injury prevention web logo
IPW Home

Safety Policy
Home Page

IPW Info:

Injury Prevention Links

Injury Prevention Books

Publications Available
On-Line from IPW Sites

Other IPW Sites

Visit our partner in this policy project:

Policy Matters logo
Policy Matters



Enforcement of Passenger Restraint Laws


How big is the problem?

In the U.S., after the first year of life, injuries to drivers and passengers of motor vehicles top the list of all causes of death and disability until one reaches 40 years of age. For persons of other ages these injuries are still major threats (1). The 25,089 motor vehicle occupant deaths in 1997 represented more than one-fourth of the injury deaths to persons of all ages. That year 593 children under 5 years of age died in motor vehicle crashes, 54 percent of these children were totally unrestrained (2).

Policy and Details

Local police shall enforce laws that require motor vehicle occupants to be appropriately restrained with seat belts or safety seats.

The effectiveness of laws depends upon the perceived likelihood of being caught and on the severity of the punishment. In general, traffic laws are effective when people think that it is likely that they will be detected and cited if they violate the law and that if they are cited, the punishment will be significant. Thus, the key to a law being effective is not simply that it exists but the way that it is applied, particularly in terms of the amount of enforcement and the publicity surrounding the enforcement effort (3).

Support for increased enforcement of child restraint laws is widespread. A recent Harris poll found that 90 percent of Americans support increased police enforcement of child restraint laws (4). The International Association of Chiefs of Police has taken a strong stand in support of greater enforcement of child restraint laws. The Association argues that specialized squads and overtime are not needed. They point out that child safety seat enforcement can and should be incorporated into every officer's daily patrol routine. The group states that there is "nothing an officer can do that has as much potential to save lives and prevent injury for young children than actively and aggressively enforcing child passenger safety laws" (5).


It is well accepted that enforcement combined with publicity makes for a successful campaign to increase the prevalence of seat belt use and to sustain the higher level of use (3, 6, 7). In Durham, North Carolina a "Click-it or Ticket" program increased proper restraint use among elementary school children from 36 percent to 64 percent in one intervention group and from 49 percent to 75 percent in another intervention group (7). In suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania a combined enforcement and public education program was successful in increasing child passenger safety seat use from a baseline of 61 percent to 71 percent (8). These education-enforcement programs led to significant improvements in the prevalence of safety seat use.

Research has found that lap / shoulder belts, when used, reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent. Research on the effectiveness of child safety seats has found them to reduce fatal injury by 69 percent for infants (less than 1 year old) and by 47 percent for older children (1 - 4 years old) (2). When adults buckle up, children get buckled up too. One study found that a driver who is buckled up is three times more likely to restrain a child passenger than a driver who is not buckled (9). Given this knowledge, the enforcement of passenger restraint laws is important not only for increasing the prevalence of adult safety belt use, but also for increasing the number of children who are protected by occupant restraints.


David Lawrence, Center Director
Center for Injury Prevention Policy and Practice
San Diego State University
6505 Alvarado Road, Suite 208
San Diego, CA 92120
Phone: (619) 594-3691
Fax: (619) 594-1994


1. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Leading Causes of Death for United States, Individual States and Washington, DC, 1993-1995. Available online: May 22, 2000.

2. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic Safety Facts 1997: Occupant Protection. DOT HS 808 768.

3. Williams AF, Reinfurt D, Wells JK. Increasing seat belt use in North Carolina. Journal of Safety Research, 27(1): 33-41, 1996.

4. Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. Standard safety belt enforcement fact sheet, citing Lou Harris poll conducted for the AHAS in 1998. Available online at:, May 24, 2000.

5. International Association of Chiefs of Police. Operation Kids: a Law Enforcement Child Passenger Safety Program. Available online at:, May 24, 2000.

6. Landry PR. SCI's five-year occupant restraint initiative. Proceedings of the National Leadership conference on Increasing Safety Belt Use in the U.S., pp 61-64. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1991.

7. Williams AF, Wells JK, Ferguson SA. Development and evaluation of programs to increase proper child restraint use. Journal of Safety Research, 28(3):197-202, reprinted with corrections in 28(4), 1997.

8. Decina LE, Temple MG, Dorer HS. Increasing child safety seat use and proper use among toddlers. Evaluation of an enforcement and education program. Accident Analysis and Prevention 26(5):667-73, 1994.

9. Agran PF, Anderson CL, Winn DG. Factors associated with restraint use of chldren in fatal crashes. Pediatrics, 102(3):E39, 1998.

Back to Policy Menu

Last modified: 4-August-2000.