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Published: March 28, 2022Last updated: October 19, 2022

Seat Belt Statistics in the U.S., 2022

While 90 percent of people wear seat belts, they could have saved nearly 5,000 more lives.

It’s clear that seat belts save lives, and fortunately, most people in the U.S. comply with mandatory seat belt laws. However, there are certain situations in which people are more or less likely to wear seat belts, and seat belts aren’t present on school buses in some places. In this report, we examine the most recent national and state statistics on seat belt use in the U.S. Here are our key findings:

  • Across the U.S. in 2021, 9 in 10 people wore seat belts, an 8 percent increase from 2007.
  • In 2019, 79 percent of car accident survivors were restrained (wearing seat belts), and only 21 percent were unrestrained.
  • For front-seat passengers in car crashes, seat belts reduce the risk of traffic fatalities by 45 percent. In other words, if they had all worn their seat belts in 2019, about 4,260 more people could have survived crashes.

Seat Belt Laws by State

Because the U.S. has no federal law on seat belt use, each state is responsible for deciding who must wear a seat belt based on their ages and seats. Each state legislature also decides if enforcement of these laws is primary, meaning that police can stop someone for violating seat belt law alone, or secondary, meaning that it has to be accompanied by another offense for police to stop the car.

State Covered ages Covered seats Enforcement type Maximum fine for first offense Date the law went into effect
Alabama 15+ Front Primary (secondary for rear seats) $25 July 18, 1991
Alaska 16+ All Primary $15 Sept. 12, 1990
Arizona 5+ All: Ages 5-15

Front: Ages 8+

Secondary $10 Jan. 1, 1991
Arkansas 15+ Front Primary $25 July 15, 1991
California 16+ All Primary $20 Jan. 1, 1986
Colorado 16+ Front Secondary (primary for under 18) $71 July 1, 1987
Connecticut 8+ Front Primary $15 Jan. 1, 1986
Delaware 16+ All Primary $50 Dec. 12, 1985
District of Columbia 16+ All Primary $25 Jan. 1, 1992
Florida 6+ All: Ages 6-17
Front: Ages 6+
Primary $30 July 1, 1986
Georgia 8+ All: Ages 8-17
Front: Ages 18+
Primary $15 Sept. 1, 1988
Hawaii 8+ All Primary $45 Dec. 16, 1985
Idaho 7+ All Secondary (primary for drivers under 18) $10 July 1, 1986
Illinois 16+ All Primary $25 Jan. 1, 1988
Indiana 16+ All Primary $25 July 1, 1987
Iowa All Front Primary $25 July 1, 1986
Kansas 14+ All: Ages 14-17

Front: Ages 18+

Primary (secondary for ages 18+ in rear seats) Ages 14-17: $60, no court costs
Ages 18+: $10, no court costs
July 1, 1986
Kentucky 7+ (also 6 and under if over 50 inches tall) All Primary $25 July 15, 1994
Louisiana 13+ All Primary $25; $45 in Orleans Parish July 1, 1986
Maine 18+ All Primary $50 Dec. 26, 1995
Maryland All All: Under age 16

Front: Ages 16+

Primary (secondary for ages 16+ in rear seats) $25 July 1, 1986
Massachusetts 13+ All Secondary $25 Feb. 1, 1994
Michigan 16+ Front Primary $25 July 1, 1985
Minnesota 8+ (also 7 and under if over 57 inches tall) All Primary $25 Aug. 1, 1986
Mississippi 7+ All Primary $25 July 1, 1994
Missouri 8+ All: Ages 8-15

Front: Ages 16+

Secondary (primary for ages 8-15) $10 Sept. 28, 1985
Montana 6+ All Secondary $20 Oct. 1, 1987
Nebraska 18+ Front Secondary $25 Jan. 1, 1993
Nevada 6+ All Secondary $25 July 1, 1987
New Jersey 8+ (also 7 and under if weighing over 80 pounds) All Primary (secondary for rear seats) No law N/A
New Hampshire Under 18 All Primary $20 March 1, 1985
New Mexico 18+ All Primary $25 Jan. 1, 1986
New York All All Primary $50 Dec. 1, 1984
North Carolina 16+ All Primary (secondary for rear seats) $25 Oct. 1, 1985
North Dakota 18+ Front Secondary $20 July 14, 1994
Ohio 8+ All: Ages 8-14
Front: Ages 15+
Secondary (primary for ages 8-14) $30 for driver; $20 for passenger May 6, 1986
Oklahoma 13+ Front Primary $20 Feb. 1, 1987
Oregon All All Primary $110 Dec. 7, 1990
Pennsylvania 8+ All: Ages 8-17
Front: Ages 18+
Secondary (primary for ages 8-17) $10 Nov. 23, 1987
Rhode Island 8+ All Primary $40 June 18, 1991
South Carolina 8+ All Primary $25 July 1, 1989
South Dakota 18+ Front Secondary $20 Jan. 1, 1995
Tennessee 16+ Front Primary $50 April 21, 1986
Texas 8+ (also 7 and under if over 57 inches tall) All Primary $200 Sept. 1, 1985
Utah 16+ All Primary $45 April 28, 1986
Vermont All All Secondary (primary for ages under 18) $25 Jan. 1, 1994
Virginia All All Secondary (primary for ages under 18) $25 Jan. 1, 1988
Washington 16+ (and younger if over 4’9”) All Primary $124 June 11, 1986
West Virginia 8+ All: Ages 8-17
Front: Ages 8+
Primary $25 Sept. 1, 1993
Wisconsin 8+ All Primary $10 Dec. 1, 1987
Wyoming 9+ All Secondary $25 for driver; $10 for passenger1 June 8, 19892

