California seat belt law requires all occupants of a moving motor vehicle 8 years of age and older to wear a safety belt. Children under 8 years of age must be restrained in a car seat or booster seat in the back seat of a vehicle. Children under the age of 2 must ride in a rear-facing car seat unless the child weighs more than 40 pounds or is more than 40 inches tall.
The primary statute requiring seat belts for adults is Vehicle Code 27315 VC. This section states that any person 16 years or older must wear a seat belt when either driving a vehicle; or, riding as a passenger in a vehicle.
There are four important points to know about this code section.
- While VC 27315 imposes laws on wearing seat belts, it also requires vehicle owners to maintain safety belts in good working order.
- A seat belt ticket in California starts with a fine of $20.00 for the first offense and a fine of $50.00 for every subsequent offense. Please note these are “base fines.” The actual fine a driver receives will be significantly more than the base fine. This is because the actual fine includes fees and penalty assessments.
- Legal defenses are available to persons that do not wear a seat belt. It’s in a person’s best interests, though, to consult with an attorney before challenging a ticket.
- A driver or passenger cannot ignore a ticket for violating VC 27315. This ignorance will result in a new charge of failure to appear, per California Vehicle Code 40508. Failure to appear, under California law, may be charged as a misdemeanor.
- 1. Vehicle Code 27315 VC – California’s mandatory use of seat belt laws
- 2. The penalties for not wearing a seat belt
- 3. Legal defenses if a driver violates the Motor Vehicle Safety Act
- 4. Violation of Vehicle Code 27315 VC and traffic school
- 5. Driving or riding in a vehicle without a seat belt and criminal charges
- 6. Ignoring a ticket for violating VC 27315
- 7. Effect of not wearing a seat belt on a personal injury lawsuit
- 8. Laws related to Vehicle Code 27315 VC
1. Vehicle Code 27315 VC – California’s mandatory use of seat belt laws
California Vehicle Code 27315 is also known as the Motor Vehicle Safety Act.1 The Act is designed to increase traffic safety and reduce deaths and injuries on California roadways by imposing seat belt use requirements.2
The most important seat belt requirements under Vehicle Code 27315 are:
- Persons age 16 years of age or older cannot operate a vehicle, or be a passenger within a vehicle, unless properly restrained by a safety belt.3
- No person shall operate a limousine or emergency vehicle unless the operator, and any passenger age eight years or over in the front seat, are properly restrained by a safety belt.4
- A person cannot drive a taxicab with a passenger in the front seat that is age eight years or older unless the passenger is properly restrained by a safety belt.5
Under VC 27315, “properly restrained by a safety belt” means that:
the lower (lap) portion of the belt crosses the hips or upper thighs of the occupant and the upper (shoulder belt) portion of the belt, if present, crosses the chest in front of the occupant.6
For vehicles manufactured after 1996, drivers and passengers must wear the entire shoulder harness and lap belt to be considered “properly restrained.”7
Vehicle Code 27315 VC also imposes a requirement on vehicle owners to maintain safety belts in good working order.8
2. The penalties for not wearing a seat belt
A person that violates California seat belt laws will receive a fine in the amount of:
- $20.00 for the first offense; and,
- $50.00 for each subsequent offense.9
Please note the above is the “base fine” for a VC 27315 violation. The actual fine will be significantly more than the base fine. This is because the actual fine includes fees and penalty assessments.
In lieu of a fine, VC 27315 (h) allows a court to order a person convicted of a first offense to attend traffic school.10 This is provided the school instructs on the proper use of safety belts.
2.1. No points are placed on a violator’s DMV driving record
Drivers and passengers in California sometimes receive points on their DMV driving record in addition to a fine. A person violating VC 27315, however, is not assessed any points.
This is a good thing because points are ultimately reported to a person’s insurance carrier. The result is typically an increase in the person’s insurance rates for several years.
A further problem occurs when points accumulate over time. If a driver in California accumulates a certain number of points within a 1-,2- or 3-year period, he can get a negligent operator license suspension. If this happens, the DMV can either suspend or revoke the motorist’s driving privileges.
Please note, however, that either of these actions will require a California DMV hearing.
3. Legal defenses if a driver violates the Motor Vehicle Safety Act
A driver or passenger that receives a ticket for not wearing a seat belt does not have to automatically plead guilty to it. He can always try to beat it by raising a legal defense. However, if this is done, the person should gain the assistance of a California attorney.
3.1. Common defenses for not wearing a seat belt
There are three common defenses for violating California’s mandatory seat belt laws. These are:
- There was an emergency that prevented a person from wearing a seat belt.
