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State Legislative Activities Concerning the Use of Seat Belts -- United States, 1985

Representatives of automotive safety, the insurance industry, and public health have for many years advocated greater use of child safety seats and seat belts to substantially reduce the morbidity, mortality, and costs associated with motor vehicle collisions. With Wyoming's adoption of a child-restraint law this year, all 50 states now have enacted laws requiring installation and use of restraint systems to protect infants and children (generally those under 5 years old) who are passengers in automobiles.

In 1984, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) promulgated rules providing that automatic occupant-protection systems will be phased in beginning in model year 1987. All automobiles produced after September 1, 1989, will be required to be so equipped. However, if states collectively representing two-thirds of the nation's population adopt laws meeting DOT criteria (Table 1), the Secretary of Transportation may rescind the requirement.

At least one bill making seat belt use mandatory was introduced in all but two (Idaho and Nevada) of the 49 states with 1985 sessions. CDC has monitored these legislative activities using reports provided by the Commerce Clearing House, Inc. (Chicago, Illinois). Multiple bills have been introduced in some states. In New York alone, 42 bills dealing with seat belts have been introduced so far this year. Two states (New Jersey and New York) enacted mandatory seat belt laws in 1984, and 12 states (Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas) enacted mandatory seat belt laws in 1985. The laws are already in effect in four states (Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York).

Three types of seat belt bills introduced or enacted by states deal with automobile occupants: (1) those requiring use by all occupants (Figure 1); (2) those requiring use by front-seat occupants (Figure 2); and (3) those requiring use by occupants under a certain age (e.g., under 11 years old in New Mexico; under 16 years old in Oregon) (Figure 3). All of the laws enacted to date require seat belt use by front-seat occupants only, a minimum condition of the DOT regulation. However, 18 states have introduced bills that require seat belt use by all automobile occupants, not a condition of the DOT regulation (Figure 1).

In addition, 28 states have introduced legislation requiring seat belt installation and/or use in school buses (Figure 4). School buses are not covered by the DOT regulation. Reported by Office of Program Planning and Evaluation, Office of the Director, Behavioral Epidemiology and Evaluation Br, Div of Health Education, Center for Health Promotion and Education, Injury Epidemiology and Control Div, Center for Environmental Health, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: In 1983, nearly 30,000 occupants of automobiles died on U.S. highways. Only 484 (2%) were reportedly wearing seat belts (1). Seat belts could prevent at least 60% of serious injuries to older children, teenagers, and adults in automobile collisons (2). Similarly, properly used child restraints could prevent virtually all serious injuries to infants and younger children (3).

Current data suggest that mandatory-use legislation has increased seat belt use rates and decreased highway fatality rates. In Tennessee, where child-restraint use became mandatory January 1, 1978, child-restraint use rates increased from less than 10% before the law to greater than 40% 4 years after the law; automobile-associated deaths among children under 4 years old decreased more than 50% during the same period (3). In New York, where seat belt use became mandatory January 1, 1985, seat belt use rates increased from 16% before the law to 57% 4 months after the law; fatalities decreased 19%, despite a modest increase in mileage driven (4).

If state laws fail to meet the DOT criteria, all new cars will have to incorporate automatic occupant-protection systems, such as automatic seat belts, airbags, or passive interiors, none of which require active commitment by the vehicle occupant. Nonbelt occupant-protection systems used together with seat belts afford greater protection to motor vehicle occupants than either used alone (5).

Continued promotion of occupant-protection programs is likely to change seat belt use patterns and highway fatality rates nationwide. It is important that these changes be monitored carefully to assess program effectiveness and to target areas for improvement. Since the states are responsible for enacting and enforcing mandatory-use laws, state-specific surveillance of seat belt use and highway fatality rates will be a vital component in the evaluation process.


  1. Cerelli EC. The 1983 traffic fatalities early assessment. Washington, D.C.: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, March 1984 (DOT publication no. HS-806-541).

  2. Campbell BJ. Safety belt injury reduction related to crash severity and front seated position. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, March 1984 (HSRC publication no. PR 129).

  3. Decker MD, Dewey MJ, Hutcheson RH Jr, Schaffner W. The use and efficacy of child restraint devices: the Tennessee experience, 1982 and 1983. JAMA 1984;252:2571-5.

  4. Rourke, W. Governor's Traffic Safety Committee. Personal communication.

  5. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Federal motor vehicle safety standard: occupant crash protection. Federal Register 1984;49:28962-9010 (docket no. 74-14; notice no. 36).

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