Occupant Protection (Safety Belts and Child Passengers)
Updated March 2013
Safety Belts Overview
Each year about 43,000 people are killed in motor vehicle crashes. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for people under age 34 in the United States. Every state except New Hampshire has a seat belt law. Thirty two states-Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin-and the District of Columbia have primary enforcement laws that allow police officers to stop vehicles solely for a seat belt violation. See the seat belt law chart in the Traffic Safety Trends 2012 report. Seat belt laws in the remaining 17 states are secondarily enforced, meaning police officers must stop the vehicle for another violation before they can issue a seat belt ticket. According to NHTSA, states with primary enforcement laws average 83 percent safety belt use while states with secondary enforcement laws average about 75 percent use. Click here for more information on primary and secondary seat belt laws.
*Primary belt laws allow police to stop and ticket a motorist if the driver and passengers are not buckled up. Non-conforming primary laws allow exceptions for some vehicles, such as pick-up trucks. Secondary belt laws allow police to issue a citation only if the driver is first stopped for another infraction.
*Backseat exemption: riders in the backseat do not have to wear seat belts after a certain age. Passengers can ride in the back seat without wearing seatbelt ranging from age 7 to 18, depending on state law.
Sources: The National Conference of State Legislatures; Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2011, updated 2013.
Child Passenger Safety Overview
In America, 4 children die and 490 are injured in motor vehicle crashes every day. It is the leading cause of death for children between the ages of 2 and 14; 1,314 children were killed in 2009. Children are at a much greater risk for death or injury when they ride unrestrained or in the wrong type of restraint. More than half of children killed in crashes are totally unrestrained. When child safety seats are used correctly, they can reduce fatal injuries by just over 70 percent for infants and by 54 percent for toddlers, according to NHTSA. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. territories have some form of child safety seat law. NHTSA recommends that state child passenger laws cover children up to age 16 in every seating position.
NCSL Occupant Protection Publications
- New! Traffic Safety Trends: State Legislative Action 2012, February 2013, by Anne Teigen and Douglas Shinkle. See Appendix B: State Safety Belt Use; Appendix C: State Laws on Child Restraint Use; and Appendix D: Restrictions on Riding in Cargo Areas of Pickup Trucks.
- Traffic Safety and Public Health: State Legislative Action, 2011, No. 36, February 2012, by Anne Teigen and Douglas Shinkle.
- 2011 Child Passenger Protection, Transportation Review, December 2011 by Anne Teigen.
- Traffic Safety and Public Health: State Legislative Action, 2010, No. 35, December 2010, by Melissa Savage and Anne Teigen.
- SAFETEA-LU Grant Funds Available to States That Adopt Primary Seat Belt Laws, 2009 Post Card by Anne Teigen.
- "Traffic Safety and Public Health: State Legislative Action 2009," Transportation Series No. 34, February 2010, by Melissa Savage, Anne Teigen and Nicholas Farber.
- "Safety Belts," Transportation Review, June 2006 by Melissa Savage
- "Child Passenger Safety," March 2004, LegisBrief by Melissa Savage.