Hundreds of Americans are killed and thousands injured each year because unbelted back-seat passengers become human projectiles in frontal collisions, a study by the University of Buffalo and the Center for Transportation Injury Research says.
An unbelted passenger seated behind the driver turns into a "backseat bullet" that increases death risks for the driver and passenger, according to Dietrich Jehle, an emergency medicine professor at the university and a researcher for the study.
"The odds of death were almost three times higher for the unbelted passenger and two times higher for the driver under those circumstances," Jehle said.
The study concludes that more than 800 lives could be saved annually and 65,000 injuries prevented if 95 percent of rear-seat occupants used belts.
In analyzing 300,000 fatal crashes from seven years, researchers found that 33 percent of rear-seat occupants older than 16 and 62 percent younger than 16 were belted.
Crash tests conducted with instrumented dummies at the center's Buffalo research facility showed that when a frontal crash propels an unbelted rear passenger into the driver, the forces on the driver's head and chest increase four times.
"Our hope is to get all people to wear seat belts in the rear seat," Jehle said. "If people start to get a mindset that the unbelted person behind me is trying to kill me, they would have a different perspective."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 79 percent of front-seat occupants buckle up, but the agency does not measure rear-seat restraint use among all motorists, only in fatal accidents.
NHTSA data from 2002 show that 63 percent of rear-seat passengers killed in cars were unbelted, versus 47 percent of front-seat occupants, indicating fewer rear-seat occupants use belts.
NHTSA is pushing states to adopt strong seat-belt laws that cover all occupants, but Washington is the only one that requires everyone be belted regardless of age or where they're seated.
Other states have a hodgepodge of rules based on occupant age.
Illinois requires that front-seat occupants and all occupants younger than 17 be restrained. If the driver is younger than 18, all occupants younger than that must be restrained.
Indiana also requires belts for front-seat occupants, but in other seats the law applies only to children 12 and younger.
Wisconsin's belt law applies to front seats and rear seat positions that have a shoulder belt. Wisconsin has a secondary law, which means police can ticket the unbelted only if they are stopped for another violation.
Twenty-one states, including Illinois, have primary belt laws that allow police to ticket motorists for not buckling up. The fines are as low as $10 (Illinois' is $25). All states have restraint laws for children based on their age and size.
(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.