Principles and Methods for Evidence-Based Quantification of the Effect of Seat Belt Non-Use in Crash-Related Litigation

M.D. Freeman*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Traffic crashes are a common cause of injury and death, and often result from the negligent actions of an inattentive, speeding, or impaired driver. In such cases, a civil legal action may be brought by an injured claimant for compensation for injuries resulting from a crash. Crash-related litigation is defended on various theories, one of which is to raise the issue of contributory negligence when the claimant was not using an available seat belt at the time of the crash, based on the assertion that the claimed injuries would have been avoided or minimized to some degree if the claimant had been restrained. At present, there are no published standards or systematic approach for assessing and quantifying the contribution of seat belt non-use to the cause of a claimant's specific injury. A reliable medicolegal analysis that addresses whether contributory negligence can be proven in a specific case requires a multidisciplinary approach: First, the nature and severity of the crash must be reconstructed as it affected the vehicle kinetics (engineering) and in turn affected the kinematics of the occupant (biomechanics), next, the injuries must be described and scaled for severity (medicine/pathology), and finally, the risk of the known injuries given the actual circumstances of the crash and occupant (i.e., unbelted) are compared to the risk of the same injuries, and the same crash circumstances, but in the hypothetical scenario in which the claimant is belted. In the present discussion, methods for analyzing the presence and quantifying the degree of contributory negligence for seat belt non-use, suitable for presentation in a medicolegal setting, are described and illustrated with an example from the author's personal case inventory. A detailed reconstruction of the crash is described, along with the associated occupant kinematics, and the resulting observed injuries. The injuries are then categorized by their anatomical location, type, and severity using Abbreviated Injury Scale designations. Quantification of the injury risk for the actual (unbelted) vs. hypothetical (belted) scenario is based on case-specific analysis of data accessed from a US national crash injury database The difference in risk for the two exposure scenarios can be quantified in terms of either relative risk (a risk ratio) or attributable risk (a risk proportion), with the goal to determine whether the analysis meets the threshold of a relative risk of >2.0, or an attributable risk of 50%, in order to meet the "more probable than not" standard typically required by courts. As a final step in a reliable analysis that exceeds the legal threshold for relevant evidence, the absolute increase in risk is used to quantify the degree to which the claimant's seat belt non-use contributed to the likelihood of their injuries.
Original languageEnglish
Article number9455
Number of pages13
JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number18
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2021


  • road traffic crash
  • seat belt
  • risk
  • INFERENCE causation

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