April 2019

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 29 states and the District of Columbia cover all rear-seat occupants, too.

Belt use laws in only 34 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 safety seat laws

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have child safety seat laws. Child safety seat laws require children to travel in approved child restraints 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 safety seats differs among the states. Young children usually are covered by child safety seat laws, while safety belt laws cover older children and adults.

Because enforcement and fines differ under belt use and child safety seat laws, it's important to know which law is being violated when a child isn't restrained. Most child seat safety laws are primary, meaning police may stop vehicles solely for child safety 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 safety seat. 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 safety 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 safety seat and safety belt laws; still, 15-year-olds riding in the rear seat in Arkansas, Alabama and Ohio, and children age 9 or older who are not taller than 4 feet 9 inches riding in the rear seat in Oklahoma are covered by neither law. All children younger than 16 in the other 46 states and the District of Columbia are covered by one, or both laws.

In April 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement recommending that children ride in rear-facing child safety seats until at least age 2. Previously, the recommendation was rear-facing until at least age 1 and 20 pounds. Since the AAP's change, 12 states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon and Virginia) and the District of Columbia have updated their child restraint laws accordingly. In August 2018, the AAP further modified its policy statement to eliminate any reference to a numerical age. The current recommendation is for children to ride rear-facing until they reach the rear-facing weight or height limit of their seats.

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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.

2Until 7/1/2018, citations will be issued only if the person has been previously issued a warning that the operation of or being a passenger in a vehicle without wearing a properly adjusted and fastened safety belt is prohibited.