Primary Enforcement Seat Belt Laws

There were 36,096 motor vehicle crash fatalities on U.S. roads in 2019.  Among passenger vehicle occupant fatalities that year, almost half, (47 percent) were unrestrained when restraint use was known.  For passengers that survived fatal crashes in 2019, just 14 percent were unrestrained.  Seat belt use, reinforced by effective safety belt laws, is a proven lifesaver.

All states except one have seat belt use laws, but only 34 states (AL, AK, AR, CA, CT, DE, FL, GA, HI, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MI, MN, MS, NJ, NM, NY, NC, OK, OR, RI, SC, TN, TX, UT, WA, WV and WI) and the District of Columbia have primary enforcement of their belt laws, and 30 states (AL, AZ, AR, CO, CT, FL, GA, ID, IA, KS, MD, MA, MI, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NC, ND, OH, OK, PA, SD, TN, VT, VA, WV, WY) do not have primary enforcement laws for rear seat belts.  In states with primary enforcement, law officers may ticket a non-belt user when they see a violation of the seat belt law. With secondary enforcement laws, officers may issue a citation only after stopping the vehicle for another traffic infraction.

Primary enforcement laws are much more effective in increasing the use of seat belts.  Seat belt use is higher in states with primary enforcement laws compared to those with secondary enforcement laws or without seat belt laws.  Experience in a number of States indicates that usage rates rise from 10-15 percentage points when primary laws are passed.  Primary enforcement is important not only for raising adult safety belt use, but also for increasing the number of children who are protected by occupant restraints.  In 2015, children under the age of eight, being driven by a belted driver had a higher belt use rate (92 percent) than children being driven by an unbelted driver (70 percent).

Seat Belt Facts

  • Lap-shoulder belts, when used, reduce the risk of fatal injury to front seat car occupants by 45 percent and the risk of moderate-to-critical injuries by 50%. For light truck occupants, seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent and moderate-to-critical injury by 65 percent.
  • Nationwide seat belts saved an estimated 13,941 lives age five and older in 2013. An additional 2,804 lives could have been saved if all passenger vehicle occupants had worn seat belts.
  • The NHTSA recently estimated that needless deaths and injuries that result from non-use of seat belts cost society more than $10 billion annually in medical care, lost productivity and other injury related costs.
  • Since 1975, over $1 trillion in economic costs have been saved due to seat belt use.
  • In 2015, there were 171 passenger vehicle occupant fatalities among children age one to three and of those, where restraint use was known, 28 percent were totally unrestrained.
  • The average inpatient costs for crash victims who don’t use seat belts are 55 percent higher than for those who use them.
  • Regarding personal choice and individual rights in relation to highway safety laws, the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts held in a decision affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court that , “…from the moment of injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job; and, if the injury causes disability, may assume the responsibility for his and his family’s continued subsistence.”

Primary Enforcement Law Facts

  • States that have passed a primary enforcement law have seen dramatic increases in belt use rates. In 2015, states with primary enforcement seat belt laws had a use rate of 92 percent, while states with secondary enforcement laws or without seat belt laws had a seat belt use rate of 83 percent.
  • It is critical that states pass primary enforcement seat belt laws covering all seating positions, including the rear seat. In 2015, among front-seat passengers where restraint use was known, 47 percent were unrestrained, compared to 56 percent known unrestrained in the back-seat.
  • If every state with a secondary seat belt law upgraded to primary enforcement, about 1,000 lives and $4 billion (2005 US$) in crash costs could be saved every year.
  • Minnesota changed its seat belt law to primary enforcement in 2009 and the state’s Department of Public Safety found that the upgrade resulted in higher seat belt use and fewer unbelted deaths. The state saw its seatbelt usage rate jump to nearly 93 percent from 87 percent and a drop in unbelted deaths from 150 fatalities in 2008 to 120 deaths in 2011.
  • In 2009, Wisconsin upgraded its seat belt law to primary enforcement and the state’s Department of Transportation determined that Wisconsin’s seat belt use rate increased to nearly 80 percent in 2011, an upgrade of eight percent. As of 2015, the belt use rate has increased to 88.4 percent.

For a full list of citations, please download our Primary Enforcement Seat Belt Law Fact Sheet.