Seat Belt Safety Statistics [2024]: How Buckling Up Saves Lives

Seat belts are essential to staying safe when driving, and using one can improve your chances of surviving a car crash.

A father is keeping his child safe by using a seat belt
Updated May 13, 2024
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Seat belts are one of the best ways to stay safe while driving. Using one properly can often be the difference between walking away from an accident or suffering significant injuries or sometimes even death.

But don’t just take our word for it. Check out these seat belt statistics to help you understand how much safety devices can help in a car accident and ensure you never forget to buckle up again.

In this article

Key takeaways

  • 91.6% of people in the U.S. used seat belts while driving in 2022, up from 90.7% in 2019.
  • In 2020, 51% of people who died in car accidents weren’t wearing seat belts.
  • Each year, an estimated 15,000 lives are saved by wearing a seat belt.
  • 9.2% of people say they don’t buckle up when they go a short distance.
  • Only 1% of passengers wearing seat belts were ejected from the car during a crash.
  • NHTSA estimates that nearly 375,000 lives have been saved by seat belt use since 1975.

In 2022, about nine out of 10 people used seat belts while driving

As many as 91.6% of all drivers and passengers in the U.S. used seat belts when they were on the road in 2022. This was an increase from a 90.7% usage rate in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

If you’re the driver or a front-seat passenger in a passenger car, using a seat belt can reduce your fatal injury risk by 45%. It also cuts your odds of sustaining a moderate to critical injury by 50%. The numbers are even better for passengers in a small truck, as your chances of a fatal injury drop by 60% and of a moderate to critical injury decrease by 65% when you use a seat belt.

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

In 2020, 51% of passenger car crash deaths were linked to not using seat belts

In 2020, 51% of the 23,824 people killed in passenger car crashes were not wearing seat belts, a 4% increase from 2019, according to the NHTSA. An estimated 2,549 people could have survived fatal car crashes in 2017 if they had used a seat belt.

Despite the increase in deaths from lack of seat belt use in 2020, the data presents a trend of increasing seat belt usage in recent decades. In 2000, only 70.7% of front-seat passengers were observed using seat belts, while 60.2% of occupant deaths came from being unrestrained. In 2020, seat belt use was at 90.3%, and unrestrained deaths were nearly 51% of all crash fatalities.

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Safety Council

Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death in the U.S.

Nearly 50% of people who die in car crashes were not wearing seat belts. Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death among those aged 1 to 54 in the U.S.

In 2018, 22,697 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Most crash-related deaths in the United States affect both drivers and their passengers.

Unintentional injury deaths, which include car crashes, are the leading cause of death for Americans aged 1 to 44. Although deaths from unintentional poisonings, like drug overdoses, have overtaken motor vehicle deaths in recent years, motor vehicle deaths are still the second highest cause of accidental death in the U.S. and the primary cause of death for U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Centers for Disease Control

Car seat use reduces the risk of child injury

Seat belt use reduces the risk of death and serious injury by about 50% for older children and adults. According to the National Safety Council, 32% of the crash fatalities among children up to age 4 were due to being unrestrained.

A study of children involved in car crashes found that restrained children were 66% more likely to be buckled into appropriate restraints if their state law followed best practice recommendations, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Using a car seat reduces the risk of injury for children by up to 82%, compared to using a seat belt only.

The crash death rate of seven-year-olds was 25% lower in states with booster seat laws that included seven-year-olds than in states whose booster seat laws only covered younger children.

Source: National Safety Council, Centers for Disease Control

Children in states with booster seat laws were 20% less likely to die in a car crash

Using a booster seat can help reduce serious injury by 45% for children four to eight years old compared to seat belt use alone.

Booster seats were also found to help prevent moderate and severe crash injuries among children ages seven to eight. The NHTSA recommends that a child's minimum weight should be 40 pounds for booster seat use.

A recent Zebra survey found that out of 1,500 respondents, 32% knew that 40 pounds was the minimum safe booster seat weight, but 27.4% thought children had to be over 50 pounds, while 20.6% said children had to be under 30 pounds. 20% of people thought children weighing 20 pounds could safely use a booster seat.

Source: Centers for Disease Control, The Zebra

California is the state with the highest seat belt usage in 2021

California had the country's highest average seat belt use in 2021, with 97.2% of drivers saying that they use seat belts, compared to New Hampshire, which had the lowest rate at 75.5%.

In Washington, D.C., the rate of drivers wearing seat belts increased to 95.9%, an increase of 0.2% from 95.7% in 2020. South Dakota saw the most significant jump from 68.3%in 2020 to 86.9% in 2021, an increase of 18.6%.

In 2020, the observed seat belt use was 91% for drivers and 90% for front-seat passengers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). This is six times higher than in 1983 when only 14% of front-seat occupants wore seat belts. In 2020, 80% of backseat occupants wore seat belts.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Unbelted rear passengers increase the risk of death to the driver

It's not just drivers that need to wear seat belts. According to an IIHS report, an unbelted rear-seat passenger sitting behind a belted driver increases the risk of death to the driver by 137% compared to a belted rear-seat passenger.

