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Unbuckled Back Seat Riders Deadly to Those in Front

Study: Front passengers five times likelier to die in a crash if those behind them aren't belted

THURSDAY, Jan. 3, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- When passengers in the back seat don't buckle up, the result can be deadly -- not only for them but for those up front.

Japanese researchers say when rear-seat passengers are unbelted, the risk of dying in a serious crash for those in the front seats jumps fivefold, because of the flying bodies that strike their seats from behind. Buckling up rear riders could cut the number of front seat fatalities by about 80 percent, their study shows. A report on the findings appears as a research letter in the Jan. 5 issue of The Lancet.

But one car safety expert calls the paper's conclusions "highly exaggerated" and probably inapplicable to America's roadways. Lawrence Schneider, of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor, says in this country rear passengers are present in only a small fraction of fatal car crashes. So while belting them is a good idea for their own safety, it won't make much of a dent in front seat safety, Schneider says.

Ironically, Schneider says, the risk to drivers and those next to them from ballistic rear-seat occupants is greatest when those up front are strapped in, because the impact of the second body loads their chest with more force against the seat belt.

In the latest study, a team led by Masao Ichikawa of the University of Tokyo and colleagues compared deaths and serious injuries among front- and rear-seat occupants involved in 100,000 car-to-car crashes in Japan between 1995 and 1999. In all of the accidents, at least two passengers were riding in the rear seat, and all of the car occupants were injured.

Front passengers who wore belts were five times more likely to die in a crash if their rear passengers weren't restrained, Ichikawa's group found, and their combined risk of death or serious injury doubled. Deaths were much more common when the accidents occurred head-on, though side impact collisions also raised the risk of fatal injuries.

"Our findings provide a basis for making rear seatbelt use compulsory," the authors write. "Most deaths and severe injuries of front-seat occupants of cars would potentially be averted by rear seatbelt use."

Driver seat belt use in the United States hit 73 percent last year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Every state save New Hampshire has a belt law for adult front seat occupants.

But only 13 states and the District of Columbia have extended their seat belt laws to cover all rear seat riders, the road safety group says. "Not enough people in all positions [in the car] wear their seat belts," says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the organization.

Elly Martin, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), says raising the number of states with mandatory rear seat belt laws could save lives, especially among young children and teens, who are most likely to ride in back. "We'd always like to see more restraint legislation passed at the state level," says Martin, who notes that NHTSA has no jurisdiction over state and local traffic laws.

What to Do: For more information about seat belt use, try the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And for more on road safety, check out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

SOURCES: Interviews with Lawrence Schneider, Ph.D., senior research scientist, head, biosciences division, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Ann Arbor, Elly Martin, spokeswoman, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C., and Russ Rader, spokesman, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va.; Jan. 5, 2002 The Lancet
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