Are existing penalties for seatbelt use effective enough?

This is the question being raised on the back o f new statistics on seatbelt use in the UK.

Observational surveys carried out in the autumn of 2021, found more than 5% of drivers (in all vehicle types) were not wearing a seatbelt. Similar figures were achieved for front seat passengers – while non-compliance rates rose to more than 8% among rear seat passengers.

Failure can be fatal

During weekdays in Great Britain, levels of seatbelt wearing remain high overall. These are broadly unchanged. However, reported road casualty statistics show that a much higher proportion of car occupant fatalities are not wearing seatbelts.

In 2021 in Great Britain:

  • 94.8% of all drivers were observed using a seatbelt, compared to 96.5% in 2017
  • 94.6% of all front seat passengers were observed using a seatbelt, compared to 93.1% in 2017
  • 91.5% of all rear seat passengers were observed using a seatbelt, compared to 90.7% in 2017
  • for rear seat passengers, wearing rates were higher for children than adults, in line with previous surveys
  • seatbelt wearing rates varied notably by vehicle type, and were higher for cars and lower for other types of vehicle.

The latest road casualty statistics for 2020 show that 23% of car occupant fatalities in reported road collisions were not wearing a seatbelt. This indicates that car occupants who do not wear a seatbelt are disproportionately likely to be killed in road collisions.

Levels of driver seatbelt wearing was similar for England and Wales compared to Scotland in 2021 though passenger wearing rates were slightly higher in Scotland. In all countries, wearing rates for car occupants are higher than those for all vehicles.


Chart 1: Seatbelt use by seating position, Great Britain, 2021

Since 1999, overall seatbelt use for car occupants has broadly risen. The biggest increase has been observed for adult rear seat passengers, from 54.0% in England in 1999 to 83.8% in England and Wales in 2021. Over the same time period, driver, front seat and child rear seat passenger rates have always been higher and have remained broadly stable since 2009.


Chart 2: Overall seatbelt use for car occupants (including taxi and private hire vehicles), England (1999 to 2014), England and Wales (2017 and 2021)

By vehicle type

Taxi drivers wearing seatbelts were the worst offenders. This lower rate is likely to reflect the exemptions from wearing a seatbelt for taxi and private hire vehicle drivers. They are also based on a very small number of vehicles observed.


Chart 3: Driver seatbelt use by vehicle type, Great Britain, 2021

By sex and age

Men have a lower rate of seatbelt use compared to females (93.7% compared to 96.9%). This is broadly similar for front seat passengers (92.6% compared to 95.9%).

Across all drivers and front seat passengers, seatbelt wearing rates were higher amongst those estimated to be aged 60 and over (97.5% for drivers and 99.5% for front seat passengers). ,

Child rear seat passengers were the most likely to wear a seatbelt. However, the number of rear seat passengers observed was much lower than in previous surveys and should therefore be interpreted with caution.


Chart 4: Seatbelt use by age and seating position, Great Britain, 2021

Other variables

Road type. Driver seatbelt wearing rates varies little by road type. A slightly higher proportion of drivers are observed using seatbelts on urban roads rather than rural roads.

Day of week. Seatbelt use is higher on weekends compared to weekdays (as in 2017).

Time of day. There is no clear pattern in seatbelt use by time of day. It is likely that results are affected by random variation as there are relatively small numbers of observations for some time periods.

Road casualty statistics

Police collision reports show that wearing rates is much lower for those killed in road accidents than in general traffic.

Road casualty data reveals around a quarter of fatalities are unrestrained.

Seatbelt worn includes both where independently confirmed, and where not independently confirmed. Further detail is available in the STATS20 guidance.

Year 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020
Seatbelt worn 187 267 228 339 299 300 311 250
Seatbelt not worn 45 69 66 85 110 105 93 75
Seatbelt status unknown 553 461 460 392 378 372 332 293
% seatbelt not worn 19% 21% 22% 20% 27% 26% 23% 23%

Table 1: proportion of car occupant fatalities with seatbelt not worn, Great Britain from 2013 (STATS19 data).

Overall, across the last 5 years for which data are available, 24% of car occupant fatalities were not wearing a seatbelt. This rate varied by age, sex and collision circumstances, for example, based on this 5 year dataset:

  • 28% of male fatalities were not wearing a seatbelt, compared to 16% of females
  • 32% aged 17 to 29,  30% aged 30 to 59 and 11% of those 60 and over (and 17% aged 0 to 16) were unrestrained
  • there was no difference in wearing rates for driver and passenger fatalities
  • those killed between 8pm and 6am were much more likely to be not wearing a seatbelt than those killed between 6am and 8pm (39% compared to 17%)

Comparing severities – bearing in mind that for those slightly injured, around two-thirds of data is missing – shows that non-wearing rates are much higher for those killed (24%) than seriously injured (10%) or slightly injured (3%).

These figures illustrate that although wearing rates in observational surveys remain high, there are subgroups of the driving population where wearing rates may be lower. Those not wearing seatbelts remain over-represented in road fatalities.

Attitudes to seatbelt wearing

The National Travel Attitudes Survey (NTAS),reveals that 86% of respondents disagreed that ‘it is not important to wear a seatbelt for journeys under 15 minutes’ with 12% agreeing.

More needs to be done

The RAC has described the figures as “shocking”.

“Seatbelts are probably the single biggest life-saving device ever introduced into vehicles,” states Simon Williams, RAC road safety spokesperson. “It’s vital the Government, local authorities and the police continue to reinforce this message.”

Williams continues that it begs “the question as to whether a nationwide communications campaign to promote seatbelt use should be rolled out and whether existing laws are a sufficient enough deterrent.”

Non seatbelt wearers face on-the-spot fines of £100 and, if prosecuted, can face a maximum fine of £500.