Seat Belts and Child Passenger Safety


Seat Belt Laws Overview

Each year, about 37,000 people are killed in motor vehicle crashes. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for people younger than 25 in the United States. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that among passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2018, where it was known whether they were wearing a seat belt, 47% were unrestrained. In total, 9,778 individuals who died in crashes in 2018 were unrestrained. NHTSA’s research also indicates that 87% of passenger vehicle occupants who survived fatal crashes in 2018 were restrained, and 13% were unrestrained. Seat belts in passenger vehicles saved approximately 14,955 lives in 2017 and prevented thousands of injuries. An additional 2,549 lives could have been saved in 2017 if all unrestrained passengers involved in fatal crashes had worn their seat belts, according to NHTSA.

The main enforcement types for seat belt laws are primary and secondary enforcement. Primary belt laws allow police to stop and ticket a motorist if the driver or passengers are not buckled up. Secondary belt laws allow police to issue a citation only if the driver is first stopped for another infraction.

US map showing state seat beltlaws.

State adult seat belt laws can be grouped into six categories:

  • Primary enforcement laws for all occupants: 19 states—Alaska, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin, plus the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico.
  • Primary front-seat belt law and secondary rear-seat belt law: Five states—Alabama, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey and North Carolina.
  • Secondary laws for all occupants: Six states—Idaho, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, Vermont and Wyoming.
  • Primary front-seat-only belt laws: 10 states—Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee and West Virginia—and the Virgin Islands. 
  • Secondary front-seat-only belt laws: Nine states—Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Virginia.
  • New Hampshire and American Samoa are the only state and territory without a seat belt law for adults. 

Research affirms that seat belt laws significantly increase seat belt use and that primary enforcement laws are more effective than secondary enforcement laws. According to NHTSA, 92% of front-seat occupants in states with primary enforcement laws buckled up, in contrast to 86.2% of front-seat occupants in states with secondary enforcement or no laws in 2019. The effect of seat belt laws on rear-seat occupants is also noteworthy. In 2018, 81% of occupants in back seats used belts in states with seat belt laws for all seating positions, while 68.7% of occupants in rear seats used belts in states with front-seat-only belt laws.

Child Passenger Safety Overview

buckling in a baby

In America, over 1,000 children (defined as age 14 and younger) die in motor vehicle traffic crashes every year. This means that traffic crashes kill, on average, three children every day. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for children between the ages of 2 and 14.

NHTSA studies consistently find that over a third of children killed in crashes are unrestrained. When child safety seats are used correctly, they can reduce fatal injuries by just over 70% for infants and by 54% for toddlers. According to NHTSA, 11,606 lives were saved by child restraints (child safety seats or adult seat belts) for children younger than 5 in passenger vehicles from 1975 to 2017.

Children are at a much greater risk for death or injury when they ride unrestrained or in the wrong type of restraint. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued recommendations in August 2018 stating that children should remain in rear-facing safety seats as long as possible until they reach the highest height or weight recommended by the manufacturer. AAP’s previous recommendation, released in 2011, was that children should be in rear-facing seats until at least age 2.

According to AAP, once children outgrow the rear-facing car seat, children should travel in a forward-facing car seat with a harness and tether until they reach the height and weight limits for these seats (many forward-facing car seats can accommodate children up to 65 pounds). When children reach the height and weight limits of front-facing seats, they should be restrained with a belt-positioning booster seat.

All 50 states, the District of Columbia 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.

As of December 2019, a total of 15 states—California, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia and Washington—and the District of Columbia have strengthened their child safety laws to require rear-facing seats until age 2. In addition, several states have hardened their height and weight restraint requirements for child passengers. North Dakota’s law previously required that children younger than 7 be secured in a child restraint system unless they are over the height or weight limitations of the system. The state passed legislation in 2017 to include all children under 8 who are less than 57 inches tall. Children under 8 who are at least 57 inches tall must be correctly buckled in a seat belt. Louisiana, Maine and Washington most recently enacted legislation broadening age, height and weight categories for forward-facing and booster seat requirements or creating such requirements.

NCSL Occupant Protection Publications

Additional Resources