As Millions Take to the Roads, Too Many Adults are Unbuckled in Back Seats

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News Releases

November 23, 2015

Contact: Kara Macek,
202-789-0942 x140

As Millions Take to the Roads, Too Many Adults are Unbuckled in Back Seats

New Report Details Preventable Roadway Tragedies

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Each year, hundreds of unbelted adults in the rear seats of passenger vehicles are killed – and hundreds more seriously injured – in crashes. In 2013, there were 883 unrestrained rear seat passenger fatalities age 8 and above; more than 400 of these people may be alive today if they had simply buckled up. Rear seat passengers are three times more likely to die in a crash if they are unbuckled. Shockingly, 32 states lack strong rear seat belt laws.

Today, the Governors Highway Safety Association released Unbuckled in Back: An Overlooked Issue in Occupant Protection. This report – the latest in a series of “Spotlights on Highway Safety” – explores adult rear seat belt use rates, state laws and enforcement, and public education efforts and makes recommendations on how states can save lives by increasing rear seat belt use by adults. The report was authored by Dr. James Hedlund of Highway Safety North, a former senior official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

As AAA projects nearly 42 million Americans will drive at least 50 miles from home during the Thanksgiving holiday and the National Safety Council anticipates more than 400 traffic fatalities during this time frame, the message could not be timelier.

According to Dr. Hedlund, “Families traveling together at the holidays often means adults sitting in rear seats, where they may not be accustomed to buckling up in the same way they are when the get in the driver’s seat. It’s important to remind folks that seat belts are there to protect them – in both the front and back seats.”

The recent proliferation of ride sharing services and the high profile traffic deaths of CBS News’ Bob Simon and John and Alecia Nash of A Beautiful Mind fame – none of whom were wearing seat belts in the back seat – provide further impetus to examine this issue.

“Too many adults mistakenly believe that they are somehow magically protected in the back seat when they get into a for-hire vehicle,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins.

“Convincing adults to buckle up, every trip, in every seat will require a concerted effort among lawmakers and highway safety professionals, but the lives saved will be well worth it.”

Nationally, belt use by adult rear seat passengers is only 78%, compared to 87% for the front seat, based on the latest observational data. The discrepancy is even more pronounced in motor vehicle crashes involving a fatality: 60% rear belt use, versus 74% in the front.

State laws and enforcement influence passengers’ decisions to buckle up. Observed belt use in rear seats is higher in states that require their use than in states that don’t (83% compared to 74%). Fatality data confirms this finding: use rates are 65% in states with a primary law (allowing law enforcement to issue tickets solely for the belt use violation), compared with 53% in states with a secondary law and 54% in states without any rear belt use law.

Despite persistent national and state efforts to boost seat belt use by drivers and front seat passengers, GHSA’s analysis found no concerted campaigns explicitly targeting rear seat belt use by adults.

Increasing rear seat belt use is a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to save lives. To accomplish this, the GHSA report makes five key recommendations for states:

  • Enact a primary enforcement rear seat belt law in the 32 states that do not have one
  • Enforce rear seat belt laws
  • Educate the public about the importance of buckling up in the back seat
  • Encourage belt use in taxis and ridesharing services
  • Boost front seat belt use: rear seat passengers are far more likely to buckle up when the driver is belted

For a list of current state seat belt laws, visit

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About GHSA
The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) is a nonprofit association representing the highway safety offices of states, territories, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. GHSA provides leadership and representation for the states and territories to improve traffic safety, influence national policy, enhance program management and promote best practices. Its members are appointed by their Governors to administer federal and state highway safety funds and implement state highway safety plans. Contact GHSA at 202-789-0942 or visit Find us on Facebook at or follow us on Twitter at @GHSAHQ.