- A driver or passenger cannot wear a safety belt because of a medical condition. (These passengers with medical reasons should carry a doctor’s note.)11
- A law enforcement officer issued a seat belt citation without any probable cause to stop the vehicle.
As to this last defense, please note that California courts have ruled that a police officer cannot give a seat belt ticket to a person if the officer has no other reason to stop the person or vehicle.12 A driver or passenger can only receive a ticket for no seat belt if the officer lawfully stops a vehicle for some other reason, and then notices the driver or passenger is not wearing a seat belt.13
Please know that any legal defense a motorist raises will require supporting evidence. The best evidence typically includes:
- Surveillance video
3.2. Contact an experienced lawyer for help
Drivers and passengers can represent themselves when challenging a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. But, it’s in that person’s best interests to contact an experienced California defense attorney for help.
A California traffic lawyer is critical when trying to challenge a ticket because:
- Prosecutors typically give better deals to persons with lawyers.
- Defense attorneys know how to get charges reduced and dismissed.
- If a person has an attorney, he does not have to go to court. The person’s lawyer can go on his behalf.
4. Violation of Vehicle Code 27315 VC and traffic school
Persons that get a ticket for not wearing a seat belt do not have to attend traffic school. But, they can volunteer to do so.14
The benefits, though, might not be worth the time and expense. If a driver chooses to attend traffic school, he must still pay his fine.15 Further, a benefit of traffic school is that it most often removes any points from a person’s driving record. But, drivers and passengers that violate VC 27315 will not enjoy this benefit since they do not receive points on their record.
Please also recall from Section 2.0 that in lieu of a fine for violating VC 27315, a court may order an offender to attend traffic school. This is provided the school instructs on the proper use of safety belts.
5. Driving or riding in a vehicle without a seat belt and criminal charges
No criminal charges are filed if a person violates Vehicle Code 27315 VC. This is because it’s not a crime if a person does not wear a seat belt.
Violations of VC 27315 are infractions under California law. Violators are not subject to incarceration or any other criminal penalties.
6. Ignoring a ticket for violating VC 27315
Persons cannot ignore a ticket for violating Vehicle Code 27315 VC. Ignoring a ticket means two things. These are:
- The person violates a new law, California Vehicle Code 40508 VC, for the failure to appear in court on a traffic citation; and,
- The person may receive penalties for violating VC 40508.
6.1. Violation of Vehicle Code 40508 VC
Upon receiving a traffic ticket in California, the offender is obligated to sign a written promise to appear in court. He promises to appear on a certain day at a certain time.
If the driver willfully fails to appear as promised, he violates Vehicle Code 40508 VC.16 The driver willfully fails to appear when he is willingly a no-show. It is not a defense if the driver did not intend to break the law.17
It also does not matter whether the offending driver is guilty or innocent of the underlying traffic citation.18 He violates Vehicle Code 40508 just by breaking a promise to:
- Appear in court,
- Appear to pay bail,
- Pay bail in installments,
- Pay a fine within the time authorized, or
- Comply with any condition of the court.19
6.2. Penalties for violating VC 40508
Violation of Vehicle Code 40508 VC is a misdemeanor. The penalties are:
- Up to six months in county jail, and/or
- A fine of up to $1,000.20
7. Effect of not wearing a seat belt on a personal injury lawsuit
The best way to explain the effect of a person in a passenger vehicle not wearing a seat belt on a personal injury suit is to consider:
- An injured party suing the non-seat belt wearing driver; and,
- The non-seat belt wearing person suing another party.
7.1. Injured party suing a non-seat belt wearing driver
A driver that is not wearing a seat belt can very well get involved in an accident and injure another party. If the injured party later files a lawsuit against the driver, the driver may be found “negligent.”
California law defines “negligence” as the failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to oneself or to others. Regarding auto accidents, negligent drivers are at fault for the accident and may have to pay for any damages caused.
Negligence “per se” is a legal theory in which negligence is presumed based upon a defendant’s violation of a statute or ordinance
This means a driver would be negligent per se if he did not wear a seat belt while driving since he would be in violation of VC 27315.
7.2. Non-seat belt wearing person suing another party
Some people mistakenly believe that a person not wearing a seat belt cannot file a personal injury lawsuit if hurt in an auto accident. Violating Vehicle Code 27315 does not prohibit a driver or passenger from suing another person if that person caused injury. But, not wearing a seat belt could reduce any damage award that the suing party ultimately receives.
