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Status Report, Vol. 52, No. 5 | August 3, 2017 Subscribe

UnbeltedAdults admit they often skip belts in rear seat

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. Among adults who admit to not always using safety belts in the back seat, 4 out of 5 surveyed by IIHS say short trips or traveling by taxi or ride-hailing service are times they don't bother to use the belt.

The new survey reveals that many rear-seat passengers don't think belts are necessary because they perceive the back seat to be safer than the front. This shows a clear misunderstanding about the importance of safety belts, no matter where a person sits in a vehicle.

Before the majority of Americans got into the habit of buckling up, the back seat was the safest place to sit, and the center rear seat was the safest place of all in 1960s-70s vehicles. In recent decades, high levels of restraint use and the advent of belt crash tensioners, airbags and crashworthy vehicle designs have narrowed the safety advantages of riding in the rear seat for teens and adults.

A study by IIHS and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia published in Accident Analysis and Prevention in 2015 found no difference in the risk of dying in a crash when seated in the rear compared with the front seat for restrained occupants ages 13 to 54 in model 2000 and newer passenger vehicles (see "Laying the groundwork for safety improvements for back-seat occupants," Dec. 23, 2014). Belted occupants 55 and older, however, had a higher relative risk of death when seated in the back than when seated in the front. Unrestrained rear-seat occupants were nearly 8 times as likely to sustain a serious injury in a crash as restrained rear-seat occupants.

"For most adults, it is still as safe to ride in the back seat as the front seat, but not if you aren't buckled up," says Jessica Jermakian, an IIHS senior research engineer and a co-author of the study. "That applies to riding in an Uber, Lyft or other hired vehicle, too."

For most adults, it is just as safe to ride in the back seat as the front seat, but not if you aren't buckled up. That applies to riding in an Uber, Lyft or other hired vehicle, too. In the rear seat, a lap/shoulder belt is the primary means of protection in a crash. Unbelted passengers put themselves and other occupants at risk.

While driver and front-passenger belt use has been extensively studied, there is not a lot of research on why rear-seat passengers don't buckle up. Prior IIHS surveys of belt use among adults focused on their belt-use habits in general, but not specifically belt use in the rear seat. The latest study fills this gap.

IIHS surveyed adults 18 and older by cellphone and landline between June and August 2016. Of the 1,172 respondents who said they had ridden in the back seat of a vehicle during the preceding six months, 72 percent said they always use their belt in the back seat, while 91 percent said they always use their belt when seated in front. This is in line with the 2015 nationwide observed belt use of 75 percent for adult rear-seat occupants and 89 percent for drivers and front-seat passengers.

Although safety belts are proven to save lives, more than half of the people who die in passenger vehicle crashes in the U.S. each year are unbelted.

One person's decision not to buckle up can have consequences for other people riding with them.

"People who don't use safety belts might think their neglect won't hurt anyone else. That's not the case," Jermakian says.

Drivers are about twice as likely to be fatally injured in crashes in which the left rear passenger was unrestrained compared with crashes in which the passenger was belted, a 2013 University of Virginia study found.

"In the rear seat a lap/shoulder belt is the primary means of protection in a frontal crash. Without it, bodies can hit hard surfaces or other people at full speed, leading to serious injuries," Jermakian says.

Belt holdouts

Prime-age adults (35 to 54 year-olds) were the least likely group to report always buckling up in the back seat. Sixty-six percent of this group reported always using a belt in back, compared with 76 percent of adults 55 and older and 73 percent of adults 18 to 34.

Women were more likely than men to report always using a belt in the rear seat, and adults who had attended college were more likely to buckle up than adults with less education. These findings are in line with prior surveys of belt use.

When asked why they don't buckle up, a quarter of respondents in the group who reported buckling up less often in the back seat than in the front said they believe the rear seat is safer than the front, so using a belt isn't necessary. The next most popular reason this group gave was that using a belt isn't a habit or they forget about it or simply never or rarely use it. Twelve percent of respondents cited uncomfortable or poorly fitting belts as a reason for not buckling up, and 10 percent said the belt is difficult to use or they can't find the belt or buckle.

