[UPDATE BELOW] The tragic taxi crash that killed mathematician John Nash and his wife Alicia on Saturday has sparked some debate over the necessity of wearing seatbelts in cabs. Which, it turns out, is optional in this city, but probably shouldn't be.
Currently, thanks to a bizarre exemption, cab passengers aren't required to buckle up, a law that may change in the future thanks to a Vision Zero proposal, but still won't mandate that backseat passengers over the age of 16 stay belted, thanks to New York State law. A very scientific poll of all my friends and coworkers on G-chat suggests only a few people put on a seatbelt every time they get into a taxi, with a few sheepishly admitting they had never ONCE buckled up.
I am an avid taxi seatbelter, having been warned since childhood that to travel unbuckled meant I risked smashing my face into the partition and turning my nose into twisted cartilage and bone. When I was seven or eight, my mother and I walked by the scene of a cab collision on the Upper West Side, and watched paramedics load a neck brace-clad backseat passenger into an ambulance. "He probably wasn't wearing a seatbelt," my mother said, never missing an opportunity to instill fear in me.
My friends say they don't see the point in putting on a seatbelt just to travel a few blocks, but statistics show that one in 3 car crashes happen about a mile from home. Everyone has a story about a friend who had to get dozens of face stitches when their her cab stopped short, and though that kind of collision isn't necessarily fatal, it doesn't sound fun, either. What good is freedom when it comes with a $12K bill from a plastic surgeon?
According to the Taxi & Limousine Commission, around 65 percent of cab passengers don't bother wearing seatbelts. Statistics from 2009 show that in 4,093 cab accidents, only 41 percent of passengers were belted. (We've requested updated stats from the TLC and will update when we hear back.)
Of course, even the long arm of the law won't necessarily scare people into using seatbelts. In fact, the Nashes were actually breaking the law by not buckling up—in New Jersey, where they died, all passengers are required to wear seatbelts. They're also not the only celebrities whose recent deaths might have been prevented by seat restraints. CBS News correspondent Bob Simon, who was killed in a livery cab crash on the West Side Highway in February, was not wearing a seatbelt at the time.
Update 5/27: According to TLC statistics from 2013, 95 passengers were injured during NYC taxi and livery cab crashes. In 65 percent of those crashes, the injured person neglected to wear a seatbelt.
"Seatbelts save lives, so, if there was ever a time that the existing exemption made sense, it certainly doesn’t make sense to us here and now…..the bottom line is that, like everything we’re doing as part of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan, this would bring us closer to our goal of zero traffic fatalities and serious injuries," spokesperson Allan Fromberg told us in an email.