A number of states maintain statutes that completely bar or severely restrict the admissibility of evidence regarding seat belt non-usage. In light of the fact that forty-nine states presently mandate use of safety belts and punish motorists who do not buckle up with traffic citations and fines, preventing juries from considering that a claimant injured in a car crash failed to use a seat belt seems to reflect inconsistent public policy.
Federal regulatory action initially sparked most states to take up seat belt usage legislation. On July 17, 1984, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a regulation that would require vehicle manufacturers to equip all new passenger cars with passive restraint systems, such as airbags, beginning in the 1990 model year. This regulation, however, stipulated that it would not go into effect if a sufficient number of states enacted seat belt mandatory use laws containing certain specified provisions prior to April 1, 1989. By the end of 1987, thirty-one states had enacted laws mandating seat belt use. Many of those mandatory use statutes included provisions excluding the admissibility of seat belt non-usage evidence or drastically limiting the uses of such evidence in civil lawsuits addressing crash-related personal injuries.
Utah’s Motor Vehicle Seat Belt Usage Act, enacted in 1987, provides a useful example of how these exclusionary provisions came into existence. Utah’s gag rule was included in the Act because, at the time of enactment, the public had not yet fully accepted seat belts and their life-saving ability. The Utah Supreme Court encapsulated the legislative debates leading to enactment: “[The] discussion centered on two issues. Those in favor of passage of the Act argued for the benefits in terms of injuries prevented or minimized and money saved. Those against passage were concerned with whether the Act infringed on personal freedom to choose whether to wear a seat belt.” Critically, at the time of the Utah Legislature’s policy discussions in 1986, the seat belt use rate among Utah motorists stood below 18%. Further, many people at that time still questioned the efficacy of safety belts in preventing injuries.
This limited appreciation of the benefits of seat belts was compounded by legislators’ resentment at federal intrusion into an area of state authority. The federal regulation specified that a state’s mandatory use statute would only count toward the total number of states needed to stay the federal passive restraint requirement if the statute provided that seat belt non-usage evidence may be used to mitigate damages claimed by civil litigants seeking to recover for crash-related personal injuries. Therefore, legislators who saw passive airbags as preferable to manually-operated seat belts, or who simply did not want the state legislative process influenced by federal regulatory implications, had reason to support including the gag provision in the mandatory use law.
Over the thirty years that have passed since Utah and other states originally enacted seat belt gag provisions, however, an expectation has developed that motorists should and will use seat belts. On a practical level, citizens have accepted seat belts as part of their driving routine. Recent data indicates that the vast majority of U.S. motor vehicle occupants – 87% in 2014 – use their seat belts. With regard to efficacy, as the Texas Supreme Court recently noted, any debate regarding the beneficial effects of seat belts “has long ended.” Further, in terms of public policy, a number of states have actually seen fit to expand the duty to wear seat belts. To return to Utah as an example, the usage duty that in 1986 applied only to drivers and front seat passengers was extended in 2000 to cover all motor vehicle occupants, and enforcement of this duty has advanced from a secondary scheme to a primary violation.
In recognition of the public expectation that has developed regarding seat belt usage, several states that had enacted seat belt evidence gag provisions during the 1980s have recently taken action to dump such statutes. States taking such action include:
-Idaho (Idaho Code §49-673(8) repealed 2014)
-Oklahoma (Okla. Stat. Ann. tit. 47, §12-420 (2013))
-Texas (Tex. Transp. Code §§ 545.412(d), 545.413(g) repealed 2003)
The circumstances that resulted in enactment of gag rules no longer exist. With considerable justification, the Texas Supreme Court described that state’s now-discarded gag rule as “an anachronism” that “may have been appropriate in its time,” but that has become “a vestige of a bygone legal system.” State legislatures in those states where seat belt gag provisions still exist should consider repeal.