McCoy & Hiestand Attorneys at Law
Since the 1980’s, all States and Commonwealth’s across the Country have implemented both mandatory seat belt laws and child restraint laws, except New Hampshire. While each state differs, the general rule is that drivers and passengers in the front seats must be wearing seatbelts and that children under certain ages and weights must be in child safety seats. Some states can stop you outright for the sole failure to wear your seatbelt (primary enforcement), while others must have another grounds for detaining you before they can add the seat belt citation. Whatever the laws, they seem to be working.

Per the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, seat belts saved an estimated 12,174 lives in 2012. Based upon their studies they have also found that front seat drivers and passengers who wear the full three-point restraint reduce their risk of fatal injury by 60% in SUVs, vans, and pickups, and 45% in cars. Perhaps most informative is there finding that most fatalities occur to occupants who are not restrained–and that young adults have the highest crash-related injury rates of all adults.

As noted above, some states have had higher success with avoiding injury by allowing primary enforcement (allowing a stop for the sole violation of failing to wear a seatbelt). For a chart of each state’s laws and whether they are primary, please click HERE. Bottom line, research by both the Centers for Disease Control, and the Insurance Industry support the mantra that “Seatbelts Save Lives.”

So what impact does this have on the civil justice system? First, it should be noted that 16 states allow the “safety belt defense” to reduce damages a person can assert. Some states limit this to a fixed percentage, others are a pure comparative fault, and yet others have a mixture. So what of the argument made by many a person that had they been wearing their seatbelt, or had they not been thrown from the vehicle, they would most certainly have died? This is an argument that can be raised, but given the statistics to the contrary, each injury will have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. If the argument is to be raised, counsel will do well to hire an accident reconstructionist as well as a human factors expert, and perhaps a seatbelt expert.

Each of these specialists will serve different functions. Accident reconstructionists can address the forces and vectors applicable to the particular impact and from which direction forces were coming, and at what velocities. They can also download the black boxes from many newer model vehicles to determine speed upon impact, braking, and evasive actions are taken immediately before impact. Human factors experts can address how the human body responds to the forces inside the vehicle based on the data provided by the reconstructionist. And finally, a seat belt expert can explain how the seat belt would have functioned in the given circumstances, and whether its usage would have helped or hindered the occupant’s morbidity and mortality.

Since motor vehicle collisions are the leading cause of death among teenagers (CDC Web-Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (available HERE), September 8, 2014), and non-fatal crash injuries resulted in more than $50 billion in lifetime medical and work loss costs in 2012 (HERE), there can be no question that seat belt usage will be at the top of the insurance industry checklist. Quite honestly, it should be at the top of everyone’s checklist. It is time to acknowledge the safety and efficacy of seat belts, and to teach our children and our families, by example, that a motor vehicle should not be started until everyone is safely belted in. Gone are the days of lying in the back of the station wagon or sitting in the open bed of a pickup truck. The realities are much more gruesome than any fond memories that we of the older generation may have. This is not a question of choice and freedoms. It is a mandate of safety.

As summer vacation is upon us, and we all trek into the wild for family outings, please remember these statistics, the laws requiring seatbelt usage, and the findings of the Centers for Disease Control and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – and the slight inconvenience of a seat belt is well worth your life and the lives of the people you love. Be safe out there and have a terrific summer.

– Sheila Hiestand

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MCCOY, HIESTAND & SMITH, PLC
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