Though they date back to the 1800s, seat belts were used by just 10% of Americans as recently as 1980. However, general education and awareness have improved over the years, and recent polling by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that national seat belt use was at 90.7% by 2019.
Of the more than 37,000 people who lost their lives in 2017 motor vehicle crashes, almost half were not wearing seat belts as advised. That year, an estimated 2,549 drivers could have found their way home to their loved ones had they buckled up.
The NHTSA conducted a study of car crashes between 1960 and 2012, looking at how various vehicle safety technologies impacted accidents. Technologies included popular safety measures like vehicle airbags, electronic stability control, power steering and anti-lock brakes. The study found that seat belts saved more lives than all other safety measures combined, with seat belts alone credited for saving a total of 329,715 lives.
Seat belt statistics
The proof that seat belts save lives is in the numbers.
- According to the NHSTA, 2,549 additional lives could have been saved in 2017 by using a seat belt.
- From 1975 through 2017, seat belts have saved an estimated 374,196 lives.
- The leading cause of death for Americans aged 1 to 54 is motor vehicle crashes.
- Of the 22,215 passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2019, 47% were not wearing seat belts.
- Among drivers and front-seat passengers, seat belts reduce the risk of death by 45% and cut the risk of serious injury by 50%.
- While Oregon boasts an average of 94% seat belt use in the state, North Dakota has the lowest at just 59%.
- Self-reported seat belt use was highest in the most urban counties (88.8%) and lowest in the most rural counties (74.7%). In 2019, the rate of crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled was about two times as high in rural areas as in urban areas (1.66 in rural areas compared with 0.86 in urban areas).
- Adults age 18-34 are almost 10% less likely to wear a seat belt than adults 35 years or older. Men are 10% less likely to wear seat belts than women.
Americans’ love affair with the roadway is not waning by any means, further strengthening the emphasis on seat belt use as our cars get faster, better, and smarter. Even with all of the technology that the Digital Age has brought us, seat belts continue to be a crucial life-saving measure behind the wheel.
In this article, we will focus on:
Why seat belts are important
Seat belt safety in 2021
The history of seat belts
Risk factors for seat belt use
How common it is to drive without a seat belt
Consequences of driving without a seat belt
Seat belt laws by state
How driving without a seat belt affects car insurance rates
Seat belts save lives
What you can do to improve seat belt usage
Why are seat belts important?
There’s a reason why your parents always nag you to wear your seat belt. A seat belt can not only keep you safe but save your life in an accident. The NHTSA estimates that seat belt use has saved almost 375,000 lives since 1975.
There are several benefits to seat belts:
- Prevents you from being ejected from the vehicle
- Protects you from the life-threatening force of an airbag, which can cause serious injury when you’re not buckled up
- Ensures the continued safety of your passengers
- Reduces your car insurance rates
Since almost half of the fatalities among passenger vehicle occupants in 2019 were not wearing seat belts, it stands to reason that seat belts are vital to keeping everyone safer on the road.
Seat belt statistics in 2021
Despite a substantial increase in people wearing seat belts over the past 20 years, Richmond, Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) offers an interesting insight into how coronavirus has impacted seat belt use and seat belt-related fatalities.
In light of coronavirus, a State of Emergency was declared on March 12, 2020, but despite fewer cars on the road, CTB still reports an increase in speed-related crashes involving a lack of seat belt use. Says Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine, “It is of great concern to see that the number of fatalities involving both speed and unrestrained travelers has increased by 78% during this period compared to 2019.”
The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) also reports a marked increase in speed-related deaths, with 41% of 2019 fatalities attributed to speed and 70% of fatalities unrestrained.
The history of seat belts
Seat belts haven’t been around as long as you may think. As a precursor to modern flight, seat belts were invented in the 19th century by wealthy engineer Sir George Cayley in Yorkshire, England. They were initially used to strap pilots into gliders but later transitioned to passenger vehicles in 1885 by American designer Edward J. Claghorn.
