Is the rear seat really the safest place in a car? Think again

Remember Princess Diana? She was in the rear seat of a Mercedes S280 without a seat belt when it crashed. She died, but her bodyguard in the front passenger seat survived. This perhaps is the most famous incident of rear-seat fatalities in an accident. In India, we run a very high risk of death or serious injury when seated in the rear seat.

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A few months ago another case in New Delhi made headlines. A pregnant lady seated in the rear seat of a cab was killed when the car was struck by a speeding BMW. Remember comedian Jaspal Bhatti? He was in the rear seat and died in a car crash as he was not wearing a belt, while the front seat occupants survived. A friend travelling in the rear seat of a Tata Safari that hit a bus suffered severe eye injury, while the front seat occupants were belted in and unharmed. There are plenty more examples of rear-seat fatalities and injuries, all of which could have been prevented, but in India that’s next to impossible now. Also read: Airbags and ABS are they worth the extra cost?

Here’s why:

No law for rear seat safety

There is no law that mandates rear-seat safety in India at the moment. In 1994 it was made mandatory for all cars to be equipped with front seat belts. But it wasn’t until 2002 that belts for all forward-facing rows was made mandatory for passenger cars. Still, the law only enforces use of the front seat belts by driver and passenger, not the rear seats.

No law for child seats

There is no law in India that governs how children are transported in the car. Although car manufacturers stick warning labels in cars about the risk of carrying children in the front seat because of air bag deployment, not many manufacturers in India provide things like Isofix child safety belt points – a mandatory feature of cars in Europe and the US – which allows the attachment of a separate child seat. In the US, one cannot even take a child home from the hospital after it’s born unless you have a child seat in your car. In India, no such law exists and it is common to see children jumping around in a moving car unrestrained or even mothers in the front passenger seat with children on their laps.

Rear seats are low priority

Carmakers are governed by costs and adding safety equipment to cars is a huge cost, which in a cost-conscious country like India would hurt sales. It’s only in the last few years that the focus on safety has increased. Most offer airbags and seat belts with pre-tensioners only for the front seats. Only some carmakers now offer six-airbags (side and curtain airbags included). Curtain airbags offer some safety to rear-seat passengers as well in a roll-over or side impact. Not all cars offer rear-seat headrests – a crucial feature in preventing neck injuries due to whiplash in the event of a collision from the rear. Also read: Can you retrofit safety features in your car?

Why wait for it to become law? Here’s what you can do to ensure you and your family are safe in a car at all times.

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Photo: Jump seats in the boot are the most unsafe place in the vehicle

How to stay safe in the rear seats

Belt up

At the risk of looking silly, it makes sense to ask all occupants in the car to wear their seat belts in the car at all times. The earlier Hyundai i20 Asta that came with six airbags had seat belt warnings for all seats. Hyundai too has overlooked this in the updated i20, which focuses mainly on front seat occupant safety.

Keep head rests in place

Many people tend to remove the headrests from the rear seats citing poor rear visibility while reversing as a major factor. But the rear-seat headrests perform a crucial safety function of preventing whip-lash injury in the event of a car hitting you from behind. Also read: How to control your vehicle if your tyre bursts

Don’t keep loose items on the parcel shelf

Keeping luggage unrestrained on the parcel shelf in cars can be highly unsafe. If you brake hard or hit something, things can fly off the rear parcel shelf at high velocity and become deadly projectiles in the car. Even something as inconspicuous as a water bottle on the shelf can fly and cause injuries in the event of hard braking or a crash. Also read: Do we need safer cars or better road sense?

Avoid hard objects behind front seat

Avoid placing hard objects behind the front seats such as coat hangers or multi-pocket bags that strap on to the seat filled with hard objects such as tools or umbrellas. If a person in the rear seat is sitting without a belt, he or she is likely to slam against these things, which can cause severe injuries. Crashing into the rear of the front seat at speed is like hitting a brick wall for rear passengers.

Use a child seat for children

If you are carrying children below the age of four in the car, use a car child seat strapped into the rear seat. These seats can be bought at any children’s store and come with their own seat belts and attachment devices that ensure the child is safe in the car. Using a child seat will also condition the child to observe safety in the car at all times as well. For young infants, you get carry-cots that are rear-facing, which are a lot safer than carrying infants in your arms. Also read: Petrol hatchbacks with ABS, EBD and airbags

Remember, even though it is not yet a law in India, it is better to remain safe than sorry. Follow these simple rules and enjoy trouble-free, safe motoring. Share any thoughts you have on rear-seat occupant safety with the CarToq community.