The state with the most strict seat belt laws is Oregon. All passengers must wear seat belts, regardless of their age or seat. The law is under primary enforcement, and the fine is up to $110 for the first offense.

The states with the most lenient seat belt laws are North Dakota and South Dakota. In these states, only those 18 and older in the front seat must wear seat belts. The law is under secondary enforcement, and the maximum fine for the first offense is just $20.

Do Seat Belts Save Lives?

States mandate seat belt use for a great reason: They save lives. From 1975 to 2017, seat belts saved 132,411 lives, an average of 13,241 a year.

Year Estimated number of lives saved by seat belts in passenger vehicles
1975-2008 13,312
2009 12,757
2010 12,670
2011 12,071
2012 12,386
2013 12,644
2014 12,801
2015 14,062
2016 14,753
2017 14,955

In 2019 specifically, of the people who survived passenger vehicle crashes, 79 percent were wearing seat belts; only 21 percent were not. In other words, 8 in 10 survivors of car crashes were wearing seat belts.

For front-seat passengers, seat belts make traffic fatalities 45 percent less likely, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation data. While 9,572 unrestrained people died in traffic accidents in 2019, 4,307 of them could have lived if they were belted in, according to the IIHS.3

Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Safety Council showed that, of the 22,215 people across all seats who died in traffic accidents in 2019, 9,466 (43 percent) were unrestrained. Seat belts could have saved 4,260 lives in that year alone.45

Aside from preventing deaths, seat belts also prevent moderate to critical injuries for front-seat passengers, making them 50 percent less likely. In 2020, over 1.7 million passengers had nonfatal injuries in car accidents, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means over 853,000 people could have prevented their injuries if they had just worn their seat belts during the crashes.

How Often Do People Wear Seat Belts?

Fortunately, 9 out of 10 people in the U.S. wore seat belts in 2021. This is a slight decrease from its peak of 91 percent in 2019, according to the NHTSA.

Year Adults in front passenger seats who wore seat belts Year-over-year difference
2007 83% N/A
2008 83% 0%
2009 84% 1%
2010 85% 1%
2011 84% -1%
2012 86% 2%
2013 87% 1%
2014 87% 0%
2015 89% 2%
2016 90% 1%
2017 90% 0%
2018 90% 0%
2019 91% 1%
2020 90% -1%
2021 90% 0%

Certain factors affect the frequency of seat belt use. For example, in 2021:

  • People in light traffic were 13 percent more likely to wear seat belts than people in heavy traffic.
  • People in pickup trucks were 8 percent less likely to wear seat belts than people in vans and SUVs, and 6 percent less likely than people in passenger cars.
  • People in the Northeast and Midwest were 6 percent less likely to wear seat belts than those in the West.
Demographic/circumstance How often they wore seat belts in 2021 (high to low)
Drivers in the West 95%
Driving on expressways 94%
Driving in fast traffic 93%
Driving in vans and SUVs 92%
Driving in heavy traffic 92%
Driving on weekends 91%
In states with primary seat belt laws 91%
Driving in passenger cars 91%
Driving in weather conditions with unclear visibility 91%
Drivers in urban areas 91%
Driving in weather conditions with clear visibility 90%
Drivers in the South 90%
Drivers in rural areas 90%
Driving during weekday rush hour 90%
Driving on weekdays 90%
Driving during weekday non-rush hours 90%
Right-front passengers 89%
Driving in moderate traffic 89%
Drivers in the Northeast 89%
Drivers in the Midwest 89%
Driving in medium traffic 88%
In states with secondary seat belt laws or no enforcement laws 88%
Driving on surface streets 88%
Driving in slow traffic 86%
Driving in pickup trucks 85%
Driving in light traffic 82%

All in all, the person most likely to wear a seat belt is a driver in the West who’s driving in fast traffic on expressways in a van or SUV. At the other end, a person driving in light traffic in a pickup truck on surface streets in the Midwest is least likely to buckle up.

