I Guess We Stopped Wearing Our Seatbelts Last Year

An IIHS test showing an unbelted dummy continuing along into the windshield at just 30 mph.

The government just put out a full report on traffic fatalities in 2020, and the big news is that fatalities spiked even though driving itself went down. There’s another horrifying detail from the report, though: people being killed getting ejected from cars went way, way up. For some reason, we stopped wearing seatbelts last year.


Here are the relevant statistics from NHTSA’s May 2021 report “Early Estimates of Motor Vehicle Traffic Fatalities and Fatality Rate by Sub-Categories in 2020.” As compared to 2019, traffic fatalities in 2020 went up by 20 percent for what’s called “occupant ejection.” What’s called “unrestrained occupants,” that is, people not wearing a seatbelt, went up 15 percent. From NHTSA:

Fatally injured vehicle occupants (excluding motorcycles) who were ejected, as a proportion of all fatalities, increased in most months from March to December (Figure 1). The greatest increase occurred in June (27% [20] versus 21% [19]). Total estimated fatalities for vehicle occupants (excluding motorcycles) who were ejected increased by 20 percent from 2019 to 2020. This might be largely due to the increase in unrestrained passenger vehicle occupant fatalities, as described in the person-related characteristics section.

That further section lays out the month-to-month increases in unbelted fatalities. Generally, in 2019, about 40-odd percent of fatal crashes were from unbelted occupants, while in 2019 that went up about 10 percent month-to-month. Per NHTSA:

Unrestrained passenger vehicle (PV) occupant fatalities, as a proportion of all PV occupant fatalities, increased from March to December (Figure 1). The greatest increase occurred in April (55% [20] versus 45% [19], followed by May (52% [20] versus 45% [19]) and June (53% [20] versus 46% [19]). Total estimated unrestrained passenger vehicle occupant fatalities increased by 15 percent from 2019 to 2020.

There are two big takeaways from this: even amidst all of our high-tech safety systems installed in modern cars and all of the cost and weight and complexity involved with them, we could instantly cut our traffic fatalities in half if everyone simply wore a seatbelt. We very briefly tried to make it impossible to drive without wearing one in the 1970s. They were called seatbelt interlocks, and whining drivers and politicians got them thrown out.

The second takeaway is more of a question: why the hell did we stop belting up during Covid? We knew it was happening at the time, as these reports out of Virginia in summer of 2020 point out. Was it some general nihilism that something was going to get us anyway? Were we so overloaded with one kind of risk that we gave up caring about another? I am willing to entertain any theory.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.



Easy. People are fucking stupid. Half the country though Covid was a hoax and you think they’re smart enough to put on a seatbelt?

Good riddance.