Suppose someone is drinking and driving, or speeding; then he is obviously a threat to other road drivers and pedestrians.

But someone, who isn't wearing a helmet or seat belt, is neither harming anyone directly nor is a threat to someone, specifically because of him not wearing a helmet or seat belt. If an accident happens, the damage to other people would be independent of his wearing or not wearing of the above mentioned things.

What I understand by "freedom" is that "I should be able to do anything and everything, if it DOES NOT AT ALL hurt anything or anyone, be it financially, physically, mentally etc."

Then why it is compulsory to wear a helmet or seat belt by law?

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    In such situations where the likelihood is high that you have maimed yourself is such a mannor that can no longer fend for youself and once your financial reserves have been exhausted, you become a burden to society where others must finance your needs. To avoid this, societies often impose certain rules so that such community sacrifices are keep to a minimum.
    – Mark Johnson
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 12:21
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    @leftaroundabout Brain damage, inflicted during such crashes, can cause comas that can last anywhere between a few days, weeks, months, years and decades.
    – Mark Johnson
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 23:04
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    I’m voting to close this question because it is a question about the sociopolitical purpose in creating a particular law, not the law or legal process itself.
    – Nij
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 3:01
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    Ask any fireman; scraping some fool who wasn't wearing a seatbelt off the road is not very pleasant, and can cause trauma and definite harm.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 5:15
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    The more interesting question might be, how does the process work by which lawmakers draw the line? In Germany I can legally ride my motorbike naked, as long as I wear a helmet, which makes not much sense (although some judges might assign part of the blame for an accident to me, if my clothing actively interfered with operating my vehicle). There must be some criteria (even if it's just political expediency) by which one arrives at the conclusion, "Helmets yes, protective garmets no" when making such laws. Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 11:29

8 Answers 8


why it is compulsory to wear a helmet/seatbelt by law?

Because there are many ways the consequences of not wearing them are very likely to harm others. In other words, the assumption you formulate is inaccurate.

First, every accident requiring emergency services subjects paramedics and police officers to a risk of they themselves having an accident while rushing to the scene. Drivers of ambulances or police cars are well trained and they exercise great care in rushing to the scene or hospital, but that does not preempt other risks which are beyond their control.

Second, injuries are a burden to hospitals and tend to divert resources that could be assigned to other types of medical treatment. Similarly, the ensuing handicap tends to strain public resources that are allocated to accommodate others' unfortunate needs.

Third, it is wrong to presume that a serious injury will not hurt those who love and/or financially depend on the injured person who did not wear a seatbelt.

Fourth, serious injuries are likelier to psychologically traumatize the injured person. The person's choice not to wear helmet/seatbelt at the time of the accident will not preempt lower those traumas (or traumatic diseases) at all.

Fifth, many fields of law require a duty to mitigate damages. A generalized obligation to wear helmet/seatbelt makes it easier to establish fault, and to discern between one's own hazard and others' liability.

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    Also the person not wearing a seat belt could be thrown about in a collision, injuring another person nearby. E.g. an unrestrained rear passenger thrown forward into the driver or front passenger.
    – Lag
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 12:52
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    6. You, as a licensed, insured driver, are responsible for ensuring that your passengers abide by the law. Allowing a passenger to remain unbuckled could result in serious injury or death to that or another occupant, which you as the driver would be liable for. BTW, some states have a "no helmet law if you have X amount of coverage" clause, Florida and Texas are two such states.
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 13:36
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    @Kat You could, but each activity has its own ratio of risk averted to freedom infringed upon, and that of seatbelts or helmets is ridiculously high. Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 3:11
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    @RonBeyer you can buy yourself free from having to wear a helmet? That is wrong in so many ways.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 5:19
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    @Tim don't start the car until all passengers are secured. And if they unbuckle themselves during the ride, safely stop the vehicle and never let them into it again. There's an indicator in the car that tells you if a passenger is unbuckled. Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 11:04

There are laws that are meant to prevent people from hurting themselves. Examples:

  • Prohibition of advertising for cigarettes (or forcing cigarette packs to contain images of lung cancer sufferers, etc)
  • Minimum age for driving, drinking, etc
  • Minimum age of consent
  • Financial literacy tests before people are allowed to buy options in the stock market
  • Prescription drugs that require a doctor's note to purchase

There are also good reasons to stop people from hurting themselves. If they are hurt to the point where they need care, then they become a burden to their caregivers, be they their relatives or society as a whole. Even if they outright die, someone still has to deal with their corpse.

You may not approve of these laws, but I suspect most of society do.

