Rules of the Road

We’re all friends here, but the ‘buddy buckle’ is not only unsafe, it’s illegal

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State, county and local law enforcement agencies will conduct a Click It or Ticket campaign May 14 through June 3, one of the busiest travel and holiday times of the year, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.
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State, county and local law enforcement agencies will conduct a Click It or Ticket campaign May 14 through June 3, one of the busiest travel and holiday times of the year, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Question: I know we should always wear our seatbelts, so what should we do if there are more people in a car than seatbelts? Is it a good idea to buddy buckle?

Answer: For those who are unfamiliar with the term “buddy buckle” (Not to be confused with several different products available called Buckle Buddy) or the alternate term “double buckle,” it refers to the practice of two people sharing the same seatbelt. It’s done to supposedly solve the dilemma of more people than available seatbelts in a car.

Often buddy buckling is two smaller humans sharing the seatbelt as they sit side by side. Even worse is when a full-size person has a child on their lap and the belt goes around both of them.

Based on my “even worse” modifier, you can probably guess where I come down on this.

There is a bad way to buddy buckle, and there is a worse way to buddy buckle, but there is no good way to buddy buckle.

I couldn’t find any studies that looked specifically at the risks of buddy buckling to back up that previous statement, but I did find stories from first responders and doctors. Their encounters with buddy buckling revealed lots of head, abdominal, spinal and pelvic injuries.

We know that a seatbelt is there to protect us from flying into the steering wheel, dashboard or windshield. But it also keeps us in our own space so we don’t hit someone else in the car.

Buddy buckling puts two people inescapably close to each other, and during a crash, it’s much more likely that their heads will collide. That’s where the head injuries come from.

A seatbelt should also fit snugly around our hips, where our bodies are strong. When two people share one belt, they’re more prone to sliding around in a crash, putting the belt in a position to injure soft and vulnerable organs in the abdomen or cause spinal damage.

Here’s where the on-the-lap version of buddy buckling is particularly dangerous: In a crash a child is squished between the seatbelt and a much larger person.

Without getting deep into the math (because it’s way more complicated than I want to think through) the amount of force of, let’s say, a 150 pound person moving forward in a 35 mph crash is a whole lot more than 150 pounds. By making a bunch of assumptions about the rate of deceleration and other factors, I’d estimate the force the buddy buckled kid experiences at around 2,500 pounds.

Ouch! If you feel inspired to do the math, let me know how close I am.

In addition to the safety risks of buddy buckling, it’s also illegal.

Washington law doesn’t come right out and prohibit buddy buckling specifically, but it requires that a seatbelt be worn in a “properly adjusted and securely fastened manner.”

B.D. Thompson of the Washington State Patrol demonstrates the "Kid-A-Pult," which shows how kids without seat belts can be injured in a car wreck. In Washington, the minimum fine for not securing a child in a car seat is $475.

Based on what I’ve seen from the law enforcement community, that law has been understood to mean one person per seatbelt. After all, if the system is designed for only one person, it’s not possible to properly adjust it for two people.

So far, I’ve worked from the assumption that we’re talking about kids old enough to use just a seatbelt. Buddy buckling kids who should be in a booster seat is clearly a violation of Washington’s child passenger safety law.

Whatever the age, buddy buckling is not legal or safe. The safest practice is to make sure that each person in a car has their own seatbelt or appropriate child restraint system, and that they’re all used properly. Hopefully you’ll never have to find out how effective your safety restraint system is, but in the event you do, you want it to work right.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.