29% of fatalities in adults aged 75 and older were from not using seat belts. Comparatively, the 25- to 34-year old age group experienced 61% unrestrained deaths in motor vehicle accidents.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Using a lap and shoulder belt reduces the risk of fatal injury

Front-seat passengers using a lap and shoulder belt were 60% less likely to die in a car crash if riding in a pickup truck, van, or SUV. For those riding in a car, the percentage was 45%.

More than 75% of people ejected during a fatal crash die from injuries, but only 1% of people wearing seat belts were thrown from vehicles during a collision.

Despite seat belts improving the outcomes of deadly car accidents, not every person uses them correctly. About 6.7% of respondents to a survey conducted by The Zebra said that they think it's safe to wear the shoulder strap of a seat belt behind your back.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, The Zebra

Non-fatal crash injuries lead to billions of medical and work loss costs

Non-fatal crash injuries to drivers and passengers resulted in almost $62 billion in lifetime medical and work loss costs in 2017.

According to a 2016 National Institute of Health (NIH) study — the most recent data available — seat belts significantly reduced hospital costs among injured motor vehicle occupants. When a lap and shoulder seat belt was used correctly, the mean hospital cost was $2909.

Comparatively, those not using any type of seat belt restraint cost hospitals a mean amount of $7,099.

In comparison to those not using a seat belt, car occupants using a lap-only seat belt saw a 74.1% reduction in hospital costs, while a lap and shoulder seat belt reduced mean hospital costs by 84.7%. Using a shoulder-only seat belt only offered a 40.6% reduction. Children's seat belt usage reduced mean hospital costs by 95.9%, while properly using a booster seat reduced costs by 82.8%.

Source: Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Health

In 1961, Wisconsin became the first state to require seat belts in cars

According to AAA, seat belts were invented in the 19th century and patented in the U.S. in 1885. The first federal law mandating seat belts in all new cars was passed in 1968. As recently as 1980, only 10% of Americans wore seat belts.

While Wisconsin was the first state to require installing seat belts in cars, no laws said drivers had to wear seat belts until 1984 when New York became the first state to enact one.

According to the IIHS, seat belt use in front and back seats reduces the risk of severe injury or death in a car accident. There was a 45% reduction in fatal injuries to front seat occupants when using a lap and shoulder seat belt correctly. Seat belts reduced moderate or critical injury by 50%.

Source: AAA, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

South Carolina had the highest death per vehicle mile traveled

In 2020, South Carolina had the highest fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) at 1.97, while Mississippi was second with a rate of 1.90. Massachusetts had the lowest rate, followed by Minnesota (.63 and .76, respectively).

According to the NHTSA, 38,824 people were killed in traffic accidents in 2020, or 11.78 of every 100,000 people. The fatality rate of licensed drivers per 100,000 people was 17.01, and 13.04 for registered vehicles.

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Airbags alone are not enough to survive a car crash

Airbags can help reduce vehicle fatalities, but when used without a seat belt they are not enough to protect drivers or passengers in a car accident. The NHTSA says that the force of an airbag can seriously injure or even kill you if you aren’t wearing a seat belt.

According to the IIHS, in a study of potentially fatal crashes with back-seat occupants above age 5, lap belts helped reduce the risk of catastrophic injury for car occupants by 32%, and 63% in vans and SUVs. Lap belt-only seat belts weren’t as effective as lap and shoulder belts, but the study found any type of restraint better than being unrestrained in a vehicle.

Source: National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

California and North Carolina have the highest seat belt fines

The Governors Highway Safety Association found that 34 states, Washington, D.C., and four U.S. territories have primary seat belt laws (meaning you can be pulled over for not wearing a seat belt) for front-seat occupants.

California has the highest fines for driving without a seat belt, where you’ll pay $162 ($20 fine plus $142 penalties and assessments). In North Carolina, you’ll pay $160.50, including court costs for anyone over age 16 caught without a seat belt in the front seats.

Seat belt laws vary significantly by state. New Hampshire does not have primary or secondary laws requiring adults to wear seat belts in the front or back seats, although all drivers and passengers under 18 must buckle up.

Fifteen states have secondary laws for adult front-seat occupants. This means that while you can’t be pulled over for not buckling up, you can receive a citation if you get pulled over for a primary offense like speeding and are found not wearing a seat belt. Forty states and two U.S. territories have laws enforcing seat belt use by back-seat passengers.

Source: Governor’s Highway Safety Association

Men aged 19 to 29 are three times as likely to never or seldom use seat belts

Adults aged 18 to 34 were nearly 10% less likely to wear seat belts than those over 35.

Men were 10% less likely to wear seat belts than women, and 6.1% of men aged 19 to 21 and 6.7% of men aged 22 to 29 had the highest rates of non-seat belt usage. In 2018, more than half of teens aged 13 to 19 and adults aged 20 to 44 who died in a car crash were not wearing seat belts.

