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The U.S. needs to move forward on rear-seat safety belts

Washington Post Car Crash Image
Safety advocates have sued the U.S. Department of Transportation to force action on a standard that would require automakers to include seat belt reminders for rear-seat passengers. Congress said the rule was supposed to have been issued by October 2015. In this photo, emergency personnel attend to a fatal crash Aug. 4, 2015, in the Boyds area of Montgomery County. A Clarksburg woman died after she was thrown from a vehicle in the crash. (Montgomery County Fire Department)
While U.S. automakers have been outdoing themselves by stuffing more and more high-tech gadgets into vehicles, few have installed a simple device that might save lives: a built-in reminder for back-seat passengers to wear their seat belts.
The federal government is apparently in no rush to require automakers to do so, either.
Six years have gone by since Congress passed a law calling on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to develop standards for mandatory rear-seat safety belt reminders, yet NHTSA has failed to act. A spokeswoman for NHTSA said in an email Monday that the agency expects to take the first step toward writing the rules this October, by issuing a formal public notice of its rulemaking intent. No explanation for why it’s taken this long already.
Janette Fennell, president and founder of Kids and, said she’s seen this show before.
Her organization had to sue the federal government to force action on better standards for visibility behind vehicles. There, too, Congress had decreed new standards using better design and technology in new vehicles, such as rearview cameras, to protect people, especially children, from being run over when the vehicles are backing up. Congress passed a law in 2008 ordering such steps, but the rule wasn’t issued until 2014 — after Kids and Cars and the parents of children who were killed in such accidents took legal action.
The irony is that the auto industry resisted rearview cameras, Fennell said — and now features them in ads because they’re popular with the public. After seeing a similar delay on seat belt reminders for back-seat passengers, her group teamed last August with the Center for Auto Safety to sue the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“They just kept dragging their feet,” Fennell said Monday. She said the federal agency seems more focused on eliminating regulations than on writing new ones, including those mandated by Congress. “They just don’t seem shy about missing deadlines or just ignoring them.”
As part of a series on examining how police analyze fatal crashes, I saw firsthand the terrible consequences when a back-seat passenger is not wearing a safety belt. In this case,  a woman died when two cars collided head-on on a suburban road when each was traveling at a speed of less than 40 mph.
“The cause of the crash is the distracted driving. But the cause of the death is the lack of seat belts,” said Capt. Tom Didone, director of the Montgomery County Police Department’s Traffic Division.
The National Safety Council says that more than 1,000 back-seat passengers died in 2016. Of those, more than 53 percent were not wearing seat belts. Safety advocates say some relatively simple measures could reduce the number of traffic deaths and raise compliance with seat belt laws.
One step would be to expand the number of states that allow police to pull over vehicles and write a ticket if they see a seat belt violation, a practice known as primary enforcement. All states have some form of laws requiring mandatory seat belt use, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. (New Hampshire’s law applies only to children.)
But only 34 states, including Maryland, and the District of Columbia have primary enforcement for seat belt laws, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety says. The group says hundreds of lives could be saved if every state allowed primary enforcement for seat belt laws, regardless of whether the occupants are in front or back seats. Maryland, for example, allows primary enforcement for failure to use a seat belt in the front seat of a vehicle.  But violation of the rear-seat passenger seat belt requirement — which applies to people who are 16 and older — is a secondary offense.
Another step would be a federal mandate to install alarms or buzzers that sound when a back-seat passenger isn’t wearing a seat belt. Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in an email that there are “technical challenges” to installing alarms for rear-seat passengers,  in part because people use the back seat of their vehicles to carry more than people. He said that if NHTSA moves forward on the rule, however, the industry would urge it to use the standards already adopted in Europe.
These systems have been standard for front-seat vehicles since 1974  in the United States — after the government gave up on the idea of using ignition interlocks to enforce seat belt rules. At the time, however, no more than 15 percent of the public was using seat belts, which are still far and away the most effective safety device in a vehicle.
“There should be an outcry on this,” Fennell said.
She’s right — but then we seem to have become accustomed to the death toll on our roads. Thousands of students left their classrooms demanding stricter gun control after a horrific school shooting killed 17 young people. How many young people have died in car crashes since the shooting occurred? How many people might still be alive if the government and the automotive industry had acted in the past decade or so to install seat belt alerts that sounded until everyone in the vehicle was buckled up?
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