skip navigation
NHTSA, People Saving People, logo

Motor Vehicle Occupant Protection
F  A  C  T  S

In 2002, a total of 17,651 (over half) of passenger vehicle occupants who were killed were not using a safety belt, child safety seat, or booster seat.Introduction

Throughout the United States, innumerable individuals and organizations have worked to promote motor vehicle occupant protection for children, youth, and young adults, ages 16 to 20.* In spite of the great strides made, thousands of young people, from newborns through age 20, continue to die or experience serious injuries that could have been prevented had they been properly restrained in a child safety seat, booster seat, or safety belt.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has developed this booklet to provide information supporting the ongoing need for legislative, enforcement, education, and public awareness activities promoting occupant protection for children, youth, and young adults ages 16 to 20. Collectively, this information illustrates the national imperative for addressing motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death and injury for children and youth in the United States.

As a resource for occupant protection advocates, this booklet focuses on passenger vehicles. The majority of data in this fact book is from 2002, which was the latest year available when it went to press.1, 2 This booklet also includes data from NHTSA’s 2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey (MVOSS).

Back to Top

The National Scope of Motor Vehicle Crashes

In 2002, police filed reports on an estimated 6.3 million traffic crashes. The police reports indicated that approximately 2.9 million people were injured, 42,815 people were killed, and property damage was sustained in an estimated 4.3 million of these crashes.

The economic cost of motor vehicle crashes (police-reported and nonreported crashes) that occurred in 2000 totaled $230.6 billion.3 When vehicle occupants did not wear safety belts, the potential costs increased because unbelted crash victims sustained more severe injuries and more fatalities than belted crash victims. Belted crash victims average 60 to 80 percent lower hospital costs than unbelted crash victims.

In 2002, a total of 17,651 (54 percent) of passenger vehicle occupants who were killed in a crash were reported not to have used a safety belt or child safety seat. Chart 1 compares the percentage of fatally injured occupants who were restrained, to those who were unrestrained, in passenger vehicle crashes.4

Chart 1 Occupant Fatalities in 2002
By Age and Restraint Use, In Passenger Vehicles

Chart 1 Occupant Fatalities in 2002 - Click to view text only versiond

Back to Top

How To Use This Occupant Protection Booklet

The facts contained in this booklet can be used to develop speeches and presentation materials, public information and education materials, backgrounders and news releases for the media, and to promote the use of occupant restraints in conjunction with law enforcement officials. Black-and-white duplicates of many of the charts are included in the back pocket of the original booklet for use as overheads or to support materials developed for local and State use. States and local communities have an important role to play in creating a national norm that makes it unacceptable to ride unrestrained in a motor vehicle. Our goal must be to make occupant restraint use a lifelong habit for all citizens.

The booklet is divided into three main sections. The first section presents general information on the need for and importance of promoting occupant restraint use for children, youth, and young adults ages 16 to 20. Most of the data and discussion in the document refer to these groups according to the following ages:

  • Children: newborns through 3 years of age and 4 through 7 years of age

  • Youth: 8 through 15 years of age (15-year-olds, however, are sometimes included as young drivers.)

  • Young adults: 16 through 20 years of age

Children - “The premature graduation of young children from child restraint systems to safety belts puts them at a greatly increased risk of significant injury in crashes.”The next section provides occupant protection facts specific to children and youth, followed by facts for young adults. The last section includes survey findings from NHTSA’s 2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey on self-reported behavior, attitudes, and opinions about safety belt use and laws. This biennial telephone survey measures consumers’ attitudes and opinions about occupant protection.

Back to Top

Important Definitions

Youth - “In some States, a 10-year-old can ride legally in the back seat without being secured because the child is not covered by either the child restraint law or the safety belt law.”As you review the data that follow, keep in mind the following definitions:

Crash: An event that produces injury and/or property damage, involves a motor vehicle in transport, and occurs on a roadway or while the vehicle is still in motion after running off the roadway.

Fatal Crash: A police-reported crash involving a motor vehicle in transport on a roadway in which at least one person dies within 30 days of the crash. (This includes the deaths of individuals who were not in a motor vehicle, such as pedestrians and bicyclists.)

Young Adults - “Sixty-five percent of the young adults who were killed when riding in passenger cars in 2002 were not wearing safety belts.”Injury Crash: A police-reported crash involving a motor vehicle in transport on a roadway in which no one died but at least one person was reported to have (1) an incapacitating injury, (2) a visible but not incapacitating injury, (3) a possible but not visible injury, or (4) an injury of unknown severity.

Passenger Vehicles: Motor vehicles used for carrying passengers, including all passenger cars, SUVs, light trucks, and vans (including 15-passenger vans). Light trucks (under 10,000 lbs.) also include truck-based station wagons. Motorcyclists, buses, and large trucks are not included in this category.

*Children, youth, and young adults within the age range of 0-20 years old are included in this booklet. When describing the age categories, the phrases "to" or "through" or the use of a dash (-) are used interchangeably and are equivalent in meaning. In all cases, both the lower and upper age are included in the category (i.e., 4 to 7, 4 through 7, and 4-7 all represent children of ages 4, 5, 6 and 7).

1Unless otherwise noted, the data in this fact book were generated from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the General Estimates System by the National Center for Statistics and Analysis at NHTSA.

2Data on the number of licensed drivers includes 15-year-olds.

3The Economic Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes 2000.

4For charts broken down by age in this fact book, persons of unknown age are not included.

Back to Top

Table of Contents


The National Scope of Motor Vehicle Crashes

How To Use This Occupant Protection Booklet

The Need To Promote Occupant Restraint Use for Children, Youth, and 16- to 20-Year-Olds

Facts About Children and Youth

Facts About Young Adults Ages 16 to 20


For Additional Information