History Of Seatbelt Laws

On December 1, 1984, New York passed the first state law requiring seatbelts. Not long thereafter, Maryland’s compulsory seatbelt use law was passed and became effective on July 1, 1986. Presently, only one state does not have a law requiring adult drivers and front seat occupants to wear seatbelts. Any guesses which state it is? It’s New Hampshire, the “Live Free Or Die” state. (However, they do have a regulation that anyone under 18 must use a seatbelt.)

Most people comply with compulsory seat belt use laws. As of 2019, twenty-six states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Northern Mariana Islands achieved seat belt use rates of 90 percent or higher. Which state had the highest level of compliance? It was Hawaii, at 97.1%. Maryland’s usage rate was 90.4%.

Compulsory seat belt use laws are credited with helping to reduce traffic fatalities. In 1984, when the New York seat belt law was passed, there were 18.76 traffic fatalities per 100,000 population. In 2019, there were only 11.

Enforcement Systems

There are two different methods of enforcing seat belt laws.

The first, “primary” enforcement, allows an officer to stop and ticket a driver if the officer observes a seatbelt violation. However, “secondary” enforcement means that a police officer may only stop or cite a driver for a seat belt violation if the driver committed another primary violation, such as speeding.

Maryland has a primary enforcement law.

The Answer

This leads to the question of the day. If a person is injured in a car accident while not wearing a seatbelt, can the defense use that fact to minimize the claimant’s damages or to defeat the claim entirely?

Generally, no.

Yes, sixteen states DO allow damages to be reduced if the injured person wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. (These states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.)

However, most state seat belt laws protect motorists from having their damages reduced because they were not wearing a seat belt. And, that is true even if they were violating the law by not wearing a seat belt.

Maryland’s seat belt law is quite clear. Under that law, failure to use a seat belt is NOT evidence of contributory negligence. According to the statute, “a party, witness, or counsel may not make reference to a seat belt during a trial of a civil action that involves property damage, personal injury, or death . . .” See Annotated Code of Maryland Transportation Article § 22-412.3 (h).

**These questions and answers are designed to provide helpful information that can be read quickly. They are neither a full explanation of the subject nor legal advice. To learn more, and to receive legal advice on which you can rely, contact us.

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