What is Seat Belt Syndrome?

Seat Belt Syndrome

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Admission (NHTSA), just over 90% of Americans used seat belts regularly in 2020. Additionally, seat belts saved just under 15,000 lives in 2017. Unfortunately, 47% of those killed in car accidents in 2019 weren’t wearing seat belts. The statistics go on and on, each one proving that seat belts are life savers – literally! While seat belts generally succeed at saving lives, they can also cause dangerous internal injuries. These injuries are consistent with a condition called seat belt syndrome. If you or someone you love has suffered from seat belt syndrome after a car crash, personal injury attorneys at Curcio Law want to fight for you. Call us today at 312-321-1111 for a free consultation.

History of United States Seat Belt Laws

The U.S. government began enforcing seat belts in the 60’s, although most Americans still didn’t use them regularly anyway. The first American seat belt law took effect on January 1, 1968 and mandated that all cars must be made with seat belts. New York was the first state to mandate that everyone use a seat belt while driving on December 1, 1984. In the 90’s, the U.S. government set a goal to increase national seat belt usage from 68% to 85% in 2000. That goal wasn’t met, but over 20 years later most Americans use seat belts while driving. In fact, New Hampshire is the only state that doesn’t presently mandate seat belt usage.

Click-It or Ticket Campaign

The Click-It or Ticket Campaign is a major reason why the majority of Americans now use seat belts every time they drive. The campaign is now led by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admission (NHTSA), but started with North Carolina’s Governor Jim Hunt in 1993. Police officers worked at 3,000 checkpoints statewide and ticketed a total of 58,000 people for not wearing seat belts. As a result, North Carolina saw an increase of seat belt usage from 65% to 81% by summer of 1994.


South Carolina was the second state to join in on the Click-It or Ticket Campaign in 2000. This time, the state advertised the campaign while sending police officers out to thousands of checkpoints. In only two weeks, officers ticketed 19,815 drivers for not wearing seat belts and usage increased from 65% to 79% among front seat occupants.


In 2002, 18 states participated in the Click-It or Ticket campaign, including Illinois. The federal government and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century monetarily supported the campaign with $10 million in paid advertising. Officers ticketed over 250,000 people across these 18 states for not wearing seat belts.


In 2003, 43 states joined in on the Click-It or Ticket Campaign. The federal government contributed $8 million dollars for the sake of advertising the campaign. Officers ticketed more than 508,000 people across the United States for not wearing seat belts. Additionally, the average national seat belt usage rose from 75% in 2002 to 79% in 2003.

2007 to Present

From 2007 to now, the Click-It or Ticket campaign has been an annual event during Memorial Day. Each year, the federal government contributes $8 million for the sake of advertising the campaign. The average national seat belt usage sits around 90% due in part to the Click-It or Ticket campaign.

Primary Enforcement

Seat belt laws vary by state. Presently, primary enforcement is carried out in 34 states and the District of Columbia, but only for front seat occupants. This means that police officers can stop and ticket any front seat occupants who aren’t wearing seat belts. Additionally, 39 states enforce seat belt use for back seat passengers according to the GHSA. Of those states, only 20 carry out primary enforcement for all occupants according to the same source.

Secondary Enforcement

Meanwhile, only 15 states carry out secondary enforcement for front seat occupants and 11 states carry out secondary enforcement for back seat passengers. Secondary enforcement basically means that police can only ticket you for not wearing a seat belt if they already pulled you over for something else.

Does Illinois Have Primary Enforcement or Secondary Enforcement of Seat Belts?

Illinois has had primary enforcement of seat belts for all passengers since July 3rd, 2003. This means that both front and back occupants must wear seat belts.

What is Seat Belt Syndrome?

Seat belt syndrome is basically a group of injuries caused by a seat belt pressing forcefully along the abdomen, chest, and spine during a car crash. The organs most affected by this syndrome are the:

  • Stomach
  • Bowels
  • Colon
  • Spine
  • Kidneys
  • Bladder

This syndrome is fairly new in the medical world, with some of the first cases appearing in the 60’s after the U.S. government mandated that all cars have seat belts. However, cases of seat belt syndrome didn’t start picking up until the majority of Americans began using them, which was in the 90’s.

What Causes Seat Belt Syndrome?

Basically, car accidents cause seat belt syndrome. More specifically, the extreme force exerted when a seat belt holds a person in place during a crash causes this syndrome. The whole point of seat belts is to prevent passengers from being ejected from a car during a crash. In the process of doing its job, a seat belt can unfortunately cause major injuries.

How Common is Seat Belt Syndrome?

Presently, seat belt syndrome symptoms suggest internal injuries in approximately 30% of car accident passengers treated in hospitals.

How is Seat Belt Syndrome Diagnosed?

Diagnosing seat belt syndrome can be incredibly difficult because it shares symptoms with other conditions and injuries caused by car accidents. But doctors will generally perform a CT scan, a focused abdominal sonography in trauma (FAST), or even a laparotomy in order to diagnose this syndrome.


The FAST scan is basically a bedside ultrasound that can show internal bleeding around the heart and abdominal organs following a major traumatic event. Similar to the scan’s name, the FAST can show an accurate picture of internal bleeding in under one minute. The areas of the body that are usually scanned with the FAST are the:

  • Perihepatic space: Located between the diaphragm and the left side of the liver.
  • Perisplenic space: The area around the spleen.
  • Pericardium: The sac that contains the heart.
  • Pelvis: The pelvis contains the bladder, the ureters, the colon, the rectum, and the anus. For women, the pelvis also contains the uterus, the fallopian tubes, and the ovaries.

First Sign of Seat Belt Syndrome

The first obvious sign is bruising across the abdomen, hips, chest, and shoulders in the shape of a seat belt.

Seat Belt Syndrome Symptoms

The symptoms most commonly associated with seat belt syndrome include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abnormal bowel movements, such as blood in the stool (indicating internal bleeding) as well as diarrhea
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Blood in urine
  • Weakness in the legs which indicates lower back injury
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty breathing which indicates possible lung or heart damage

Seat Belt Syndrome Treatment

Treatment for this syndrome solely depends on which organ(s) are injured as well as the severity of the injury. Patients may recover with non-surgical treatments or they may need surgery to repair what’s damaged.

How Long Does Seat Belt Syndrome Last?

Recovery from seat belt syndrome solely depends on the severity of the condition. If a car crash survivor only sustains bruising from their seat belt, not internal injuries, they can expect the bruising to disappear within two to three weeks. However, if a car crash survivor sustains major internal injuries from their seat belt, recovery may take several weeks to several months depending on whether they endured surgery.

Compensation for Seat Belt Syndrome

If a car crash that wasn’t your fault caused you to develop seat belt syndrome, you may be eligible for economic and non-economic damages.

Economic Damages

Economic damages refers to the monetary losses you have incurred as a result of seat belt syndrome. The most common types of economic damages are:

  • All present and future medical bills
  • Medications
  • Physical therapy and rehabilitation
  • Property damage
  • Lost wages

Non-Economic Damages

Non-economic damages, on the other hand, don’t have fixed monetary worth. Some of the most common types of non-economic damages include:

  • Loss of life enjoyment
  • Loss of consortium

Call a Personal Injury Lawyer at Curcio Law Today

If you’ve suffered from seat belt syndrome following a major accident, it’s crucial to have a skilled personal injury attorney by your side. Curcio Law can help you win the compensation you deserve while you recover from your accident. Call us today at 312-321-1111 for a free consultation.

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