NHTSA proposes new requirements for seat belt warning systems

Seat belts save lives, but many passengers still don’t buckle up. In 2021, 60% of pickup truck drivers and 64% of pickup truck passengers killed in crashes were not wearing seat belts.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has proposed new requirements for seat belt warning systems in passenger cars, trucks, most buses, and multipurpose passenger vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,000 pounds or less.

The proposed rule would require all vehicles to be equipped with a seat belt warning system for the right front passenger seat and rear seats.

“Each year, more than 40,000 US citizens are killed in motor vehicle crashes, creating a carnage on our American roadways that has eclipsed the death toll of all of our country’s wars combined,” said consumer advocate Lisa McCormick. “Nearly every American family has been victimized by traffic accidents—a leading cause of death for Americans aged 5 to 34—and public health officials insist that up to half of those lives could have been saved if everyone wore seat belts.”

The NHTSA proposal would require vehicles to incorporate additional warning systems that remind both front- and back-seat passengers to buckle up.

The rear seat warning system would have to provide a visual warning on vehicle startup lasting at least 60 seconds to notify the driver of the status of the rear seat belts.

If a rear seat belt is unbuckled while the vehicle is in operation, an audio-visual change-of-status warning would sound for at least 30 seconds.

The proposed rule would also require all vehicles to be equipped with an audio-visual seat belt use warning for the right-front passenger’s seat. This warning would remain active until both the driver and right-front passenger seat occupants are belted.

If the rule is adopted, when a seat belt is unbuckled, an audio-visual change-of-status warning will sound until the unfastened seat belt is refastened.

NHTSA estimates that the proposed requirements would prevent approximately 300 non-fatal injuries and over 100 fatalities annually. While seat belt use is much higher than it was a decade ago, there is room for improvement.

Usage rates for rear seat passengers have consistently been below those for the front seats.

For rear seat occupants, seat belts reduce the risk of fatality by 55% for passenger cars and 74% for light trucks and vans.

For front-seat occupants, seat belts reduce the risk of fatality by 44% for passenger cars and 63% to 73% for light trucks and vans.

The proposed rule is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to reduce traffic fatalities but one Democratic critic says it does not go far enough.

“If a seat belt is unbuckled, and a person is occupying that seat, the warning should continue until it is fastened,” said McCormick. “I do not understand why the Biden administration is fatally addicted to incremental measures.”

“NHTSA estimates that we could prevent more than 100 deaths annually,” said McCormick. “We in America must not tolerate roadway deaths that are preventable.”

NHTSA will be taking public comments on the proposed rule for 60 days. Please click here to learn more about the rulemaking process.

The public comment period for the proposed rule will close on October 25, 2023.

In January 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation released the National Roadway Safety Strategy, a roadmap to address the national crisis in motor vehicle fatalities and serious injuries. The strategy calls for a number of initiatives to improve safety, including increasing seat belt use.

“Wearing a seat belt is one of the most effective ways to prevent injury and death in a crash,” said NHTSA Acting Administrator Ann Carlson. “This proposed rule can help reduce the number of people who are killed or injured in crashes by getting more people to buckle up.”

The proposed rule is supported by a number of safety advocates, including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

“This is a common-sense proposal that would help save lives,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “We urge NHTSA to finalize the rule as soon as possible.”

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