What Happens If You Have Been in a Car Crash Without a Seat Belt?

February 1, 2023 | Article by Chain | Cohn | Clark staff | Tips & Information

What Happens If You Have Been in a Car Crash Without a Seat Belt?

Maybe you were in a rush, only traveling a short distance, or preoccupied with work, a conversation, or your kids. You drove or rode in a car without your seat belt on and got into an accident—and now you’re wondering, “Will an accident with no seat belt affect my ability to collect an insurance settlement?”

The short answer is that not wearing a seat belt won’t prevent you from receiving an insurance payout, but it may affect the amount of the payout you receive.

How seat belt use affects insurance claims is just one of three areas in which wearing (or not wearing) a seat belt can affect you. In this blog post, we’ll cover the consequences of not wearing a seat belt in relation to:

  1. The law (that is, traffic violations)
  2. Safety
  3. Insurance claims and lawsuits

Seat Belts and the Law

The three-point seat belt—a combination of a lap belt and a shoulder harness—was invented by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin in 1959, but motorists were slow to adopt seat belts for decades afterward. By the early 1980s, although seat belts were commonly found in cars, only 14% of drivers and passengers used them.

The state of New York passed the country’s first mandatory seat belt law in 1984, and in succeeding years every state except New Hampshire has followed suit. California first adopted a seat belt law in 1986.

California’s Seat Belt Law

California’s seat belt law includes the following provisions:

  • Drivers must wear a seat belt.
  • All passengers 16 years old and older must wear a seat belt.
  • Drivers are not allowed to operate a vehicle unless they and all passengers are wearing seat belts.
  • The penalty for a first violation is a $20 fine. The penalty for subsequent violations is a $50 fine.

There are two types of enforcement of seat belt laws: primary and secondary enforcement. Under secondary enforcement rules, police officers can only cite drivers for violating seat belt laws after they’ve been stopped for some other infraction. Primary enforcement allows police officers to stop drivers for seat belt violations without any other cause. California is a primary enforcement state.

A separate California law covers the use of child restraints (car seats), booster seats, and seat belts for children under 16. (The Chain | Cohn | Clark blog has more information on car accident reporting in California.)

Does Not Wearing a Seat Belt Affect Insurance Claims?

California’s seat belt law clearly states that a violation “does not establish negligence as a matter of law or negligence per se for comparative fault purposes.” In other words, a California seat belt violation does not mean that you cannot pursue an insurance claim or lawsuit if you’re in a car accident caused by another driver.

Does a Seat Belt Violation Affect Insurance Rates?

If a seat belt ticket shows up on your driving record, your insurance company may raise your rates because a habit of not wearing a seat belt makes you more likely to be injured or killed in a car accident.

Seat Belts and Safety

Seat belt laws and relentless advocacy finally pushed seat belt use over the 90% mark for the first time in 2021. The CDC estimates seat belt use in California at 93%.

So, what’s been gained by the increase in seat belt use over the years? A National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) study found that “between 1960 and 2012, seat belts saved more lives—329,715, to be exact—than all other vehicle technologies combined.”

NHTSA statistics show that buckling your seat belt can reduce your risk of severe injury (by 50%) or death (by 45%) if you get into a car accident.

How Do Seat Belts Prevent Injuries?

Seat belts prevent injuries in a number of ways. They:

  • Distribute the force from a collision over large, bony areas of the body—the shoulder blades, rib cage, and pelvis—avoiding strain on weaker body parts.
  • Keep people from colliding with other parts of the car—like the steering wheel, dashboard, or windows—and also from colliding with other passengers, which can be deadly.
  • Prevent people from being thrown out of a vehicle in a car crash. A 2004 NHTSA study found that unbelted occupants were seven times more likely to be partially or completely ejected from a car in an accident, and fatality rates are far higher for passengers or drivers who are thrown from their vehicles.

Seat belts must be worn properly to offer users full protection. The shoulder strap should run across the shoulder and chest. That’s why booster seats are important for children who have outgrown car seats—boosters lift kids up so that the shoulder strap doesn’t run across their face or neck. Lap belts should straddle the pelvis at the waist rather than passing over the abdomen.

Injuries Caused by Seat Belts

Although it’s indisputable that seat belts save lives, the force exerted by a seat belt on a person’s body, especially in a severe collision, can sometimes cause injuries. The array of injuries that typically result from a seat belt restraining someone in a car crash is known as “seat belt syndrome.”

Injuries associated with seat belt syndrome include:

  • Bruising across the chest and waist (known as the “seat belt sign”)
  • Tears or bruising of internal organs or the layer of tissue that holds organs in place
  • Rib, sternum, or spinal fractures

Because there may not be any outward indication of an injury—for example, someone may not have external bruising but may have a small tear in their intestine—it’s important to get a full medical evaluation as soon as possible after a car accident. This can ensure that any internal injuries receive prompt treatment.

Seat Belts and Insurance Claims and Lawsuits

If you’ve been in a no-seat-belt car crash, you may be concerned about how not wearing a seat belt will affect an insurance claim or potential lawsuit.

The good news is that the consequences of not wearing a seat belt are probably not as dire as you might imagine, even if you received a seat belt citation.

As mentioned previously, California’s seat belt law specifically states that not using a seat belt doesn’t automatically imply negligence in an accident. In other words, if you were injured in an accident that was caused by another driver’s negligence, you are still eligible to seek an insurance settlement or pursue a lawsuit if a suitable settlement can’t be worked out.

The Seat Belt Defense

The bad news is that the insurance company or the other party’s lawyer might argue that you are to blame (or at least partly to blame) for your injuries because you didn’t wear a seat belt OR that your injuries would not be as severe if you had worn a seat belt. If the jury agrees with them, your compensation may be reduced.

A defendant using this argument under California law must prove each of the following points:

  1. A working seat belt was available.
  2. A reasonably careful person would have used the seat belt.
  3. You failed to wear a seat belt.
  4. Your injuries would have been avoided or less severe if you had used the seat belt.

Comparative Fault in California

In California, whoever causes a car accident is legally responsible for property damage, injuries, or deaths that result from the accident. States that apply this reasoning to civil liability cases are commonly known as at-fault states.

However, one party or the other in an accident is necessarily assigned all the blame in an accident. California law follows pure comparative fault rules, which allow multiple parties to be held responsible for an accident. 

After an accident, insurance companies in settlement negotiations or the jury in a lawsuit determine the percentage of fault that should be assigned to each party in an accident. The percentage of fault assigned to you affects how much you can collect in damages.

For example, suppose you’re not wearing a seat belt and someone rear-ends you while you’re stopped at a red light. Without the restraint provided by a seat belt, you strike your head on the steering wheel. Although the other driver clearly caused the accident, their lawyer successfully convinces a jury that your injuries would have been less severe if you were wearing a seat belt. 

The jury then determines that the other driver is 80% at fault while you are 20% at fault. If the jury awards $10,000 in damages, you can only collect $8,000—in line with the 80% of the responsibility for the accident that doesn’t fall on you.

Experienced California Car Accident Attorneys

If you were injured in a car accident while not wearing a seat belt, it’s likely that you’d benefit from the advice of the experienced Bakersfield car accident lawyers at Chain | Cohn | Clark. Your damage claim doesn’t have to be derailed because you weren’t wearing a seat belt; the bottom line is that whether or not your seat belt was fastened, the other driver caused the accident. 

Reach out to us today for a free consultation.