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Seat Belts

Further Readings

A restraining device used to secure passengers in motorized vehicles.

Congress first passed seat-belt legislation in 1966. By the 1990s, increased measures were being taken to enforce the laws. Under section 402 of 23 U.S.C.A. (1997), a portion of federal highway funds may be withheld from states if they do not have an approved highway safety program to reduce the number and severity of traffic accidents. One of the measures a state must include in its highway safety program is a provision that encourages drivers and passengers to use seat belts. In 2003, the GEORGE W. BUSH administration proposed incentives, which would amount to $100 million in highway funding, for states to enact mandatory seat-belt laws. According to the U.S. TRANSPORTATION DEPARTMENT, "Every 1 percent increase in nationwide safety belt use means a savings of about 250 lives."

In states that require the use of seat belts by all drivers and front-seat passengers, the failure to use a seat belt is a violation that carries a fine. In most of these states, police officers do not stop persons in vehicles for failing to use a seat belt. This is called a secondary seat-belt law. In West Virginia, for example, Section 17C-15-49 of West Virginia Code states, "Enforcement … shall be accomplished only as a secondary action when a driver of a passenger vehicle has been detained for PROBABLE CAUSE of violating another section of this code." In other words, once a vehicle is stopped for any other infraction, the driver may be ticketed if the driver or a front-seat passenger is not belted. In other states, such as Washington and Delaware, for example, a police officer may pull over a car if he suspects a driver or a passenger of not using a seat belt. This is a called a primary seat-belt law. The fine for violating a mandatory seat-belt law usually is minimal; in Delaware, the fine is $25.

New Hampshire is the only state that does not have an adult seat-belt requirement (N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 265: 107-a [1995]). Motor vehicle passengers under the age of 12, however, must wear a seat belt. The New Hampshire Department of Safety administers programs that increase public awareness of the importance of seat belts, and roadside signs placed throughout the state remind drivers that buckling up is mandatory for children and sound advice for all persons.

All states have some type of mandatory seat-belt laws for children. The laws, however, vary by state. They also vary depending on the age, weight, and height of the child. For example, in Delaware, children who are under the age of 12, or under 65 inches tall, must sit in the back seat of a car if there are active air bags in the front passenger seat. Fines for violating child seat-belt laws vary by state. In Delaware, the fine for violating the law is $28.75.

In an effort to improve child restraint safety, Congress passed Anton's Law (H.R. 5504) in November 2002. The law was named for four-year-old Anton Skeen, who was thrown from a car because the adult seat belt he was wearing was too large to hold him. The legislation, which was signed into law in December 2002, requires improved testing standards for child booster seats and also mandates that automakers upgrade their current seat-belt features. In addition, the legislation requires that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NTHSA) construct test dummies that can be used in simulated car crashes to determine the effectiveness of seat belts for children.

In May 2003, federal and state agencies launched a nationwide effort to mobilize support of seat-belt use. The campaign, called "Click It or Ticket," coincided with the Memorial Day holiday, traditionally one of the busiest for automobile traffic. Some 12,000 law enforcement agencies across the country set up seat-belt checkpoints between May 23 and June 1 to pull over unbuckled drivers and write them tickets. The event was widely publicized in the media to fully enforce the message that during the campaign there would be a zero-tolerance enforcement of safety-belt laws. A major focus was to educate young drivers about the importance of wearing seat belts.

The failure of a driver or front-seat passenger to wear a seat belt can have consequences in personal injury lawsuits. Under court decisions and statutes in some states, the plaintiff's failure to wear a seat belt can decrease his or her recovery for injuries in a car accident. In other states, cases and statutes hold that the failure to wear a seat belt may not be used in court as a mitigating factor in figuring the plaintiff's damages.

In states that limit the recovery of unbelted plaintiffs, courts employ various methods to mitigate damages. Under the causation approach, a plaintiff may not recover damages for injuries caused by the failure to wear a seat belt. Some states require that the plaintiff prove that the accident injuries would have occurred even if the plaintiff had worn a seat belt. Other states hold that the defendant must prove that the plaintiff's injuries would not have occurred had the plaintiff worn a seat belt. Identifying and apportioning the various factors contributing to the plaintiff's injuries is a difficult task. Personal injury cases involving unbelted plaintiffs in these states rely heavily on medical EXPERT TESTIMONY.

Under the plaintiff misconduct approach, the court examines whether the plaintiff was at fault in failing to wear a seat belt. If the plaintiff should have been wearing a seat belt under the state seat-belt laws, the failure to wear the belt may mitigate the plaintiff's damages or completely bar any recovery.


Automobiles; Mitigation of Damages.

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