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Back seat safety: how not to become a human missile

Published: Nov 15, 2017

By Mike Brassfield

Dr. Thomas Herron sees them over and over again: Back-seat passengers who don’t buckle up.

Unfortunately, he sees them in the emergency room at Tampa General Hospital, where he works as a trauma surgeon.

“In an accident, the people who are unrestrained tend to fare the worst,” Dr. Herron said. “They have a much higher likelihood of being ejected from the car.”

Yet a new study shows that many back-seat riders don’t reach for their seat belts because they mistakenly believe the back seat is safer than the front.

In a survey by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 91 percent of Americans say they always buckle up in the front seat, but only 72 percent do in the back seat. In other words, more than a fourth of us aren’t buckling up back there.

But that’s not all. The study has produced two eye-opening findings:

The Uber effect: Passengers are less likely to use seat belts when riding in hired vehicles -- such as taxis, Uber or Lyft -- compared to riding in personal vehicles. Only 57 percent say they always buckle up when they use a ride-hailing service.

Human missiles: In a crash, unsecured back-seat passengers can turn into human missiles and injure the people in the front seats. An unbelted rear-seat rider can slam into the driver’s seat, knocking the driver into the airbag and steering wheel.

“People who don't use safety belts might think their neglect won't hurt anyone else. That's not the case,” said Jessica Jermakian, an IIHS researcher who co-authored the study. “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.”

Sadly, none of these findings come as a surprise to trauma surgeons like Dr. Herron.

At Tampa General, he and his fellow trauma doctors assess injured patients who arrive by either ambulance or the hospital’s medical helicopter, Aeromed.

And what causes the vast majority of traumatic injuries that these doctors see? Traffic accidents.

Statistically, being ejected from the vehicle is one of the deadliest things that can happen to you in a car crash.

“You’re more likely to be ejected from the front seat, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen from the back seat,” Dr. Herron said. “If the car rolls over and the windows are open, people can be ejected from the side.”

This problem of unbelted passengers is especially significant given the rising popularity of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Four out of five Americans say they’re least likely to use a safety belt during short trips with Uber or Lyft.

Some other facts about seat belts in the back seat:

  • In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, 1,018 unrestrained rear-seat passengers died in car crashes.
  • People aged 35 to 54 were least likely to buckle up in the back seat.
  • More than half the passengers who die in traffic accidents in the U.S. are unbelted.
  • Women were more likely than men to buckle up in the back seat, and college-educated adults were more likely to buckle up.