People who said that most of their trips as a rear-seat passenger were in hired vehicles were more likely to report not always using their safety belt than passengers in personal vehicles. In the survey, 57 percent of passengers in hired vehicles reported always using their belt in the rear seat, compared with 74 percent of passengers in personal vehicles.

"If your cab or ride-hailing driver is involved in a crash, you want that safety belt," Jermakian says. "Even if state law says belts are optional, go ahead and buckle up anyway. If you can't find the belt or it's inaccessible, ask your driver for help."

IIHS sled tests show why it is crucial to buckle up, even in back. IIHS engineers placed an unbelted test dummy in the back seat behind the belted driver dummy. Without a safety belt to control its movement during the crash, the rear-seat dummy slammed into the back of the driver seat, sandwiching the driver dummy between the seat and front airbag. In a real crash like this, both the driver and passenger likely would be injured.

Reminders, laws and comfort

Nearly two-thirds of part-time belt users and nonusers said audible rear-seat belt reminders would make them more likely to buckle up. IIHS studies have shown that driver belt use is higher and fatality rates are lower in vehicles with enhanced belt reminders than in vehicles without them (see "Safety belt reminder system in late-model Fords boosts buckle-up rate," Feb. 9, 2002, "Belt reminders in Hondas are persuading motorists to buckle up," June 13, 2006, and "Effective belt reminders don't need to be relentless," March 6, 2012). Results of a 2012 IIHS survey show that most motorists support enhanced belt reminders that are more persistent and intense than most U.S. vehicles have now (see "Drivers back stronger belt reminders; European systems could be model," Jan. 24, 2013).

Still, few vehicles have belt reminders for the rear seat. In 2015, only 3 percent of models sold in the U.S. had them, and the number hasn't increased appreciably in newer vehicles.

Nearly 40 percent of people surveyed said they sometimes don't buckle up in the rear seat because there is no law requiring it. If there were such a law, 60 percent of respondents said it would convince them to use belts in the back seat. A greater percentage said they would be more likely to buckle up if the driver could get pulled over because someone in the back wasn't buckled.

Except for New Hampshire, all states and the District of Columbia require adults in the front seat to use belts. All rear-seat passengers are covered by laws in 29 states and D.C. Of these laws, 20 carry primary enforcement, meaning a police officer can stop a driver solely for a belt-law violation. The rest are secondary, so an officer must have another reason to stop a vehicle before citing an occupant for riding unbelted.

Aside from stronger belt laws, more than half of part-time belt users and nonusers said more comfortable belts would make them more likely to buckle up in the rear seat. They want softer or padded belts, plus shoulder belts that are adjustable so they don't rub the neck. Tight and locking belts are turnoffs for them. Participants cited a variety of comfort and usability issues, regardless of age or body size.

Safety belts saved 13,941 lives during 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates. If everyone buckled up, an additional 2,800 deaths could have been prevented. For drivers and front passengers, using a lap and shoulder belt reduces the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent in a pickup, SUV or van and by 45 percent in a car.

IIHS surveyed adults who had ridden in the back seat of a personal or hired vehicle

Top reasons respondents cited for not always using belts in rear seat compared with front seat
25% Safer in the back so I don't need it
13% Habit/forget/rarely wear it
12% Uncomfortable/doesn't fit
10% Difficult to use, find belts/buckles
9% Law doesn't require it
Top reasons respondents cited for not always using belts in taxi, Uber or other hired vehicle
17% Habit/forget/it's inconvenient
17% I don't know
15% Only going short distances/ at low speeds
10% Difficult to use, can't find buckle/belt
"I would be more likely to wear my safety belt in the back if…"
75% Someone in the car reminded me
73% If the driver could get pulled over because I'm not wearing my safety belt
62% There was an audible belt reminder
60% I knew there was a law
59% Shoulder belt was more comfortable
52% Lap belt was more comfortable
50% There was a visual belt reminder
49% Buckle was easier to find
Shoulder belt improves safety

Using a lap/shoulder belt in the center rear seat cuts the risk of fatal injury more than a lap belt alone, a NHTSA analysis show

©1996-2018, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute | www.iihs.org