Travel & Motor Vehicle Safety

Seat Belt Fact Sheet

  • Safety belts are the most effective means of reducing deaths and serious injuries in traffic crashes.
  • The vast majority of all injuries and deaths from traffic crashes are preventable.
  • More than 90 people die every day in motor vehicle crashes
  • When lap and shoulder belts are used correctly, they reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-safety passengers by 45 percent and the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50 percent.
  • Approximately 60 percent of passengers killed in traffic crashes were not wearing safety belts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
  • Seat belts are the most effective means of reducing deaths and serious injuries in traffic crashes.
  • Safety belts provide the greatest protection against ejection in a crash. Seventy-five percent of people ejected from cars are killed.
  • While the back seat is the safest place to ride in a car, unbelted back-seat passengers risk serious injury and pose a potentially fatal threat to others during a crash.
  • In 2009, more than 2.3 million adult drivers and passengers were treated in emergency rooms as a result of vehicle crashes

  • The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) advocates for adoption and enforcement of primary safety belt laws.
  • Emergency physicians see firsthand the tragic consequences of not wearing safety belts.
  • Safety belt use is significantly higher in states with primary enforcement laws compared to those with secondary enforcement laws. Research also shows that when adults buckle up, children get buckled up too. Primary enforcement is important not only for raising adult safety belt use, but also for increasing the number of children who are protected by occupant restraints.
  • Currently approximately 85 percent of the population wears safety belts consistently, but that means that 1 in 7 people does not wear a safety belt.
  • ACEP participates in national safety belt campaigns including “Click It or Ticket,” “Cops & Docs,” “Saved by the Belt,” and “Buckle Up America.”
  • Emergency physicians are dedicated to injury prevention issues and conduct research about motor vehicle safety, including safety belts and smart car technologies. 
  • ACEP reminds parents that they set an example by buckling up.
  • Adults who don’t buckle up are sending children a deadly message: it’s all right not to wear a safety belt. When a driver is unbuckled, 76 percent of the time children will be unbuckled.  When a driver is belted, 87 percent of the time children will be also.
  • Having passengers in the car increases safety belt use (83 percent) compared to drivers alone (78 percent).
  • Passengers in the rear seat need to buckle as well. In 2004, the first year data was collected, 47 percent of rear seat occupants were belted compared to 80 percent in the front seat. (NHTSA.)
  • The needless deaths and injuries that result from not using safety belts cost society an estimated $70 billion annually in medical care, lost productivity and other costs (NHTSA, 2005).
  • Everyone pays for those who don’t buckle up because the costs go beyond the loss of lives and result in higher taxes, health care costs and insurance costs. 
Q. Why do emergency physicians believe safety belts are so important and effective?
A.

Every day emergency physicians see the tragic consequences of people not wearing safety belts. At the moment of impact in a traffic crash, people in the car are still traveling at the original speed. When the motor vehicle rapidly comes to a stop, anyone not wearing a safety belt will continue to move at that speed until their body slams into the steering wheel, windshield, other parts of the interior or they are ejected from the vehicle.

Safety belts are effective in reducing deaths and injuries caused during impact.

In a 55 mph crash, unbelted passengers of average size fly forward with a force of 3,000 pounds — enough to cause serious injury or death. Passengers in the backseat are just as vulnerable as those in the front.

Safety restraints should be used correctly to provide maximum protection in a crash. With just the shoulder strap on, you can still slide out from under it and be strangled. The lap belt alone does not keep your face from hitting the steering wheel, windshield or dashboard. Both straps must fit snuggly to transfer the impact of the collision to parts of your body that can take it — your hip bones and shoulder bones.

Q. What kinds of laws are in place related to safety belt use?
A.

All states except New Hampshire have safety belt use laws, although NH does have a primary child passenger safety law that covers all drivers and passengers under 18.  In most states, these laws cover front seat occupants only, although belt laws in 17 states and the District of Columbia cover rear occupants too. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have primary enforcement of their belt laws, which means law enforcement officers can stop and give citations to motorists solely for not wearing them. With secondary enforcement laws, officers may issue a citation only after stopping the vehicle for other traffic infractions.

Safety belt use is significantly higher in states with primary enforcement laws compared to those with secondary enforcement laws. Research also shows that when adults buckle up, children get buckled up too. Primary enforcement is important not only for raising adult safety belt use, but also for increasing the number of children who are protected by occupant restraints.


For additional information on this topic, see ACEP’s Policy Statement on Motor Vehicle Safety and fact sheets on Air Bag Safety and Speed.


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