How many lives are saved by seat belts each year? 2024

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a man wearing seat belt inside a car

The seat belt is one of the most effective and widely implemented vehicle safety mechanisms in use today. It saves an estimated 15,000 lives in the U.S. annually. However, despite statistics confirming its clear benefits, seat belt use remains surprisingly uneven across the country.

The essential protective capacity offered by seat belts can be maximized through further public education, stricter legislation and continued cultural normalization. No other existing safety feature carries more potential to mitigate motor vehicle fatalities and trauma during inevitable accidents on our roads.

Key insights

Seat belt use in the U.S. has increased significantly over time, rising from about 75% in 2002 to nearly 92% in 2023.

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There is a clear correlation between state laws enforcing the use of seat belts and states’ seat belt use rates.

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Vehicle occupants in Oregon, Hawaii and California consistently rank among the most likely in the nation to use their seat belts. Vehicle occupants in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Mississippi are among the least likely to buckle up.

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Younger motorists are less likely to use seat belts than their elders, with the lowest use rates among those aged 18 to 24.

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Around 50% of those killed in car crashes are unbelted.

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General seat belt statistics

The seat belt has transformed over the past century from a niche concept into a vital and ubiquitous component of vehicle safety. It’s now a standardized feature that sees widespread adoption in the U.S. due to regulations and recognition of seat belts' proven lifesaving impacts.

  • According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the national seat belt use rate was nearly 92% in 2023.
  • The NHTSA estimates that seat belts reduce the risk of death by 45% and the risk of serious injury by 50% for front-seat passengers in cars. For occupants in light trucks, seat belts reduce the risk of death by 60% and the risk of serious injury by 65%.
  • Seat belts saved nearly 15,000 lives in 2017. If all passenger vehicle occupants aged 5 and older involved in fatal crashes had worn seat belts that year, an additional 2,549 lives could have been saved.
  • As of March 2023, 34 states have primary seat belt laws, meaning their police officers can pull over and ticket a driver or passenger solely for not wearing a seat belt. Another 15 states have secondary seat belt laws, meaning an officer can issue a ticket for not wearing a seat belt only if the vehicle has been pulled over for another offense.

A brief history of seat belts

The seat belt has evolved from being a late-19th century aviation novelty into one of the most universally recognized and widely used vehicle safety devices.

timeline of seat belts infographic

Seat belts and traffic safety

Although less than 10% of Americans forgo wearing seat belts, this small minority accounts for about 50% of all U.S. traffic accident fatalities. In 2021, 40% of children 14 years old or younger were unbelted when they were killed in car crashes.

A majority of vehicle occupants who don’t wear seat belts wrongly believe that restraints are unnecessary for short car trips. Yet sobering crash data contradicts this assumption, as a quarter of all accidents occur within the first three minutes of a car ride, and 39% occur within the first six minutes.

Wearing a seat belt dramatically reduces the risk of serious injury or death in a crash by keeping a passenger securely in their car, as opposed to being ejected, which is often fatal. Seat belt use also prevents severe head injuries.

For occupants in the front seats of passenger vehicles, seat belts lower fatal injury risk by 45% and cut moderate to critical injury risk by 50%. The risk of deadly injuries drops by 60% for occupants in the front seat of light-duty trucks, while the risk of moderate to critical injuries for those occupants decreases by 65%.

Seat belt use over time

Each year, the NHTSA conducts its National Occupant Protection Use Survey to collect information about vehicle safety across the country. This allows officials to track the progress of nationwide seat belt use over time and identify where additional education or enforcement efforts are needed to encourage more vehicle occupants to buckle up.

The most recent survey was conducted for about three weeks in June 2023. Between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., trained observers monitored the seat belt use of nearly 123,000 people in over 100,000 vehicles traversing various U.S. roadways.

The study found that an estimated 91.9% of adult front-seat passengers wore seat belts in 2023. This was a record use rate, though it was only a 0.3 percentage point increase from the previous year's rate of 91.6%.

As seat belt use has increased, the share of fatal crash victims who were unbelted has generally decreased.

In 2017 alone, seat belt use prevented an estimated 14,955 deaths among vehicle passengers ages 5 and older. Over 374,000 lives are estimated to have been saved by seat belts from 1975 to 2017.

Seat belt use by state

The national seat belt use rate in the U.S. soared to a record 91.9% in 2023, continuing a general long-term trend of increasing use since 1984, when New York became the first state to make seat belt use mandatory.

Oregon recorded the highest seat belt use rate among any of the U.S. states in 2022, at 96.5%, while Montana experienced the most notable improvement in seat belt use among U.S. states in recent years, recording an increase of 15.9 percentage points from 2015 to 2022.

