All 50 states and the District of Columbia have child restraint laws. Child restraint laws require children to travel in approved child restraint devices, and some permit or require older children to use adult safety belts. The age at which belts can be used instead of child restraints differs among the states. Young children usually are covered by child restraint laws, while safety belt laws cover older children and adults.
Because enforcement and fines differ under belt use and child restraint laws, it’s important to know which law is being violated when a child isn’t restrained. Most child restraint laws are primary, meaning police may stop vehicles solely for child restraint violations. Nebraska, Ohio, and Pennsylvania leave some children under a secondary enforcement law, meaning that police must have an additional reason to make a stop. Nebraska’s law is secondary only for those children who may be in safety belts and standard for those who must be in a child restraint device. Ohio’s law is secondary for children ages 4 through 14 years. In Pennsylvania, the law is secondary only for children ages 4 through 7 years who must be in booster seats.
Ideally, all infants and children in all vehicles should be covered by enforceable safety belt laws or child restraint laws or both. But differences in the way the laws in various states are worded result in many occupants, especially children, being covered by neither law. Lawmakers have eliminated most of these gaps by amending their child restraint and safety belt laws; still, 15-year-olds riding in the rear seat in Arkansas, Alabama and Ohio, children age 7 and older riding in the rear seat in Mississippi, and children age 13 through 15 riding in the rear seat in Oklahoma are covered by neither law. All children younger than 16 in the other 45 states and the District of Columbia are covered by one, or both laws.