Three Things about NC’s Seat Belt Law You May Not Know

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State law has mandated seat belt use by North Carolina motorists for more than thirty years. The seat belt law has, however, changed a bit over time. As a result, not everyone is clear on who is covered, what is required, and what the penalties are for violations. This post covers the particulars of North Carolina’s seat belt requirements and addresses three common areas of confusion.

1. Everyone in the car must buckle up.

G.S. 20-135.2A(a) requires that each occupant of a motor vehicle manufactured with seat belts have a seatbelt properly fastened about his or her body when the vehicle is in forward motion on a street or highway. When it was first enacted, G.S. 20-135.2A (1985) only required seat belt use by drivers and front seat passengers. Ten years ago, the General Assembly amended the law to require that everyone in the vehicle, including rear seat passengers, buckle up.

A separate statute, G.S. 20-137.1, requires that drivers with passengers who are under 16 years of age have such passengers secured in a child passenger restraint system or seat belt.

A handful of exceptions to the seat-belts-for-all-occupants requirement are listed in G.S. 20-135.2A(c).They apply to the following persons and motor vehicles:

  • Drivers or occupants of noncommercial motor vehicles with medical or physical conditions that prevent seat belt restraint;
  • Rural letter carriers;
  • Newspaper delivery persons while delivering newspapers;
  • Drivers and passengers who frequently stop and leave their vehicles or deliver property from their vehicles if the vehicle’s speed between stops is 20 mph or less;
  • Property carrying vehicles used for agricultural purpose in intrastate commerce;
  • Motor vehicles that are not required to be equipped with seat belts under federal law;
  • Occupants of a motor home other than the driver and front seat passengers;
  • Persons in the custody of a law enforcement officer who are being transported in the back of a law enforcement vehicle; and
  • Passengers of a residential garbage or recycling truck while the truck is operating during collection rounds.

 

2. A motor vehicle may not be stopped for a back-seat passenger’s failure to buckle up.

A law enforcement officer who has reasonable grounds to believe that a driver or front seat passenger does not have a seat belt properly fastened about his or her body may stop the car to investigate.  A law enforcement officer who has reasonable grounds to believe that a rear seat occupant is not wearing a seat belt may not. That’s because G.S. 20-135.2A(d1) categorizes the failure to buckle up in the back seat as a secondary violation for which a vehicle may not be stopped. A law enforcement officer who has lawfully stopped a vehicle for another reason and learns in the process of a rear seat belt violation may, of course, cite the driver for this offense. Nearly as many charges were issued for unbuckled rear seat passengers in 2015 (12,847) as there were for unrestrained front-seat passengers (13,808). Charges for both categories were vastly outnumbered by the 108,320 charges issued for unbuckled drivers that year.

3. You need a statute book and a calculator to figure out the penalty for front seat violations.

The monetary penalty for a seat belt violation has significantly increased since seat belt use was first mandated. Back in 1986, a violation of the seat belt law (then, as now, an infraction) was punishable by a fine of $25. No court costs were assessed. Today, the penalty for a front-seat occupant’s failure to wear a seat belt is $25.50 plus $153.50 in district court costs. That’s a total of $179.

It is much simpler to calculate the costs of a rear seat violation. The penalty is a flat $10 and no costs may be assessed.

Are statutory amendments on the horizon? 

The Child Fatality Task Force, a legislative study commission, has recommended that law enforcement officers be permitted to stop vehicles for a back seat passenger’s failure to wear a seat belt and that the fine for back seat violations be increased to $25.  The task force contends that these changes are necessary to meet occupant protection criteria established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and to shore up certain federal funds. The task force further contends that making rear seat belt requirements a primary enforcement violation will increase seat belt usage. The group cites research findings that a greater percentage of fatal and serious injuries occur to unrestrained rear seat occupants than to unrestrained front seat occupants. It also states an unrestrained back seat passenger can injure a front seat passenger in a crash.

If the legislature adopts these or other changes to the seat belt laws, I’ll be sure to note them on the blog.

