Teens, as both passengers and drivers, have the lowest rate of seat belt use of any age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the consequences are deadly. In 2020, 1,885 young drivers (ages 15-20) died in traffic crashes, a 17% increase from 1,616 in 2019; More than half (52%) were not wearing a seat belt.
New York was the first state to enact seat belt laws in 1984, and many states soon followed. By 1996, every state, with the exception of New Hampshire, had mandatory seat belt laws covering drivers and front-seat occupants.
Seat belt laws vary by state, including their severity. Primary enforcement seat belt laws allow law enforcement officials to stop a vehicle and issue a citation strictly for not wearing a seat belt. Secondary seat belt laws allow law enforcement officials to only issue a citation if the vehicle is stopped for another violation.
According to research conducted at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) on seat belt laws, teens who live in states with primary seat belt laws are 12% more likely to buckle up as drivers and 15% more likely to buckle up as passengers than teens from states with secondary seat belt laws. The study also found that specific groups of teens, including rural residents, African-Americans, those with low grades or attending lower-socioeconomic school districts, and drivers of pickup trucks, reported the lowest use of seat belts. However, seat belt use among these groups was higher in states with primary enforcement seat belt laws.
The research also illustrates the long-term effectiveness of primary enforcement seat belt laws. Although teens in the adult-supervised learner's permit phase of Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) report similar seat belt use regardless of the strength of their state's seat belt laws, they tend to buckle up less in states with secondary enforcement seat belt laws as they move through the next stages of GDL.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed a rule that would require enhanced seat belt warnings for rear and front driver and passenger side seats. This proposed rule seeks to establish industry-wide consistency to improve seat belt use and save lives. NHTSA estimates that the proposed requirements would prevent approximately 300 non-fatal injuries and over 100 fatalities annually.
Primary Seat Belt Laws For GDL
For the sake of youth safety, states with significant resistance to enacting primary seat belt laws should consider adding a primary enforcement seat belt use provision to their GDL program. This provision should include all occupants in a vehicle driven by a teen through the probationary license phase. For the most up-to-date information on seat belt laws by state, visit the GHSA website.
Other strategies besides seat belt laws to increase seat belt use include:
- Making seat belt laws apply to everyone in the car, not just those in the front seat.
- Making fines for not wearing a seat belt high enough to be effective.
- Supporting seat belt laws with visible police presence and awareness campaigns for the public.
- Educating the public to make seat belt use a social norm.
New Hampshire has enacted neither a primary nor a secondary seat belt law for adults in any seat, although the state does have a primary child passenger safety law that covers all drivers and passengers under age 18.
- In 2020, 1,885 young drivers (ages 15-20) died in traffic crashes, a 17% increase from 1,616 in 2019; More than half (52%) were not wearing a seat belt.
- Ten states do not have laws enforcing rear seat belt use.