, it as optional. To me that will send a clearer message than anything else about the future of the rule of law in Georgia.