Last week, a stronger seat belt bill crashed in the Senate Transportation Committee of the Virginia Legislature. The bill, introduced by Senator George Barker (D-Fairfax), would have required seat belt use by passengers in the back seat of a vehicle and would have changed failure to use seat belts from a secondary offense to a primary offense. The members of the committee voted along party lines – six Republicans voted to kill the bill; five Democrats voted to keep it alive.
Virginia’s Current Seat Belt Law
A federal law passed in 1968 requires seat belts to be installed in all vehicles. This law was amended to require the kind of three-point restraint in all seating positions. It is to be noted that the law mandates that the seat belts be installed. There is no federal law that requires the use of these seat belts.
Laws requiring the use of seat belts exist on a state level and vary by state. Every state except New Hampshire has a seat belt law of some sort. Virginia seat belt law requires the following:
- Drivers and passengers age 16 and older are required to use a seat belt when sitting in the front seat.
- Children under age 16 must use a seat belt or a secured child safety seat (correctly installed), in any seat in the vehicle.
- For adults aged 16 and over, the seat belt law is a secondary enforcement law. This means that a police officer cannot pull you over or ticket you only for a seat belt violation. If you are pulled over for any other violation, you can also be ticketed for failure to use a seat belt. Virginia is one of 19 states that do not have a primary enforcement law.
- For all under age 18, the Virginia law is a primary enforcement law. This also applies to any driver transporting children under age 18 (the driver would be fined for negligence).
- Fines for violation of seat belt and child safety seat laws are $25 to $50. (Compare to California where fines can reach $490).
- There are a few exceptions to the Virginia seat belt law:
- You can be exempted from the law if you have a medical condition that makes it impractical or impossible to use one (doctor’s statement in writing is required).
- Law enforcement officers are exempt in situations that would make it impractical to use one.
- Drivers and passengers in taxis are exempt.
- Rural mail carriers are exempt.
- Trash collectors and certain other municipal workers are exempt while actively doing their job.
- Buses, including school buses, are not required to have seat belts installed.
The Issue Under Debate
Decisions regarding seat belt laws are ongoing since the first seat belt laws were enacted in in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of the discussions are centered around an effort to find the balance between personal liberty and public safety: does it violate the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution for the state to require an individual to use a seat belt. The question is often phrased: if I am hurting only myself or putting myself at risk by not using a seat belt, how is it not a violation of my constitutional rights if the police can ticket me for not using seat belts. Most of the appeals of court challenges to the law have held that it is the right and responsibility of the state to protect people from themselves in these cases. The U.S. Supreme Court has never heard a seat belt use case.
Approximately 16 percent of Virginians do not wear a seat belt, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
In 2017, 308 unrestrained motorists died in crashes on Virginia highways.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), seat belt users are 45 percent less likely to die in a crash.
In addition, 79 percent of people ejected from vehicles in a crash will die. Thirty percent of motorists not using a seatbelt are ejected during a crash.
Who is Least Likely to Use a Seat Belt?
- Young adults (age 18-24).
- Adults who live in non-metropolitan areas.
- Rear-seat passengers.
- Motorists in states with secondary seat belt law enforcement.
Although this stronger seat belt law crashed in committee (SB 1282), it is likely that other bills will be introduced in the future that will attempt to move us to stronger laws with stricter enforcement.
What do you think? Should we have stronger seat belt use laws? Are seat belt use laws a violation of our Constitutional rights?
If you or a loved one is injured in an auto accident, call Altizer Law, P.C., in Roanoke, VA. Call on trusted and experienced attorney Bettina C. Altizer and her team to represent your interests and to obtain for you the largest possible financial compensation for your hurts and harms due to the crash.