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seat belt safety and state laws

It's no secret that buckling up saves lives, which is why almost all states (every one but you, New Hampshire) require seat belt use. Here we'll explain seat belt laws and why it's always a good idea to buckle up before driving.

Seat belt safety

seat belt

Physics is on the side of seat belts. Newton once said that an object in motion will stay in motion — at the same speed and in the same direction — unless an unbalanced force stops its trajectory. This applies to car accidents.

In an accident, the car you're in will stop after a collision. You, however, will keep moving until a windshield, dashboard, or some other object stops you. But if you're wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident, the safety harness will act as the "unbalanced force," ideally keeping you safely in your seat and out of harm's way.

Just how safe can a seat belt keep you? According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the seat belt is the number-one safety device in terms of saving lives (PDF). And according to the National Safety Council, seat belts can reduce the risk of accident-related injuries by 50 percent.

Like most parents, state legislatures are convinced seat belts work. Let's see what they're doing to convince the unbelted.

Seat belt adoption and state seat belt laws

In 1981, seat belt use languished at 11 percent. That means nearly 9 out of every 10 drivers and passengers passed on using what we now know is the first line of defense in a car accident. To promote seat belt usage, most states passed laws requiring their use. Today, 49 states and the District of Columbia have seat belt laws for drivers and/or passengers. Thanks to measures like these and ongoing Click It or Ticket campaigns, the national average for seat belt usage is around 86 percent.

Primary vs. secondary seat belt laws

Unfortunately, not all seat belt laws are equal. Thirty-two states have primary laws, meaning that unbelted drivers can be pulled over just for violating the seat belt law (i.e., no other reason is required). The other 17 states have secondary laws, meaning drivers can't be pulled over for a seat belt violation unless they're committing another traffic offense. The only state that has neither primary nor secondary seat belt laws for adults is New Hampshire.

What does the difference in enforcement mean for seat belt use? According to the National Safety Council, states with primary enforcement laws have a 13 percent better seat belt adoption rate than states with secondary enforcement.

Seat belt fines and penalties

Fines for driving without a seat belt are comparatively small. In some states it's as little as $10 for a first offense, though other states take the violation more seriously. In Texas, for example, fines can be as high as $200 for a first offense.

To find out how much your state can charge for a first offense, take a look at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's chart.

Seat belt use for kids and young adults

Most experts agree that kids 12 and under should generally sit in the back. Whether to use a seat belt or a car seat depends on a handful of factors, including your child's height and weight. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has some good
advice on determining which car seat's right for your child.

It's well worth the effort to make sure you get it right: according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, child safety seats reduce the risk of death in car crashes by 71 percent for infants and 54 percent for toddlers 1 to 4 years of age.

Young drivers are, unsurprisingly, the group least likely to buckle up. According to the NHTSA, 56 percent of 16- to 20-year-olds in fatal crashes during 2009 weren't wearing seat belts.

Don't forget Fido

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This is a point that's often overlooked, but it bears mentioning. Unrestrained pets (like unrestrained humans) are at the mercy of momentum during a hard stop or accident. Being jostled around like this can be an alarming experience for your pet (not to mention a big distraction for you). What's worse, it could lead to serious injury for your beloved pet. So if you often include your dog or cat on your travels, consider buying a special safety belt.

Buckling up helps keep you safe

Seat belts may have changed over the years but one thing hasn't: buckling up is a simple but essential safety habit. The proper use of passenger and driver restraints increases the likelihood that you and your loved ones will avoid serious injury during an accident.

Related links

The hotly contested history of the seat belt
The Esurance blog explores the invention of the seat belt and how seat belt use has changed through the years.

Laws on child safety seats
The Governor's Highway Safety Association provides a state-by-state listing of child passenger safety laws.

Car seat inspections
Use this website from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to find the nearest inspection center.