The first patent was granted that year, and it was off to the races in 1922 when the seat belt debuted at the Indy 500. The three-point seat belt came in 1959. Wisconsin became the first state to declare seat belt use into law in 1961 officially, and seven years later, seat belts became nationally mandated for all newly manufactured cars.
The impact that seat belts have had on driver safety is without question. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that seat belts alone are responsible for nearly 375,000 lives saved since record-keeping began in 1975.
Seat belt accident statistics
Estimated Lives Saved by Seat Belts
Passenger Vehicles, 1975-2017
|Year||Current Year||Lives Saved To Date||Additional Lives That Could Have Been Saved with Seat Belt Use|
|1975 – 2008||13,312||241,865||–|
Risk factors for seat belt use
The NHTSA’s Traffic Safety Facts Research Note studies seat belt use over 15 years. It makes some interesting observations on what risk factors affect trends in seat belt use.
Time of Day
One significant risk factor is the time of day. The report found that more people are using their seat belts during the day, accounting for fewer daytime fatalities for passenger vehicle occupants. Commuters and other motorists driving during weekdays were up to almost 91% by 2019, with a reported increase in seat belt use for rush-hour drivers, as well. However, the highest increase in seat belt use comes from motorists who travel on weekdays during non-rush hours.
We all tend to reach for our seat belt when we hit a patch of driving rain or an icy road, but NHTSA finds that seat belt use improves even in clear weather. In 2019, motorists increased seat belt use from 89.3% in 2018 to 90.9% in 2019.
The entire country has shown a pronounced increase in seat belt use, but some places are still better about it than others.
NHTSA found that seat belt use in the West had the most significant jump, increasing from 92.7% to 94.5% in 2019.
Indeed, seat belt use all depends nowhere you live. While Oregon has the highest use, North Dakota struggles to hit 60% usage. It’s an especially deadly mistake when rural areas are more likely to experience fatalities associated with motor vehicle accidents. Rural areas often deal with less residential traffic but a higher animal presence than metropolitan areas. Add in a propensity for speed along long, dark, open roads, and it is a disaster in the making.
Not surprisingly, the report finds that drivers continue to be motivated by the law and the legal consequences of not using your seat belt. Those who live in primary law states with seat belt laws in effect have higher compliance with seat belt use than other states with fewer or no laws at all. In primary law states, the NHTSA found that seat belt use jumped from 90.6% to 92% in just one year from 2018 to 2019.
How common is driving without a seat belt?
Even though seat belt use is up nationwide, there are still plenty of people who fail to use them. According to the NHTSA, even passenger seat belt use has increased, climbing to 90.7% in 2019 compared to 89.6% in 2018.
In 2017 alone, the impact is pronounced.
- Seat belt usage was at 89.6%, an 11% increase from 2014 reports.
- Seat belts saved almost 15,000 lives in the U.S.
- Seat belts could have saved an additional 2,549 lives.
- 47% of passengers who died in motor vehicle crashes were not wearing seat belts.
Overall, seat belt use is up over ten years, but the numbers still waver considerably from year to year.
10-Year Historical Data on Seat Belt Use
|Year||Seat Belt Use|
Consequences of driving without a seat belt
Every year, thousands and thousands of drivers die needlessly from a lack of seat belt use. More than 18,000 people who died in 2017 were not wearing one, and in 2018, U.S. emergency rooms treated over 2.2 million crash-related injuries. Studies also note that teen and young drivers aged 18 to 24 are at the highest risk of non-fatal injuries relating to a crash.
There are many risk factors associated with driving that can’t be helped, such as inclement weather, construction and lane closures. Other vehicles on the road may also present additional risks, such as drunk driving, drowsy driving, and texting and driving. One thing drivers can do to protect themselves is wear seat belts, giving them an automatic advantage when it comes to returning home safely.
