Stricter Seat Belt Laws?

Before Thanksgiving, the Judiciary Committee heard testimony in support of a bill to tighten the state’s seat belt law. I’m considering supporting the change, based on the compelling evidence that it would save lives.

Currently, police can write a $25 ticket for failure to wear a seatbelt. The ticket is not considered a “moving violation” and has no impact on insurance rates. The law provides that the law shall be enforced “only when an operator of a motor vehicle has been stopped for a violation of the motor vehicle laws or some other offense.” In other words, the police cannot stop a motorist for failure to wear a seat belt. The police can only ticket for a seat belt violation if they’ve already stopped a motorist for some other lawful reason.

The bill under consideration, House 1187 would allow officers to stop vehicles for the sole reason that occupants aren’t wearing their seat belts. However it would not allow police to search vehicles on that basis, stating specifically that “a police officer may not search or inspect a motor vehicle, its contents, the driver, or a passenger solely because of a violation of this section”. The bill would raise the fine from $25 to $50, but would not make it a moving violation for insurance purposes.  The new fine level would would be roughly in the middle of the national range.

Driving has gotten considerably safer over the last 50 years with fatalities per 100 million miles traveled declining from 5.18 in 1963 to 1.14 in 2011.   Seat belt use is “unquestionably, the most important vehicle crash safety innovation” contributing to that long term decline.

While seat belt installation expanded in the 60s, the first mandatory seat belt law was passed in New York in 1984. Today, the observed seat belt use rate in the 33 states with a primary seat belt law averages 90%, while it averages 79% in other states (16 with secondary laws and 1 no with law covering adults).

Massachusetts, one of the 16 states with only a secondary seat belt law, does have relatively low seat belt use. According to the 2014 annual observational survey, 76.6% of drivers in Massachusetts use seat belts, but that is well below the national average of 87.0%. Only Montana, New Hampshire and Arkansas had lower seat belt use than Massachusetts — New Hampshire being the only state in the country without an adult seat belt law in 2014.

We heard strong testimony from a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, who took the time to travel to Massachusetts for the hearing. He testified calmly and factually, but with evident conviction, that moving from secondary to primary enforcement would save lives.

He reported that fatalities have fallen roughly 7 percent after the transition from secondary to primary enforcement of seat belt laws in other states. This would translate into roughly a dozen lives per year in Massachusetts, based on occupant fatalities of 200 per year. Of course it would also reduce injuries. He made the point that the costs of fatality and injury are born not only by the victims, but also by society as whole.

The main concerns about the bill are that it will significantly increase motor vehicle stops and could increase racially-motivated motor vehicle stops. These are both concerns that I share. Before and after studies show that seat belt citations do rise significantly after implementation of a primary seat belt law, although the share of seat-belt tickets issued to minorities does not change. Several national organizations representing a minority perspective have come out in support of primary enforcement.

As always, I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts.

You can still comment on the issue at this continuation thread — the discussion below is closed.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

162 replies on “Stricter Seat Belt Laws?”

  1. While I am in favor of safety and believe strongly in the use of seatbelts, I also believe that many stops are made in the interest of revenue generation and not safety. If police were truly concerned about safety, they would ticket tailgaters and drunk drivers much more than they do now. They would NOT use unmarked vehicles, as a visible police presence is shown to reduce unsafe driving. Ticketing as taxing is wrong.

  2. Although I agree with seat-belt use, and always wear my seat-belt, I disagree that further laws need to be created for something that doesn’t impact other drivers. Amending the law to require those under 18- or 21- to wear them seems feasible, but thereafter it should be up to the person that is directly affected by not wearing one. Enforcing the current laws where if someone is pulled over and is seen not wearing their seatbelt, I find reasonable, as well as punishing those drivers that have children unbuckled in a vehicle that are under the age of 18- or 21-.

  3. Thanks you for this information.
    I support your decision to vote in favor of the primary seat belt laws for the rationale you shared.
    Thank you,
    Caren Peters

  4. I don’t disagree with the higher penalty amount, but I do disagree that people can be pulled over solely for that as I believe that’s a bit over the top.