When Were Seat Belts Invented?

British engineer George Cayley invented seat belts in the mid-19th century to use on his monoplane glider. Seat belts originally went across the lap only in a three-point model, and they didn’t become standard in vehicles until 1958 in Sweden. A decade later, American engineers followed suit.6

How Are Seat Belts Tested?

Scientists test seat belts by measuring their effectiveness at absorbing the kinetic energy around a crash test dummy’s torso, hips, and rib cage. The purpose of the seat belt is to redirect the kinetic energy away from the passenger.

By crashing cars into walls head-on, scientists can see how seat belts perform in real crashes. With a car going from 31 to 0 mph, scientists measure how much the dummy was displaced to determine if the seat belt succeeded or not.7

Why Aren’t There Seat Belts on Buses?

Depending on your state and locality, you may not have had seat belts on your school bus. If seat belts are so effective at preventing traffic fatalities and injuries, why aren’t they protecting children on school buses across the U.S.?

First, it’s important to understand that school buses are safer than regular passenger vehicles; in fact, they’re the safest way to get to school in the U.S., according to the NHTSA. While 78 percent of traffic fatalities of school-age children from 2003 to 2014 involved passenger-vehicle occupants, only 1 percent involved children in large school buses — a difference of 99 percent, in other words.

Mode of transportation Number of fatalities Percentage of total fatalities of school-age children in the U.S. during school transportation time in 2003-2014 (high to low)
Occupants of a passenger vehicle 453 78%
Pedestrians (other) 61 10%
Occupants of other vehicles 35 6%
Bicyclists 19 3%
Pedestrians near/around loading and unloading zone of school bus 12 2%
Occupants of a large school bus 3 1%

School buses are so safe largely because have more federal standards than any other vehicle type, including these criteria:

  • Compartmentalization (closely spaced seats with energy-absorbing backs)8
  • Elevated passenger deck
  • Flashing overhead lights
  • Greater weight
  • Low speed
  • Stop arm
  • Well-trained drivers
  • Standout color (usually yellow)

That being said, the NHTSA acknowledges that seat belts on school buses would better protect children. In fact, a federal mandate would save two lives a year (given the number of buses didn’t decrease).

However, installing seat belts on all school buses in the U.S. would increase their purchase and operating costs. Consequently, fewer buses would be available, leading students to take other, less safe modes of transportation to school. As a result, 10 to 19 children would die commuting to school, which is at least five times more than the lives seat belts would save. In other words, a federal mandate on seat belts in school buses is a net negative under current school transportation budgets.

That being said, some states already require school buses to have seat belts:

Additionally, local jurisdictions in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas have the power to approve or deny the use of seat belts.9

Recap

In a perfect world, everyone would wear seat belts in passenger cars, regardless of the state or local law. However, with an 8 percent increase in seat belt use from 2007 to 2021, the overall trend is positive. Hopefully, the trend will continue upward, saving more lives and preventing more injuries than ever before.

To learn more, read our car insurance research on the dangers of distracted driving, auto theft, and hit-and-runs. While some incidents aren’t preventable, seat belts are one easy way to greatly increase your overall safety while driving.

Methodology

To compile this report, we analyzed data from these government organizations and other third-party sources:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Global Health Now (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health)
  • Governors Highway Safety Association
  • GWR Safety Systems
  • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
  • National Conference of State Legislatures
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
  • National Safety Council
  • Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles

Citations

  1. Seat Belts. Governors Highway Safety Association. (2022).
    https://www.ghsa.org/state-laws/issues/seat%20belts

  2. Primary Enforcement of Seat Belt Laws. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022).
    https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/calculator/factsheet/seatbelt.html

  3. Fatality Facts 2019. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). (2021, May).
    https://www.iihs.org/topics/fatality-statistics/detail/state-by-state#restraint-use

  4. Traffic Safety Facts. National Highway Traffic Safety Administation. (2021, Nov).
    https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/813209

  5. Seat Belts. National Safety Council. (2021).
    https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/occupant-protection/seat-belts/

  6. Seat Belt. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (2022).
    https://globalhealthnow.org/object/seat-belt

  7. Crash Testing. GWR. (2022).
    https://gwrco.com/latest_news/seat-belt-crash-testing-can-still-learn-lot-dummy/

  8. Why do school buses not require seat belts? Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles. (2022).
    https://dmv.vermont.gov/faq/why-do-school-buses-not-require-seat-belts

  9. Should School Buses Have Seat Belts? National Conference of State Legislatures. (2022, Jan 1).
    https://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/should-school-buses-have-seat-belts.aspx