California follows comparative fault laws in accidents in which drivers or passengers are negligent and not wearing seat belts. Comparative fault laws are slightly technical. They basically mean that if a person was partially at fault in causing injuries (because he was not wearing a seat belt), any damage award recovered gets reduced based on the person’s degree of fault.
For comparative fault purposes, please note that a driver or passenger is not negligent just by the mere act of violating Vehicle Code 27315.21 Negligence must get proven without regard to the violation.22
8. Laws related to Vehicle Code 27315 VC
There are three laws related to VC 27315. These include:
- California’s laws on child restraint systems, Vehicle Code 27360;
- Safety belt/child restraint system use for children ages 8-16, Vehicle Code 27360.5; and,
- Operating a motor vehicle that contains an unauthorized video screen, Vehicle Code 27602.
8.1. California’s laws on child restraint systems, Vehicle Code 27360
California Vehicle Code 27360 sets forth the main laws regarding car seats and booster seats for child passengers in California.
According to this section, a child under the age of two must ride in a rear-facing car seat unless:
- The child weighs more than 40 pounds; or,
- Is more than 40 inches tall.23
VC 27360 also states that children under the age of 8 must be secured in a car seat or booster seat in the back seat of a vehicle. Vehicle occupants under 8 may not be front seat passengers.24
For both groups of children, the only authorized child safety seats that may be used are those that meet applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards.25
The fine for not using a child restraint system is:
- $100 for the first violation; and,
- $250 for every violation thereafter.26
Please note that these amounts are base fines. The actual fines are substantially higher since they will include fees and penalty assessments.
Persons that violate VC 27360 will also receive one point on their DMV driving record.
8.2. Safety belt/child restraint system use for children ages 8-16, Vehicle Code 27360.5
VC 27360.5 states that a motorist driving with a child in the vehicle, aged 8 or older but less than 16, must secure the child in an appropriate child passenger restraint system or safety belt.27
A driver that violates Vehicle Code 27360.5 receives:
- A fine of $490.00; and,
- One point assessed to his DMV driving record.
8.3. Operating a motor vehicle that contains an unauthorized video screen, Vehicle Code 27602
Under Vehicle Code 27602, it is unlawful for a person to drive a vehicle if a television receiver, a video monitor, or a television or video screen, is operating and is visible to the driver.28
Certain equipment is exempted from this law. VC 27602 states that the section does not apply to the following equipment:
- A vehicle information display;
- A global positioning display;
- A mapping display; and,
- A visual display used to enhance the driver’s view to the front, behind, or to the sides of a vehicle.29
Drivers that violate Vehicle Code 27602 receive two penalties. These are:
- A fine of $238.00 and up; and,
- One point assessed to their DMV driving record.
For more information, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
- California Vehicle Code 27315 (b) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27315 (a) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27315 (d)(1) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27315 (d)(3) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27315 (d)(4) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27315 (d)(2) VC.
- People v. Overland (2011), 193 Cal. App. 4th Supp. 9.
- Vehicle Code 27315 (f) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27315 (h) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27315 (h) VC.
- This defense is authorized under Vehicle Code 27315 (g). This section states that the seat belt rules do not apply to a passenger or operator with a physically disabling condition or medical condition that would prevent appropriate restraint in a safety belt, if the condition is duly certified by a licensed physician and surgeon or by a licensed chiropractor who shall state the nature of the condition, as well as the reason the restraint is inappropriate.
- People v. Hunt (1990), 225 Cal. App. 3d 498.
- See same.
- In general, drivers can choose to go to traffic school if: (1) the driver has a valid driver’s license; (2) the offense occurred while the driver was driving a noncommercial vehicle; and, (3) the ticket is for an infraction that is a moving violation.
- See California Courts website.
- California Vehicle Code 40508 VC.
- CALCRIM 2240, endnote 1: Someone commits an act willfully when he or she does it willingly or on purpose. It is not required that he or she intend to break the law, hurt someone else, or gain any advantage.
- See same.
- California Vehicle Code 40508 VC, endnote 1.
- California Penal Code 19 PC. Except in cases where a different punishment is prescribed by any law of this state, every offense declared to be a misdemeanor is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding six months, or by fine not exceeding one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both.
- California Vehicle Code 27315 (i) VC.
- See same.
- California Vehicle Code 27360 (b) VC. If a child comes under the protection of this section, the child must be secured in a manner that complies with the height and weight limits specified by the manufacturer of the car seat. See same.
- California Vehicle Code 27360 (a) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27360 (a) and (b) VC.
- See https://www.dmv.ca.gov
- California Vehicle Code 27360.5 (a) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27602 (a) VC.
- California Vehicle Code 27602 (b)(1) – (b)(4).