Many experts believe Princess Diana might be alive today if she'd been wearing a seat belt while riding in the back seat of a Mercedes that crashed in August 1997 in Paris.
Years after that wreck, only two states -- Minnesota and Texas -- have laws requiring that all back-seat passengers buckle up, including those over age 18. Many other states have laws for riders under age 18, but those don’t apply to adults riding in the back seat of a car.
In 2009, more than 2,000 back-seat passengers died in U.S. traffic crashes because they weren't wearing seat belts, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That represents about 9 percent of all traffic deaths involving vehicle passengers that year. More than one-fourth of those passengers were children under age 13.
Survey shows lax buckle-up attitude
Despite the overwhelming amount of research that indicates wearing a seat belt in the back seat saves lives, a February 2011 survey punctuates the fact that most Americans still refuse to buckle up in the back. Of course, that lack of attention to safety can lead to tragic consequences -- and to a huge hit to drivers' auto insurance premiums.
LeaseTrader.com, a car leasing marketplace, polled more than 2,000 men and women throughout the country, including states with and without rear-seat restraint laws. Adults questioned in the poll said they rode in the back seat of a vehicle at least 25 times in 2010.
Among passengers in states that don't have laws mandating that they buckle up in the back seat, men wore their seat belts just 10 percent of the time, according to the LeaseTrader.com survey. For women, it was 16 percent. However, those same people said they buckled up in the front seat about 75 percent of the time.
Passengers in states that require back-seat passengers to buckle up apparently aren't fazed by those laws. Among back-seat passengers in states that have some form of rear-seat restraint laws (such as California, Minnesota, Texas and Washington), men said they wore a seat belt just 14 percent of the time. The figure was 18 percent for women.
“What’s most disturbing is that in this day and age of always-on news coverage and awareness, there is no excuse why more people aren’t wearing seat belts in all parts of the vehicle,” says Sergio Stiberman, founder and CEO of LeaseTrader.com.
Forgetfulness drives lack of back-seat buckling
So, why don't back-seat passengers use seat belts? The No. 1 reason: Forgetfulness. That was cited by 63 percent of the people questioned in the LeaseTrader.com poll. Thirteen percent thought it was unnecessary, and 9 percent felt safe without buckling up in the back seat.
Meanwhile, one-fourth of those polled were less likely to wear a seat belt in the back seat of a large vehicle. “They incorrectly assume they’re safer in the back,” Stiberman says.
The survey found three-fourths of rear-seat passengers aren’t reminded by drivers to buckle up. But experts say there's no excuse for not buckling up, even if your state doesn’t have a seat belt law for back-seat passengers.
“No matter what seat you’re in, the numbers don’t lie. Seat belts can save lives,” Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Researchers from the University at Buffalo's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences simulated head-on crashes in 2009 and found the injuries most likely to be sustained by unbelted passengers in the back seat are severe head and chest trauma caused by being slammed into the seat in front of them.
In a side-impact collision on the driver's side of a car, the tests showed an unbelted back-seat passenger on the driver's side likely would suffer a severe or fatal injury, but the belted driver had a reduced risk for the same type of injury.
Not all seat belt laws are created equal
Seat belt laws are divided into two categories: primary and secondary.
• Primary seat belt laws allow a cop to ticket a driver for not wearing a seat belt; no other traffic offense needs to occur for a cop to pull over the driver.
• Under secondary seat belt laws, a cop may issue a ticket for not wearing a seat belt only when another traffic violation has occurred, such as speeding.
Laws vary greatly from state to state, depending on the age of the rider and in what seat he or she is sitting.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, 31 states and the District of Columbia have primary seat belt laws that include the back seat. Eighteen other have secondary seat belt laws that cover the back seat but apply only to passengers up to age 18.
New Hampshire has enacted neither a primary nor a secondary seat belt law for adults, although the state does have a primary seat belt law that covers drivers and passengers under age 18.