Making Seat Belts Compulsory in the Rear Seats

Too many states in America still do not have laws making the wearing of seat belts compulsory in the rear seats.

Infographic for the risks of not wearing a seat belt in the rear seats (NHTSA)

The infographic shown above focusses only on one of the two significant dangers that arise from people in the back seats not wearing their seat belt, because it mentions only those individuals as being potential casualties.

The truth, however, is that people who are correctly restrained in the front seats are just as likely to be killed or injured if a person behind them is not wearing a seat belt.

A British ‘THINK! campaign’ video showing the *other* reason why rear seat belts are critically important.

At one stage, research from Japan stated that a belted person in the front seat was ten times more likely to be killed in a crash if a person behind them was not wearing a seat belt. This estimate of risk has now been reduced but it still does serve to illustrate that a front seat occupant can indeed be killed by the person behind.

This concept was addressed in the early 2000s by Calspan, the engineering company in Buffalo, NY, that does a lot of vehicle crash testing for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] safe car assessments.

Even back then, Calspan thought the problem so serious that they named it the ‘Back-seat Bullet’ effect.

But: “Not many people travel in the back seat in the USA!”

Around 2005, I was invited to Calspan, in my role as a road safety journalist, to attend a press conference being given by Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the then Administrator of NHTSA, who was there to present the previous year’s national road casualty figures to the nation’s press.

When the topic of the questions came around to seat belts, I took the opportunity to ask why — unlike the situation in other developed nations — the USA had so few states with any legislation mandating the use of seat belts in rear seats, and why NHTSA was not pursuing this aspect.

Regrettably, Dr. Runge’s answer was highly inappropriate and badly undermined the seriousness of the issue. He dismissed the question by saying: “Not many people travel in the back seat in the USA!”

That comment was as totally unacceptable then as it would be now. The issue is not how many people in America travel in the back seat, it is how many of those individuals protect themselves and everyone else in the vehicle by the simple expedient of correctly wearing their seat belt…. Period.

The tragic thing is that here we are, about fifteen years on, and how much has changed?

The procrastination, the “I know better” attitudes, and the general delays of legislators regarding road safety are responsible for countless tens-of-thousands of additional road deaths in the USA, which as a nation effectively stands still while all other developed countries make far greater progress and save far more lives.


Additional reading: Road Safety Annual Report 2019 — see how the USA performed


As a postscript for those who would argue that such laws are an infringement on their personal rights, please do remember that according to NHTSA (and international standards on the issue), every person killed on the roads of the USA costs American society well in excess of one million pounds, and ‘the rest of us’ have rights not to have our taxes or the nation’s wealth wasted on unnecessary deaths.


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