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Can You Drive Without a Seat Belt, Legally?

If YouTube had been around in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Crash Test Dummies would have been viral. They helped illustrate the importance of wearing your seat belt.  Thanks to their campaign, the first thing most people do now when they get into a vehicle is to fasten their seat belts. 

While seat belts help save lives and keep people safe, can you legally drive without one? Let’s look and see!

Can You Drive Without a Seat Belt, Legally?

There are seat belt laws in almost every state except New Hampshire. Typically, all drivers and passengers must wear a seat belt while a vehicle is in motion. However, states sometimes allow individuals to go without seat belts under a couple of exemptions.

Individuals do not need to wear a seat belt if there is an emergency or they have a medical reason making it unsafe to wear a seat belt. They would need to carry the doctor’s note to show to law enforcement.

An emergency would likely require that you’re on the way to the emergency room or a hospital, not simply that you’re not feeling well.

When Did It Become a Federal Law to Wear a Seat Belt?

No federal law requires drivers or passengers to wear seat belts. However, it is a state law, except in New Hampshire, for individuals to wear them. Who must wear a seat belt depends on the state and where people are in the car. 

On January 1, 1985, New York became the first state to require the use of seat belts. However, the law was initially only for front-seat passengers. State laws have changed widely regarding who must wear a seat belt. Anyone sitting up front or under 18 must almost always wear a seat belt when a passenger vehicle is in motion.

Woman putting on seatbelt before driving
It is a federal law to wear a seatbelt before you hit the road.

How Did Seat Belts Become Mandatory?

Seat belts became mandatory due to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. This was a mandate from the federal government that required manufacturers to install seat belts in vehicles. Over the next several decades, the government would use effective marketing campaigns to convince people to wear their vehicle seat belts.

It wasn’t until New York took the lead that other states began instituting laws regarding using seat belts in vehicles. As experts conducted more research, it was evident that using seat belts drastically decreased the risk of dangerous accidents.

What Happens If You Don’t Wear a Seat Belt?

If you choose not to wear a seat belt, your best-case scenario is law enforcement pulling you over and issuing a citation. However, not wearing a seat belt is a secondary offense in 15 states. Law enforcement in those states cannot pull a driver over for not wearing their seat belt. However, they can pull a vehicle over once they commit a primary violation and receive a citation for the primary and secondary offenses.

Should you ride in a vehicle without a seat belt and get involved in an accident, it can be very unpredictable. Depending on the severity of the accident and the impact, the accident will likely throw you about the vehicle’s cabin.

The intense force will significantly exceed the strongest human’s ability to hold themselves in place. You can expect various injuries like broken bones, a concussion, and potentially even death.

Pro Tip: Don’t have a license, but still want to drive? We uncovered Where Can You Drive Without a License in the USA?

Couple putting on seatbelt before driving
Not wearing your seatbelt could get you a fine or worse, put you in an unsafe situation.

How Much Is a Seat Belt Violation?

Officials set seat belt laws and fines at the state level. Penalties often vary due to where the violator is sitting and their age. However, depending on the state, a fine can be anywhere from $10 to $180 for adults and up to $490 for minors.

Because seat belt violation fees vary by the state, the violator’s age, and where they’re sitting, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the fines in your state.

Who Is Liable If a Passenger Is Not Wearing a Seat Belt?

When it comes to who is at fault if a passenger is not wearing a seat belt, the driver is typically responsible for themselves and any minors in the vehicle.

Some states define minors as anyone 16+, while others stick to 18+. However, adult passengers are responsible for themselves and would receive the citation instead of the driver.

What Year Did Airbags Become Mandatory?

On September 1, 1998, the federal government signed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991. This required that manufacturers install airbags on both sides of the front seat in all cars and light trucks they sell in the United States of America. 

Pro Tip: Avoid a collision by knowing and avoiding these 10 Basic Rules Bad Drivers Break (ALL THE TIME).

How Many Lives Do Seat Belts Save Every Year?

While it is hard to know the exact number, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that seat belts save approximately 15,000 lives each year. They also state that roughly 90% of Americans understand the importance of seat belts and use them regularly. Don’t be a dummy; wear your seat belt and stay safe!

Did you ever see the crash test dummies commercials? Did they change your mind about wearing a seat belt? 

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