New York State Imposes the First Mandatory Seat-Belt Law

In 1984, New York became the first U.S. state to require the use of automobile safety belts through a law mandating that all children under age ten and all front-seat occupants must be buckled up in a moving automobile.

Summary of Event

During the economic boom years following World War II, the automobile secured its place in American culture. By the late 1940’s, an estimated eighty-five million vehicles thronged the American highways, and as the suburbs spread, the automobile became the dominant mode of transportation. The population shift to the suburbs that marked the decades following World War II increased reliance on individual modes of transportation. Efforts at improving highway safety, widely accepted as desirable and necessary, focused on three major areas: highways, automobile design and manufacture, and driver skill and competence. Along with the increase in miles driven came the establishment of the interstate highway system, providing safer roads and easier travel. Also, standardized road markings and traffic signals and signs made streets and highways safer. Seat belts
New York State;seat-belt laws[seat belt laws]
[kw]New York State Imposes the First Mandatory Seat-Belt Law (July 12, 1984)
[kw]First Mandatory Seat-Belt Law, New York State Imposes the (July 12, 1984)
[kw]Seat-Belt Law, New York State Imposes the First Mandatory (July 12, 1984)
[kw]Law, New York State Imposes the First Mandatory Seat-Belt (July 12, 1984)
Automobiles;seat-belt laws[seat belt laws]
Seat belts
New York State;seat-belt laws[seat belt laws]
[g]North America;July 12, 1984: New York State Imposes the First Mandatory Seat-Belt Law[05460]
[g]United States;July 12, 1984: New York State Imposes the First Mandatory Seat-Belt Law[05460]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 12, 1984: New York State Imposes the First Mandatory Seat-Belt Law[05460]
[c]Health and medicine;July 12, 1984: New York State Imposes the First Mandatory Seat-Belt Law[05460]
Cuomo, Mario
Dole, Elizabeth
Graber, Vincent J.
Levy, Norman J.
Passidomo, John A.

As improvements in the roads brought safer travel, improvements in the design and equipment of automobiles themselves increased safety as well. Standard hydraulic brakes, shatter-resistant glass, and more reliable suspension systems improved cars’ performance in accidents. A further safety factor involving drivers resulted from a demographic coincidence. Low birthrates during the Great Depression meant that relatively few young and inexperienced drivers began their driving during the 1950’s. Along with these changes came increased weight, power, and speed of automobiles, permitting more devastating crashes when automobiles collided.

Road safety during the time may be illustrated by the occurrence of deaths per 100 million miles driven. During 1933, when thirty-four thousand people died on the nation’s highways, the death rate was eighteen per 100 million miles. By 1956, the figure had been cut to under six, a 66 percent reduction. The great increase in the number of miles driven, however, meant that annual fatalities nationwide had increased to more than thirty-six thousand. By the 1960’s, when the baby boomers began driving, the number of annual highway deaths climbed to more than fifty thousand.

It is not surprising that seat belts received serious attention as a safety device. Relatively cheap, safety belts had been used for many years to reduce injuries and deaths during airplane crashes and were routinely used by racing drivers for the same reason. They effectively prevented bodies from being ejected from a vehicle during a crash and also prevented injuries from passengers hurtling around inside a vehicle. In 1956, Ford Motor Company Ford Motor Company introduced safety belts as standard equipment on mainline models. Although the cost of the addition was minimal, the additional safety the belts provided did not improve sales. Of drivers who purchased vehicles with seat belts, less than 20 percent actually wore them. Still, the potential of seat belts for saving lives and reducing injuries, and consequently reducing liability expenses, became widely recognized.

State legislatures and executive branches, concerned with the economic burdens imposed on state budgets by highway accidents, began passing laws requiring safety belts in state-owned vehicles. New York, under the administrations of Governor William Averell Harriman Harriman, William Averell and Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, Rockefeller, Nelson A. led the way in adopting these measures. In 1961, a New York law required all automobiles sold in the state to be equipped with anchors for safety belts. By 1967, all car models manufactured in the United States were required to have safety belts as standard equipment.

Laws requiring that children be belted in were widely adopted by states during the early 1980’s. New York’s law required children under age six to be secured by seat belts. Penalties were minimal, however, and the laws were often unenforced. Studies on public compliance produced discouragingly low figures. Seeking to lower liability costs, insurance companies sponsored advertising campaigns encouraging the use of belts, but with minimal results. According to National Safety Council estimates, only 10 to 15 percent of passengers regularly wore seat belts.

