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Primary Seat Belt Laws

NHTSA’s objective is to help States enact primary seat belt laws. 

Although national seat belt use rate increased from 61 percent in 1996 to 82 percent in 2005, use among fatally injured motor vehicle occupants is far lower. An even lower proportion of those killed in alcohol-related crashes wear seat belts.  In 2004, seat belts were used by only 28 percent of fatally injured drivers with a BAC of .08+ compared to 57 percent of fatally injured drivers with no alcohol (BAC of .00).  Nearly 8,000 unbelted occupants of passenger vehicles died in alcohol-related crashes in 2004.

Wearing a seat belt is the best defense for an occupant in a motor vehicle crash. When used, seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger vehicle occupants by 45 percent.  NHTSA seeks to increase the national belt use rate to more than 90 percent, as seen in many other countries.

A primary seat belt use law permits law enforcement officers to stop a vehicle and issue a citation for a seat belt violation, even if this is the only violation the officer notices. Secondary laws allow the officer to issue a seat belt citation to a motorist only after the officer stops the driver for another violation.

Primary seat belt use laws cannot be expected to change drinking and driving behavior, but can substantially reduce death and injuries in alcohol-related crashes.

Twenty-five States, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have primary seat belt laws.  On average, these jurisdictions had seat belt use rates about 10 percentage points higher than States without primary laws in 2005.  Research has demonstrated that primary seat belt laws, if highly publicized, increase seat belt usage in the general population. If every state with a secondary seat belt law upgraded to primary enforcement, about 1,000 lives and $4 billion in crash costs could be saved each year.

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