  5. I do not approve of this law. I feel that, as long as not wearing a seat belt poses a danger only to the individual in question and not to others, then that should be a personal decision and not subject to state regulation. As far as I understand it, our Constitution includes the right for an individual to make less-than-optimal decisions regarding their own personal safety.

    1. Steve,

      Not wearing a seat belt does pose a danger to more than just the individual. Any other passengers in the car are also put at risk, as someone who is not wearing a seat belt can become a projectile in the event of a crash.

  6. I support the proposed legislation. It will prevent injury and help young people to learn to keep themselves and their friends safer.

  7. I would be against supporting this bill. I believe the existing law already addresses safety issues. Looks like more $$$$ fees and not increase safety. Spend more time eliminating graft, corruption and waste in our government to make our future safe!

  8. Altho I appreciate any effort to increase the use of seat belts, the police tell us – on a regular basis – that they don’t have time to ticket cyclists, moving vehicles for laws already on the books. I would prefer that the time be spent ticketing cars making left turns when not allowed, cars speeding, cars blocking intersections and the most egregious cyclists. There are not many of them but they are noticed by pedestrians and give cyclists a bad name.

  9. I would support the bill- all people should be wearing seatbelts -black or otherwise. When there is increased injury or death because a seat belt wasn’t used the increased cost trickles down and effects everybody.

    1. Interesting you bring up race in your response, as if you already know this law will be used to target already vulnerable communities of minorities. I cannot support this measure in good conscience knowing the dangers minorities already face at the hands of law enforcement. And it appears you know this danger exists as well, but you’re choosing to add to the misery.

  10. Hi Will,

    I would vote no. The police should be spending their time stopping more drivers for speeding, texting as well as enforcing existing laws.

    It would also be helpful if the Police when on details would get of their vehicles and off of their cell phones and supervise the traffic and road work being performed.

    We don’t need more government regulations!

  11. I do not think police should stop people when the driver or an adult passenger not wearing a seat belt. I am concerned about profiling. I also do not think it is the job of government to protect me from myself, even when there is a monetary cost to society. I think currently drivers can be stopped for a child passenger not wearing a seat belt, but if not I would consider that.

  12. I support this legislation. I agree that a higher ticket amount is appropriate as well as stopping a driver for not wearing his/her seatbelt.

    If more than a dozen lives can be saved by greater enforcement of seatbelt use, I think there’s value.

  13. Sen. Brownsberger,

    The legislation seems pretty straightforward. It does not require police to stop drivers who aren’t wearing a seat belt, but rather allows them to do so if they notice it. That is appropriate.

    The increase in the fine is also appropriate.

  14. Dear Senator Brownsberger,

    Thank you for your work in the Senate, and for keeping us constituents updated on what’s going on in the Legislature. It can be daunting (for you & your staff as well, I’m sure!) to try to keep track of everything, so your thoughtful summaries & solicitations of input are very much appreciated.

    I am very much in favor of the proposed legislation. I’d like to add in greater enforcement of existing Boston traffic laws, but obviously that’s an issue for local government. 🙂 But the proposed changes to existing seatbelt are simple for vehicle drivers and passengers to implement, and very good for their health, and by extension, the wellbeing of the Commonwealth.

    I hope you and your staff enjoyed the Thanskgiving holiday, and do enjoy the coming holidays as well.


    Jamie Simpson
    Boston, MA

  15. I have no issues with the proposed change as written. I would support making it a moving violation if only the driver is unbelted (after all you can’t totally control your passengers).

  16. I completely oppose this law. Stopping someone for not wearing a seatbelt (while not committing any other infractions) is akin to a nanny state. If we are so concerned about decreasing fatalities on the roads, maybe we should ban motorcycles because by design they are far more dangerous. Yet, we allow them freely, without reservations.

