Seat Belt Laws in Massachusetts:  Early 2020 Update

The update regarding Massachusetts laws on seatbelt usage is that there is no update.  As it has stood since 1994 in most respects, all motorists and passengers must wear seat belts, however, law enforcement has no right to pull you over for your failure to buckle up.  To be detained by a traffic officer and be cited for not wearing a seatbelt, and to cite you for any of your passengers failure to be restrained, you must have violated some other traffic law.  This is known as secondary enforcement. If you are stopped for speeding or running a red light or for any other traffic code offense and the officer sees you are not belted, the fine is only $25.  You pay an additional $25 for each passenger who is not wearing a seat belt. 

Despite lobbying and other efforts by safety advocates over the years to get Massachusetts to change its law on secondary enforcement of the seat belt law, state lawmakers have flinched.  It was in 1994 that the first bill mandating seat belt use was passed in our state, which was 10-years after New York became the first state in the nation to require motorists to wear seat belts. Congress had passed a law in 1968 that required that all new vehicles except buses be equipped with seat belts. 

Massachusetts had passed a mandatory seat belt law in 1985 but repealed it two years later.  It took another 9-years before our state relented, mainly because federal highway construction funds were being withheld to any state that failed to pass a mandatory usage law. 

Since the 2005-2006 legislative sessions, a bill has been introduced to make seat belt usage a primary offense, but its backers have been rebuffed each time. The closest it has come was in 2006 when a primary enforcement bill passed both houses but when it came back to the House from the Senate for final approval, it was voted down by 4 votes. Governor Mitt Romney had signaled that he would have signed the bill. 

Seatbelt Usage Saves Lives

There is no one who disputes the claim that wearing a seat belt saves lives and prevents serious injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2017, 76% of the 340 persons killed in Massachusetts car accidents were not wearing seat belts.  Also, 85% of pickup truck drivers and 86% of SUV drivers who suffered fatal injuries were unrestrained. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that seat belts save 15,000 lives per year! Your risk of being killed in an accident if you are a driver or front seat passenger is reduced by 45% if you buckle up.  Your chances of being seriously maimed or disabled is cut by 50%.

Massachusetts drivers are also among the worst users of seat belts in the country with about 81.6% buckling up against the national average of 90%.  We consistently rank around 46th or so each year in seat belt use.  Our sister state, New Hampshire, is always ranked the worst since it is the only state that does not require adults to wear seat belts:  Live Free or Die.  

Why We Resist

The enduring argument against primary enforcement is our lawmaker’s reluctance to legislate personal choice.  This same argument was used to delay passage of mandatory seat belt laws until the 1990s. Passage of such laws by the states could easily have saved thousands of lives and prevented serious and debilitating injuries if they had promptly acted.

According to the Massachusetts ACLU, primary enforcement laws have dramatically increased racial profiling by peace officers.  They often point to a Florida study that showed that traffic stops of African American motorists rose dramatically when that state went to primary enforcement. 

There is the also the prickly issue of our state once again being the target of folks who already ridicule Massachusetts as an enclave of squishy liberals, and that passing a stricter seat belt law would be another example of the liberal nanny state.  To date, 34 states have primary enforcement laws, so this would hardly single us out. Our legislators have to decide whether keeping the status quo and avoiding potential ridicule is paramount over saving hundreds of lives each year.

Seat Belt Use and Injury Claims 

Massachusetts is a modified comparative negligence state.  This means that you can only collect compensation in a car accident if your degree of causal responsibility is less than 51%.  If you are found to be 49% at fault, your award for damages would be reduced by that amount. 

So, is the failure to wear a seat belt in a Massachusetts car accident evidence of negligence on your part?  While it is not evidence on the issue of liability, it certainly can be used by the defense to show that your injuries would not have either occurred, or would have been mitigated, if you had been wearing a seat belt.  The same is true for fatal accidents, especially if the unrestrained decedent was ejected from the vehicle or went through the windshield and suffered fatal injuries as a result. 

This issue requires expert testimony from a biomechanical expert by the defense who will examine the mechanics of the crash and the injuries and opine that the use of a seatbelt would certainly have prevented either death or the serious injuries that you suffered.  Your car accident lawyer will have to counter with a similar expert who can testify that regardless of wearing a seat belt, you would still have sustained injuries at the same degree, or it would not have prevented fatal injuries due to the force of the collision and other factors. 

Examples of accidents where wearing a seat belt would likely have been irrelevant are rollover accidents where it is demonstrated that the claimant’s head injuries occurred from roof crush.  A car that is T-boned by a truck or is rear-ended at a high speed resulting in severe neck and back injuries are other weak seat belt defense scenarios. Any collision where there is significant intrusion into the vehicle would likely result in death or serious injury whether a seat belt was used or not. 

In any event, your best defense against sustaining any injury at all is always to wear a seat belt. 

Damages in Car Accident Claims 

Car accidents often result in severe and catastrophic injuries including spinal injuries, fractured limbs, internal damage, and traumatic brain injuries. Damages in a car accident may include:

  • Past and future medical expenses
  • Past and future income loss
  • Loss of earning capacity
  • Permanent disfigurement 
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional trauma
  • Spousal claim for loss of consortium

Consult the Car Accident Lawyers at Burns and Jain

If you or a loved one were not wearing a seat belt in a car accident injury claim, you can expect an insurance company to either deny your claim or to offer a token settlement amount. You will need the experience and knowledge of a car accident lawyer from Burns and Jain to represent you if you want a reasonable opportunity to get the compensation you deserve. 

Call Burns and Jain today at (617) 249-6763 for a free consultation about your injury claim.

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