Stricter Seat Belt Laws Seek to Reverse Climb in Traffic Fatalities

Connecticut by the Numbers
As traffic fatalities climb, Connecticut drivers will soon be required to buckle up in the back seat, joining 31 other states.Shutterstock image

Just anyone who has done any driving during the peak of COVID or since can tell you from personal experience that taking to the roads is more dangerous than it used to be – or needs to be.  And now the data is bearing out the anecdotal experiences.

An estimated 38,680 people nationwide died in car crashes last year, 7% more than in 2019, even though total miles driven dropped 13% as more Americans spent considerably more time at home.  The number of unbuckled vehicle occupants killed in crashes increased by an estimated 15%, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.  We’ve known for decades that unbuckled seat belts increase the chances of catastrophic results if there’s a crash. That is true now as it ever was.

In Connecticut, between January 1 and July 20, there were 114 traffic deaths in 2019, 159 in 2020, and 165 this year, according to the UConn Crash Data Repository.

Since the mid-1980’s, widespread adoption of state laws and public campaigns have increased seat-belt use from less than 50% in 1990 to 90% last year nationally, according to NHTSA.  In 2019, Connecticut’s seat-belt use rate was nearly 94%.  Compliance levels in 2020 are uncertain.

Now, states including Connecticut are stepping up efforts to extend safety belt laws as a means of improving safety levels that have waned in recent years after decades of steady improvement. 

One of the first states to pass a seat-belt law for drivers and front-seat passengers in 1985, Connecticut had trailed the rest of the country in extending the law to the back seat. Pre-existing law only required rear-seat passengers under 16 to buckle up, even though proper restraint use is effective for all ages.

That changed during the just-concluded legislative session.  Now, Connecticut is the 32nd state to require all back-seat occupants to buckle up. Connecticut's new mandatory back-seat seat belt law is effective as of October 1.  The provision, which requires all passengers, no matter where they sit in a vehicle, to buckle up, was part of a State Department of Transportation bill, passed with bipartisan support. The bill became Public Act 21-175 when Governor Lamont signed it on July 12.

“Connecticut has taken a significant step to reduce serious injuries and fatalities involving unbelted rear seat passengers.  Given the spike in fatalities on roadways last year, passage of this lifesaving measure is cause for celebration,” said Alec Slatky, AAA Northeast’s Director of Public and Government Affairs. “There’s overwhelming evidence that seat-belt use reduces motor vehicle fatalities and serious injuries. Now, unbelted rear-seat passengers no longer will be back-seat ‘bullets’ in crashes.”

Since 2010, more than 2,000 unbelted back-seat occupants have been injured or killed on Connecticut roadways, reports the UConn Crash Data Repository.

The new law is subject to secondary enforcement, meaning drivers can’t be pulled over just because there is an unbelted adult in the back seat. However, law enforcement can issue a fine for the unbelted passenger if the driver is pulled over for a primary offense such as speeding. The fine is $50 if the driver is 18 or older and $75 if the driver is under 18.

NHTSA’s research suggests that throughout the national public health emergency and associated lockdowns, driving patterns and behaviors changed significantly, and that drivers who remained on the roads engaged in more risky behavior, including speeding, failing to wear seat belts, and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to the federal agency. Traffic data indicates that average speeds increased throughout the year, and examples of extreme speeds became more common, while the evidence also shows that fewer people involved in crashes used their seat belts.

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