If you’re reading this story from the back seat of a car, there’s a good chance you’re not wearing a seat belt. A recent survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, or IIHS, found that 28 percent of respondents don’t always click a seat belt when they’re in the back of a car.
The most common reason for not buckling up in the back, according to the 1,172 survey respondents, is that there is no need, because the rear seat is safer than the front. But that’s not always true. “Adults have gotten the message that it’s safer for kids to ride in the back seat properly restrained, but when it comes to their own safety, there is a common misperception that buckling up is optional,” said Jessica Jermakian, a senior research engineer at IIHS.
According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, in 2015, 4.3 percent of 22,441 fatalities — or 966 deaths — involved unrestrained people in rear seats. And IIHS research finds that unbuckled rear-seat travelers are eight times as likely as buckled rear-seat passengers to be injured or killed in a crash.
“While the rear seat retains its reputation as the safest part of the car, in reality that is now the front seat for adults and older teenagers,” said Kristy Arbogast, director of engineering at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The rear seat hasn’t become more dangerous, Arbogast said, “it’s that the front seat has become safer.” Improvements to the front seat include lap and shoulder belts with advanced features that reduce forces experienced in a crash and that minimize slack from the belt — few rear seat belts are so designed — and new types of air bags for the driver and passenger, said Jason Levine, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety.
While some car models have side rear air bags, these are generally expensive add-ons. People often turn them down to save money or to purchase other extras, such as heated seats and music systems, Levine said.
Thirty-four states and the District have laws that allow police officers to ticket a driver if the driver or the front-seat passenger is not wearing a seat belt, while only 18 states have the same laws for rear-seat riders. Those laws, along with police checks, public education campaigns, and seat-belt reminder systems, have helped increase use of seat belts in all seats, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The reminders are the annoying pinging and flashing that occur when the driver or front-seat passenger is not buckled in. Front seat belt reminder systems became mandatory in the 1970s for cars sold in the United States, but those reminders are largely missing from the back seat. Only about 7 percent of 2018 model cars have rear-seat reminders.
A 2012 law called for a final rule requiring all new cars to have such systems by 2015, Levine said. In October, the Center for Auto Safety sued the U.S. Department of Transportation to compel the agency to publish rules on rear-seat-belt reminder systems. In reply, DOT said last month that it will propose a rule by October. But the nonprofit center — founded in 1970 by Consumers Union and Ralph Nader — said it will not drop the lawsuit because DOT has missed publicly announced deadlines three years in a row.
There is no data on injuries and deaths among unbelted passengers in hired cars, but in 2015, three high-profile deaths made the issue more prominent. CBS correspondent Bob Simon was killed after the chauffeur-driven sedan he was riding in crashed. Simon, riding in the back seat, was unbelted. That same year, Nobel Prize economics winner John Nash and his wife, Alicia, were unbelted in the back seat of a taxi when the vehicle crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike. Both were killed.
The most recent data — from 2014 — from the Taxi and Limousine Commission in New York City is that only about 38 percent of taxi passengers buckle up. Uber and Lyft occasionally send reminders to members to buckle up in the back, but the ride-sharing companies have no formal strategy on this issue. “We take safety very seriously . . . and . . . are always looking for ways to engage with riders and drivers to encourage good safety practices, like wearing seat belts,” said Nadia Anderson, who leads road and traffic safety initiatives for Uber.
Until the Department of Transportation issues its rule, reminders from the driver may be among the best strategies to get passengers in the back to buckle up. Saul Newman, an associate dean at American University who lives in Silver Spring, no longer drives carpool now that his three children are grown, but he retains a rule from those many trips when he gives friends a lift. “I keep my eyes fixed on the rearview mirror,” he said, “and don’t start the drive until each passenger in the back is belted in.”