The NHTSA definitively says, “Seat belts are the single most effective safety technology in the history of the automobile.” By strapping into your seat belt, you reduce your chances of an accident by fifty percent every time you get in the car.
It’s not just adults, either. Studies show that almost half of all children ages 8 to 12 killed in 2016 car crashes were not using their seat belts at the time of the crash. It is a difference of 262 lives and 262 families that otherwise could have remained whole. That same year, seat belts saved almost 15,000 lives.
Proper use of seat belts
Proper use also remains an ongoing problem. When seat belts aren’t used properly, they are rendered ineffective and can significantly impact your safety within a vehicle. The shoulder belt should never be placed behind your back or under your arm because it will be unable to keep you restrained if there’s significant force.
Car manufacturers are increasingly incorporating cutting-edge safety technologies into their vehicles, but many of these new additions are still reliant upon the use of your seat belt.
A seat belt is designed to keep drivers and passengers restrained in their vehicles, preventing you from being ejected in the event there’s an accident. It’s especially critical because when someone is ejected from the car, it almost always causes fatal injury.
Airbags are another technology that is widely credited for saving lives, but it’s a measure rendered useless or even fatal if you aren’t buckled up.
It’s just further proof to drivers and passengers alike that one of the most effective ways to ensure seat belt use is to enforce it with the help of the law.
Today, 35 states have active primary seat belt laws for all front-seat occupants. Also enforcing these laws are the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Fifteen states hold secondary laws affecting adult front seat occupants. There are also 39 states and Washington, D.C. and two territories that enforce rear seat belt use.
Seat belt laws state by state
These state laws around the country impose various penalties for failing to wear a seat belt.
|State Seat Belt Law||Primary enforcement||Secondary enforcement||Eligible age||Special Stipulations for Children||Fine|
|Alabama||Yes||Rear passengers||15 and older||$25|
|Alaska||Yes||16 and older||$15|
|Arizona||No||Front seat: ages 8 and older
All seats: ages 8 through 15
|Arkansas||Yes||Front seat: 15 and older||$25|
|California||Yes||16 and older||$20|
|Colorado||No||Front seat: 16 and older||$71|
|Connecticut||Yes||Front seat: 8+ years||$50|
|Delaware||Yes||16 and older||$25|
|District of Columbia||Yes||16 and older||$50|
|Florida||Yes||Front seat: 6+ years
All seats: 6 – 17 years
|Georgia||Yes||Front seat: 18+ years
All seats: 8 – 17 years
|Hawaii||Yes||8 and older||$45|
|Idaho||No||7 and older||$10|
|Illinois||Yes||16 and older||$25|
|Indiana||Yes||16 and older||$25|
|Iowa||Yes||18 and older||$25|
|Kansas||Yes||Rear occupants under 18 years||14 and older||$30 – $60|
|Kentucky||Yes||8 and older||Yes||$25|
|Louisiana||Yes||13 and older||$50|
|Maine||Yes||18 and older||$50|
|Maryland||Yes||Rear occupants||16 and older||$50|
|Massachusetts||No||13 and older||$25|
|Michigan||Yes||Front seat: 16 and older||$25|
|Minnesota||Yes||8 and older||Yes||$25|
|Missouri||No||Ages 16 and under||16 and older||$10|
|Montana||No||6 and older||$20|
|Nebraska||No||18 and older||$25|
|Nevada||No||6 and older||$25|
|New Hampshire||No Law||N/A||N/A|
|New Jersey||Yes||Rear occupants||8 and older||Yes||$20|
|New Mexico||Yes||18 and older||$25|
|New York||Yes||16 and older||$50|
|North Carolina||Yes||Rear occupants||16 and older||$25|
|North Dakota||No||Front seat: 18 and older||20|
|Ohio||No||Front seat: 15 and older
All seats: ages 8 through 14
|$30 driver, $20 passenger|
|Oklahoma||Yes||Front seat: 9 and older||$20|
|Oregon||Yes||6 and older||$115|
|Pennsylvania||No||Ages 18 and under||Front seat: 18 and older||$10|
|Rhode Island||Yes||18 and older||$40|
|South Carolina||Yes||8 and older||$25|
|South Dakota||No||Front seat: 18 and older||$20|
|Tennessee||Yes||Front seat: 16 and older||$30|
|Texas||Yes||8 and older||Yes||$200|
|Utah||Yes||16 and older||$45|
|Vermont||No||18 and older||$25|
|Virginia||No||Front seat: 18 and older||$25|
|Washington||Yes||16 and older||$124|
|West Virginia||Yes||Front seat: 8 and older
All seats: 8 through 17 years
|Wisconsin||Yes||8 and older||$10|
|Wyoming||No||9 and older||$25 driver, $10 passenger|
How driving without a seat belt impacts car insurance rates
Seat belts have a critical life-saving effect on your health, but they have a pronounced impact on your car insurance rates, too.
