September 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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1In California, children weighing more than 40 pounds may be belted without a booster seat if they are seated in the rear seat of a vehicle with only lap belts. The California rear seat requirement does not apply if there is no rear seat; the rear seats are side-facing jump seats; the rear seats are rear-facing seats; the child passenger restraint system cannot be installed properly in the rear seat; all rear seats are already occupied by children under 12; or medical reasons necessitate that the child not ride in the rear seat. A child may not ride in the front seat of a motor vehicle with an active passenger airbag if the child is riding in a rear-facing child restraint system.

2The fine in Connecticut is $15 if the child is 4-16 years old and weighs 40 pounds or more. Connecticut also requires a mandatory child restraint education program for first or second violation.

3In Delaware, children younger than 12 and 65 inches or less must be restrained in a rear seat if a vehicle has a passenger airbag unless the airbag has been either deactivated or designed to accommodate smaller people. Exceptions: no rear seat or rear seat occupied by other children younger than 12 and 65 inches or less.

4In Florida, the child restraint device requirement does not apply to children age 4 through 5, when a safety belt is used and the child is either being transported by an operator who is not a member of the child's immediate family, in an emergency or has a documented medical condition that necessitates an exception.

5In Georgia, children weighing more than 40 pounds are permitted to be restrained in the back seat of a vehicle by a lap belt if the vehicle is not equipped with lap and shoulder belts or when the lap and shoulder belts are being used by other children who weigh more than 40 pounds.

6In Indiana, children weighing more than 40 pounds are permitted to be restrained by a lap belt if the vehicle is not equipped with lap and shoulder belts or if all lap and shoulder belts other than those in the front seat are being used to restrain other children younger than 16.

7Nebraska's law is secondary for those children who may be in safety belts and standard for those who must be in a child restraint device.

8In Ohio, the law is secondary for children 4 — 14.

9In Oklahoma, children weighing more than 40 pounds may be belted without a booster seat if they are seated in the rear seat of a vehicle with only lap belts or when the lap and shoulder belts are being used by other children who weigh more than 40 pounds.

10In Virginia, children 4 — 7 years may use an adult belt only if any licensed physician determines that use of a child seat would be impractical because of the child's weight, physical fitness, or other medical reason. The person transporting the must carry the doctor's signed statement.