By 1984, Western European nations and Canada had adopted laws requiring the use of seat belts by drivers and passengers, and although compliance was varied, estimates of compliance ranged as high as 85 percent in Sweden and 90 percent in England. In the Canadian province of Ontario, the compliance rate increased to 59 percent shortly after the law was enacted. A comprehensive study of the law in Great Britain detailed a 25 percent reduction in traffic deaths during the first year following its enactment. The only measure in the United States that had approached these results was the 1972 law lowering the legal speed to fifty-five miles per hour. Within a year of that law’s passage, automobile fatalities were reduced by more than 20 percent. The results of foreign experience with seat-belt laws suggested that such laws increase the number of seat-belt wearers and therefore save lives and lower the costs associated with medical care for accident victims.

In the United States, New York, Illinois, and Michigan were seriously considering instituting requirements similar to those imposed in other nations, but New York took the lead. The picture was clouded somewhat by the Federal Transportation Agency, Federal Transportation Agency which issued a ruling that by 1989 all automobiles manufactured in the United States had to be equipped with passive restraint systems, either automatic seat belts or air bags. An exception would be made if a large majority of the states passed laws requiring the use of seat belts. Proponents of the laws feared that their passage might save lives but at the same time discourage the development of better safety technology.

More serious opposition came from the familiar libertarian view that government had no business regulating a matter of personal choice. Gradually, the consensus view that the public’s interest in keeping down medical costs, in saving insurance dollars, in protecting citizens from preventable death and maiming injuries, and in reducing the social costs of welfare and social security to survivors prevailed. Proponents were able to point out that billions of dollars and a large number of lives would be saved by a relatively inexpensive measure. In this instance, education had done much of the work, and the law encouraged people to do what they already knew they should.

By June 5, 1984, two key New York state legislators announced agreement in principle on a mandatory seat-belt law. This agreement followed by one week the defeat of a bill favored by Governor Mario Cuomo that would have raised the state’s legal drinking age from nineteen to twenty-one. Although the governor believed the drinking-age measure to be the most effective way of reducing highway deaths, he quickly supported the seat-belt law as a wise step. State Senator Norman J. Levy, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, and Assemblyman Vincent J. Graber, chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee, announced that they were close to an agreement on reconciling their respective legislative proposals and expressed their determination to enact the first legislation of its kind in the nation. The Assembly’s version provided for stronger penalties and required that all passengers in a vehicle be belted. Senator Levy, whose bill was less rigorous, estimated that the law could prevent many serious injuries and save 350 to 400 lives each year if 50 percent of New Yorkers complied. Automobile manufacturers favored such measures because of their apprehension over costly new mandates from the federal government. On June 7, The New York Times published an editorial supportive of the law, stressing the possible economic benefits and rejecting libertarian opposition.

On June 19, Levy and Graber announced their agreement on specific measures in the law. The bill required drivers, front-seat passengers, and all passengers under age ten to wear seat belts. A violation would be punishable by a fine of fifty dollars. The bill was to go into effect on December 1, 1984, but violators were allowed a month’s grace period before fines were to be imposed. People with medical conditions that made the use of safety belts dangerous or inconvenient were to be treated as exceptions. Other exceptions included drivers and passengers of limousines and taxicabs and passengers in all vehicles weighing more than eighteen thousand pounds. In addition, automobiles manufactured before 1966 were exempted from the law.

When Governor Cuomo signed the bill into law on July 12, he stressed its potential benefits. Senator Levy predicted that it would save four hundred lives and seventy thousand injuries annually if everyone complied. Cuomo estimated that the law would lower medical costs and property losses associated with accidents by $240 million annually. Both Cuomo and Levy criticized the ruling of the U.S. secretary of transportation, Elizabeth Dole, that linked seat-belt laws to requirements for passive restraints such as air bags and took the position that air bags or other passive restraints should be federally mandated regardless of the states’ position on seat belts.


The New York law requiring the use of seat belts had diverse and far-reaching effects, some of them unanticipated and most of them difficult to measure. Other states quickly followed New York’s lead; New Jersey and Illinois became the second and third states, respectively, to enact seat-belt laws. Before two years had passed, more than twenty-five states had adopted mandatory seat-belt laws. Acceptance was not without some retrogression; faced with organized opposition, Nevada and Massachusetts repealed their new seat-belt laws before the end of 1986. Automobiles;seat-belt laws[seat belt laws]

Following the New York law’s passage, safety-belt use in the state increased dramatically. During December, 1984, before penalties were in effect, usage increased from below 20 percent to 40 percent. In January, 1985, compliance reached 67 percent, but this figure gradually diminished throughout the year, declining to approximately 50 percent at the end of 1985. Public officials responded with educational campaigns aimed at improving compliance. In areas where educational campaigns were combined with vigorous enforcement, compliance reached very high levels. In Elmira, for example, the compliance rate in late 1985 stood at 80 percent.

