Increased Fines for Seat Belt Use

In Goodwin, Kirley, et al., 2013, this intervention includes using a point-based system under which drivers could be assessed demerit points against their license. Because this element of the intervention has not been proven effective, the write-up concentrates on increased fines. The history portion is taken from the general discussion of seat belts for adults—trends and laws.

Penalties for most belt use law violations are low. As of May 2014, a violation resulted in a typical fine of $25 or less in all but 14 States (IIHS, [2014d]). Low fines may not convince nonusers to buckle up and may also send a message that belt use laws are not taken seriously. (p. 2-15)


All new passenger cars had some form of seat belts beginning in 1964, shoulder belts in 1968, and integrated lap and shoulder belts in 1974 (ACTS, 2001). However, few occupants used the belts. The first widespread survey done in 19 cities in 1982, observed 11 percent belt use for drivers and front-seat passengers (Williams and Wells, 2004). This survey became the benchmark for tracking belt use nationwide. (Goodwin, Kirley, et al., 2013, p. 2-4)

New York enacted the first belt use law in 1984 with other states soon following. Evaluations of the first seat belt laws found that they tended to increase seat belt use from baseline levels of about 15 percent to 20 percent to post-law use rates of about 50 percent (Nichols and Ledingham, 2008). (Goodwin, Kirley, et al., 2013, p. 2-4)

By 1996, every state, with the exception of New Hampshire, had a mandatory seat belt use law covering drivers and front-seat occupants.


As of May 2014, 11 primary law states and three secondary law states had maximum base fines for first offenses of $30 or more for all adult drivers (IIHS, 2014d). A few states charge higher fines by location (Louisiana), for drivers versus passengers (Ohio), and younger offenders versus adults (Kansas). Three states, Oregon, Texas, and Washington, have fines of more than $100.


Houston and Richardson ([2005]) studied the effects of belt law type (primary or secondary), fine level, and coverage (front seat only or front and rear seats) using belt use data from 1991 to 2001. They found that primary belt laws and higher fines increase belt use. (Goodwin, Kirley, et al., 2013, p. 2-15)

For each additional $1 in fines, seat belt use increases by 0.15 percentage points. The model already factors in primary vs. secondary enforcement, so the amount of the fine seems to have an additional effect. They also estimated the effect of different states increasing their fines to $50. Many secondary states would see gains of 12–15 percentage points, based on the level of fines in 2002 (Houston and Richardson, 2005).

[Nichols, Tippetts, et al., 2010] examined the relationship between seat belt violation fine and belt use and found that increasing fines was associated with increased belt use. Increased a State’s fine from $25 to $60 was associated with an increase of 3 to 4 percent in both observed belt use and belt use among front-seat occupants killed in crashes. Similarly, increasing the fine from $25 to $100 was associated with an increase of 6 to 7 percent. (Goodwin, Kirley, et al., 2013, p. 2-15)

Few states levy fines of more than $100, but fines of this magnitude conferred little improvement.

In a national survey in 2000, 42 percent of drivers who did not use belts regularly said they would definitely be more likely to wear belts if the fine were increased. Another 25 percent of these drivers said they would probably be more likely to wear their belts (ACTS, 2001). Surveys in North Carolina also found that some nonusers would buckle up if the fine were doubled to $50 (Williams and Wells, 2004) (Goodwin, Kirley, et al., 2013, p. 2-15)

Measuring Effectiveness

Effectiveness of seat belt penalties is generally measured in the percentage of vehicle occupants wearing seat belts. Percentages can be observed (NHTSA annually conducts an observational survey called the National Occupant Protection Use Survey [NOPUS]) or taken from data in FARS.


The direct costs associated with increasing fine levels or assessing driver’s license points of minimal. (Goodwin, Kirley, et al., 2013, p. 2-16)

Time to Implement

Fine increases can be implemented as soon as they are publicized and appropriate changes are made to the motor vehicle record systems.

Other Issues


If penalties are excessively low, then they may have little effect. If they are excessively high, then law enforcement officers may be reluctant to issue citations and judges may be reluctant to impose them. States should choose penalty levels that strike an appropriate balance. (Goodwin, Kirley, et al., 2013, p. 2-16)

In addition, it is possible that, as fines increase, the likelihood of nonpayment because of financial constraints will increase as well.

Penalty Levels Are Part of a System

Penalty levels are part of the complete system of well-publicized enforcement of strong belt use laws. Appropriate penalty levels help make strong laws. But without effective enforcement, judicial support, and good publicity, increased penalties may have little effect. (Goodwin, Kirley, et al., 2013, p. 2-16)