  • 3
    Nobody is immortal, so "someone still has to deal with their corpse" is not a very strong argument.
    – alephzero
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 22:39
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    @alephzero seems pretty strong to me, since it means that "I'm the only one impacted if I die" is never true (because someone has to deal with the corpse).
    – Allure
    Commented Jul 14, 2020 at 22:46
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    @Allure, but - eventually - someone has to deal with the corpse, anyway. Not becoming a corpse today only means becoming a corpse at a later date. Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 6:59
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    @I'mwithMonica - dealing with a splattered corpse after a violent death is (I'm guessing) more traumatizing for first responders than people who die peaceful at an advanced age. Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 8:31
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    Minimum age of (sexual) consent is not to prevent people from hurting themselves! Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 9:13

It's a tradeoff between two things: the harm prevented by the law, and the freedom exercised (or harm tolerated) without the law.

While I won't echo the existing answers, I will say that the harm prevented is fairly substantial and potentially lethal to more than just the victim.

In contrast, the freedom infringed upon is tiny:

  • Unless your helmet is damaged or misshapen to the point that calling it a helmet stops making sense, it doesn't really impair you at all. It might not feel nice, it might be heavier than you like, or it might come with a monetary cost (which are all reasons not to wear one in normal circumstances), but they're slight enough that calling them impairment overstates them. It doesn't take all that much risk (such as being in a dangerous area, or having sufficiently impaired motor skills) to swing the balance.
  • Same for seatbelts; you could say they restrict your mobility while seated in the vehicle, but the only time you're going to be safe enough to exercise that mobility in the first place is going to be when the vehicle is stopped, in which case you can just unbuckle the seatbelt. You could buy a car without seatbelts and save the cost, but who would sell you one, and to whom would you resell it when the time came? And how much would it really save?

Every law that bans something has to consider this ratio, and in this case, the ratio heavily favors the former. There just isn't enough there to infringe upon to justify not preventing the harm.

  • 3
    This is a sensible, adult answer. So many arguments these days (yupp, I'm getting old enough to sound like Grandma) are so childish (it's uncomfortable, it looks daft, I'm not going to have an accident... etc, etc...) that it's tempting to respond with childish answers. This is factual and - grown-up.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 10:42
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    @JohnDvorak, It's because the other side of the tradeoff, "the harm prevented" is not the same in everyday life as it is while seated on a motorcycle. Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 14:09
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    @EricNolan I hope the edits address your concerns. Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 22:40
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    "why don't we wear helmets in everyday life then?" I have a colleague who has brain cancer, and still comes to work every day. Sometimes his brain stops working for a while and he falls down, like a puppet if you cut the strings. I have seen this happen. Whenever he walks around or goes to the canteen he puts his helmet on - it looks like a horse riding helmet - and off he goes. He needs a helmet because there is a real danger of his head hitting the floor at any time. Much the same as a motorcycle rider on a bad road or in heavy traffic.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 10:37
  • 2
    @RedSonja Hence the line "It doesn't take all that much risk (such as being in a dangerous area, or having sufficiently impaired motor skills) to swing the balance". Commented Jul 22, 2020 at 14:26

What you understand by 'freedom' is not a universally accepted guiding principle.

For example, some lawmakers might be operating on the idea that we should attempt to maximise the health and happiness of society. If you break your spine because you didn't wear a seat-belt, then your health and happiness (and freedom to walk around) is reduced. They then attempt to calculate (probably using a lot of guesswork) whether the average loss of life/happiness as a result of not wearing a seat-belt is greater or smaller than the average loss of happiness as a result of forcing everyone to wear a seat-belt (and presumably having to arrest some people who refuse to do so). This gives us a guide as to whether a law mandating seat-belts will be a net positive for society.


Law can restrict freedom

Your definition of freedom "I should be able to do anything and everything, if it DOES NOT AT ALL hurt anything or anyone, be it financially, physically, mentally etc." is relevant to the default situation where no relevant regulations exist. However, you live in a society where that freedom is restricted, and you can do anything and everything as long as it does not at all hurt anything or anyone and does not violate any law or regulation of this society.

In the absence of specific law regarding seatbelts, you would be free to not wear a seatbelt as long as it does not hurt anyone else - and if your action does result in harm or injury to someone, you could be liable for the losses, or guilty of (for example) manslaughter by negligence.

However, there can be specific laws that restrict the default freedoms in order to achieve some other social purpose. There are some limitations (constitutional or otherwise) on what freedoms can be restricted, but in general they can be restricted, and often are.

The answer to "why it is compulsory to wear a helmet/seatbelt by law?" is somewhat tautological - it's compulsory because there is a specific law that compels you to do that. There is some justification expected in most societies when passing laws, but any weaknesses in that justification can only be used to argue that this law should not be passed or should be changed, but they don't invalidate the law if it's passed even if the justification is later found to be totally arbitrary, baseless or mistaken.

