When Did Seat Belts Become Mandatory?

by Michelle NatiUpdated June 22, 2023
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The majority of US states mandate seat belts, but this is a very recent turn of events. In the 1980s, approximately 10 percent of drivers and passengers wore them. Today, that number is about 90 percent. However, seat belts were invented decades before the government required them in vehicles.

When Were Seatbelts Invented?

Seatbelts have been around a lot longer than you think, and the first ever seat belt was not invented for vehicle travel. In the mid-19th century, a wealthy Yorkshire, England property owner, Sir George Cayley, built the first successful, manned glider with a seat belt to keep the operator in place. When the glider crashed, the pilot survived due to his being strapped in.

In 1885, a New Yorker, Edward J. Claghorn, filed for, and received, the first vehicular seat belt patent for taxis. Even after seat belts came to vehicles, they weren’t used for years, as manufacturers did not want consumers to think that cars were unsafe. Despite this, by the mid-20th century, vehicular deaths doubled. Before 1959, cars came with two point lap belts that people could use an option, but most did not. The three-point belt that we wear today was first designed by Volvo in 1959.

In 1973, all new cars were required to install a seat belt interlock mechanism in accordance with a mandate from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which would have kept a vehicle from starting unless the driver had their seat belt buckled. However, the public felt this was a government overreach and automakers didn’t want the added expense, so it was never implemented.

When Did Seatbelts Become Mandatory?

In 1961, Wisconsin took its inaugural bow as the first state to require front seat belts in all new vehicles. However, state law did not mandate that passengers wear them. In 1968, the federal government mandated that all new vehicles have shoulder and lap belts. The law did not specify their design and many automakers created separate belts for both.

In 1985, New York became the first state requiring passengers to use them for front seats only — those who didn’t paid a $50 fine if they were caught driving without. Other states followed suit and by 1995, every state but New Hampshire enforced a seat belt law for front seat passengers. Seat belts are required to be used by adults in back seats in 32 states and the District of Columbia. For example, California requires all adult passengers to wear them, while Arkansas car seat laws require only front seat passengers to do so.

How Seat Belts Have Saved Lives

The function of a seat belt is to prevent both drivers and passengers from being ejected from a vehicle in the event of an accident. In 2020, seat belt use was shown to be about 90 percent nationally for people in the front seat of a vehicle and about 80 percent for rear seat occupants.

Seat belt use has lowered fatalities and injuries significantly since these laws were implemented. They reduce the risk of death by 45 percent and lower the risk of severe injury by half.


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