Safe Bet: Seat Belts Improve Your Odds

In the United States, motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of death, especially among children and young adults. The simple act of buckling your seat belt every time you get in a vehicle can save your life. If you have not made seatbelts part of your traveling routine, learn why you should change your behavior.

What Happens to Your Body in a Collision?

There are 3 possible impacts caused by a motor vehicle collision:

  • The vehicle strikes another object, such as a tree or car.
  • The "human impact" occurs. Unbelted occupants slam into the vehicle's interior—the steering wheel, windshield, roof—or into other occupants.
  • The final impact takes place within your body as the internal organs smash against other body parts—the heart hitting the sternum, the brain hitting the skull, the lungs hitting the ribs.

Unbelted occupants can also be ejected from the vehicle. This is one of the most damaging events that can happen during a crash.

Here is what seat belts do for you in a collision:

  • Hold you securely, taking advantage of the vehicle's own protective crushing effect as it absorbs energy in the first impact.
  • Distribute the force of the human impact across the strong parts of the body. Your body hits the belt rather than the steering wheel, windshield, or other hard parts of the interior.
  • Prevent occupants from colliding with each other.
  • Help the driver maintain control, decreasing the possibility of an additional collision.
  • Prevent occupants from being ejected.

What About Air Bags?

Air bags are designed to be used along with seat belts, not as a substitute for them. There are a number of reasons for this. For example, if your car has a front air bag, it will only deploy in a certain type of crash. So, if a vehicle collides into the side of your car, the front air bag will not inflate. But, wearing a seat belt can keep you secure and protect you from injury. Also, if you are involved in an accident and the air bag is deployed, the device will quickly deflate. So, unlike the seat belt, the air bag will not be able to continue to protect you if there are a series of collisions. Additionally, a properly worn seat belt keeps you secure and in the proper position if the air bag does deploy.

What Is Your Excuse?

In the United States, all of the states, except for New Hampshire, have seat belt laws for adults. Only 28 states have seat belt laws for backseat passengers. Depending on where you are, not wearing a seatbelt can result in an expensive fine. Thankfully, most people do buckle up—not to avoid fines, but to avoid injury.

If you have not made wearing a seat belt part of your lifestyle, see if you can find your reasons below, then read the list of realities.

Reasons for Not Wearing a Seat Belt Realities
I am just going to the store. Most deadly crashes take place close to home.
I am a good driver. You may not be the cause of an accident. The accident may be caused by another driver. Also, unbelted drivers have less chance to control the vehicle after the impact.
I am not in the habit of wearing them. You are a role model for others. For example, children are less likely to be buckled up if adults are not.
It is my personal preference. During a crash, unbelted occupants can injure other people in the car. Also, unbuckled crash victims have a ripple effect on everyone in terms of high healthcare costs, taxes, and health insurance.
I am afraid of being trapped in a fire or under water. The vast majority of fatalities result from the force of impact, not from being trapped.

Advice From a Racecar Driver

If you feel that being a good driver means you do not need a seat belt, NASCAR driver Jeff Burton begs to differ. Burton, who drives at speeds of over 200 miles per hour in races, was in a serious passenger car crash, but he was wearing a seat belt and was not seriously injured.

"People who have never been in a wreck need to listen to those who have and who drive for a living," says Burton. "We know what your body goes through and how hard the impacts are. I can't imagine getting hit at 30 miles per hour without wearing a seat belt. If you can't avoid an accident, the next best thing is to have your seat belt on."

You have heard it before, because it is true: Better safe than sorry.


National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Network of Employers for Traffic Safety


Alberta Motor Association
Canada Safety Council


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Last reviewed January 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 3/25/2014

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