Seat belt law

Seat belt law: Everything you need to know

Last updated July 4th, 2024

Seat belts are one of the simplest safety features around. So, you may be surprised to learn that many people still don’t use them.

In fact, recent research revealed that around a quarter of people who died in UK car crashes were not wearing a seat belt. When you consider that a car crash is 50% more likely to be fatal if you’re not wearing a seat belt, it’s clear how important it is to buckle up for every journey.

In this guide, we’ll cover a brief history of seat belts in the UK, including their introduction to road legislation and how they have improved road safety. We’ll also highlight the various fines and penalties you may face for failing to wear a seat belt when required.

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Seatbelt history

Like many motoring features, seat belts were first invented for use in the aviation industry. George Cayley devised an early version of the seat belt in the late 1800s, as a safety harness to prevent pilots from falling out of their gliders.

In 1885, Edward J. Claghorn designed the first patented seat belt. It was designed to be fitted in American taxis to stop passengers from falling out of the carriages - and consisted of a ‘lap strap’ fitted under the ribcage.

By the 1930s, the focus had shifted towards keeping drivers and passengers safe (rather than merely strapped in). US doctors were now recommending the use of seatbelts to car manufacturers.

In the mid 1950s, American race car drivers started wearing seat belts during races to protect themselves in case of crashes. In 1955, two Americans, Roger W. Griswold and Hugh DeHaven designed and patented a three-point seat belt.

Volvo’s three-point seat belt

In 1958, former aviation engineer Nils Bohlin started working for Volvo. He developed a three-point seat belt design for Volvo and in doing so, revolutionised modern car safety.

Unlike Griswold and DeHaven’s design, Bohlin’s seat belt used one cross strap to evenly spread the crash force across the shoulders, chest and hips, and was designed to be buckled with one hand. It also moved the buckle from the waist to the side of the seat, which improved comfort and safety.

His innovation was included as standard in Volvo’s cars in 1959. Putting safety above all else, the Swedish automaker offered the design to other manufacturers for free.

While there have been some small changes, modern seat belts are not much different to Bohlin’s original design.

When did wearing seat belts become law?

In 1968, a law was passed to make seat belts mandatory in the driving seats of cars. However, it wasn’t until 1983 that drivers and their front seat passengers were legally required to wear them.

In 1987, the law was updated so that all back seats had to be fitted with seat belts, but again, it wasn’t illegal not to wear them. However, two years later, in 1989, the law changed to require all children aged 14 and under to wear seatbelts in the back seats, followed by another update in 1991 requiring all adults to fasten up.

Impact on road safety

Seat belts have had a huge impact on road safety, with many thousands of lives being saved since wearing them became law.

According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), in a road accident, a driver wearing a seat belt has a 50% reduced risk of death, a 45% reduced risk of serious injury, and a 25% reduced risk of minor injury. For front seat passengers, seat belts lower the risk of fatal or serious injuries by 45% and minor injuries by 20%.

Current seat belt laws and fines: What you need to know

The law in the UK states that you have to wear a seat belt if the vehicle you’re in has them (one person per seat belt).

If you don’t wear a seat belt when you’re supposed to, you’ll face an immediate fine of £100, which could go up to £500 if you’re prosecuted.

You can also be fined £500 if you have children in the car aged 14 and under who aren’t wearing a seat belt, or who aren’t in an appropriate car seat for their height and weight.

There are some exceptions. You don’t need to wear a seat belt if you’re in one of the following categories:

  • Taxis: Licensed taxi drivers who are ‘plying for hire' don't need to legally wear a seat belt, although it's recommended that they do. Passengers, however, must legally wear one.

  • Delivery drivers: If a driver is travelling no more than 50 meters between stops, then they don't need to wear a seat belt.

  • Reversing: A driver who is reversing or supervising a learner driver who is reversing is not legally required to wear a seat belt.

  • Investigating a fault: If you're a passenger in a trade vehicle and investigating a fault, you don’t have to wear a seat belt.

  • Emergency services vehicles: If you're travelling in a vehicle being used for this purpose, then you’re not legally required to wear a seat belt.

  • Medical reasons: If you have a ‘Certificate of Exemption from Compulsory Seat Belt Wearing' you must keep it in your vehicle and inform your insurance company.

Is it compulsory to wear seat belts in the back of a car?

Yes, since 1991, it’s been a legal requirement to wear a seat belt in the back of a car, unless one of the above exemptions applies.