COLLEGE STATION, Texas — While the overall use of safety belts has increased over the decades, a look into the back seat of many vehicles today tells a different story, said Bev Kellner, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service traffic safety program manager, College Station.
“According to a recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety survey, four out of the five adults who admit to not using a safety belt in the back seat said they are least likely to use them during short trips or when using a taxi or ride-share service,” Kellner said.
She said the survey exposes a common misperception among vehicle passengers that sitting in the back seat of a vehicle is safer than sitting in the front.
“Using a safety belt in the back seat is just as important as using one in the front seat,” Kellner said. “It may have been true in the past that the rear seat was safer, but that’s not really the case now thanks to new technologies and improved vehicle manufacturing.”
The tendency to not wear safety belts in the back seat of a taxi or ride-share vehicle could become a habit for the non-use of back seat safety belts in a regular vehicle, she said.
And this was validated by the study, which showed those who reported most of their trips as a rear-seat passenger in hired vehicles were also less likely to use rear-seat safety belts in their personal vehicles.
“As it becomes a habit for people to use their safety belts, it can become a habit not to as well, especially if there’s a mistaken perception that the back seat is already a safe space,” she said.
In its study of 1,172 respondents, the IIHS study found that among respondents who said they had ridden in the back seat of a vehicle during the preceding six months, 72 percent said they always used a back seat belt while 91 percent said they always use their front seat belt.
The study showed adults 35 to 54 were the least likely to fasten their safety belts while in the back seat of a vehicle.
Only 66 percent of this age group buckled up in the back seat, while 76 percent of adults 55 and older and 73 percent of adults 18 to 34 reported buckling up.
In addition, women and adults who had attended college were more likely to use a safety belt in the rear seat. And only 57 percent of passengers in hired vehicles reported always using their belt in the rear seat.
“Another misperception addressed by the IIHS study is that rear-seat passengers feel in a collision their non-use of seat belts will not have any effect on the driver or front-seat passengers,” Kellner said.
“But the fact is any item or person in the back seat can become a ‘projectile’ to be tossed around the interior of the vehicle and kill or badly injure other passengers.”
This is one of many reasons to not hold a child in your lap while in a vehicle. And in the case of rollover crashes, unbelted passengers, whether in the front or rear seat can easily be thrown from the vehicle.
“Front-seat occupant safety has received a great deal of attention and vehicle manufacturers have taken great strides by enhancing protective features in those positions,” said Joseph Colella, owner of Traffic Safety Projects based in Charleston, South Carolina, and a nationally recognized traffic safety expert.
“While rear seats have not received the same level of attention and progress, crash statistics prove that buckling up properly is crucial for all occupants, regardless of their seating positions. Unless everyone in the vehicle is properly restrained, none of the occupants are optimally protected.”
Kellner said while the study noted the main reason people gave for not buckling up in the rear seat was they felt it was safer, other reasons included not being in the regular habit of using a safety belt, belts were uncomfortable or fit poorly, and belts were difficult to find and use.
“The survey also showed not having a law that required rear-seat passengers to buckle up was an impediment,” Kellner said.
Kellner said while it is the responsibility of the rear-seat passenger to buckle up, technology and others in the vehicle can help ensure they do.
“Another interesting part of the IIHS study was that almost two-thirds of occasional or non-users of rear-seat safety belts said an audible reminder would make them more likely to buckle up,” she said.
“Unfortunately, only a very small percentage of vehicles currently on the road have such reminders. But drivers and other passengers can have an influence on rear-seat passengers by politely asking them to buckle their safety belts.”
The study also showed having more comfortable belts would improve the likelihood of rear-seat passengers using them, Kellner said.
“Those surveyed said softer or padded belts and adjustable shoulder belts that don’t irritate the neck would be preferred, as would somewhat looser or less restrictive belts,” she said.
“But even though passenger comfort is desirable, a little discomfort or annoyance while buckling up is a small price to pay for one’s personal safety and the safety of others.”
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