Seat belt fines

During a long bike ride yesterday, I noticed several road signs calling attention to a fine of $101 for driving without a seat belt. I’d noticed these signs before, but while traveling at the glacial pace my winter legs permitted, I read them a lot more than once 😉

Upon passing of House Bill 1460, Washington’s mandatory seat belt law became a ‘primary law,’ meaning a driver can be pulled over and ticketed for not complying. (An example of a secondary law would be talking on a cell phone. If you’re pulled over for speeding, you’ll receive an additional ticket for $101.) To reinforce the point, over 650 road signs[7] have been erected. These, a media campaign and amount of the fine are credited with driving up the seat belt use rate in the state. As of last year, it was estimated 95% on all drivers in the state wore seat belts[1]. The obvious benefit is a decline in vehicle fatalities. By 2004, the number was down to 569, the lowest since 1961.[6]

To measure the effectiveness of this being a primary law, Salzberg and Moffat[2] observed drivers’ seat belt usage at eight sites in five cities in each of Washington and Idaho — Idaho’s seat belt law is secondary and a smaller fine. They found that Idaho car drivers in Idaho cities wore seat belts about 84% of the time. However, when those drivers visited Washington cities, the use rate increased to 94%, suggesting the Washington campaign was effective. Interestingly, Washington state drivers visited Idaho tended to continue using their seat belts.

I have been unable to answer the question “why $101?” For any given fine, a base penalty is set by the Washington State Supreme Court, with statutory assessments determined by the State Legislature[5]. I read the court’s schedule[4], but was unable to find it called out. Typically, unlisted things are $37 per violation. I have asked the Washington State Library reference staff for pointers.

Mary Schaff responded:

After retracing your steps and not finding anything further, I decided to contact the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission to see if they had additional information about this fine.  I talked with Julie, who told me that the fine is now $124 and is part of the “Unlisted Traffic Infractions” portion of the Monetary Penalty Schedule on the Traffic Safety Commission’s website

This amount is determined by the legislature and the Supreme Court and takes into effect “cost of living increases” (I assumed she means inflation).

The Washington State Patrol’s website points to RCW 46.63.110 which gives the Supreme Court the authority to set the “base fine.”  This also gives some indication of the additional fees that are then added on top of this base.

A written out version of where each dollar from traffic fines can be found on the Traffic Safety Commission’s website.

Oddly the Monetary Penalty Schedule on the Washington Courts website and the one on the Traffic Safety Commission different quite a bit.  The woman I spoke […] wasn’t sure why that was, but I’m guessing that they’re using two different definitions of “base fee.”  Since ticket prices are essentially the combination of state and local legislation, as well as district court rules, I guess there’s bound to be some contradictory and/or outdated information.  I know this probably isn’t a satisfying answer, but it was the best we could come up with.




3 thoughts on “Seat belt fines”

  1. Here’s a question: I’ve noticed that they say “Day and Night”, and it looks like the “Day and Night” part was stuck on afterwards. Any idea why?

    Interesting thing I learned from your link #5 is that you are allowed to ride in the back of a pickup truck.

    And I like this question:

    If a person is sitting in a ferry line in their car waiting for a ferry will they be ticketed for not wearing a seat belt?
    No, they will not be ticketed.

  2. Hi Laurel, the signs were added as emphasis because the nighttime seat belt usage was found to be much less. The WA Traffic Safety Commission received funding from the NHTSA for a program emphasizing nighttime patrols. (See here). From the site:

    During a recent nighttime seat belt survey contracted by WTSC, preliminary results showed an 86% nighttime seat belt use rate. This is 10% points below the state seat belt use rate (96.3%), which is the highest seat belt rate in the USA and the world.

  3. I get the sense that there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work/reasoning behind setting fine amounts, all of which is totally opaque to the Rest Of Us. I was surprised/amused to see signs in Oregon for a $6250 littering fine. Yes, $6250! I had to look a couple of times to be sure I’d read all those digits right. Wow! In Utah, the fine is $250. Oregonians CARE! I mean, littering is truly obnoxious and no one should be that dumb and irresponsible, but… wow!

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