With more and more states adopting seat belt legislation, penalties are becoming common, and they can affect your driving record, automatically notifying your insurers of your infraction.
Many states consider a seat belt infraction a moving violation. While non-moving violations usually have no impact on your car insurance, a moving violation can cause your premiums to increase. It typically increases your premium by around ten percent, but it varies based on your car insurance company. Increases are significantly less than those associated with more severe violations, such as reckless speeding or drunk driving, and your seat belt violation could even be forgiven if you have a history of being a safe and responsible driver.
Before you sign up for a new car insurance policy, check with your agent to see what kind of policy exists surrounding minor violations. Similar to accident forgiveness, there may be some sort of minor violation forgiveness that could benefit you in this scenario.
Of course, your best bet is to always buckle up in the car, but it never hurts to be well-informed.
Seat belts save lives
No matter how you cut it, seat belts are a critical life-saving tool that makes all the difference in keeping you safe on the road. In just the 12 months of 2017, seat belts could have saved more than 2,500 lives.
Things are looking up, however. The national seat belt use has climbed to nearly 91% by 2019, and new reports are expected to bring positive results. The best prevention of fatal crash crashes is the continued use of seat belts at all times in the car.
Car crashes can happen anywhere and at any time. While responsible driving and low speeds help, the truth is that you are still susceptible to other drivers on the road and other conditions that are not always within your control. The NHTSA says, “Most fatal crashes happen within 25 miles from home and at speeds of less than 40 miles per hour.”
Using your seat belt is one way to make sure you arrive at your destination safely.
What you can do to improve seat belt usage
In addition to using your seat belt, there are some things you can do to promote the widespread use of seat belts.
- Encourage teens. NHTSA shows that children increasingly avoid using their seat belts as they grow older. As an adult, look for ways to reinforce seat belt use so your children are more likely to adopt these lasting habits as they grow and move behind the wheel themselves. One of the most impactful things you can do as a parent is lead by example.
- Require anyone riding with you to wear their seat belt. Your car, your rules. Ensure everyone’s safety by always requiring all your passengers to buckle up when you are behind the wheel. If you’re not the driver, you can still encourage all passengers and the driver to wear their seat belt, too.
- Find the right fit. Not all seat belts will fit everyone comfortably. You’re less likely to use your seat belt when it isn’t comfortable, so take a proactive approach. Be sure to check the fit of the seat belts before purchasing a new car, and purchase a seat belt adjuster or an extender if you need a more custom fit.
- Adjust for pregnancy. When you are pregnant, it’s that much more critical for you to wear a seat belt so you can protect not just yourself but your baby, too. Women should still wear a seat belt when they are pregnant, but you can talk to your doctor regarding the most comfortable fit for you.
- Advocate for better legislation. Studies show that states with primary laws experience higher seat belt use rates, achieving rates as high as 92%. By comparison, states without legislation achieve just 83% compliance. It makes a case for expanded and continued legislation across all 50 states and U.S. territories.