Riding in the Back Seat: As Risky as Riding in the Front?

As in most states, in Michigan the law requires you to wear a seatbelt if you’re riding in the front seat of any vehicle. However, the laws are less strict for backseat passengers. If you are over the age of 15, you are not legally required to wear a seatbelt if you’re sitting in the back. However, several recent studies aim to show the danger of choosing to be unbuckled in the car, no matter where your seat is.

A study completed by Dr. Masao Ichikawa from Tokyo University in Japan and published in The Lancet found that there is five times greater risk of death to drivers and front-seat passengers when back seat passengers don’t wear seatbelts. That risk climbs to six or seven times greater in the case of head-on crashes due to the likelihood of the person in the back being propelled into the front with enough speed and power to crush and kill the occupant, even if he or she is properly restrained. Ichikawa and his team came to these conclusions after studying the records of 74,000 drivers and 30,000 front-seat passengers who were in accidents while they had unrestrained back seat passengers. Fatalities in these cases were 211 for drivers and 173 for front-seat passengers.

In another study done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, it was found that only 70 percent of adults ages 20 to 54 who sit in the back seat wear seatbelts, and 86 percent in the 55+ age range do. By contrast, 99 percent of infants, 96 percent of children ages 4 to 8, and 93 percent of children ages 9 to 12 wear the proper restraints. This makes the back seat undeniably safer for children, as it has always been, but less safe for adults.

In Sweden, Volvo Car Corporation and the Swedish Road Safety Office completed an analysis of 2,000 crashes involving Volvos to see if the back seat is as dangerous as the front passenger seat, and their conclusion is that it is. Although their data is from five years in the 1970s, it confirms the other recent studies in that it suggests that the back seat is not as safe for adults as has long been thought.

All of this data points to several specific reasons that the back seat is so dangerous for adults (and in Michigan, children over the age of 15) who don’t wear seatbelts. First and foremost, there is a risk of being completely thrown out of the vehicle by the impact of the crash. As Jessica Jermakian, a senior research scientist at the IIHS says, “We don’t have crash dummies in the rear. So things are improving in the front, but the back seat hasn’t kept up.” Car manufacturers have long been focused on improving the safety of the driver and front-seat passenger, and comparable improvements for the back seat have been much slower in coming. The second important factor to consider is that everything is mobile in a crash and can serve as a projectile within the vehicle. This means that an unbelted rear passenger poses a significant danger to those in the front seat and the others in the back seat as well. Therefore, it is the best practice if everyone in a vehicle wears a seat belt, regardless of the law. Not just the back seat passenger’s life but the lives of others in the vehicle may depend on it.

If you've been injured in an auto accident, contact Whiting Law for a free consultation.

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