17 comments on “Three Things about NC’s Seat Belt Law You May Not Know

  1. Interested in your opinion or any of the SOG readers regarding the following scenario and applicability of the seatbelt law regarding the “Ag/Farm Tag” exemption. Suppose farmer Smith is checking several of his soybean fields, all within a 10 mile radius of his “farm” but he rents land in several spots and is driving down a US Highway between fields, for this scenario sake, we will say he checked field 1, returned to his vehicle, and is driving 2 miles down a US Highway to field 2. A LEO pulls him and cites him for failure to wear restraining belt shortly before he reaches the 2nd field. Farmer Smith is not impressed and expresses to the officer that he is engaged in intrastate agricultural business. Officer disagrees stating that the distance traveled negated any farm business occurring during that time. Whose side would you take and why?

    • I am a farmer and it is ridiculous to have to hook and unhook your seatbelt every time you get in and out of a vehicle. The seatbelt law is just a money gimmick anyway. It should be the owner of the the vehicle that pays taxes on that vehicles choice if he or she wants to wear thier seat belt who gives u the right to tell me how to take care of myself?

  2. thanks for the info about the backseat passenger not being basis for stop

  3. Query: If a driver’s seatbelt is ‘properly fastened” in the receptacle, is she in violation of 20-135.2.A if the strap is worn under her shoulder so as not to aggravate a painful medical condition?

  4. Is it a moving violation effecting your insurance?

  5. what happen when you forgot to pay you seatbelt tickey for a period of time and leave the country for a while and come back….

  6. A Highway Patrolman pulled over an elderly man and gave him a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt. The elderly man took off the seatbelt after being stopped to get his wallet out of his back pocket. Prior to being stopped, he did have on the seatbelt, so I am wondering why he was initially stopped. I think out of all fairness, a warning should have been issued instead of a ticket for 179.00 but who is going to believe this old man over the Highway Patrolman? To make matters worse, he can not fight it.

  7. It is absolutely ridiculous that your state has to get their hands on every little piece of money that they can buy penalizing people for not wearing a seatbelt should be to their own discretion but all means they can ride a motorcycle with nothing holding them on

  8. Seat belt citation have become increasingly popular with highway patrol and othe LEOs as they are generally much easier & safer to execute than other violations, North Carolina has the highest citation amounts in the nation except for Calif. Brandon H is right, the authorities should have no business in seat belt use, which should be at the operators discretion. In the case of a driver, the decision whether or not to wear a seat belt has NO impact on the safety of others. Absolutely ridiculous to have 160 dollar court costs added to a 25 dollar ticket! It costs the courts NOTHING to process these, not even a stamp! It’s not hard to see who the real “criminals” are!

    • Jim, I can see the argument for saying that the use of the seat belt should be at the operator’s discretion. Just to play devil’s advocate though, suppose the scenario happens… A father is driving down the road with his wife and two children in the vehicle. The father is driving safely, not speeding, and is following all laws, except he is not wearing his seat belt. He drives through a four-way intersection where he does not have to stop. A vehicle is coming down the road perpendicular to the road the family is traveling on and has a stop sign. That driver does not stop and T-bones the vehicle carrying the family. The vehicle with the family then travels off the road, down a ditch, and rolls over a couple times into a field. The father is not seat-belted in, so when the vehicle goes off the road and rolls, he becomes a mobile object inside and his body is now free to slam into the bodies of his family members inside the vehicle, potentially causing further injury or death to them as well. Sure the guy, traveling down the road alone only has himself to worry about, but when someone chooses not to buckle up with other people in the vehicle, that person is putting everyone else at greater risk.

