PhotoLawmakers and regulators have made it abundantly clear how important it is for consumers to wear their seat belts, but a recent survey shows that the message still isn’t getting through for all passengers.

Although more adults are buckling up in the front seat, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) finds that many still think it’s optional to have to use a seat belt in the back seat. When asked why they weren't using a seat belt, many respondents said that they felt the back seat was safer than the front seat, a misconception that the researchers said was troubling.

"People who don't use safety belts might think their neglect won't hurt anyone else. That's not the case," said co-author Jessica Jermakian, an IIHS senior research engineer. "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," she says.

Not buckling up

The survey found that adults aged 35-54 were the least likely group to use a seat belt in the back seat; only 66% of these respondents said that they always buckle up in the back seat, compared to 76% of those aged 55 and older and 73% of those aged 18-34. Women were also found to buckle up more often than men in the rear seat, and those who attended college did so more often than those with less education.

Among the major findings of the study, the researchers say that a whopping 80% of those who admit to not always using a seat belt in the back seat don’t bother using the safety device for short trips or when travelling by taxi or ride-hailing service. Only 57% of passengers in a hired vehicle reported always using their seat belt in the rear seat compared to 74% of passengers in a personal vehicle.

"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 Jermakian. "That applies to riding in an Uber, Lyft or other hired vehicle, too."

Is not buckling up illegal?

When asked about their reasons for not buckling up, 40% of respondents stated that there is no law requiring it. However, for most areas of the U.S. that simply isn’t true.

Wearing a seat belt in the rear seat is required by law in 29 states and the District of Columbia, and in 20 states it can be carried out with primary enforcement; this means that a police officer can stop a driver solely because a back-seat passenger isn’t wearing their seat belt. In the remaining states, the laws are carried out with secondary enforcement, meaning that an officer has to have another reason to stop a vehicle before issuing a seat belt citation.

However, the researchers say that the legality of wearing a seat belt shouldn’t really be the primary consideration. They encourage all passengers to buckle up to ensure greater safety.

"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."


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