There is a common misperception that buckling up is optional in the back seat, according to an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) survey.
Among adults who admit to not always using safety belts in the back seat, four out of five say they don’t bother to use a belt for short trips or when traveling by taxi or ride-hailing service.
The survey reveals many rear-seat passengers don’t think belts are necessary because they perceive the back seat to be safer than the front. Before buckling up became the norm, 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.
“For most adults, it’s still as safe to ride in the back seat as the front seat, but not if you aren’t buckled up,” said 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.”
Adults aged 35 to 54 are least likely to report always buckling up in the back seat, according to the survey. Women were more likely than men to report always using a belt in the rear seat, and adults who have attended college are more likely to buckle up than adults with less education.
“People who don’t use safety belts might think their neglect won’t hurt anyone else. That’s not the case,” Jermakian said. “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,”
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 issuing a safety belt citation.
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% in a pickup, SUV or van and by 45% in a car.