The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports seat belt use has been on the rise ever since 2000, and this has been associated with a reduction in the number of unrestrained passenger vehicle occupant deaths during daylight hours.
Both North Carolina and South Carolina have primary enforcement seat belt laws. That means occupants are required to wear their seat belts or other appropriate restraints (i.e., child car seats) when they are traveling in a moving vehicle. We also know the use of seat belts can greatly reduce the chances of injuries. But will it affect your injury lawsuit if you or a loved one weren’t wearing one?
In North Carolina and South Carolina, probably not.
There is a defense that can be used in some other jurisdictions known as the “seat belt defense.” This allows the defense to successfully argue for a reduction in damages plaintiffs can recover because they failed to wear their seat belt. The theory is plaintiffs should only be able to recover for damages they would have incurred had they been wearing their seat belts.
N.C. Gen. Stat. 20-134.2A makes seat belt use mandatory in North Carolina. There are some exceptions, but for the most part, any driver or front seat passenger who doesn’t wear a seat belt is subject to a $25.50 fine, plus $135.50 in court costs.
However, the law expressly warns, “Evidence of failure to wear a seat belt shall not be admissible in any criminal or civil trial, action or proceeding except in an action based on a violation of this section or as justification for the stop of a vehicle or detention of a vehicle operator and passengers.”
So even though North Carolina law is very strict when it comes to contributory negligence – that is, recovery of damages is barred if defendant can show plaintiff was partially responsible for his or her own injuries – failure to wear a seat belt isn’t evidence of contributory negligence.
In fact, North Carolina and South Carolina are among the 31 states that have expressly rejected this defense. There are 15 others, though, that do allow it, or at least some possibility of it. In the South, those include West Virginia, Georgia, Florida and Missouri.
Winston-Salem car accident attorneys know that in addition to regular passenger vehicles, there has also been a push to get seat belts into standard use on commercial vehicles and school buses. The NHTSA announced in 2013 a final rule requiring lap and shoulder belts for all drivers and passengers of new motor coaches and other large buses. The NHTSA is also encouraging requirements to require seat belts on school buses, but there is still staunch opposition to that proposal.
Still, it does seem like overall, wearing one’s seat belt has become the norm.
Researchers reported seat belt use is higher in states like North Carolina where occupants can be stopped solely for not using a seat belt. Seat belt use among occupants in passenger cars increased from 88.1 percent in 2014 to 90.3 percent in 2015. Use of this critical safety feature also increased among pickup truck passengers, from 77.2 percent in 2014 to 80.8 percent in 2015.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Seat Belt Use in 2015 – Overall Results, February 2016, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
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Holt v. NCDOT – $3 Million Damage Award for Failure to Install Traffic Light Affirmed, Feb. 21, 2016, Winston-Salem Car Accident Attorney Blog