July 2014

Safety belt laws

There are mandatory safety belt laws in all states except New Hampshire. In some states, these laws cover front-seat occupants only, but belt laws in 28 states and the District of Columbia cover all rear-seat occupants, too.

Belt use laws in only 33 states and the District of Columbia are primary, meaning police may stop vehicles solely for belt law violations. In other jurisdictions, police must have some other reason to stop a vehicle before citing an occupant for failing to buckle up.

Safety belt use can have implications in civil suits — 16 states allow the "safety belt defense," which can reduce damages collected by someone in a crash if the person failed to buckle up. The reduction is permitted only for injuries that would have been prevented by a belt. In some states, the reduction may not exceed a fixed percentage of the damages.

Child seat laws

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have child seat laws. Child seat laws require children to travel in approved child restraint devices or booster seats and some permit or require older children to use adult safety belts. The age at which belts can be used instead of child restraints differs among the states. Young children usually are covered by child seat laws, while safety belt laws cover older children and adults.

Because enforcement and fines differ under belt use and child seat laws, it's important to know which law is being violated when a child isn't restrained. Most child seat laws are primary, meaning police may stop vehicles solely for child seat violations. Nebraska and Ohio leave some children under a secondary enforcement law, meaning that police must have an additional reason to make a stop. Nebraska's law is secondary only for those children who may be in safety belts and primary for those who must be in a child seats. Ohio's law is secondary for children ages 4 through 14 years.

Ideally, all infants and children in all vehicles should be covered by enforceable safety belt laws or child seat laws or both. But differences in the way the laws in various states are worded result in many occupants, especially children, being covered by neither law. Lawmakers have eliminated most of these gaps by amending their child seat and safety belt laws; still, 15-year-olds riding in the rear seat in Arkansas, Alabama and Ohio, children age 7 and older riding in the rear seat in Mississippi, and children age 13 through 15 riding in the rear seat in Oklahoma are covered by neither law. All children younger than 16 in the other 45 states and the District of Columbia are covered by one, or both laws.

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1Police are prohibited in South Carolina from enforcing safety belt laws at checkpoints designed for that purpose. However, safety belt violations may be issued at license and registration checkpoints to drivers cited for other offenses.