But seat belt use nonetheless varies dramatically from one state to the next. Oregon’s use rate is nearly 21 percentage points higher than the 75.6% rate recorded by Virginia, the state with the lowest seat belt use rate in 2022. Georgia has experienced the most alarming decline in seat belt use during recent years, with its rate dropping by eight percentage points from 2015 to 2022.

Significantly different use rates among states indicate that additional legislative and enforcement efforts could further boost the adoption of this life-saving, low-tech safety solution.

Seat belt laws

There are two main types of laws regarding seat belt enforcement:

  • Primary laws: Vehicle occupants can be ticketed for not wearing a seat belt, regardless of whether or not they’re committing an additional traffic violation.
  • Secondary laws: Vehicle occupants can only be ticketed for seat belt noncompliance after being pulled over for committing a separate traffic violation.

The vast majority of states that have seat belt use rates of 90% or higher have primary seat belt laws.

Seat belt laws by state

U.S. states’ seat belt laws vary in their application depending on a vehicle occupant’s age and where they’re seated. Some states have more stringent seat belt laws for minors than adults and for front-seat occupants than back-seat occupants.

  • Primary seat belt laws for all occupants in front seats are used in 34 states and Washington, D.C. Primary seat belt laws for all occupants in both front and back seats are used in 17 states and Washington, D.C.
  • Secondary seat belt laws for adult front-seat occupants are used in 15 states.
  • Although New Hampshire has a primary seat belt law for all vehicle occupants under age 18, it’s the only state with no seat belt law for adults. It also has one of the lowest seat belt use rates of any state in the U.S., at 75.7%

Seat belt violations and penalties

Fines for violating seat belt laws range from a low of $10 in Arizona to a high of $200 in Texas. The exact amounts levied may vary depending on the violator’s age and whether they are the vehicle’s driver or passenger.

Harsher penalties for violating seat belt laws are correlated with higher rates of seat belt use.

Fines are a proven deterrent against taking to the road without a seat belt. Each fine increase of $1 is linked to an increase of 0.15 percentage points in seat belt use. This means that a $75 fine increase results in an estimated use increase of more than 11 percentage points. However, expected increases in seat belt use are less significant after fines exceed $100.

In some states, seat belt violations can have an indirect impact on insurance rates. In Connecticut, for example, a seat belt violation is considered a moving violation and will add points to a driver’s record. The driving record is the biggest factor that impacts a car owner’s insurance rates.

While not considered a major infraction like speeding or driving under the influence, a seat belt violation can still raise insurance rates by up to 3%. However, the exact rate increase for a seat belt violation depends on a driver’s state of residence, previous driving history and insurer.


References

  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Seat Belts.” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Feb. 21, 2024.Link Here
  2. Huecker MR, Chapman J. “Seat Belt Injury.” StatPearls. Evaluated Feb. 21, 2024.Link Here
  3. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Seat Belt Use in 2023 – Overall Results.” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Feb. 21, 2024.Link Here
  4. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS).” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Feb. 21, 2024.Link Here
  5. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Seat Belt Use in 2022 — Use Rates in the States and Territories.” U.S. Department of Transportation. Evaluated Feb. 21, 2024.Link Here
  6. DriveSafe Online. “The History of Seatbelts in Automobiles.” DriveSafe Online. Evaluated Feb. 21, 2024.Link Here
  7. Governors Highway Safety Association. “Seat Belts.” Governors Highway Safety Association. Evaluated Feb. 21, 2024.Link Here
  8. On the Road. “What are the seat belt laws by state?” Progressive Insurance. Evaluated Feb. 21, 2024.Link Here
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Increased Seat Belt Fines.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Evaluated Feb. 21, 2024.Link Here
  10. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Seat belt and child seat laws.” Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Evaluated Feb. 21, 2024.Link Here
  11. Progressive Insurance. “Does not wearing a seat belt affect your insurance?” Progressive Insurance. Evaluated Feb. 22, 2024.Link Here
  12. Gilson D, Adams LD. “Will a seat belt ticket affect car insurance rates?” Car Insurance Comparison. Evaluated Feb. 22, 2024.Link Here
  13. National Safety Council: Injury Facts. “Seat Belts.” National Safety Council. Evaluated March 13, 2024.Link Here
  14. Healthy People 2030. “Motor Vehicle Injury – Safety Belts: Primary (vs. Secondary) Enforcement Laws.” Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Evaluated March 13, 2024.Link Here
  15. Beck LF, Downs J, Stevens MR, Sauber-Schatz EK. “Rural and Urban Differences in Passenger-Vehicle–Occupant Deaths and Seat Belt Use Among Adults — United States, 2014.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Evaluated March 13, 2024.Link Here

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