States are moving to close a deadly gap in seat-belt laws that allows rear-seat, adult passengers in half of the states to ride legally without buckling up. Six states — Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Texas— have expanded their seat-belt laws to cover rear-seat occupants since 2007, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia require seat belts for all passengers.
"The most important thing you can do in any vehicle at any time is wear your seat belt in all seating positions," says Michele Fields, general counsel at the Insurance Institute, which aims to reduce deaths, injuries and property damage in highway crashes. "The gaps with regard to children younger than 16 have almost all been closed, but there are still gaps for adults."
Seat-belt use has steadily risen over the past decade as states moved from secondary laws — meaning an officer must stop motorists for some other offense to cite them for not wearing a seat belt — to primary seat-belt laws, which allow police to stop motorists solely for being unbuckled. Last year, the national seat-belt-use rate was 84%, ranging from 68% in Wyoming to 98% in Michigan, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In 2008, the agency says, seat belts saved more than 13,000 lives across the USA. No figures are available on deaths involving rear-seat passengers not wearing belts.
Rear-seat-belt use is less widespread: It was 74% in the USA in 2008, compared with 83% for seat-belt use in front seats. NHTSA reports that rear-seat-belt usage is higher in states that have laws requiring use in all seats. In some states, rear-belt use is actually dropping even as front-belt usage rises. This year in New Jersey, front-belt usage rose to a record 93.7%, but rear-belt use among adults dropped 5 percentage points to 27%, says the state's Division of Highway Traffic Safety. This year, the state passed a secondary seat-belt law covering all adult rear-seat occupants.
Unbuckled occupants "become a back-seat bullet" in an auto accident, says Pam Fischer, state highway traffic safety director. In collisions, experts say, unbelted passengers in the back seat continue to move at the same rate of speed as the vehicle they're in until they hit something — seat back, dashboard, windshield or people in the front seat. Yet many view the back seat as somehow safer.
Isaiah Krull, 18, of Shell Rock, Iowa, used to think so. Two years ago, he climbed into the back seat of a car with two friends for a short ride. He didn't buckle up. "I was thinking since Iowa didn't have any laws about having a seat belt on in the back seat, I was thinking it can't be that bad," he says. When they clipped a stopped school bus, Krull suffered injuries that left him in a coma for 10 days, in a hospital for 30 days and in a Chicago rehabilitation center for 2½ months. He's still recovering.
Krull is now a staunch lobbyist for expanding the state's seat-belt law. The state recently extended it to cover children 11-18 in the back seat. "I'm not finished yet," he says. "I'd like this law to be for everybody in the whole United States."
In Arizona, there are several laws on this subject. Arizona's seat belt law requires occupants in the front seats only to be seat belted. Arizona has a secondary seat belt law, meaning that the police have no authority to stop a vehicle for seat belt non-use. Police can only investigate seat belt non-use after stopping a vehicle for other violations (speeding, etc...).
In addition, Arizona requires children under 16 to be seat belted at all times--regardless of positioning in the vehicle. It is the responsibility of the driver to make sure this law is enforced.
At present, these are the extent of Arizona's seat belt laws. I think we can, and should, do better.