Seat belt non-useIf a person is injured in a car accident, can the fact that they were not wearing a seat belt be used against them to minimize or defeat their claim for damages?

First, a little background about seat belt laws . . .

On December 1, 1984, New York became the first state to pass a law requiring vehicle occupants to wear seat belts. (Maryland’s compulsory seat belt law became effective on July 1, 1986.)

Today, every state except New Hampshire has a law requiring adult drivers to wear safety belts while operating a motor vehicle. (And all states have laws requiring restraint of children.)

Compulsory seat belt use laws are one of the reasons credited for the decrease in traffic fatalities. In 1984, when the New York seat belt law was passed, there were 18.76 traffic fatalities per 100,000 population. In 2012, there were only 10.69.

How seat belt laws can be enforced varies from state to state. “Primary” enforcement allows a police officer to stop and ticket a driver if s/he observes a violation. “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, running a stop sign, etc.) at the same time. (In Maryland, primary enforcement applies.)

Most people comply with compulsory seat belt use laws.

But not everyone. As of 2010, seat belt usage ranged from about 75% to a high of 97.6% (in Hawaii). (Maryland’s usage rate was 94.7%.)

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

Generally, no.

Most state seat belt laws protect motorists from having their damages reduced if they were not wearing a seat belt, even if they were violating the law by not wearing the seat belt.

Currently, damages may be reduced for not wearing a seat belt in 16 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Maryland’s seat belt law is quite clear that failure to use a seat belt is not evidence of contributory negligence and that “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 . . .” Maryland Transportation Code ยง 22-412.3 (h).

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**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 me or another lawyer.