Although the saving of lives did not reach the most optimistic projections, it appeared that during the law’s first year hundreds of lives were saved and thousands of serious injuries were prevented. During December, 1984, highway deaths statewide numbered 84, compared with 104 during December, 1983. During the first three months of 1985, traffic fatalities statewide decreased 27 percent (to 184 from 252 during the previous year’s first quarter). The law’s effects in bringing about greater highway safety were thus similar to those found elsewhere as in Great Britain, for example, where the law reduced traffic fatalities by 25 percent. Fears that the use of safety belts might decrease individuals’ chances of survival in accidents involving fire, explosions, and submersion of vehicles proved to be groundless.

In general, the law did not have the expected effect of preventing adoption of other measures designed to improve automobile safety. Governor Cuomo’s proposal to raise the legal drinking age in New York from nineteen to twenty-one was enacted into law in 1985. Federal mandates for passive restraint systems, previously delayed, were not delayed further as had been feared. The seat-belt law seemed if anything to intensify the efforts of insurers and consumer groups on behalf of air bags, which, combined with safety belts, provided an even greater margin of safety, particularly to drivers. Among American manufacturers, Chrysler Corporation Chrysler pioneered by providing driver’s-side air bags as standard equipment on all of its models. In the New York Assembly, serious consideration was given to a measure extending the law to school buses, but this was deemed impractical.

In addition, some unexpected results of the law were explored and studied. Statistics on the use of seat belts by backseat passengers, not required by the law, revealed disturbing trends. Belts alone did not appear to improve chances of survival among rear-seat passengers, and, indeed, some studies showed higher death rates among those who were wearing safety belts. A study in England suggested that as drivers began to use seat belts they became complacent about their own safety and endangered the lives of pedestrians and cyclists. A subsequent study in Nova Scotia reached conclusions that refuted those of the British study. In the legal area, defense attorneys for insurance companies and drivers began seeking lower compensation for victims of accidents who were not wearing safety belts at the time of their crashes. As safety belts lowered the death rate, particularly among young adults, the point was made in the popular press that seat-belt laws had contributed to the shortage of organs for transplant operations.

On balance, the use of safety belts mandated by law reduced both deaths and serious injuries. It should be noted, however, that the laws were adopted during a period of decreasing rates of traffic fatalities. During the period 1980-1983, U.S. traffic fatalities decreased 17 percent, while mileage driven increased 8 percent. Nationwide, 56,300 people died in highway accidents in 1980, compared with 42,600 in 1983. The 1966 death rate of 5.72 per 100 million miles dropped to 2.47 by 1985. Because of seat-belt laws and other safety measures affecting automobiles and drivers, the death rate continued to decline throughout the late 1980’s. During the period when seat-belt laws were being adopted, some of the lives saved were probably the result of more rigorous attempts to suppress drunken driving and continuing safety improvements in automobile design. Automobiles;seat-belt laws[seat belt laws]
Seat belts
New York State;seat-belt laws[seat belt laws]

Further Reading

  • Evans, Leonard. The Effectiveness of Safety Belts in Preventing Fatalities. Warren, Mich.: General Motors Research Laboratories, 1985. Pioneer study in the ways safety belts work. Gives statistical results of numerous kinds of automobile crashes and provides careful statistical analysis. Data and conclusions strongly support the use of seat belts.
  • _______. Traffic Safety. Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: Science Serving Society, 2004. Comprehensive volume on all aspects of motor vehicle safety includes a chapter on occupant protection in which seat-belt laws are discussed.
  • Evans, Leonard, and Richard C. Schwing, eds. Human Behavior and Traffic Safety. New York: Plenum Press, 1985. Collection of papers presented at a General Motors-sponsored symposium on traffic safety. Among the numerous studies are two carefully documented articles on seat-belt use in England and Newfoundland. Overall, the articles center on the driver’s role in safety rather than on automobile design.
  • Goehring, Jan. “Buckle Up or Else.” State Legislatures 25 (September, 1999): 30-32. Describes the trend among states to pass mandatory seat-belt laws and discusses a monetary incentive offered by the federal government to encourage the passage of those laws.

  • The New York Times, 1984-1986. Remains the most valuable and accessible source of information on the New York seat-belt law. For the three years 1984-1986, the newspaper published more than one hundred news stories and editorials on the subject. Strongly prosafety, The New York Times gave front-page coverage to stories relating to the law and lent editorial support during critical periods.

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