California Driver Handbook - Occupant Protection
Wearing seat belts is the law. You may not operate your vehicle on public roads and on private property, such as public parking lots, unless you and all of your passengers 8 years old or older, or children who are 4 feet 9 inches tall or taller, are wearing seat belts. Seat belts, both the lap belt and shoulder harness, will increase your chance of survival in most types of collisions. The seat belts must be in good working order. Children 8 years old or younger, or who are less than 4 feet 9 inches tall, must be seated in a federally-approved child passenger restraint system.
You and all passengers must wear a seat belt or you and/or your passenger(s) may be cited. If the passenger is under 16 years old, you may be cited if they are not wearing their seat belt.
Always use your seat belts (including the shoulder harness) even if the vehicle is equipped with air bags. You can have shoulder harnesses or seat belts installed in older vehicles. Even if you wear only a lap belt when driving, your chances of living through a collision are twice as high as for someone who does not wear a lap belt. If you wear a lap and shoulder belt, your chances are 3 to 4 times higher to live through a collision. If your vehicle is equipped with a separate lap and shoulder belt, you are required to use both the lap and shoulder belts.
Pregnant women should wear the lap belt as low as possible under the abdomen, and the shoulder strap should be placed between the breasts and to the side of the abdomen’s bulge.
Warning: Using seat belts reduces the risk of being thrown from your vehicle in a collision. If you do not install and use a shoulder harness with the seat (lap) belt, serious or fatal injuries may happen in some collisions. Lap-only belts increase the chance of spinal column and abdominal injuries—especially in children. Shoulder harnesses may be available for your vehicle, if it is not already equipped with them.
The graphic illustrates what can happen in a collision. If you are struck from the side, the impact could push you back and forth across the seat. Seat belts and shoulder harnesses keep you in a better position to control the vehicle and may minimize serious injuries. The graphic also illustrates how, when you collide, your vehicle stops, but you keep going at the same speed you were traveling, until you hit the dashboard or windshield.
The graphic also illustrates how, when you collide, your vehicle stops, but you keep going at the same speed you were traveling, until you hit the dashboard or windshield. At 30 mph this motion is equivalent to hitting the ground from the top of a three-story building.
- Children under 2 years old must be secured in a rear-facing child passenger restraint system unless the child is 40 pounds or more, or 3 feet 4 inches or taller.
- Children under 8 years old must be properly secured in a federally- approved child passenger restraint system.
- Children under 8 years old may ride in the front seat of a vehicle in a federally-approved child passenger restraint system under the following instances:
- There is no rear seat.
- The rear seats are side-facing jump seats.
- The rear seats are rear-facing seats.
- The child passenger restraint system cannot be installed properly in the rear seat.
- All rear seats are already occupied by children 7 years old or younger.
- Medical reasons require the child to not ride in the back seat.
- A child may not ride in the front seat of an airbag equipped vehicle if they are in a rear-facing child passenger restraint system.
- Children who are 8 years old or older OR who have reached at least 4 feet 9 inches in height may use a properly secured safety belt meeting federal standards.
Riding Safely With Air Bags
Air bags are a safety feature that help keep you safer than a seat belt alone. Most people can take steps to eliminate or reduce air bag risk without turning off air bags. The biggest risk is being too close to the air bag. An air bag needs about 10 inches of space to inflate. Ride at least 10 inches (measured from the center of the steering wheel to your breastbone) from the air bag cover, if you can do this while maintaining full control of the vehicle. If you cannot safely sit 10 inches away from the air bag, contact your vehicle dealer or manufacturer for advice about additional ways of moving back from your air bag.
Passengers should also sit at least 10 inches away from the passenger-side air bag.
Side-Impact Air Bags
Side-impact air bags can provide extra safety benefits to adults in side- impact crashes. However, children who are seated next to a side air bag may be at risk of serious or fatal injury. Since side air bags are different in design and performance, you should consider the benefits and risks associated with the use of side air bags if you transport children. Children who are leaning against a side air bag when it inflates are at risk of serious injury. Children who are traveling in a correctly installed child passenger restraint system appropriate to age and weight are at less risk of serious injury. These children are usually not in the path of a side air bag when it inflates.
Unattended Children in Motor Vehicles
It is never a good idea to leave a child unattended in a vehicle.
It is illegal to leave a child 6 years old or younger unattended in a motor vehicle.
Note: The child may be left under the supervision of a person 12 years old or older.
- Visual—Eyes off the road.
- Cognitive—Mind off the road.
- Manual—Hands off the steering wheel.
Approximately 80% of collisions and 65% of near-collisions involve some form of a driver distraction. The “100-Car Naturalistic Driving Study” (2006), released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), concluded that drivers looked away from the roadway at least once in the 3-second window prior to the collision.
Some actions that cause distracted driving and lead to vehicle collisions are:
- Using a handheld device (for example, cell phone, music device).
- Reaching for an object inside the vehicle.
- Looking at an object or event outside of the vehicle.
- Applying cosmetics (makeup).
When you are driving, the condition of the roadway you are on and the behavior of other drivers can change abruptly, leaving you little or no time to react.
Drive safely. Remember to always keep your mind on driving, eyes on the road, and hands on the wheel.
More information regarding collisions and distractions can be found in the Driver Distractions (FFDL 28) Fast Facts brochure.
Hot Weather Risks
As stated in the “Unattended Children in Motor Vehicles” section, it is against the law to leave unattended minor children in a vehicle (CVC §15620). Additionally, and equally important, it is dangerous and illegal to leave children and/or animals in a hot vehicle. After sitting in the sun, even if a window is slightly opened, the temperature can rise rapidly inside a parked vehicle. The temperature inside a vehicle can rise approximately 40–50 degrees higher than the outside temperature.
Dehydration, heat stroke, and death can result from overexposure to the heat. California Penal Code §597.7 prohibits leaving or confining an animal in any unattended motor vehicle under conditions that endanger the health or well-being of an animal due to heat. Remember if it’s too hot for you, it’s too hot for children and pets.