  17. I had no idea that Massachusetts wasn’t more strict, and in view of your figures about minorities NOT seeming to be targeted, I’m in favor . . .
    Thanks for asking.

  18. Shocked to learn that our state has such a low rate of seatbelt use.

    I definitely approve tighter laws to enforce seat-belt use, not only to save lives, but also to reduce auto insurance rates.


  19. Let’s ban use of all hand held devices while driving a moving vehicle. NY has done so, and we need to too.

    We need to rethink laws regarding bicycles so that they are enforceable. Many cyclists ride at night with no lights.

    Let’s make life safer for everyone: pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.

  20. I do not support this legislation. Seat belt laws protect those who wear the seatbelts and often have little effect on the safety of others (unless the individual flies out of the car). While I support all to wear a safety belt, I do not believe it should warrant someone to be pulled over. Let’s talk about that: how often have I been driving down the street or highway and the road is backed up because an officer pulled someone over in the middle of a lane, blocking traffic? Until police are smarter about where they pull people over and are conscious of the traffic these pull-overs create, we should NOT increase the pull-over rate.

  21. I am strongly opposed to primary enforcement of seatbelt laws.

    I think seatbelts are great inventions, and insist on all my family using them; but I believe that allowing primary enforcement will significantly increase unconstitutional “pretextual stops”.

    Law enforcement officers cannot, in reality, determine before they start to try to pull someone over, whether they’re wearing a seatbelt or not, any more than you or I can safely or practically see whether another driver we pass on the road is wearing a seatbelt.

    This means that logically, most drivers pulled over for the stated reason of primary seatbelt enforcement, will in fact be being pulled over for other things that the officer cannot so easily class as an offense; it is a retrospective justification for a stop based on a hunch. Before a stop, the Constitution requires reasonable suspicion of engagement in an actual crime, even if people are claiming that ignoring Constitutional requirements will be good for the safety of the public.

    I should also note the policy context of this request in the Legislature. Law enforcement has been pressing for this power for years. In fact, over a decade of effort by Sen. Chang-Diaz and Rep. Rushing to get the police to collect and report consistent data on traffic stops, has run into the roadblock of police insistence that they must be allowed to do primary seatbelt enforcement in exchange for reporting data on traffic stops. Here, from your description, they’re asking for this power, but offering nothing in return, in terms accepting data collection or reporting as proposed in their bills or in ours (H. 2170).

    If primary seatbelt enforcment were implemented as it stands, we simply wouldn’t know whether in MA it “increased the share of seatbelt tickets” – or other violations – issued to minorities, because that data is not being collected or reported right now.

    Here’s a good discussion from when we last rejected this in Massachusetts:

    The language restricting searches “solely” on the basis of a seatbelt violation means very little. Once the car is pulled over, law enforcement often shows little restraint in coming up with other reasons to search a car that have nothing to do with crime. Perhaps the back window is tinted to a shade too dark. Perhaps there is an air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror, or too much litter in the back seats. All of these have been used and continue to be used as pretexts for searches.

    Last, if it happened to be true that it wouldn’t result in an increase in vehicular searches, then that would mean of necessity that scarce police resources would be being diverted towards the issuing of $50 tickets and away from the investigation of more serious crimes. The analysis that it would save a dozen lives in Massachusetts per year if it passed, ignores this diversion of resources; we have no way to measure how many incremental lives will be lost as a result of more police time being spent on this kind of pretextual “seatbelt” enforcement. Last, it also ignores the reality that drivers, especially minority drivers, are not at a zero risk of losing their lives when they have been pulled over by the police.

  22. It seems like a no brainier. If a primary seat belt law saves lives and reduces injuries, then I’m in favor of the law. I do like the provisions of it not leading to a vehicle search and it not being a moving violation. As long as those provisions remain this change in seat belt law has my support.

  23. Hi Will:

    I would recommend that you support a compromise. I have no problem with the $50 fine nor the moving violation assessment for insurance purposes. I do have a problem with mission creep if officers pull people over for not wearing their seat belts and doing a visual search of the car and passengers for no compelling reason. I think this could lead to abuse by some police officers, and that would be an invasion of privacy.

