Seat belt use in America is at the highest it has ever been, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The newest report from the agency, released last month, indicates that in 2015, 88.5 percent of Americans wore their seat belt on a regular basis. This was up slightly from 86.7 percent in 2014. The survey analyzed statistically representative samples of the most current demographic and traffic conditions, accounting for age, race, gender, population density and socioeconomic status.

This is great news for a couple reasons. The first, of course, is that seat belts do save lives. It is a proven fact that those who wear their seat belts are likely to reduce their chances of serious injury or death during a crash if they are buckled up. The second reason has to do with the seat belt defense rule, which is recognized as a valid defense that could potentially reduce the amount of damages you could collect if injured in a crash.

It’s called “the seat belt defense,” and our Miami auto accident attorneys know defendants will try to use it as a means to significantly slash the amount for which they are responsible.

The thinking is this: Wearing a seat belt in Florida is mandatory per F.S. 316.614. In fact, it’s a primary offense that gives police cause to stop a vehicle. Further, because it’s been established that seat belts save lives and lessen the chance of injuries, plaintiffs should only be able to recover for the damages they would have suffered if they’d been wearing their seat belt.

Of course, the damages awarded will be speculative, likely based on expert witness opinion of how the crash might have unfolded – and what injuries might have been sustained – had the claimant been belted in.

Although 31 jurisdictions have expressly rejected the seat belt defense, the Florida Supreme Court formally recognized it in the 1996 case of Ridley v. Safety Kleen Corp. In that case, plaintiff was driving a pickup truck with his daughter as a passenger when a service truck, operated by defendant’s employee, crashed into them. This was in 1992. The service truck driver was found at-fault, but defendant argued plaintiff was comparatively negligent because he was not wearing his seat belt, as required by law.

The district court agreed and damages were reduced and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed. The court stated that consistent with the Florida seat belt statute, “The failure to wear a seat belt should be properly raised by alleging the failure and its contributing effect to claimant’s damages are an issue of comparative negligence.”

Comparative negligence means that a plaintiff’s compensation can be diminished by the percentage he or she is negligent for his or her own injuries. So for example, let’s say you are in a crash with a vehicle whose driver runs a red light. You are seriously injured when you are thrown from the vehicle. You aren’t wearing a seat belt.

The court may find the driver of the other vehicle was 100 percent responsible for the crash. However, the court may also find that your injuries would not have been nearly as severe had you been wearing a seat belt. Thus, they might assign you 20 percent comparative negligence. That would mean whatever the ultimate damage award, it would be reduced by 20 percent.

So this increase of seat belt use as reported by the NHTSA is good news. The increase was most significantly noted for occupants in passenger cars, where seat belt use rose from 88.1 percent in 2014 to 90.3 percent in 2015. Additionally, use among pickup truck occupants also rose susbatntially, from 77.2 percent in 2014 to 80.8 percent in 2015.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

Seat Belt Use in 2015 – Overall Results, February 2016, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

More Blog Entries:

Another Wave of Airbag Recalls Affects 5 Million Vehicles, Feb. 22, 2016, Miami Car Accident Attorney Blog