Designed for Safety
Seat Belt Myths and Reality

Seat Belts - Myths and Reality: Fasten It The Right Way

Updated Dec. 25, 2020

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted seat belt laws requiring vehicle occupants to buckle up. However, who the seat belt laws apply to and the ways in which they may be enforced vary state by state. In some states, only front-seat occupants or occupants under a certain age are legally obliged to wear a seat belt. You can find out what the rules are in your state by checking out the driver’s manual.

Seat belt laws can be “primary” or “secondary”. In a state which enforces seat belt use as a primary law, a traffic cop can pull you over and issue you a citation purely for failing to wear a seat belt. Where secondary laws apply, police officers may only cite for failure to wear a seat belt when another traffic violation has been committed. Keep in mind that many states have primary front-occupant seat belt laws but secondary rear-occupant seat belt laws.

Whatever the law in your state, you should always wear a seat belt and ensure your passengers have secured theirs, before setting off on any journey. It has been proven beyond doubt that seat belts save lives.

Positioning a seat belt

An incorrectly positioned seat belt may not provide adequate protection during an emergency stop or collision. The lower portion of the belt which passes across your lap is designed to keep you in your seat if the vehicle stops suddenly. It must be positioned across the hips, not across the lower abdomen. If the lap belt is too high up, your internal organs may be injured during a crash or collision.

The shoulder portion of the seat belt should be secured diagonally across the upper body so that it passes underneath one arm and above the other. When fastening your seat belt, make sure the shoulder belt is not twisted and is neither too loose nor too tight. At the ideal tension, you should be able to fit your fist between the belt and your chest. Never fasten a seat belt so that the shoulder section passes across your neck, as this can lead to serious injuries if the vehicle stops abruptly. If you are not tall enough to position the belt across your shoulders, you will need to sit on a booster seat. This can be a problem for shorter adults.

Do not underestimate the importance of securing your shoulder belt in the correct place. If you crash, this portion of the belt will be the only thing stopping you from being thrown forward into the dashboard, out an open door or through the windshield.

Take your time to fasten the seat belt correctly every time you get into a car. If you pull on the belt too suddenly, it may lock and prevent you from moving naturally in the driver’s seat. The seat belt lock mechanism should only kick in during a sudden stop or impact, to hold you in place. During a normal driving situation, you will need the belt to extend and retract so that you can reach vital controls within the vehicle.

Fastening passenger seat belts

The seat belt fastening procedure for passengers is identical to that of drivers. However, some vehicles only have a lap belt for rear passengers in the center seat. If this is the case in your car, the passenger occupying that seat may have to tighten the seat belt manually, as many rear-center seat belts do not retract automatically.

Seat belts for pregnant women

Pregnant women do face a slightly greater threat from seat belts than other vehicle occupants, as there is a small chance the lap belt may injure the fetus during a collision. Despite this, doctors still recommend the pregnant women always wear a seat belt. Any injuries sustained to the mother or unborn child as a result of a collision will likely be worse if the mother is not wearing a seat belt. Pregnant women must be particularly careful to secure the lap belt low across the hips, rather than across the abdomen.

Dangerous seat belt myths

It has become something of an urban legend among drivers and passengers that seat belts kill more people than they save. This is a false belief. Incorrectly fastening a seat belt can result in injuries during a crash or collision, though these injuries would nearly always be a lot worse if the person in question had been completely unrestrained.

Do not buy into anti-seat belt myths. Every other safety feature in your car relies on you and your passengers being correctly positioned in your seats if you crash. Without safety belts, you will be thrown from your seats at the moment of impact and none of the vehicle’s other safety features will be able to do their jobs properly. Buckling up is without a doubt the best thing you can do to reduce your chances of being seriously injured or killed in a collision.

Seat belt designs are continuously being tested and improved to increase occupant safety. It takes a few seconds to fasten your seat belt – there is no good reason not to do it! Check out the cold hard facts behind some common seat belt myths:

  1. 1

    Myth: Wearing a seat belt is not necessary during short trips.
    Fact: You are no safer traveling in a car during a 10-mile trip than you would be during a 50-mile trip. In fact, most fatal collisions occur within 25 miles of the victim’s home address!

  2. 2

    Myth: Wearing a seat belt is not necessary at slow speeds.
    Fact: When your vehicle stops suddenly, your body will continue moving at its original speed until something (the seat belt, the dashboard, or the pavement outside) stops it. Unrestrained driver fatalities have occurred in vehicles traveling as slowly as 11 mph! Most collisions occur at speeds less than 40 mph. It may not feel as if you are traveling at a “dangerous” speed when you’re moving along a residential street at 25 or 30 mph, but that would quickly change when a collision or emergency stop causes you to fly through the windshield without slowing down.