    I would support stricter laws on cell phone use while driving. That is far more dangerous than anything else. Distracted driving is a huge problem. While everyone wants to use their phones, a hands-free requirement should be enacted and absolutely no texting or even having the phone in your hands while driving (looking at maps or texts) should be a moving violation and a $200 ticket. This has worked in many other states. How many times have you seen cars swerving outside of their lanes or stuck behind a person at a red light reading their emails? This has got to stop. Good luck with all this – Massachusetts may not be Live Free or Die, but we’re pretty close to our neighbors to the north.

  24. I don’t disagree with the higher penalty amount, but like other commenters, I don’t think I would support people getting pulled over solely for non-use (in adults). I remain concerned about racial profiling, not only for pull-overs but for what might happen after being pulled over. I am concerned that some of the studies may not have addressed this question properly, or at all. For instance, the 2011 NHTSA study did not examine what proportion of people, by race, were subject to searches or other measures after having been stopped for a seatbelt violation.

  25. While at a “gut level” I share some of the concerns expressed here by others, the extensive data available on this issue ranges from not supporting those concerns to directly contradicting them.

    Racial profiling is undeniably a problem, but lack of seatbelt use — with a corresponding increase in deaths and injuries from accidents — is a problem with a much bigger impact on minority communities.

    Efforts to end racial profiling — which should continue and be a high priority — should not stand in the way of making driving safer for everyone. The data are clear: primary enforcement of seatbelt laws make driving safer.

    I support this legislation.

  26. Would be a good idea to have both private and public buses have seat belts. Amazes me to know School Buses do not require them!
    Took a Colonial Bus to Swansea with the Arlington Retired Men’s Club and it had seat belts.

  27. There should not be a law forcing you to wear a seat belt. Similarly, bicycle helmets should not be a law. An adult individual should be able to take as many or as few safety precautions they want to. There is no victim if a crash occurs and injures those not wearing a seat belt as it was their choice.

    I also agree with the concern of increased motor vehicle stops. Officers should only be required to stop vehicles for infractions that would be a safety threat to other vehicles.

  28. I strongly agree with beefing up the seatbelt law.
    Let’s get MA into the 21st century as soon as possible.
    I am even more concerned with the use of cellphones while driving. I’ve had some close calls lately. The person wasn’t even aware I was there.
    Wish there was an interest here in MA in traffic enforcement. I can go months without seeing anyone pulled over. Where are the cops?

  29. I am vehement opposed to this new tool for law enforcement to target civilians for searches with the pretense that it would save lives. If the death penalty doesn’t deter murderers, a new law allowing police to stop people solely for seatbelt violation won’t make people use their seat belts. Current seat belt laws already disproportionately affect low income mindorites, this new law will only add to that problem. Now simply forgetting to put on a seatbelt could get a young black man killed. We currently have an assault on civil liberties in this country, and tightening arbitrary laws with more dubious claims about public safety will only add to the problem.

  30. “The police can only ticket for a seat belt violation if they’ve already stopped a motorist for some other lawful reason”

    Unfortunately, in practice this will become a tax on driving while black, poor, etc.. I see selective enforcement as a huge problem with this proposal, with very little evidence it would increase compliance. There should be increased pressure on auto manufacturers to devise safer vehicles with restraints that are harder to bypass.

  31. Hi Will! Yes, I am in favor of the tougher seat belt law. I’ve always thought the secondary enforcement was so weak as to be practically useless. Thanks for asking!


    1. So you would rather have police pulling over drivers for forgetting to click their seatbelt than investigating rape, murder and robbery. Because it IS an either/or scenario. And officer pulling someone over for a seatbelt violation is one (or in this case thousands) of officers unavailable to respond to crimes that affect the public, as opposed to a crime that only affects the “suspect.”

  32. Will,

    I would instead support significant increases in fines for cell phone use, texting, and other driving infractions. Then the officer could reasonably issue a fine for not using a seat belt.

