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Seat Belt Use Laws and Rear Seat Adult Passengers

posted on Mon, Mar 16 2015 3:04 pm by Jon S. Vernick

On February 12, 2015, noted reporter and 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon died at age 73. Although Mr. Simon had covered many dangerous stories, including wars and armed conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq, he was killed in New York City in a motor vehicle crash.

According to news reports, Mr. Simon had been riding in the rear seat of a Lincoln Town Car when it struck another vehicle at a red light. The Town Car then hit a traffic divider. Mr. Simon, who was not wearing a seat belt, sustained head and neck injuries. The driver of the Town Car survived with broken arms and legs.

Mr. Simon’s death serves as a sad reminder of one of the few remaining deficiencies in our nation’s seat belt laws. 

The national seat belt use rate in 2013 was 87 percent (91 percent in New York State). As recently as 1994, however, the national use rate was just 58 percent, having risen from the low teens in the early 1980s.

How did the nation increase seat belt use rates so dramatically? Past efforts at education and persuasion had largely failed. It was not until the widespread adoption and enforcement of state mandatory seat belt use laws – particularly so-called primary use laws – that steady and impressive gains were seen. A primary seat belt use law allows law enforcement to stop and cite a driver for failing to wear a seat belt without any other reason for stopping the vehicle. By contrast, secondary use laws require police to have some other valid reason, usually some other traffic offense, before an unbelted driver may be cited. Secondary seat belt use laws began to be adopted primarily in the mid-1980s. But it was not until the 1990s that a significant number of states began to enact primary enforcement laws.

Despite the remarkable success of seat belt use laws in increasing usage and saving lives, one area remains largely neglected: rear seat adult passengers. In New York State, for example, rear seat passengers over the age of 16 are not required to wear seat belts.

A recent report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety highlights the danger for unrestrained adults in rear seats: “Adults were overrepresented among rear-row occupants with serious or fatal injuries, and they had lower rates of restraint use. Only 70 percent of 20-54 year-olds and 86 percent of people 55 and older were restrained. The risk of serious injury was nearly 8 times higher among unrestrained rear-row occupants as compared with those using restraints.” 

Criminal law does more than punish offenders, it establishes social norms that signal societal expectations. It’s time for states to take their responsibility more seriously to better protect rear seat passengers like Bob Simon.

This post was prepared by Jon S. Vernick, J.D., M.P.H., Professor and Deputy Director, Center for Injury Research and Policy, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy is a partner with the University of Maryland Carey School of Law in the Network for Public Health Law’s Eastern Region.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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