Fewer than half of passenger vehicle drivers and front seat passengers killed in 2020, 44% and 49%, respectively, were confirmed to be using seat belts. Only 26% of fatally injured backseat passengers aged 13 and older wore seat belts.

Source: Bankrate, The Zebra, Centers for Disease Control, National Safety Council, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

More people use their seat belts during the day

According to a 2022 survey by the NHTSA, seat belt use among those driving during the weekdays was 91.5%. Traveling during rush hour within the same time window saw a 91.3% seat belt usage rate, up from 90.1% in 2021.

About 94.4% of those traveling on expressways wore seat belts in 2022, more than those traveling on surface streets, at 89.4% in the same year. People in heavy traffic were more likely to buckle up, with 93.3% wearing seat belts compared to 82.6% in light traffic. 93.3% of people in fast traffic were buckled in, compared to just 88.3% of people stuck in slow traffic.

Weather plays a large part in driving safety. According to the NHTSA, seat belt usage among drivers in clear weather increased from 90.4% in 2021 to 91.2% in 2022. People traveling in bad weather were more likely to wear their seat belts, with 94.3% in 2022, compared to 90.5% in 2021. Those traveling on a weekday also increased their seat belt usage, from 90.0% in 2021 to 91.5% in 2022.

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

In 2022, the Western region had the highest seat belt compliance

According to the NHTSA, people in Western states were more likely to wear seat belts than anywhere else in the country in 2022, with 96.2% of drivers complying with seat belt laws. That is an increase from 2021 when 94.5% of people were buckled in. People in Midwest states were the least likely to wear their seat belts, at just 89.3% in 2022, but up from 88.5% in 2021.

People in urban areas were more likely to wear seat belts in 2022, at 92%, while those in rural communities were the least likely to wear them, at 90.8%. Seat belt use in both urban and rural areas was up by 1.5% and 0.7%, respectively, from 2021.

In 2019, crash deaths per 100 million miles traveled were nearly twice as high in rural areas than in urban areas, at 1.66 versus 0.86, respectively.

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Bankrate

The impact of seat belts on your auto insurance rates

While wearing a seat belt can help save your life, it can also help you keep your insurance rates as low as possible.

You’ll likely pay a much higher penalty for getting a DUI or being caught using your cell phone while driving, but not wearing your seat belt can still cost you money. Getting a ticket for not wearing a seat belt can increase your car insurance by 5.8%.

Whether a seat belt violation impacts your insurance rates may depend on where you live. Most states consider seat belt violations a primary enforcement traffic violation, meaning police officers can pull you over for not wearing a seat belt, or improperly wearing one, even if you aren’t breaking any other laws.

Some states treat a seat belt ticket as a moving violation, like speeding or any other violation committed while the vehicle is in motion. If you get a ticket for not wearing a seat belt in one of these states, you may see a rise in your insurance premium.

In states where a seat belt ticket is considered a non-moving violation, like a parking ticket, you likely won't see an impact on your insurance rates.

As you search for the best car insurance, understand how your state handles seat belt violations since any citations for not wearing a seat belt will likely factor into your premium total.

Bottom line

Wearing a seat belt can drastically improve your chances of surviving a car accident. You may not think polyester straps and a plastic and metal buckle can do much to protect you in a car accident, but as we’ve seen, the statistics don’t lie.

Make sure to wear your seat belt whenever you’re in the car, even if you’re just going down the block, and ensure that children are always properly buckled into their safety belts or booster seats.

Sources

1. National Safety Council Injury Facts - Seat Belts

2. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - Seat Belts

3. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - Seat Belt Use in 2022

4. The Zebra - Seat Belt Statistics

5. Bankrate - Seat belt safety statistics & facts 2022

6. Centers for Disease Control - Child Passenger Safety: Get the Facts

7. Governors Highway Safety Association - Seat Belts

8. Governors Highway Safety Association - Seat Belt Laws By State

9. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - Traffic Safety Facts 2020 Data

10. Centers for Disease Control - Facts About Seat Belt Use

11. Progressive - Does not wearing a seat belt affect your insurance?

12. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - Seat belts

13. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Traffic Safety Facts - Seat Belt Use in 2021 — Use Rates in the States and Territories

14. National Safety Council - Crashes by Time of Day and Day of Week

15. AAA - A Seat Belt History Timeline

16. National Institute of Health - Seatbelt use to save money: Impact on hospital costs of occupants who are involved in motor vehicle crashes

17. Centers for Disease Control - Road Traffic Injuries and Death — A Global Problem

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Author Details

Kate Daugherty

Kate Daugherty is a professional writer with a passion for providing others the head start they deserve on their financial journeys. Largely self-taught, Kate relied on books, blogs, and trial-and-error to learn how to budget and save for the future, all while working to pay back about $15,000 in student loans.