When Did Seat Belts Become Mandatory?

by Dennis Hartman
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Seat belts are among the most common and effective safety devices ever invented. Since their introduction, seat belts have saved countless lives and prevented many injuries. But making it mandatory to wear seat belts has been a slow process, as they were required by law in each state at a different time.

Seat Belts in Cars

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Seat belts were first used as early as the 1930s. It wasn't until the 1960s that American automakers began including seat belts in their cars. In 1968 the federal government mandated that all new cars include seat belts at all seating positions. Today all states except New Hampshire have some sort of law requiring occupants to wear seat belts, though these laws vary widely in terms of when they were adopted and how they are enforced.

New York state

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In 1984, New York became the first state to require the use of seat belts by law. The law stated that the driver, as well as all front-seat passengers, must wear a seat belt at all times. As for rear-seat passengers, by law only those under age 10 were required to wear seat belts. This type of law, in which the seating position and age of the occupant determined whether or not they were required to comply, was used by other states as they adopted similar laws.

The 1980s

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Many states adopted seat belt laws similar to those used in New York throughout the late 1980s. Where seat belt use was mandated, statistics showed a decrease in traffic fatalities, which pressured even more states to add seat belt laws. By the end of 1987, several states had a mandatory seat belt law, including California, Florida, Indiana and Pennsylvania. By the end of the 1980s, South Carolina, Virginia, Wyoming and Illinois had laws as well.

The 1990s

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The push for mandatory seat belt laws continued into the 1990s. In 1991 Arizona, Arkansas, Rhode Island and Alabama all added such a law. Other states that added seat belt laws to their books in the 1990s included Delaware in 1992, Nebraska in 1993 and Massachusetts and Kentucky in 1994. The last state to add a mandatory seat belt law was Maine in December 1995.


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Some seat belt laws have changed over time with regard to the age of the passengers or the use of child-restraint seating. In addition, many states have made their initial seat belt law more powerful by designating seat belt non-use a primary offense. This means that a police officer can stop and ticket a driver when an occupant is not wearing a seat belt. In other states, seat belt violations can only be ticketed when the vehicle has been stopped for another, primary traffic offense.

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