In the United States, each individual state gets to decide for themselves what seat belt laws to put in place. Federal law only requires that all vehicles have seat belts located in every place that a person might reasonably be expected to sit. The only exception to this federal law is for buses. Unlike passenger vehicles and trucks, buses are not required to have seat belts for the passengers.
Development of American Seat Belt Laws
New York passed the country’s first state seat belt law in 1984. In the late 1980s and in the 1990s, all of the states except for New Hampshire followed suit with their own laws mandating seat belt use. The specifics of these laws vary from state to state. In some jurisdictions, passengers only need to wear seat belts when they ride in the front seat.
Many states have laws that create different sets of requirements for minors versus adults. In addition to seat belt laws, many states require minors to have booster seats and other restraints based on their age. Minors may also have restrictions about where they can ride in a vehicle.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), seat belts saved 13,941 lives in 2015 alone. Even though they’re effective, the NHTSA reports that approximately ninety percent of drivers and passengers consistently buckle up. Fines for a seat belt law violation can range from $10 to more than $100.
Primary and Secondary Enforcement
Some states allow law enforcement officers to stop a vehicle when they see that someone isn’t wearing their seat belt. That’s called primary enforcement. In other states, the police have to observe a driver commit some other kind of traffic offense before they can stop a vehicle. That’s called secondary enforcement.
● Most states allow for primary enforcement.
● Some states allow for primary enforcement for minors and secondary enforcement for adults.
● Some states only allow primary enforcement for front-seat occupants.
● In addition to fines and fees, some states assess points to a person’s driving license if they’re caught operating a vehicle without wearing a seat belt.
Seat Belt Use in the United States
Whether or not the state requires it, most Americans choose to wear seat belts. New Hampshire does not require seat belt use for adults at all, and they have one of the lowest rates of seat belt use. Oregon has one of the highest rates of seat belt use, and they also have one of the highest fines for noncompliance.
Seat Belts and Civil Liability
When a person suffers an injury in a traffic crash, they might have the right to recover their damages from the driver, or even from a vehicle manufacturer or other person, who is responsible for causing the accident. Typically, the court looks at the behavior of each person involved in order to determine if they acted negligently. If their behavior falls below the standard of care of a reasonable person, they might owe the injured person compensation for their injury or accident losses.
This raises the question of whether a person acts negligently when they fail to wear a seat belt. In some states, the answer is yes. More than a dozen states allow the court to limit a person’s damages from a traffic crash when they’re involved in a traffic crash without wearing a seat belt.
Other states take the opposite approach. They think that the injured person shouldn’t suffer a penalty because they choose to not wear their seat belt. Most states take this stance even if the person breaks state law when they choose not to wear the seat belt.