      • Ok Chris, I can agree for the most part. but let’s follow your same scenario, with a passenger in the back seat unbuckled, that passenger is just as much a threat as the unbuckled driver would be, yet the fine is only ten dollars without court costs. What sense does that make? It makes none. The insane court costs associated with operator seat belt violations is nothing more than our slovenly justice system taking advantage of its citizens for the most minor of offenses. In my case, I spend hours in a vehicle every day, mostly off of public roads, opening gates, unloading the truck, cleaning culverts, etc. in and out in and out all day sometimes, never exceeding ten or fifteen MPH, seat belt use in such conditions is just silly, so the habit of always fastening up comes a lot harder to me than most drivers. While I am on public roads, (buckled up if I’m lucky enough to remember) I almost never fail to see real violators putting everyone in danger with MUCH more dangerous activity tailgating, texting, speeding, passing where not allowed, etc. Yet, troopers are trending towards prosecuting this “easy and safe” violation over more serious threats to themselves or others.

  9. Anyone who willfully fails to recognize the dramatic increase in odds of serious injury or death from refusal to wear a seat belt either has a diminished capacity to judge the likely consequences of crashes or has a reckless disregard for their own or others lives. In either case it could be said that the State has the responsibility to require that the only sound and rational decision be made for them and require compliance. Human life has a value that is quantified in the law in various ways, and if a driver or passenger has no regard for their own life or well being it reflects a disregard for societal expectations of that value. The statistics on the extent of injuries or death by those wearing seatbelts as opposed to not using them is beyond dispute and should make any rational person recognize the value of compliance. Irrational refusal to accept irrefutable evidence of predictable harm indicates that refusal is not a rational act. How hard is it to engage the belt and use it properly? What ” freedom ” is gained by refusal? This is a
    “no brainer ” ; anyone who fails to see the obvious is not using theirs rationally.

    • Richard obviously isnt a farmer. See my reply to Chris above. I spend hours driving every day, off of public roads, working hard, in & out of the truck literally hundreds of times & driving 15 mph or less. Using a seat belt in such conditions is just silly. And then how do you justify that there is only a $10 fine for not buckling up in the back seat? The NC justice system is taking advantage of the least threatening of all possible “violators” . THIS AINT CALIFORNIA, & there is no excuse for this in NC, Most other states have far lower fines for seat belt violations and still have a better rate of seat belt use.

  10. Auto drivers & passengers must wear seatbelts. Bikers don’t have to wear seat belts, and for good reason. But bikers do have to wear helmets. Considering that over half of all reported traumatic brain injuries are the result of an automobile accident why don’t we require the wearing of helmets when riding in a car? The head is the most vulnerable part of the human body, afterall.

    Then again, helmets clash with the vanities of hair styles. Imagine trying to pass such a law today.

  11. A female was pulled over by a Highway Patrol officer on the case that she “wasnt” wearing a seat belt. Despite there being witnesses that she wore the seat belt properly the entire time, she disagreed with his accusations because her chest is lower than the steering wheel but still able to see over, his accusation was that she wasnt wearing the seat belt. He then said that she was calling him a liar despite she was only in disagreance with his accusations. If a ticket was given.. would there be a way to fight this ticket in court? Her shirt was BRIGHT orange while wearing a GRAY seat belt. It is just annoying to be pulled for something so stupid.

  12. Within a week of getting my latest seat belt ticket, I had a collision in which I slid off the road and into a tree which caved in my drivers side door, I suffered torn & separated ribs as a result of being buckled in, (the belt secured me in place as the door caved in and shoved the armrest into my side). Then, to my shock the vehicle filled with smoke, and I found that I was unable to get out because I had been shoved on top of the belt latch. I am so pissed at this point, I am going to find a way to get my $160 dollars worth out of our crappy justice system! I demand my right to choose between a concussion or broken ribs!! ; )

  13. It is the duty of NC citizens to provide feedback to the system at all levels in regards to the unfair disposition of seat belt violations. One should make known that the law is biased against older citizens and those who drive older vehicles, that our enforcement officers should not be responsible for decisions about our individual welfare, and most of all, that the court costs are exorbitant and inconsistent with the benign decision (or mere forgetfulness) for not buckling up. One should announce ones disagreement with the established law and associated court costs to the enforcing officer, their supervisors, the DA, as well as expounding on the topic at large at court, (after all, you are paying the court system quite a sum, and you do have the right and opportunity to be heard).

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