Should Adults Have to Wear Seatbelts in the Back Seat?

“Click it or ticket!” – the popular catchphrase can be seen on billboards, magazines, road signs, and heard on the radio and television multiple times per day.  It is against the law to ride in the front seat without a seatbelt, and many statistics are given to back up the need for this safety precaution.  

There are also at least as many warnings given and laws written about proper safety seats for children in the car.  However, one interesting hole in most state laws regards adults wearing seatbelts in the back seat.  Apparently, this must mean that it is not necessary and seatbelts will not protect adults in the backseat in case of a crash.  However, the research and statistics say otherwise.

Why Wear Seatbelts?

Most people know that the reason for wearing seatbelts is to save lives, but here is a reminder of a few of the ways that seatbelts protect us in case of a crash.

  • 40,000 people die in car accidents each year, and wearing a seatbelt decreases the chance of fatality by 45 percent.
  • Seatbelts are designed to put the impact of a crash on the parts of the body that are best able to absorb it.  A common excuse people make for not wearing seatbelts is that seatbelts can cause injury themselves.  
  • Unfortunately, nothing short of a miracle can prevent all injury from a crash at 70 miles per hour.  The only thing that a seatbelt can attempt to do is lessen the injury.  Instead of allowing the victim’s head to impact the steering wheel, dash, or other part of the vehicle at 70 miles per hour, it distributes the impact to the shoulder, chest, and hips where injury may occur, but it is not as injurious or fatal as it could have been.
  • They make airbags more effective.  If the passenger is moved to an awkward position in the moment of a crash, the airbag will impact the person in that position making injury from the airbag more likely and the airbag less effective in preventing injury from the crash.  For instance, if the passenger is being ejected from the vehicle, he will be in an elevated position and not be where the airbag can protect him.

These reasons are true for all passengers, whether they be in the front or back seat, but the law generally says more about wearing seat belts in the front seat than the back.

What the Law Says

Every state in the Union has laws about child safety in the back seat, but only two states, Texas and Minnesota, have laws that say that adults over 18 must wear seatbelts in the back seat.  For example, according to personal injury attorney Jeff Robinette, a car accident lawyer in West Virginia, all passengers in WV under the age of 18 must wear seatbelts in the back seats, but seatbelt use is optional for adults seated in the rear of the vehicle.  The other 48 states say that passengers can begin riding in the back seat without a seatbelt at age 7 to 18, depending on the state.  Every state but one (New Hampshire) requires that seatbelts be worn in the front seat.

Passengers in the Back Seat

As would be expected, the research, in short, says that it is safer for adults in the back seat to wear seat belts.  There are few statistics available to support this, but in 2009, 2,000 back seat passengers died in crashes because they were not wearing seat belts.  In 2013, 55 percent of back seat passengers who died were not wearing seatbelts.  The Department of Transportation released a statistic stating that passengers who are not wearing seatbelts are 30 times more likely to be ejected from the vehicle in case of a crash, and that 75 percent of people die who are ejected from a vehicle.

What People Choose to Do

It seems to be generally assumed that if something is legal, it is safe.  While this is not always true, passengers in the back seat tend to follow this rule.  The numbers of adult passengers who wear seatbelts in the back seat varies greatly from state to state.  However, it seems to range from a low of 27 percent in Michigan to a high of 84 percent.  In 2008, the national average of back seat belt use was 74 percent, while the average of front seat belt use was 83 percent with a state high of 98 percent in Michigan.

Other Passengers in the Vehicle

While the above statistics should be heeded as a strong warning, it is true that they are somewhat weak.  However, the statistics are much stronger regarding what happens in case of a crash to other passengers in the vehicle when one is not wearing a seatbelt.  If someone in the back seat was not wearing a seatbelt, the risk of death rose by 20 percent for someone who was in the front seat wearing a seatbelt.  If someone was in the front or back seat not wearing a seatbelt, the risk of death rose by 15 percent for someone who was in the same row wearing a seatbelt.  Researchers reported that one in six deaths of those who were wearing seatbelts could have been prevented if everyone else in the vehicle were wearing seatbelts.


Just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean it’s safe.  For many years, it was not illegal to ride in the front seat without a seatbelt, but many people died then who were unrestrained as they do now.  It is clear that wearing seatbelts in the back seat is necessary for adults just as it is for children.  Not only can it prevent injury or save the life of the individual, but it can also prevent injury or save the life of someone else.  Hopefully, it is only a matter of time before wearing seatbelts in the back seat becomes a legal matter.  Until then, stay safe and buckle up!



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