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How to improve back-seat safety

Photo by phaisarnwong2517/

Seat belts are your car’s single most effective safety device. In 2017, they saved an estimated 15,000 lives in the U.S. By contrast, about half of the almost 43,000 people who died in car crashes in 2021 hadn’t buckled up, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 

But a persistent myth among American drivers and their passengers is that in a crash, it’s much safer to be sitting in a car’s back seat—leading many people to think it’s not that important to fasten your seat belt when you ride there. In part because of this misconception, back-seat safety has taken a back seat (pun intended) to safety improvements in the front seats.

The misperceived safety of the back seat is reinforced by the legal system. All states except New Hampshire have laws requiring adult front-seat passengers to wear seat belts. But in 16 states, rear seat-belt laws either don’t exist or apply only to minors. The message? Back-seat safety isn’t really a significant issue.

The facts say otherwise: Unbelted back-seat passengers are 8 times more likely to be injured and twice as likely to be killed in a car crash than if they’d buckled up. And in a crash, unbelted back-seat passengers can become human projectiles who slam into and injure or kill other passengers.

Problems in the back seat

Backseat Passenger

Photo by geargodz/

Decades ago—when seat belts were less advanced, when fewer people used them, and when hardly any cars had airbags—riding in the back seat probably was safer. But, realistically, that only meant you had a better chance to survive a crash if your head hit the seat back in front of you than if you were thrown through the windshield or collided with an unpadded dashboard.

Today, riding in the back seat is generally less safe than riding in the front, mainly for 2 reasons. The first is the previously mentioned misconception: Because they believe riding in the back is safer, people don’t buckle up as often—or at all. In fact, studies show that although 92% of front-seat passengers regularly use their seat belts, only 80% of back-seat passengers do. The numbers for ride-hailing passengers are even lower.

The second reason riding in the back seat is less safe is that, even if passengers are belted in, many rear seats lack the advanced seat belts and improved airbags that are standard equipment in front seats.

As a result, some belted passengers—especially older adults and children over age 6—sitting in the back seat have been seriously injured or killed in crashes, even though the crashes were deemed survivable. Many of those who died suffered chest injuries, which were due to excessive forces from the shoulder belt.

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Improving back-seat safety

Seatbelt tongue and buckle.

Photo by thongchuea/

The challenge of improving back-seat safety is twofold—first, getting back-seat passengers to use their seat belts, and second, making back seats safer. Here are some effective strategies to get people to buckle up:

  • Make seat-belt laws tougher, use safety campaigns to educate people about seat-belt use, and fine or otherwise punish those who don’t buckle up—efforts similar to effective tactics used for dealing with DUI.

Studies show that people are more inclined to use seat belts if they’re legally required to. This is especially true if the seat-belt law is primary, which it is in 35 states. That means a car’s occupant can be cited specifically for not wearing a seat belt.

With a secondary seat-belt law, the principal reason for the citation must be another infraction, e.g., speeding. Additionally, higher fines for seat-belt violations have been shown to result in higher compliance rates.

  • Install effective seat-belt reminders in all vehicle back seats, which let drivers know when a passenger there is unbuckled (only about one-third of cars have them now). More-persistent reminders (at least 90 seconds) have been shown to be more effective in getting people to buckle up.

The following measures will make back seats safer:

  • Improve seat-belt quality, making them safer and more comfortable. Uncomfortable or poorly fitting seat belts are major reasons back-seat passengers give for not buckling up.

Examples of improvements include making the height of shoulder straps adjustable and installing pretensioners (which tighten the belt in a crash) and load limiters (which relax the belt slightly to avoid injuring an occupant’s chest). These features are standard in the front seats of most cars, but in 2022, only about 50% of rear seat belts were equipped with pretensioners and load limiters.

  • Install rear-seat airbags, which deploy from the backs of the front seats, and side airbags, which protect the pelvis and torso. In 2022, no cars had standard rear-seat airbags, and only about 25% had rear side airbags.

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Encouraging developments

Car crash testing.

Photo courtesy IIHS

Fortunately, things are changing as the viewpoints of automakers and safety agencies such as NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) evolve and broaden.

For example, to better address back-seat injuries and deaths, in late 2022 IIHS updated its moderate-overlap front-crash test by putting a belted dummy representing a small woman or 12-year-old child in the back seat behind the driver dummy and monitoring injuries to the dummy’s head, neck, chest, abdomen, and thighs.

From late 2022 through late 2023, IIHS tested the back-seat safety of vehicles in 6 categories—15 small SUVs (e.g., the Ford Escape), 13 midsize SUVs (e.g., the Tesla Model Y), 5 small cars (e.g., the Honda Civic), 5 small pickups (e.g., the Jeep Gladiator), 8 midsize cars (e.g., the Toyota Camry), and 4 minivans (e.g., the Chrysler Pacifica).

The results weren’t encouraging. Only 7 of the 46 vehicles—2 small SUVs (Ford Escape, Volvo XC40), 4 midsize SUVs (Ford Explorer, Mustang Mach-E, Subaru Ascent, and Tesla Model Y), and one midsize car (Honda Accord)—earned a Good rating. Twenty-nine vehicles received Poor ratings, and the others were rated either Acceptable or Marginal.

In vehicles that earned a Poor rating, the rear dummies typically exhibited a heightened risk of injuries to the head, neck, and chest. In some cases, the back-seat dummy’s head came too close to the front seatback.

IIHS’ testing is an important tool for safety-conscious consumers. By consulting the agency’s crash ratings, prospective car buyers can find out how well cars they might want to purchase protect passengers in the back seat. Hopefully, automakers will respond soon with designs that offer increased protection to back-seat passengers.

In the meantime, back-seat passengers should heed the advice most front-seat passengers have heard (and followed) for years: Buckle up every single trip, whether it’s around the block or across the state.

“All the safety technology in the world is useless if you don’t buckle up. It’s your first line of defense,” says Emily Thomas, manager of auto safety at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.

Safe seating for children and seniors

Mother securing a young child into a car seat.

Photo by len44ik/

Most back-seat passengers are children, including those in car seats and booster seats. That’s as it should be—children are safest in the back seat until they’re big enough for adult seat belts to fit properly, usually when they’re about 4 feet 9 inches tall and weigh at least 80 pounds.

That means starting out in a rear-facing child seat, typically until at least age 2, before moving to a forward-facing restraint and then a booster seat. Children may be at risk of injury or death from an inflating front airbag if they’re placed in the front seat.

And, as explained above, it might be safer for older passengers to sit in the front seat rather than in the rear. That’s because as people age, their bones become weaker. And because the seat belts in most back seats lack pretensioners and load limiters, they could cause people older than 55 to suffer cracked ribs and organ damage in a crash.

This article was excerpted and adapted from the 2023 AAA Car Guide.

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