  3. 3

    Myth: I don’t need a seat belt when my car has airbags.
    Fact: Airbags are designed to provide additional protection during front-on collisions. They will not do anything to protect you or keep you in your seat if you are struck from the side or rear-end. Moreover, airbags deploy with incredible speed and force and can actually injure drivers or front-seat passengers who are not secured with seat belts.

  4. 4

    Myth: If I don’t wear my seat belt I will be thrown to safety in the event of a collision.
    Fact: You stand a much better chance of being seriously injured or killed in a collision if you are ejected from the vehicle. The idea that you may be “thrown to safety” is false, misguided and dangerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), only 17% of occupants who were thrown clear of a vehicle during a collision in 2017 survived. An enormous 83% were killed.
    People who buy into this myth have no comprehension of the forces at work during car crashes and collisions. Even at low speeds, being totally ejected from the vehicle could throw you 40 or 50 feet across the roadway, quite probably into the path of other traffic! Furthermore, there is a good chance you will not be thrown completely clear of the vehicle. If not, you could be dragged along the surface of the road or crushed underneath the car.

  5. 5

    Myth: Wearing a seat belt could trap me in the vehicle during an emergency!
    Fact: Many people fear wearing a seat belt in case they become trapped in the vehicle if it catches fire or lands in a body of water. You will likely be better equipped to escape from the car in the event of a crash if you were wearing a seat belt. Otherwise, you could easily be injured or knocked unconscious and unable to save yourself. It takes no more than two seconds to unfasten a seat belt – they are designed to be released quickly during an emergency.

Wearing a seat belt improves your chances of surviving almost any collision. Plus, in most states, it is a legal requirement. Aside from your own safety and legal obligations, wearing a seat belt as a driver will help to protect your passengers. If you are not secured when making an evasive turn or emergency stop, you could lose control of the vehicle and cause a far more serious accident.

Furthermore, any unrestrained vehicle occupants pose a considerable threat to other people in the car. If you are thrown from your seat sideways, or forwards, during a collision, you may seriously injure or crush other secured occupants.

The consequences of not wearing a seat belt

Choosing not to wear a seat belt often has an indirect negative impact on society. Countless other people may be affected by your irresponsible decision if you are unnecessarily injured. For example:

  • Medical resources will be less available to other people in need if they are taken up by unnecessarily injured drivers who choose not to buckle up.
  • Law enforcement services may not be able to respond to other emergencies as they are dealing with unnecessarily severe collisions involving unrestrained vehicle occupants.
  • Social security funds are drained unnecessarily, caring for drivers who may not have been injured or disabled had they been wearing a seat belt.
  • More public funds must be spent on educating drivers about the importance of wearing a seat belt.
  • Insurance premiums go up due to the costs associated with crashes during which seat belts were not used.

Click it or ticket

The NHTSA launched the “click it or ticket” campaign to encourage drivers and passengers around the country to buckle up. This campaign has since been adopted by many states in which wearing a seat belt is a primary law. The states with the most aggressive pro-seat belt public awareness campaigns have seen a marked increase in the number of drivers and passengers wearing seat belts. Between 2002 and 2014, the NHTSA estimate that the “click it or ticket” campaign has saved around 4,317 lives and resulted in 73,000 fewer serious injuries.

How effective are seat belts?

According to the NHTSA, there can be no doubt that seat belts save lives. In 2017 alone, it is estimated that 14,955 vehicle occupants aged five years old and over were saved by wearing a seat belt (or an age-appropriate restraint). Collisions do happen and if you are wearing a seat belt at the time, you are far more likely to walk away from the incident relatively unscathed. NHTSA crash data indicates that seat belt use halves the risk of moderate to severe injuries being sustained during a crash. They also lower the risk of fatal injury among front-seat occupants by 45%.

In 2017, 37,133 people died in motor vehicle collisions. Of this number, 47% were not properly restrained at the time of the crash. Failing to wear a seat belt is against the law and dramatically increases your risk of dying in a traffic collision. It only takes a moment to buckle up and ensure all passengers in the vehicle have done the same before pulling off. If you are transporting children, it is your responsibility as the driver to make sure they are restrained in age-appropriate car seats. Learn more about this in our next module.

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