Seatbelt Safety: Statistics, Injuries and the Law in Pennsylvania

January 17, 2024

Seatbelts save lives. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), seatbelts prevent well over 10,000 deaths every year. As the NHTSA explains, airbags are not enough to protect you on their own, and “[b]uckling up helps keep you safe and secure inside your vehicle, whereas not buckling up can result in being totally ejected from the vehicle in a crash, which is almost always deadly.”

But, while seatbelts are important for drivers’ and passengers’ safety, they can also cause injuries in some cases. According to a study published in 2023, “seatbelt syndrome . . . is a group of common injury profiles associated with the use of seatbelts. These range from bruising and abrasions following the distribution of the seatbelt . . . to intra-abdominal injuries and vertebral fractures.”

The Statistics on Seatbelt Safety

Vehicle manufacturers have been required to equip cars, trucks, and SUVs with seatbelts since 1968. Congress passed the nation’s first federal seatbelt law more than a decade after manufacturers began installing them voluntarily, as the enhanced performance of cars and trucks produced in the 1960s was leading to increased numbers of accidents and roadway fatalities.  

Today, seatbelts are standard equipment on all vehicles sold in the United States—and with good reason. According to the NHTSA, seatbelts reduce the risk of serious and fatal injuries by up to 65 percent. The NHTSA reports that:

  • Buckling up reduces front-seat car passengers’ risk of “moderate to critical” injury by 50 percent and reduces their risk of death by 45 percent.
  • Buckling up reduces pickup truck occupants’ risk of “moderate to critical” injury by 65 percent and reduces their risk of death by 60 percent.

These are significant percentages, and they demonstrate that seatbelts do, in fact, work. But, while seatbelts can prevent serious injuries and deaths, they also present some risks of their own.

Common Injury Risks Associated with Seatbelts

Seat belts work by preventing drivers’ and passengers’ bodies from lunging forward or side-to-side in the event of a collision. While this prevents ejection and works in conjunction with airbags to prevent impacts with internal vehicle components, the force of the seatbelt restraint itself can cause serious injuries.

Seat belts can cause injuries in two primary ways. First, the restraining force of the seatbelt can be so significant that it causes both external and internal injuries. This includes (but is not limited to) injuries such as:

  • Burns, abrasions and burns
  • Bowel injuries
  • Liver and spleen lacerations
  • Damage to the pancreas, kidneys and other organs
  • Cervical vascular and spine injuries
  • Stern, clavicle and rib fractures
  • Pulmonary and myocardial contusions

Seat belts can also cause neck injuries. When a seatbelt works properly, it stops the torso from moving forward or side-to-side. But, while the torso is restrained, the head and neck are not. As a result, the neck can still twist and stretch—and the effects of twisting or stretching can be even greater as a result of the seatbelt’s restraint. Whiplash is among the most common types of seatbelt-related injuries, and while some car accident victims will only experience relatively minor symptoms, whiplash can present risks for serious and long-term complications in some cases.

Pennsylvania’s Seatbelt Laws

In Pennsylvania, most drivers and passengers are legally required to wear seatbelts. All drivers must wear their seatbelts, and passengers under the age of 18 must wear their seatbelts whether they are riding in the front or back seats. Passengers over the age of 18 must wear a seatbelt when riding in the front seat only.

Let’s say you are wearing your seatbelt as required by law, and you suffer a seatbelt-related injury in a car accident. If this happens, who (or what company) is responsible?

In most cases, car accident victims who suffer seatbelt injuries will be dealing with auto insurance companies. Whether you have a claim under the other driver’s bodily injury liability (BIL) policy or you need to rely on your own uninsured/underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage, your seatbelt injury should be covered. Unless the seatbelt was defective, then suffering a seatbelt-related injury is no different from suffering an injury caused by an impact with any other component of your car, truck, or SUV.

What if your seatbelt was defective? If you suffered an injury caused by a defective seatbelt, then you may have a claim against the manufacturer. Under Pennsylvania law, manufacturers can face “strict liability” for selling defective products. In strict liability cases, proof of negligence is not required. In other words, while filing a BIL or UIM insurance claim requires proof that the other driver made a mistake (i.e., speeding, tailgating or driving while distracted), simply proving that your seatbelt was defective is enough to establish a claim against the manufacturer.

In any case, if you believe that you may have a claim for a seatbelt injury under Pennsylvania law, there are some steps you should take to protect your legal rights promptly. Most importantly, you should see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. During your visit, be sure to tell your doctor that you were involved in a car accident while wearing your seatbelt. Once you have gotten the initial treatment you need, then you should schedule a free consultation with a car accident lawyer to talk about filing a claim to recover your medical expenses and other accident-related losses.

Contact Us for a Free Consultation with a Car Accident Lawyer in Pennsylvania

The car accident lawyers at Drake, Hileman & Davis, PC help injured drivers, passengers, and their families fight for just compensation under Pennsylvania law. With offices in Allentown, Bethlehem, Doylestown, Easton, and Stroudsburg, we handle cases statewide. To learn more in a free consultation, please call 888-777-7098 or tell us how we can help online today.