One of the safest choices drivers and passengers can make is to buckle up. Many Americans understand the lifesaving value of the seat belt – the national use rate was at 90.3% in 2020. Seat belt use in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 14,955 lives in 2017. Understand the potentially fatal consequences of not wearing a seat belt and learn what you can do to make sure you and your family are properly buckled up every time.
Of the 22,215 passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2019, 47% were not wearing seat belts.
Seat belts saved an estimated 14,955 lives and could have saved an additional 2,549 people if they had been wearing seat belts, in 2017 alone.
The consequences of not wearing, or improperly wearing, a seat belt are clear:
1. Buckling up helps keep you safe and secure inside your vehicle, whereas not buckling up can result in being totally ejected from the vehicle in a crash, which is almost always deadly.
2. Air bags are not enough to protect you; in fact, the force of an air bag can seriously injure or even kill you if you’re not buckled up.
3. Improperly wearing a seat belt, such as putting the strap below your arm, puts you and your children at risk in a crash.
The benefits of buckling up are equally clear:
- If you buckle up in the front seat of a passenger car, you can reduce your risk of:
- Fatal injury by 45% (Kahane, 2015)
- Moderate to critical injury by 50%
- If you buckle up in a light truck, you can reduce your risk of:
- Fatal injury by 60% (Kahane, 2015)
- Moderate to critical injury by 65% (NHTSA, 1984)
Seat Belt Safety for Adults
The Top 5 Things You Should Know About Buckling Up
1. Buckling up is the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself in a crash
Seat belts are the best defense against impaired, aggressive, and distracted drivers. Being buckled up during a crash helps keep you safe and secure inside your vehicle; being completely ejected from a vehicle is almost always deadly.
2. Air bags are designed to work with seat belts, not replace them
If you don’t wear your seat belt, you could be thrown into a rapidly opening frontal air bag. Such force could injure or even kill you. Learn about air bag safety.
3. Guidelines to buckle up safely
- The lap belt and shoulder belt are secured across the pelvis and rib cage, which are better able to withstand crash forces than other parts of your body.
- Place the shoulder belt across the middle of your chest and away from your neck.
- The lap belt rests across your hips, not your stomach.
- NEVER put the shoulder belt behind your back or under an arm.
4. Fit matters
- Before you buy a new car, check to see that its seat belts are a good fit for you.
- Ask your dealer about seat belt adjusters, which can help you get the best fit.
- If you need a roomier belt, contact your vehicle manufacturer to obtain seat belt extenders.
- If you drive an older or classic car with lap belts only, check with your vehicle manufacturer about how to retrofit your car with today’s safer lap/shoulder belts.
5. Seat belt safety for children and pregnant women
Find out when your child is ready to use an adult seat belt and learn about seat belt safety when you’re pregnant.
If You’re Pregnant: Seat Belt Recommendations for Drivers and Passengers
If you’re pregnant, make sure you know how to position your seat and wear a seat belt to maximize your safety and the safety of your unborn child. Read our recommendations below or view the instructional diagram version of our seat belt recommendations for pregnant drivers and passengers (PDF 497 KB).
I’m Pregnant. Should I Wear a Seat Belt?
- YES—doctors recommend it. Buckling up through all stages of your pregnancy is the single most effective action you can take to protect yourself and your unborn child in a crash.
- NEVER drive or ride in a car without buckling up first!
What’s the Right Way to Wear My Seat Belt?
- The shoulder belt away from your neck (but not off your shoulder) and across your chest (between your breasts), making sure to remove any slack from your seat belt with the lap belt secured below your belly so that it fits snugly across your hips and pelvic bone.
- NEVER place the shoulder belt under your arm or behind your back.
- NEVER place lap belt over or on top of your belly.
Should I Adjust My Seat?
- YES—Adjust to a comfortable, upright position
- Keep as much distance as possible between your belly and the steering wheel
- Comfortably reach the steering wheel and pedals
- To minimize the gap between your shoulder and the seat belt, avoid reclining your seat more than necessary.
- Avoid letting your belly touch the steering wheel.
What if My Car or Truck Has Air Bags?
- You still need to wear your seat belt properly.
- Air bags are designed to work with seat belts, not replace them.
- Without a seat belt, you could crash into the vehicle interior, other passengers, or be ejected from the vehicle.
My Car Has an ON-OFF Air Bag Disabling Switch. Should I turn it off?
- NO—Doctors recommend that pregnant women wear seat belts and leave air bags turned on. Seat belts and air bags work together to provide the best protection for you and your unborn child.
What Should I Do if I am Involved in a Crash?
- Seek immediate medical attention, even if you think you are not injured, regardless of whether you’re the driver or passenger.
Myth vs. The Real Deal
The Real Deal. The safest way to ride is buckled up in a vehicle equipped with air bags. Even without an air bag, you are safer buckled up than you are with an air bag and not buckled up.
Myth. Incidents involving fire or water account for ½ of 1% of all crashes. But more importantly, you can't escape such dangers unless you're conscious. Wearing a seat belt gives you a much greater chance of being conscious and able-bodied.
Myth. Seemingly routine trips can be deceptively dangerous. Most fatal crashes happen within 25 miles from home and at speeds of less than 40 mph.
Real Deal. In a crash, everything in your car can cause bodily harm, but your seat belt is one of the few things that can actually save you.
Myth. For occupants in SUVs, pickups, and vans, seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to the driver and front seat passenger by 60%.
