What Are the Seat Belt Laws in Massachusetts?

“Seatbelts save lives.” We have all heard this saying, heard of people dying in auto accidents when they were unrestrained, and generally have been told from the time we start driving that seatbelts do, indeed, save lives. Nonetheless, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in seven drivers does not regularly use a seatbelt when in a vehicle. This startling statistic reveals that people are putting themselves in harm’s way, increasing their chances of death if involved in a car accident, and ignoring traffic safety laws. Wearing a seatbelt is a small preventive measure that can make a big difference if you are involved in an auto accident.

Today, it is against the law to drive a car while not wearing a seatbelt. Drivers who are pulled over while they or their passengers are not wearing a seatbelt are subject to a $25 fine in addition to any additional fines imposed for other violations. However, failure to wear a seatbelt is currently a “secondary” offense, which means that police officers cannot pull you over just for not wearing a seatbelt. This may change soon, though. Governor Baker has reintroduced a legislation package that would elevate failure to wear a seat belt from a secondary offense to a primary offense.

The experienced Massachusetts seat belt injury attorneys at the Law Office of John J. Sheehan stay on top of recent developments in state legislation so that you don’t have to. If you were hurt because of someone’s negligence or have questions about how the current Massachusetts seat belt laws may apply to you, call Wakefield personal injury lawyer John J. Sheehan today at (617) 925-6407.

Massachusetts Seat Belt Laws

As it stands right now, the law says you cannot get pulled over for failing to wear a seatbelt in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Seatbelt use is considered a “secondary” offense, meaning an officer must have a reason, other than a driver or passenger not wearing a seatbelt, to pull the driver over. The majority of states categorize seatbelt use as a primary offense, meaning an officer can pull over a car simply because someone inside is not wearing a seatbelt. Massachusetts is one of 16 states that does not share this requirement, though modified legislation is pending. Read below to find out more about possible developments in Massachusetts seatbelt law or speak to our attorneys today.

These rules also apply to children. Any child under the age of 7 must be restrained in a government-approved child safety restraint (car seat/convertible seat/booster seat), and children ages 8-12 may be graduated to adult safety belt use depending on their height and size. Seatbelts are particularly important for young children as they reside in the back seat, away from airbags and other possible features that are deemed safe for adult use but not children. All drivers and passengers over the age of 13 must wear seatbelts at all times. The driver can be fined $25 for failing to comply with these child safety laws.

Drivers can also be punished if their passengers fail to comply with these regulations, making it largely up to the driver to enforce seatbelt rules on minor children. A driver can be fined $25 for each passenger ages 12-15 not in compliance with the seat belt laws, and any passenger over the age of 16 will be fined themselves. Therefore, the best policy is to make sure you, as a driver, buckle up, and also ensure that your passengers are buckled up, especially if they are under the age of 16.

New Seat Belt Legislation Currently Pending in Massachusetts

In April of 2021, Governor Charlie Baker reintroduced a bill to state policymakers targeting an overhaul of traffic safety provisions. Key amongst the items in the bill is the elevation of a person’s failure to wear a seat belt from a “secondary” offense to a primary offense.

While the elevation may result in stiffer fines than the previous $25, the real goal of the legislation is in how the law is enforced. Practically, elevating the violation to a primary offense means that police officers would be able to pull drivers over specifically for not wearing a seatbelt. Previously, fines for the failure to wear a seatbelt could only be issued if the driver was pulled over for a separate suspected violation. If the new legislation were to pass, these penalties would likely see a substantial increase in quantity.

Massachusetts certainly has a seat belt usage problem. According to Jeff Larason, director of the state’s Highway Safety Division, Massachusetts ranks 46th out of the 50 states in terms of rate of seat belt usage. “Over half of the people who are killed on our roads in Massachusetts are unbelted,” said Larason, “and these are entirely preventable tragedies.”  Larason estimates that universal seat belting would result in an additional 45 lives saved on Massachusetts roadways each year.

The bill certainly has its opponents, which is why it failed when the governor initially introduced it in 2019. Most of the concerns about the proposed changes are rooted in worries about subjective levels of enforcement that affect civil liberties, particularly in regard to minorities. In response to the bill’s introduction, Carol Rose, the executive director of the ACLU in Massachusetts, pointed to research suggesting that “Black and Brown drivers are already significantly more likely to be stopped by police and have their vehicle searched, but less likely to be issued a citation.” Governor Baker has acknowledged these concerns in his advocacy for the bill and has indicated an openness to addressing them further if the bill were to pass.

As of now, the legislation has merely been proposed. This means that the old rule still applies, leaving violations for failure to wear a seatbelt as secondary offenses.

Can You Sue for Car Accident Injuries in Massachusetts if You Were Not Wearing a Seatbelt?

If another driver’s negligence or recklessness caused an accident that resulted in injury to another driver or passenger, the injury victim has the ability to file a personal injury lawsuit in a Massachusetts court to recover for the harms they have sustained. These harms are called damages, and are calculated based on the victim’s medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering experienced due to the injury. But what if the victim’s injury was caused in part because the victim was not wearing their seat belt at the time of the accident?

In short, yes, you may be able recover for your injuries in a lawsuit, even if you weren’t wearing a seat belt. However, if you are able to recover damages, the amount of your recovery may be reduced proportionally to your level of contributory negligence. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts uses the “51 Percent” comparative negligence theory for personal injury cases. This means that the defendant must be more than 50% responsible for the harms that the plaintiff suffered in order for the plaintiff to recover.

If the plaintiff was also partially negligent and the court determines that the plaintiff’s negligence was mostly responsible for the injuries, the plaintiff will be barred from recovery. If the court finds that the plaintiff was also negligent but that the defendant was still mostly responsible, the plaintiff’s recovery will be reduced according to the proportion of fault. For instance, if the plaintiff claims $10,000 in damages from their injury but was found to be 20% responsible for their injuries because of their own negligence, the court will limit the plaintiff’s recovery to $8,000, or 80% of the total damages.

Proving the proportion of comparative negligence in a car accident injury case in Massachusetts can be difficult. Much of your case will hinge on your ability to introduce qualified medical experts to testify that you likely would have sustained your injuries whether or not you were wearing a seat belt. Our hardworking Massachusetts car accident injury attorneys will help you find the expert testimony necessary for your case. We can also help you estimate the value of your case so that you know what to reasonably expect from pursuing your case further.

Need Help Understanding Massachusetts Seat Belt Laws? Call Us Today

If you sustained injury in a car accident that a seat belt would not have prevented, the experienced Massachusetts car accident injury lawyers at the Law Office of John J. Sheehan may be able to help. To hear more, schedule your first appointment by calling us at (617) 925-6407.