About 85 percent of American vehicle occupants wear seat belts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). That percentage has come a long way from 58 percent in 1994. In addition to highly publicized safety campaigns, stricter laws have done much to encourage seat belt use.
Types of seat belt laws
When it comes to seat belt laws, there are two main types -- "primary" and "secondary."
Primary seat belt laws allow officers to pull over cars if they spot drivers (or passengers, depending on the state's law) not wearing seat belts. In other words, not wearing a seat belt is the primary reason for being pulled over. Under secondary seat belt laws, officers can issue seat belt citations only if the car was pulled over for another violation. In other words, the seat belt citation is secondary to the real reason for the pull-over.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 32 states have primary laws, while 17 have secondary laws. New Hampshire has neither, when it comes to adults -- but it does require all drivers and passengers under 18 to buckle up.
States laws vary widely, however, when it comes to who must wear seat belts -- and the punishments for not wearing them. In June 2011, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law requiring all passengers in all cars regardless of age to buckle up. Compared with other states' laws, that's pretty strict.
Some states like Texas and New York require drivers under a certain age to wear seat belts. Others, such as Michigan and California, require drivers over a certain age to wear them. Some states require those riding in all seats to buckle up, while others require it only of those in front. Sometimes, the rules are different for drivers than they are for passengers. Fines range from $25 to more than $100.
Why buckle up?
Opponents of seat belt laws argue that they diminish freedom, while costing money to enact and enforce. The Foundation for Economic Education (a nonprofit organization that promotes free-market principles) argues that wearing a seat belt actually can be more dangerous in some types of accidents and maintains that there's no conclusive evidence that seat belts reduce the number of injuries.
NHTSA, meanwhile, claims that seat belts saved about 72,000 lives between 2005 and 2009. Moreover, according to its research, a steady increase in seat belt use since 1994 has been accompanied by a decrease in deaths among unrestrained occupants of vehicles. NHTSA now is setting its sights on groups that still have low rates of seat belt use. Its "Buckle Up In Your Truck" campaign, for example, targets pickup truck drivers, a group whose seat belt use rate hovered at 74 percent in 2008 (compared with 83 percent for all vehicles nationally).
In addition to saving lives, supporters claim seat belt laws save money as well. Fewer serious injuries mean less pressure on the health care system -- and fewer auto insurance claims.