Myth. Young men are most at risk. Among male passenger vehicle occupants ages 18-34 who were killed in 2017 fatal crashes, 60% were not buckled.
What’s Your Seat Belt IQ?
When parents ride without their seat belts.
Seat Belt Safety for Tweens
When Is My Child Ready for an Adult Seat Belt?
The time to transition your child out of a booster seat and into a seat belt usually comes when the child is between 8 and 12 years old. Keep your children in booster seats until they outgrow the size limits of the booster seats or are big enough to fit properly in seat belts.
Fitting a Child Correctly in a Seat Belt
For your child to properly fit in a seat belt, he or she must be tall enough to sit without slouching and be able to:
- Keep his or her back against the vehicle seat;
- Keep his or her knees naturally bent over the edge of the vehicle seat; and
- Keep his or her feet flat on the floor.
- The lap belt must lie snugly across the upper thighs, not the stomach.
- The shoulder belt should lie snug across the shoulder and chest, and not cross the neck or face.
- Never let a child put the shoulder belt under an arm or behind the back because it could cause severe injuries in a crash.
- Keep your child in the back seat because it is safer there.
Remember, always check your child’s belt fit in every vehicle. A booster seat may be needed in some vehicles and not in others. If the seat belt does not fit properly yet, your child should continue to use a booster seat.
Modeling Seat Belt Safety
As a parent, you are your kids’ strongest influence when it comes to modeling safe driving practices, including buckling up every time you get in the car. Teach your family that safety is the responsibility of all passengers as well as the driver.
As your child grows, you may face challenges enforcing seat belt safety. Life as a parent is full of compromises, but seat belt safety is never up for negotiation. Follow these pointers and set the example of buckling up every time you get into the car. And remember: Never give up until they buckle up!
NOTE: All children under 13 ride in the back seat for maximum safety.
You’re the #1 Influence: Make Sure Your Tween is Properly Buckled Up the Whole Ride, Every Time
Seat Belt Safety Starts With Good Role Models
Learning the importance of wearing a seat belt starts with a good role model—and that’s you. As a parent or caregiver, you are the number one influence on your child’s seat belt safety. Research shows that children whose parents buckle up are much more likely to buckle up themselves.
Consistency is Key
Consistently remind your children to buckle up properly the whole ride, and never assume they’re buckled up! Learn tips to motivate your tweens to buckle up, and make it a rule in your family that everyone follows the same practices as you: Always buckle up before moving the car, no matter how short or routine the drive, and make sure all children are buckled up properly.
The Proper Seat Belt Fit for Your Child
The risk of injury among child passengers is significantly higher when their seat belts are loose and/or improperly positioned. Learn about the proper seat belt fit for your child and why your children may not be wearing their seat belts correctly.
Front or Back—When is the Front Seat Safe for My Child?
All children under age 13 should ride in the back seat for maximum safety. The back seat is the safest place for your children because most crashes occur in the front of the car and the back seat is farthest from this impact.
Why Parents and Caregivers Forget About or Forego Seat Belt Safety
We know life as a parent is full of distractions and often hectic, making it easy to forget or forego buckling up altogether. See if any of these excuses for not buckling up sound familiar, then do whatever it takes to buckle up and make sure your kids do the same:
Tips to Motivate Your Tweens to Buckle Up
Getting your kids to properly buckle up and stay buckled can be a battle of wills. There are several reasons why children 8 to 14 may forget or not want to wear their seat belts. For as many reasons as your kids can protest against wearing a seat belt, we’ve got tips to help you motivate them to buckle up.
Tweens are going through several developmental stages—social, cognitive and emotional—which offer helpful insights into what makes sense to them and what motivates them. Learn about the developmental stages and motivational messages get your kids to buckle up properly, the whole ride, every time.
It’s Non-Negotiable: Tween Seat Belt Safety
We know you make every effort to keep your kids safe. However, parenting can be a hectic job. The daily routine of getting your kids to and from school and other activities can be hurried and chaotic, creating an environment where insisting on wearing a seat belt is not top of mind. See if you face these five challenges to getting tweens to wear — and stay in — their seat belts.
No Matter How Hurried or Chaotic, Don’t Negotiate!
As a parent, sometimes you let your kids have their way. But their safety should never be up for negotiation, no matter how much they push back on the seat belts being uncomfortable or unnecessary for just a “short drive.” Here are some tips to help you win the seat belt battle:
- Consistently Model Seat Belt Safety. Teaching your children to consistently wear seat belts can take a great deal of resolve. Your first line of defense, as your children’s number one influence, is to wear your seat belt and insist that all family members do the same.
- Never Give Up Until They Buckle Up. Make sure your kids are buckled up with their lap and shoulder belt—no shoulder belts behind their backs or under their arms, or seat belts so loose that they can wrestle in the back seat. Learn how to motivate your kids to buckle up properly and consistently using age-appropriate messages and rewards to reinforce the importance of seat belt safety.
- Never Assume Your Kids Are Buckled Up. One conversation is not enough: Remind your children to wear their seat belts every time they get into a car—no matter whose car it is—and stay buckled up, including at night and on longer rides.
It’s been a long time since your little ones transitioned from a booster seat into an adult seat belt, and now they’re teenagers. Think it’s time to relax? Think again. The majority of teens involved in fatal crashes aren’t wearing their seat belts.
Buckling up is not a one-time conversation—it’s ongoing. Set the example by always wearing your seat belt, and remind your teens buckling up is the law.
To learn more, visit our Teen Driving section.