Newly licensed teen drivers are important to many families. Parents often count on them to transport younger siblings to after-school activities. Teen drivers also take friends to social events, sports practices, and much more. For these new teen drivers, rear-seat safety is a key responsibility, particularly since the laws are sometimes lax.
“Vehicle safety improvements to the rear seat compartment have not kept pace with front seat area advances, specifically when it comes to seat belt and airbag technology," said Cathy Chase, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates).
Third-row safety is of even greater concern. “The continuing trend of SUVs having third-row seats, which are subject only to limited safety requirements, leaves third-row passengers particularly vulnerable in the event of a rear-end collision," Chase said.
Vulnerable Rear Seat Passengers
Most rear-seat passengers are younger, regardless of who is driving. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia collaborated in a study and found that 56% of rear-seat passengers were 12 years of age or younger and 19% were 13 to 19 years of age.
Teen drivers may overlook rear seat safety, sometimes with dire consequences to these younger occupants.
“Seat belt use can determine whether a person survives or dies in a crash," said Chase. "More than half of rear seat passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2017 were unrestrained.” In fact, the risk of death triples for rear-seat passengers who are not restrained. The above IIHS study calculates that the risk of serious injury increases eight-fold.
Teen drivers must be especially alert because audible and visual rear seat belt warning systems have been slow to arrive. Chase noted that Congress told the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to make a final ruling on rear seat belt reminders by 2015, but the organization only started making changes to the rules late last year. In the meantime, the IIHS does recommend an audible warning if a rear seat belt is unfastened when the vehicle is in motion.
Child Safety Seat Laws
State laws vary regarding child safety seats and boosters. For example, in California, a child under two years of age must ride in a rear-facing car seat. A front-facing car seat is acceptable once the child weighs 40 pounds or is at least 40 inches tall, and a child under the age of eight must be secured in a car seat or booster seat unless the child is at least 4'9" tall.
As of January 1, 2020, there are new rear seat safety laws in the state of Washington. Children under two years of age must ride in a rear-facing car seat. Children two to four years old must ride in a front-facing child harness seat. Washington also requires the use of a booster seat once a child is at least five years old but shorter than 4’9” tall. As a result, most children in the state will need a booster seat until they are about 10 to 12 years of age.
Take an online driver’s education course to learn about the specific laws in your state.
Future Rear Seat Protections
Modern vehicles often include side curtain airbags that protect rear-seat passengers, but other, less commonplace safety features can help. Rear seat passengers sometimes suffer chest injuries from seat belt force, and inflatable seat belts help by spreading out forces across the upper body. Frontal airbags that deploy from the roof can enhance head protection. Force limiters are small rods added to seat belt retractors. In an accident, some of the seat belt spools out, dissipating forces.
Until rear-seat passengers enjoy the same protections as those in the front seats, it’s important for teen drivers to be careful.
”We urge state legislatures, Congress, and the U.S. DOT to move rear seat safety to the front of their roadway safety priorities," said Chase.