Multiple other answers provide justifications on how not wearing a seatbelt does harm other people or why the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. However, those are arguments about whether it's a good law, but they are not necessary to establish whether it is a valid law. In the end, the constitution allows the state to restrict your freedom to drive as you please and add some arbitrary conditions (such as wearing a helmet), the lawmakers have chosen to do so and implemented a law following the proper due process - and this makes wearing seatbelts compulsory.

  • 1
    The fact that not wearing a seatbelt hurts other is central to the question why such a law exists. In most free societies, laws must be reasonable and proportionate and weigh the interests against each other. In this case, the burden on a singular individual is negligible (a seatbelts restricts movement inside the car, where you shouldn't move much anyways), but the pros outweigh the cons by large. "Its illegal because its illegal" isn't a good or valid justification for any law, its tautological.
    – Polygnome
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 12:08
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    @Polygnome we probably interpret the question differently; if I look at the original post, I don't think that the question of the OP is "why did lawmakers choose to write a law like this?" (which many other answers answer), but rather I see a question like "Why is my freedom restricted if I'm not harming anyone". And I consider it important to answer this question that such restrictions are fundamentally valid, expected and acceptable even if we don't challenge OP's argument about harm. Pros and cons can be argued both ways, but the decision if pros do outweigh the cons is delegated to law.
    – Peteris
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 13:46
  • @Polygnome i.e. if OP and the society (including both lawmakers and many answerers here) do not agree whether the harm to others is real or large enough to justify a restriction, then that disagreement does not necessarily need to be resolved in a consensus or arguments that would convince the original poster - a plausible answer is "dura lex sed lex", an assertion that it's acceptable and expected for laws to restrict your freedom even if your actions don't harm others, and that e.g. "reducing fatalities" could be valid justification even if it would only protect yourself, not others.
    – Peteris
    Commented Jul 15, 2020 at 13:52

Unfortunately, most other answers here don't have any sources. I'll answer this from the perspective of German lawmakers and translate the appropriate sources, since that's what I am most familiar with.

Germany made it mandatory for cars to have seats belts on the front seats on 1974-01-01, for rear seats on 1979-05-01. Since 1988-01-01 the outer rear seats need to have three-point belts. Trucks need to have seat belts since 1992, buses since 1999 and since 2004-07-01 all cars need to have three point belts on all seats. You can see from this timeline that adoption of the seat belt took its time. It wasn't without opposition.

But the point is: Why are seat belts mandatory? I will get to that indirectly. Lets first look at the problem they are solving.

Between 1960 and 1970, the number of cars on Germany's roads doubled to 14 million, the number of accident victims grew steadily and reached a peak in 1970 with around 21,300 killed. The development of accident statistics alarmed politicians and the population. The public was no longer willing to accept the victims of road traffic without action.

It wasn't only politicians who saw the problem. At least in Germany, public opinion was that reducing death and injury caused by traffic accidents is a good thing.

Is the seat belt effective?

This question might seem irrelevant to the law at first, but it actually isn't. Laws have to weigh consequences, and a law that puts a burden on someone has to have a merit that outweighs the burden.

American, Swedish and British studies have shown that the general use of seat belts can reduce the number of deaths and the number or severity of injuries by 50 to 60 percent.

So yes, seat belts were presumed to be very effective at doing what they are supposed to do, and everything we have learned since then has reinforced this points. Seat belts are probably one of the most effective security tools in a car.

That being said, the German government did not want to make the wearing of seat belts mandatory at that time:

The intention is to refrain from a legal obligation to wear belts, as this would not eliminate the existing prejudices in the population against the use of belts, but perhaps only increase them.

It took until 1973, when accidents rates were still extremely high, that the German government started considering making them mandatory. And while they were made mandatory in 1976, there was no penalty for not wearing them until 1984.

Can you achieve the wanted effect on a voluntary basis?

Remember, it was public opinion that deaths and injuries from traffic accidents were too high. It stands to reason that such an effective tool as the seat belt would see high adoption rates on a voluntary basis, right? No. Humans are funny that way, we aren't rational beings.

A study conducted in the early 70s found that irrational fears which are in no way rooted in reality drove adoption of the belt way down:

The seat belt was primarily associated with the dangers of an accident and its consequences, and only secondarily with his actual function, namely especially to protect against these dangers. For 60 percent, the motorist connected the belt with the fear to be burnt inside a vehicle, for 75 per cent with the Fears that emergency responders could possibly not remove the seat belt fast enough. 40 percent associated the Belt with the idea of bondage. The idea that the belt could, in an accident, cause particular dangers, was latently presents among the motorists, without having experience with it or being able to draw on the experience of others. This was obviously the explanation why fears about the belt stubbornly persisted, although they have been informed about which protective function the belt actually offers for quite some time.

So despite a public want for more safety, voluntary adoption was abysmal due to completely irrational fears surrounding the seat belt. Its a paradoxical situation that can not be solved by making rational arguments and appealing to the individual.

And now, the final question: Given all of the above, is requiring seat belts legal?

