Seat Belt Law

LFDA Editor

In Brief:

  • NH is the only state in the US without a primary or secondary law requiring adult motorists to wear seat belts.
  • Proponents of a mandatory seat belt law argue that it would save lives, reduce injuries, and save the state, the federal government, and insurance companies millions of dollars.
  • Opponents counter that the choice to wear a seat belt should remain up to the individual, and point out that even without a mandate, NH traffic fatality rates have been steadily declining.
  • No legislative action on this issue has been taken since 2009, when a bill requiring adult seat belt use passed the House but was defeated in the Senate.

Detailed Summary:

When it comes to seat belt legislation, NH stands alone as the only state in the US where adults are not required to buckle up.

NH does require that drivers or passengers under the age of 18 wear seat belts. Additional rules apply to the use of car seats for children who are under the age of seven or are 57” or less in height.

History in NH

The last attempt to institute a seat belt law in NH took place in 2009, when the House passed HB 383, sponsored by Rep. Sally Kelly. It was defeated in the Senate by a 16-8 vote.

  • The bill called for a primary safety belt enforcement law, which would have required law enforcement to stop any adult seen driving without a safety belt.
  • The proposed fines were $50 for a first offense and $100 for second or subsequent offenses.
  • The bill applied to all vehicles except large school buses, cars manufactured before 1968 and vehicles that make frequent stops for business purposes.

Seat Belt Usage in NH

According to the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA), states with stronger seat belt laws generally have higher rates of usage than those with weaker or no laws. NH seat belt use statistics bear this observation out. An average of 73% of NH motorists buckle up, as opposed to the US average of 87%.

Additional NH seat belt use facts:

  • Female drivers are 10% more likely to wear seat belts than male drivers.  
  • Pickup drivers are 20% less likely to wear a seat belt than SUV or van drivers.

Even in the absence of a seat belt law, NH’s traffic fatality rate has been declining overall, from 138 fatalities in 2008 to 115 in 2015. At 8.6 per 100,000,  that fatality rate is now lower than the U.S. average of 10.3 per 100,000. 

Public Opinion on Seat Belt Laws

Those wondering why NH remains the only state without a mandatory seat belt law need look no further than public opinion. A Citizen Voices discussion of the issue found that 90% of respondents opposed legislating seat belt usage, arguing that buckling up should remain a personal choice, not a government requirement.

Federal Laws

The federal government strongly encourages states to pass primary or secondary seat belt laws, citing statistics that show higher rates of fatalities among non-restrained drivers.

Past federal efforts to encourage the passage of seat belt legislation include offering substantial grants to states that enacted such laws, or strengthened existing ones. The seat belt legislation proposed in NH in 2009 would have qualified the state for such funds.

Other States

The other 49 states either have primary or secondary seat belt laws.

  • A primary law means that law enforcement can stop motorists solely for not wearing a seat belt.
  • Secondary laws mean that drivers can only be ticketed for neglecting to use a seat belt after they have been stopped for another offense, such as a speeding violation. 
  • The CDC states that primary seat belt laws result in a 9% high rate of seat belt usage than secondary laws.

PROS & CONS

"For" Position

By LFDA Editor

“NH should pass a mandatory seat belt law.”

  • Though only 27% of NH motorists do not wear seat belts, 62% of NH traffic fatalities were unrestrained drivers or passengers.
  • Seat belt use by drivers or front seat passengers in cars has been said to reduce the risk of death by 45% and of serious injury by 50%.
  • Seat belt use has an even great impact in light trucks and SUVs, decreasing the risk of injury by 65%.
  • In 2008, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration estimated that enacting a primary seat belt law in NH would result in $7.9 million in savings to state government, federal government and insurance companies, primarily in reduced medical expenses.
  • Research shows that traffic fatality rates decline in states that enact seat belt laws: an average of 21% in states with primary laws and 7% in states with secondary laws.

"Against" Position

By LFDA Editor
  • It is not the government’s job to legislate common sense. The choice to wear a seat belt should remain up to the individual.
  • Primary seat belt laws give law enforcement an excuse to stop motorists even if no other infraction has been committed, which could increase minority profiling.
  • In the absence of a seat belt law, NH’s traffic fatality rate continues to decline steadily, from 138 fatalities in 2008 to 93 in 2014.
  • Education, not a law, is the best way to increase seat belt usage. A law alone will not change the minds of those who do not currently buckle up.
  • Seat belt laws distract law enforcement from focusing their attention on more serious offenses, such as speeding or distracted driving.

LEGISLATIVE HISTORY

Signed by Governor

Establishes a committee to study seat belts on school buses.

Passed House and Senate

Establishes a committee to study helmet and restraint laws for youth operators and passengers of OHRVs and snowmobiles.

Tabled in the Senate

Requires seat belt usage.

Should NH require seat belts?

FOR
REPRESENTATIVES

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AGAINST
REPRESENTATIVES

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Issue Status

While it looks likely that adults in their own vehicles will remain free to choose whether or not to wear a seat belt in New Hampshire for now, a move to study whether passengers in school buses should be required to wear seat belts (HB 196) was signed into law in 2017.

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