It’s universally accepted that seat belts save lives. In fact, data show that in the event of a motor vehicle crash, serious injury to properly restrained occupants is reduced by as much as 75 percent. So why do some individuals still insist on not buckling up?
“I don’t want to be told to buckle up!” “Sometimes I just forget to put my seat belt on.” “I know someone who was injured by a seat belt so I’m safer not wearing one.” I typically hear these excuses when I speak publicly about the issue. But it’s hard to argue with the facts -- since Congress enacted the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which called for the installation of lap belts in cars, thousands of lives have been saved and hundreds of thousands of serious injuries prevented.
I bring up the issue of seat belts because in mid-August, the New Jersey Appellate Division ruled that the failure of a driver to make sure that a minor passenger is properly using a seat belt can support a prosecution for the crime of knowingly failing to perform a duty imposed by law intended to protect public safety. Under N.J.S.A. 2C:40-18, a motorist can be charged with a crime of between the fourth and second degree, depending upon the extent of the injuries sustained by the unbelted victim.
The particular case, State v. Lenihan, involved an 18-year-old defendant who was operating a motor vehicle with a 16-year-old passenger in the front seat. Neither was wearing a seat belt when the driver crashed. Both occupants were seriously injured and the minor passenger died several days later. Under New Jersey’s seat belt law (N.J.S. A. 39:3-76.2), the driver is responsible for ensuring that all passengers under 18 are properly restrained. Based upon this requirement, the defendant was indicted for a violation of 2C:40-18.
The Appellate Court ruled that the seat belt law in New Jersey is broadly intended to protect not only motor vehicle occupants, but the public’s health and safety. It’s clear the Court’s ruling has wide and significant implications for drivers who don’t take their duty to ensure all minor passengers are properly restrained seriously.
Which leads me to my second reason for writing about this issue. Despite being a generation that has grown up with seat belts, today’s teens and young adults aren’t particularly good about buckling up. According to the latest Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind Poll, commissioned by the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, just 83 percent of young drivers, regularly buckle up. That number remains unchanged from 2011 and is an 8 percent drop from 2010. Young people according to the poll are also 11 percent less likely -- regardless of seating position -- to use their seat belts when riding as passengers in motor vehicles.
I find these statistics particularly troubling since car crashes are the number one killer of teens and teens are mile for mile four times more likely any another other age group on the road to crash. Ensuring that teen drivers buckle up is critical for their own safety. But teens and young adults must also understand that as the vehicle operator, it is it their responsibility to ensure that all of their passengers are properly restrained as well.
If a passenger is between 8 and 17 years of age, he must ride in a seat belt which includes a properly placed shoulder harness (across the chest, not behind the back). If the passenger is a child of car or booster seat age (NJ requires all children under 8 years of age or 80 pounds to ride in the appropriate child safety seat), he must ride in one of those devices as well. If not, the driver may be issued a ticket for failing to properly secure his passengers and, in the event of crash, be held liable if his passengers are injured.
What if the passenger(s) is 18 years of age or older? The driver should still ensure that everyone is buckled up and refuse to start the car if all passengers don’t comply. If the driver is stopped by a police officer and an adult passenger is unbelted, the passenger, not the driver, may be cited for the seat belt violation.
The bottom line here is that parents must impress upon all new drivers (and be positive role models as well) that it’s their responsibility to ensure their passengers are properly restrained under the provisions of New Jersey’s seat belt and child restraint laws. It’s not enough to buckle their own seat belt; they’re responsible for minor passengers as well.