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Penalty points for failing to wear a seatbelt?

Over the past week or so, I have read with interest the news of a potential change in the law relating to penalties for failing to wear a seatbelt in a motor vehicle. 

What is happening?

At present, drivers and passengers over the age of 14 caught not wearing their seatbelts are given an on-the-spot penalty of £100.  However, this can be waived if the driver takes a £52 awareness course instead of paying the fine.

Signs are mounting that the government is set to give serious consideration to whether penalty points should now be introduced for people who are caught driving without their seatbelts on.  As with any other penalty points on a driver’s license, repeated failures would lead to points mounting and eventually driving bans for those whose points tally is too high.

Figures recently released from 2021 show that 30% of those killed in road traffic collisions were not wearing a seatbelt.  That is the highest proportion on record and an increase from the 23% recorded in 2020.  These stark figures highlight the importance of discussions taking place in Government over the future of driving in the UK.

Following the release of the most recent data from the Department for Transport, pressure is mounting to change the law to introduce penalty points – 40 years after it first became illegal to drive without a seatbelt.

What is the law?

It is worth recapping the law as it stands:

  • In 1983 - The law was changed so the driver and front seat passenger in a vehicle had to wear seatbelts.
  • In 1989 - It became compulsory for children aged 14 and under to wear a seatbelt in the rear.
  • In 1991 - It became compulsory for all adults to wear a seatbelt in the back of a car.

These rules apply even if you are pregnant or disabled.  In order to be exempt you must have a Medical Exemption Certificate, otherwise you are breaking the law.

There are some exemptions to the rule, though they are often misunderstood and misquoted. For the sake of completeness the only permissible scenarios are:

  • Reversing or supervising a reversing learner driver
  • Emergency service vehicles
  • Taxi driver whilst 'plying for hire' or carrying passengers
  • Trade vehicle passenger who is investigating a fault
  • Driver of goods a vehicle on deliveries travelling no more than 50 metres between stops
  • Medical exemption supported by a Certificate of Exemption from Compulsory Seat Belt Wearing.

Why does it matter?

As a lawyer who has represented claimants who have suffered life-changing injuries for more than 20 years, I have seen first-hand the devastating consequences of not wearing a seatbelt in a car. 

I represented a young woman who was thrown 30 metres through the window of the vehicle in which she was a passenger when it struck a tree, suffering a life-changing brain injury.  The restrained driver and front-seat passenger suffered minor injuries only.

Another young man I acted for who was not wearing his seatbelt when the vehicle in which he was travelling was hit by another car needed to be extricated from the front passenger seat footwell by emergency services. 

I am currently acting for a young man who was unrestrained in the rear of a vehicle which collided at speed with a wall.  The other occupants of the car, who were wearing their seatbelts, suffered no injuries. In contrast, my client sustained a severe brain injury when his head made contact with the back of the seat in front. 

When investigating claims involving collisions and serious injuries, we regularly obtain detailed reports from experts in collision investigation which demonstrate what happens to unrestrained occupants in cars involved in collisions.  These experts are able to reconstruct in 'real time' the likely movement of unrestrained occupants inside and outside a vehicle. 

On first seeing one of these 'videos' of what happened to three young men who were all unrestrained in a vehicle involved in a high-speed collision which rolled multiple times, I still remember to this day thinking that it looked like the inside of a washing machine – truly frightening.

It is for these reasons that I will be watching with interest to see how this unfolds over the coming weeks and months. Wearing seatbelts saves and changes lives.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting people following road accidents at our dedicated road accidents section