The Constitutionality of Mandatory Seat Belt Laws

Report No: 86-R41

Published in 1986

About the report:

Low seat belt usage rates have persisted for years despite efforts to educate people about belts' benefits. There is ample documentation of the contribution of seat belts to saving lives and reducing injury. The emotional and pecuniary toll of the failure to use belts is enormous, yet of little effect in modifying people's behavior. Involuntary measures seem to be the only effective solution to the problem of misperceptions about belts' effectiveness and ingrained attitudes which resist education. Compulsory belt use laws have been successful in other countries, and since 1984 have been considered by the Department of Transportation to be a viable alternative to passive restraints. The possibility of the widespread adoption of mandatory belt use laws has again raised questions about the legitimacy of such self-protective legislation. A similar debate spawned many court cases 15-20 years ago when mandatory motorcycle helmet use laws were passed. Many of the arguments made then are relevant to the seat belt issue. The basic question remains: Are the devices effective enough and is the public interest in protecting the individual strong enough to warrant the intrusion on privacy? The answer must consider that driving takes place in a public arena. Further, studies indicate a substantial correlation between seat belt use and the protection of life and health. A case can be made for many third party effects and social costs of accidents, so this matter involves more than a mere question of the individual right of privacy. Given the traditional deference of the courts to state legislatures in the area of highway safety regulation, mandatory seat belt use laws may well pass constitutional challenges. Various legal theories support this conclusion. The right to travel is subject to reasonable regulation. A law applicable to all automobiles can hardly be described as discriminatory, thus dismissing equal protection objections. As long as there is no substantial interference with interstate travel and there are tangible "local" benefits, the flow of commerce is not impermissibly restricted. The volume of statistics supporting belts' efficacy constitute a reasonable means of serving a legitimate state interest in public health and welfare. They may well pass a more rigorous standard, and amount to a real and substantial relation between the law and its objective. The due process challenge thus being satisfied, the remaining question becomes one of a policy choice for the legislature about the desirability of this means over other alternatives.

Disclaimer Statement:The contents of this report reflect the views of the author(s), who is responsible for the facts and the accuracy of the data presented herein. The contents do not necessarily reflect the official views or policies of the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, or the Federal Highway Administration. This report does not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation. Any inclusion of manufacturer names, trade names, or trademarks is for identification purposes only and is not to be considered an endorsement.

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Mark L. Booz

Last updated: February 10, 2024

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