And the answer is yes. Weighing the pros and cons, it turns out to be legal, at least under the German constitution:

In simple terms, it can be condensed to the question: May the State force the individual to do something for his own protection? At the introduction of compulsory seat belts in 1976, the German government had explicitly stated that it was of the firm belief that the use of safety belts significantly reduced the number of fatalities and serious injuries that could be.
The fear that safety belts could have a negative effect in certain accident situations, such as a fire in the vehicle or a fall into the water, was unfounded. The Federal Government was of the opinion that the obligation to wear prescribed seat belts did not constitute a constitutionally unlawful encroachment on the general freedom of action. The existing road traffic regulations already restrict the the freedom of the individual in the public interest. The same applies to construction and equipment regulations. Most of the provisions serve not only to protect third parties, but also to protect road users themselves. The obligation to wear seat belts, although mainly for self-protection, would not be confined to that either. After all, the driver of a motor vehicle, who remained conscious because of the protective effect of the seat belt, was still best able to react correctly and quickly according to the circumstances after an accident and thus avert dangers to others. In principle, this also applies to the passenger. In view of this protective effect on life and limb, but also in view of the avoidable consequential costs of the accident for the general public, the public interest in such an effective safety measure was so great that the relatively minor interference with the general freedom of action was justified. This applied all the more so because restrictions of the general freedom of action were in the nature of all road traffic law. In the present case, they were not more severe than in many existing regulations.

And finally, a point on your idea of "freedom":

What I understand by "freedom" is that "I should be able to do anything and everything, if it DOES NOT AT ALL hurt anything or anyone, be it financially, physically, mentally etc."

But traffic accidents hurt people. They hurt the people who are in them. They hurt the first responders. Not being able to render first aid or to call emergency services endangers people. If the seat belts keeps you alive long enough to call emergency services, then a life might be saved. Not being able to do that puts others in danger. The strain you put on the health care system and on social security systems e.g. due to being unable to continue to work is a burden on the society as a whole. Being dislogded from a car seat makes your body a high-speed projectile with the capability to injure and kill other people. Being thrown around in the car makes your body a deadly projectile that can hurt other occupants of the car. The list of consequences to other people and society as a whole is quite long, actually.


  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about whether or not someone getting ejected from a car during an accident is a realistic danger to other people has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 14:49

Other answers being good, a lot of pressure to mandate the safety tools and features comes from the insurance business.

When you insure something (be it property or other lawful asset, such as life and health) you are expected to protect the insured asset by all practical means. A certain amount of neglect can be considered insurance fraud.

A seatbelt in the insurance context serves two important purposes:

  1. Lowers the risk of death or injuries.
  2. Provides forensics traces about the incident conditions (collision speed/direction, etc) that help in determining the liability.

Sometime in the 80's, Mike Royko (editorialist for the Chicago Tribune) wrote a piece covering an accident case. (I'm going from memory here.) A car had hit a motorcycle and the fault was clearly the car's. The motorcycle rider suffered pretty bad head injuries and so the car's insurance company was on the hook for substantial damages. The case went to court and the insurance company took this tack:

Since the rider wasn't wearing a helmet, the fact that he sustained severe head injury is largely his own fault. At the time, helmets weren't required in this jurisdiction, but the rider "surely knew the risk" of not wearing a helmet. Why should the car have to pay extra because of his risky behavior.

I don't know how the case came out, but Royko went on to make the point that if the car made his point (and, say, paid only 1/3 of the damages) then it would create a new court tactic called "the seatbelt defense." "Yes, the accident was my fault, but the passenger wasn't wearing a seatbelt, so I'm not totally liable for all the damage."

So my point here is that another reason you have to wear a seatbelt or helmet is because I might smack into you and then you'll sue me for a billion dollars, and I'd like more protection against that.

  • But why can't (stupid) people decide to take the risk of being sued for a billion dollars anyway? That's the question. Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 13:28
  • @user253751 That's not what I'm saying. If the accident is my fault and the other guy sues me for his damages, why should I pay more because he wasn't wearing protection. Stupid people should be able to increase MY risk.
    – B. Goddard
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 13:32
  • If there was a law that people who don't wear helmets are at fault for damage they incur - so it wouldn't be illegal, merely stupid - then this wouldn't justify making it illegal. Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 13:45
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    @user253751 The original question assumes that the helmetless is only risking his own life and property. That is not a correct assumption. When his insurance company sues me for his medical damages, the amount of money is 3 times as great because he wasn't being careful. I should be held accountable for my bad driving, but not for the extra injuries his lackadaisical behavior caused.
    – B. Goddard
    Commented Jul 21, 2020 at 13:49
  • But you can pass a law regarding liability without making something mandatory. I'm not convinced this is the reason why.
    – D M
    Commented Aug 2, 2020 at 18:33

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