However, in 38 states, you cannot be stopped for not wearing a seat belt; a police officer must find some other reason for stopping you and can then fine you for being ‘unbuckled’ (although you cannot incur licence penalty points).
Around two-thirds of Americans regularly wear seat belts, with around 10 per cent more women wearing them than men. The most conscientious belt wearers are Californians, 87 per cent of whom regularly buckle up. In some states, failure to wear a seat belt may reduce the amount of damages awarded by a court as the result of an accident. In some older American cars, shoulder seat belts operate automatically when you close the door (although you must fasten the lap belt yourself).
In all states and the District of Columbia, young children must ride in a federally-approved child safety seat or use seat belts. Age requirements vary from state to state. Generally, children under three or four must be secured in a safety seat, above which age a seat belt may be used. Some states stipulate any child under 40 pounds or 40 inches (do police officers carry scales and tape measures?) must be secured in a safety seat. In some states, child restraint laws don’t apply to out-of-state drivers.
Whether or not you’re required by law to wear a seat belt, it’s always wise. It has been estimated that seat belts would prevent some 75 per cent of deaths and 90 per cent of injuries caused to people involved in accidents who weren’t wearing seat belts (air bags would save most of the remainder). However, rear seat lap belts (used on their own) can cause serious internal and back injuries, and should be avoided (by children as well as adults).
If you’re exempt from wearing a seat belt for medical reasons, a seat belt certification is required from a physician. Taxis, emergency vehicles, buses and trucks weighing 18,000 pounds or more are exempt from seat belt and child restraint laws.
If you wish to be safer, at least as a driver or front passenger, buy a car fitted with air bags. For more information about seat belts and other aspects of motoring safety, write to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Information Department, 400 7th Street SW, Washington, DC 20590 or visit their website (www.nhtsa.dot.gov). The AAA publishes a free guide to child safety seats. It’s even possible to buy seat belts for pets!
This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.