    I think the risk of racial profiling is too great, since we live in a society that can’t seem to shed its racism, despite clear complicity in having created and perpetuated it.

    I would also support very significant increases in fines for the increasingly dangerous, badly or entirely unlit, un-helmeted, un-vested, and traffic rule ignoring bicyclists that are everywhere, and often in the dark.

    Thanks so much for all you do, and hope you are well.


  33. Dear Senator,
    I support the expanded seat belt law and hope it passes. Thanks for sending out this update.
    Leah Ricci

  34. While on its face the law seems reasonable, I too worry about mission creep. I think that police power is very often being abused and misdirected. I hate to add another pretext to pull someone over. In the current climate, I would up the fine, but keep enforcement secondary. We need to clarify what we expect from policing in our communities. That is a very important conversation that we must have.

    If someone does not wear a seatbelt, they are the person likely to be hurt or killed. Far more important to legislate against is handheld cell phone use while driving. Distracted drivers are more likely to hurt or kill others. As a pedestrian and cyclist, I often feel endangered by drivers who are on their phones and not paying sufficient attention to their driving.

  35. I believe the law should stay the way it is currently enforced.
    Wearing a seatbelt is the smart thing to do, and everyone in my car wears one. However, I am not in favor of moving the violation from a secondary to a primary enforcement.
    I am also not in favor of increasing the fine from $25 to $50.
    Thank you.

  36. Perhaps you could explain to us how the police can tell if a seatbelt is being used.

    Thanks for alerting us to this issue!

  37. While, perhaps,laudable, I do not support changing the current law regarding seat belts as it further restricts personal choices and increases the possibility of police over-aggressiveness in the prosecution of the proposed changes.

  38. Sounds like a VERY good move. Now that Jerry Williams isn’t around to mount another anti-seatbelt movement….

  39. I thank you for your thoughtful summary of the proposed bill. I support it because seat belt use indeed saves lives.

  40. The biggest problem here is that an officer can now pull over drivers for no reason at all, seatbelt or not, and write a ticket for the violation if they turn up nothing else. This expanded power for police to target drivers is a very dangerous step, especially since THEY’RE the ones asking for the increase in authority. I wonder if the people supporting this rule would feel so strongly should they be saddled with a ticket they don’t deserve, and hit with a rise in insurance rate. The last thing this state needs is another avenue for police to stop and search otherwise law abiding citizens.

  41. Frankly, I am more concerned about the lack of enforcement of moving violations. I would prefer to see the police concentrate on these, which endanger others as well as the perpetrator, rather than pursuing a new agenda. Perhaps simply increasing the fine would be a more logical approach.

  42. Totally against it. I am a strong police supporter but in view of what is going on in the US today ,with racial issues ,I do not believe that this would be a color neutral issue. It is the government intruding more and more into our lives and deciding what is best for us.

  43. I do think that we should encourage everyone to wear their seat belts, but this is not the way to do it and do not support this law change as written.

    I would support the increased fines; the funds collected from the increase in fines could be spent on safety education in public schools. However, I am against the new vehicle stopping portion; I worry about racially motivated stops and even age motivated stops. I would stick to fining only when laws are being broken.

  44. While it makes sense to discuss the implications, fairness and resources needed for tightening up this change, I am very concerned about it, especially regarding the timing and the perception of heightened police involvement. The discussion and resolution should not occur while the political divisiveness, policing practices, racial tensions issues are as raw and crucial as they are right now. Let’s not add to any fears etc about the possibility of govt or police over- reach. I would fully support a very well done public service ad campaign at this time. I would wait for a better atmosphere to advocate/implement such changes in the law. Thanks.

  45. I strongly support this bill.
    Seat belts not only save lives,but minimizes injuries. Each of these would contribute to lowering car insurance rates and medical care costs that affect us all.
    I was disappointed that only 76.6% wear seat belts in MA. Irresponsible to themselves and society not to wear seat belts.

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