Buckle up in the back seat — new seat belt law takes effect
Buckling up in the back seat is now the law — as of Friday, everyone in Connecticut is required to wear a seat belt in a moving vehicle, no matter where they’re sitting or how old they are.
The law, which was signed by Gov. Ned Lamont in July and went into effect Friday, means people may face fines if they fail to wear a seat belt, and not just when they’re driving or riding shotgun.
For years, seat belt laws in Connecticut have only applied to drivers, front seat passengers or back-seat riders under the age of 16. But the state is hoping to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities in motor vehicle accidents by requiring everyone to be protected.
In 2019, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 9,466 unbuckled passenger vehicle occupants were killed in crashes across the country. In Connecticut, 12,589 unbelted back-seat passengers were injured in crashes between 2017 and 2020, and 61 were killed, according to the governor's office. The state hopes that number will plummet under the new law.
“Our goal is zero fatalities,” state Department of Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti said this week. “Unrestrained passengers in the back seat can become projectiles in the event of a crash, causing serious injuries or fatalities.”
Dr. Stephanie Joyce, a trauma surgeon at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, said motor vehicle collisions account for the majority of trauma cases that emergency departments see. People who aren't wearing seat belts during crashes often are ejected from vehicles and suffer severe injuries, often damaging their brains and spinal cords.
These types of injuries, Joyce said, are severe and often can’t be fixed. Spinal cord injuries can cause paralysis or an inability to breathe on your own, and head injuries can fracture faces, break jaws and hurt the brain itself. Brain injuries, she said, “can have life-altering changes on people” that can be debilitating or leave them in long-term comas.
Unlike broken bones, she said, these injuries often are irreversible.
Joyce, who has worked in major trauma centers in Dallas and Denver, said she thinks there is a common misconception that folks sitting in the back seat without a seat belt can’t be ejected. “I have seen patients myself who have been sitting in the back seat and have been throw through the windshield,” she said.
She said by enacting this law, the state is following recommendations that medical professionals have been making for quite some time.
“Survival is increased when everyone is wearing a seat belt, it doesn't matter if you're in the front seat or the back seat," Joyce said. "Wearing a seat belt does improve your chances of surviving a major car accident.”
She said she hopes the public realizes that this new law isn’t meant to punish people. “This is really meant to help save not just people's lives but help reduce the severity of their injuries if they are in an accident,” she said. “It's not meant to make people feel bad, it's a public safety issue that we are addressing.”
State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, said he is in favor of the new law but hopes people will be given a chance to learn about it before they are fined for violating it.
“I’m for the protection of people in vehicles but I’m not for the immediate penalties for people,” said Nolan, who is concerned that the fines — $50 for drivers age 18 and older and $75 for drivers who are under 18 — might create unnecessary financial hardships for some people and increase interactions with police that result in such a hardship.
“I think it might create more reasons, in our urban communities, for people to be stopped by police and I was hoping there would be more of a warning period the first year,” said Nolan, who is an officer with the New London Police Department. He said he voted in favor of the bill because of “the necessity to make sure people are protected,” although he didn’t support the legislation entirely because of the immediate fines.
Capt. Matthew Galante, also with the New London Police Department, said the department is looking forward to educating the public on the importance of wearing seat belts and about the new law.
“Passengers in a vehicle who are not wearing a seat safety belt can very easily be ejected through the front, rear or side windows, resulting in serious injury or death during traffic crashes,” he said. “The bottom line is seat safety belts save lives, it’s been proven statistically and they are the best defense against aggressive, impaired and distracted driving.”
State Rep. Greg Howard, a detective with the Stonington Police Department for 20 years, said he voted in favor of the bill because data shows that seat belts save lives and his own experience proves it. “I have definitely seen many accidents where seat belts have saved lives and where a lack of seat belt made a difference in lives not being saved.”
Though he said that, as a conservative Republican, he tries not to make new laws that mandate people to do things, “when something is that close to so many horrific incidents I've been to, I just feel obligated to say, ‘We just need to do this for the safety of everyone.’"
In East Lyme, the number of people injured in a crash while not wearing a seat belt spiked significantly last year: 15 people in 2020, compared to four in 2019 and five in 2018.
Town police Chief Michael Finkelstein said he thinks the seat belt law will protect people. “I believe that any situation where a passenger inside of a vehicle can remain in place despite an impact, ultimately keeps them safer,” he said. He hopes the law will help prevent people from making impact with seats, doors and windows in the event of a crash.
Lt. Marc Balestracci said officers in the Waterford Police Department quite often respond to motor vehicle crashes and most of the time, people are wearing their seat belts. Their experience has shown them that “those who are secured inside of the vehicle at the time of the crash, oftentimes have much better outcomes,” he said.
Amy Parmenter, manager of public and government affairs for AAA of Greater Hartford, said there was a significant increase in fatalities last year, despite far fewer drivers on the road and far fewer ‘vehicle miles traveled’ in Connecticut and nationwide, with lower seat belt usage as one of the contributing factors. And the number of fatalities this year in Connecticut is on track to be even higher, she said.
Alec Slatky, director of public and government affairs for AAA Northeast, said this week that he was proud of the bipartisan support for the law that he thinks will help curb this spike.
“Riding unbelted can result in injuries that are as devastating as they are preventable," he said. "Everyone should buckle up — in every seat on every trip.”
The governor last week commended Connecticut as one of the first states to pass a mandatory seat belt law more than 30 years ago and the lawmakers who continued to advocate for more protection.
“I applaud and recognize the efforts of those lawmakers and safety advocates who pushed for passage of this life-saving measure for more than 20 years,” Lamont said. “With this new law, passengers and drivers in Connecticut will be safer.”