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 anyone 16 years or older must wear a seat belt when driving a vehicle or riding as a passenger.
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. These are “base fines.” The actual fine will be significantly more than the base fine. This is because the actual fine includes fees and penalty assessments.
- Legal defenses are available to fight seat belt violation charges. It is in your best interests to consult with an attorney before challenging a ticket.
- You 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. Under California law, failure to appear may be charged as a misdemeanor.
- 1. Are seat belts mandatory in California?
- 2. What are the penalties for not wearing a seat belt?
- 3. What are the legal defenses if I violate the Motor Vehicle Safety Act?
- 4. Should I do traffic school?
- 5. Is driving or riding in a vehicle without a seat belt a criminal charge?
- 6. What if I ignore a ticket for violating VC 27315?
- 7. How does not wearing a seat belt affect a personal injury lawsuit?
- 8. What are laws related to Vehicle Code 27315 VC?
1. Are seat belts mandatory in California?
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
- You shall operate a limousine or emergency vehicle unless you, and any passenger age eight years or over in the front seat, are properly restrained by a safety belt.4
- You 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 this section, “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, you must wear the entire shoulder harness and lap belt to be considered “properly restrained.”7
The statute also imposes a requirement on vehicle owners to maintain safety belts in good working order.8
2. What are the penalties for not wearing a seat belt?
Violating California seat belt laws carries a fine of:
- $20.00 for the first offense; and,
- $50.00 for each subsequent offense.9
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 for a first offense, the statute allows a court to order you 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. Violating VC 27315, however, does not carry any points.
This is a good thing because points are ultimately reported to your insurance carrier. The result is typically an increase in your insurance rates for several years.
A further problem occurs when points accumulate over time. If you accumulate a certain number of points within a 1-, 2- or 3-year period, you can get a negligent operator license suspension. If this happens, the DMV can either suspend or revoke your driving privileges.
Please note, however, that either of these actions will require a California DMV hearing.
3. What are the legal defenses if I violate the Motor Vehicle Safety Act?
If you receive a ticket for not wearing a seat belt, you do not have to automatically plead guilty to it. You can always try to beat it by raising a legal defense. However, if this is done, you 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 you from wearing a seat belt.
- You cannot wear a safety belt because of a medical condition. (If you have medical reasons, you should carry a doctor’s note.)11
- A law enforcement officer issued a seat belt citation without any probable cause to stop your vehicle.
As to this last defense, please note that California courts have ruled that a police officer cannot give a seat belt ticket to you if the officer has no other reason to stop your vehicle.12 You can only receive a ticket for no seat belt if the officer lawfully stops your vehicle for some other reason, and then notices that you are not wearing a seat belt.13
Any legal defense you raise will require supporting evidence. The best evidence typically includes:
- Surveillance video
3.2. Contact an experienced lawyer for help
You can represent yourself when challenging a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. Though it is in your 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 if you have a lawyer.
- Defense attorneys know how to get charges reduced and dismissed.
- If you have an attorney, you do not have to go to court. Your lawyer can go on your behalf.
4. Should I do traffic school?
If you get a ticket for not wearing a seat belt, you do not have to attend traffic school. Though you can volunteer to do so.14
The benefits, though, might not be worth the
- time and
If you choose to attend traffic school, you must still pay your fine.15
Further, a benefit of traffic school is that it most often removes any points from your driving record. Though if you violate VC 27315, you will not enjoy this benefit since you do not receive points on your record.
Recall from Section 2.0 that in lieu of a fine for violating this section, a court may order you to attend traffic school. This is provided the school instructs on the proper use of safety belts.
5. Is driving or riding in a vehicle without a seat belt a criminal charge?
No criminal charges are filed if you violate state seatbelt laws. This is because it is not a crime if you do not wear a seat belt.
Violations of this statute are infractions under California law. Violators are not subject to
- incarceration or
- any other criminal penalties.
6. What if I ignore a ticket for violating VC 27315?
You cannot ignore a ticket for a traffic citation. Ignoring a ticket means two things. These are:
- You violate a new law, California Vehicle Code 40508 VC, for the failure to appear in court on a traffic citation; and,
- You may receive penalties for violating VC 40508.
6.1. Violation of Vehicle Code 40508 VC
Upon receiving a traffic ticket in California, you are obligated to sign a written promise to appear in court. You promise to appear on a certain day at a certain time.
If you willfully fail to appear as promised, you violate Vehicle Code 40508 VC.16 You willfully fail to appear when you are willingly a no-show. It is not a defense if you did not intend to break the law.17
It also does not matter whether you are guilty or innocent of the underlying traffic citation.18 You violate 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. How does not wearing a seat belt affect 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 your violation of a statute or ordinance
This means you would be negligent per se if you did not wear a seat belt while driving since you would be in violation of VC 27315.
7.2. Non-seat belt wearing person suing another party
Violating Vehicle Code 27315 does not prohibit you from suing another person if that person injured you in a crash. However, not wearing a seat belt could reduce any damage award that you ultimately receive in a personal injury lawsuit.
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 you were partially at fault in causing injuries (because you were not wearing a seat belt), any damage award recovered gets reduced based on your degree of fault.
For comparative fault purposes, please note that you are not negligent just by the mere act of not wearing a seatbelt.21 Negligence must get proven without regard to the violation.22
8. What are 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.
Violating VC 27360 also puts one point on your 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 if you drive with a child in the vehicle, aged 8 or older but less than 16, you must secure the child in an appropriate child passenger restraint system or safety belt.27
Violating Vehicle Code 27360.5 carries:
- A fine of $490.00; and,
- One point assessed to your 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 to drive a vehicle if a television receiver, a video monitor, or a television or video screen, is operating and is visible to you.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
Violations of Vehicle Code 27602 carry:
- A fine of $238.00 and up; and,
- One point assessed to your 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).