Not buckling up in the back seat of ride-hailing cars and taxis could be a fatal mistake

Jenni Bergal

THE WASHINGTON POST – When Uber driver Oguzhan Beliren picks up passengers in his Hyundai Sonata, those in the front seat almost always buckle up, and if they don’t, he reminds them.

But that’s not the case in the rear.

“I’d say that 70 to 80 per cent of my passengers don’t put on a seat belt in the back seat,” Beliren said during a ride in Washington last month. “People don’t think they’re required to, and I don’t ask them to do it in back, unless there are kids sitting there or if the weather is bad.”

While most people nowadays make sure children in the rear are in car seats or buckled up, it’s fairly common for adults in the back not to wear seat belts, especially when they’re in taxis and ride-hailing vehicles such as Uber and Lyft, transportation safety officials say.

The consequences can be deadly.

In Portland, Oregon, for example, a ride-hailing passenger was killed last April when a pickup truck crossed a median and hit the SUV in which he was riding in the back seat. He was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected through the windshield.

With the explosive growth of ride-hailing in the United States (US), transportation safety advocates say passengers should get into the habit of wearing their seat belts in back, just as they do in front.

Safety officials and ride-hailing companies are using social media and marketing campaigns to try to make that happen.

“Ride-sharing has changed this issue of buckling up in back,” said Executive Director Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. “People need to think about it when they get in these vehicles. You need to hear that message, whether on your app or from your driver telling you or by public education campaigns.”

The efforts come in the absence of stronger legislative and federal action.

State legislators have made little headway overall when it comes to rear seat belt laws. In 2019, legislatures in eight of the 20 states that don’t require rear-seat adult passengers to buckle up considered bills to do so, but only Alabama’s passed.

“It isn’t easy. There’s the libertarian view that, ‘It’s my car; I’m responsible’,” said Jim Hedlund, a governors safety association consultant. “And it’s not high enough on the priority list, and legislatures are busy.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently requested public comments as it decides what kind of warning system to require for rear seat belts, such as lights and dinging sounds, which are mandatory for front seat belts. But the proposal has been in the works for years.

Meanwhile, social media campaigns have taken the lead.

Last spring, the governors safety group joined Uber and Volvo in a campaign to remind people to buckle up in the back that included blog posts and news releases. Eight states sent out social media messages, Adkins said.

As part of the campaign, during the last two weeks of November, Uber also sent riders in-app seat belt messages that popped up on their phones between the map and their destination. An estimated 10 million riders a week saw the message at least once, said Kristin Smith, an Uber spokeswoman.

“We want to do more than just communicate the importance,” Smith said. “We want to be changing the behaviour.”

Adkins said working with a company such as Uber is more effective for states than just sending out their own messaging.

“They have a reach we don’t have,” he said. “They’ve got a gazillion customers and they reach younger people 18 to 35 who we can’t reach.”

While his group hasn’t evaluated the effectiveness of last year’s campaign with Uber, Adkins said it plans to do so when it teams up with the company again this year.

One such collaboration wasn’t effective.

The North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Programme, which represents the Tar Heel state in the governors safety association, joined Lyft in 2018 in a project called Back Seat Buckle Up. The social marketing campaign to encourage seat belt use targetted Lyft customers in Charlotte. Riders who booked a trip during a two-week period and used a special code could get USD5 off.

The project “flopped,” said Mark Ezzell, the North Carolina programme’s director. There was no marketing budget, he said, and it had logistical problems and didn’t reach the right people.

“We found that there were zero downloads when the campaign was over,” Ezzell said at a national transportation safety conference in April.

Lyft said in an email that it encourages all its riders and drivers to buckle up and that Lyft vehicles are required to have a minimum of five functional seat belts, including the driver’s. The company declined to comment on the North Carolina initiative or rear seat belt use in general.

While nearly 90 per cent of drivers and front-seat passengers overall in the US use their seat belts, federal statistics show, that drops to 76 per cent for rear-seat adult passengers. That can be dangerous.

A 2015 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a non-profit research group funded by auto insurance companies, found that unrestrained passengers in the rear were nearly eight times as likely to suffer a serious injury as those who wore seat belts.

“The safety of the back seat relies on people wearing their seat belts,” said Jessica Jermakian, a senior research engineer at the institute. “When people don’t buckle up, they’re not just putting themselves at risk; they’re putting other people in the vehicle at risk because they become a projectile in a crash.”

In 2018, 803 unbelted rear-seat passengers age 8 and over died in crashes, according to a November report by the governors safety group. More than 400 would have survived had they worn their seat belts.

Transportation safety officials say no national data is kept on injuries or fatalities involving passengers in ride-hailing vehicles or taxis.

But research shows those passengers aren’t buckling up the same as they do in their own cars.

A study of for-hire vehicles in 2017 found that just 28 per cent of taxi passengers in Las Vegas and 26 per cent in San Francisco fastened their seat belts. Eighteen per cent did so in ride-hailing vehicles in Las Vegas and 52 per cent in San Francisco.

And in a 2017 insurance institute telephone survey, only 57 per cent of passengers who typically travel in taxis and ride-hailing vehicles reported always using their seat belt in the rear.

Nineteen states and Washington, DC, have rear seat belt laws that allow police to stop a car and issue a ticket solely for failure to wear a seat belt. Eleven other states have secondary enforcement laws for rear-seat passengers, which means police can issue a ticket for a seat belt violation only if the driver gets pulled over for another reason. (All states require child safety seats for infants and children fitting specific criteria.)

Congress instructed NHTSA in 2012 to start making rules that would require manufacturers to install rear seat belt reminders in passenger vehicles, which may include the lights and beeping sounds that are mandatory when occupants of the front seat are unbuckled.

The agency began working on that task in 2013, but the effort stalled for years. In 2017, two nonprofit traffic safety advocacy groups sued, asking the court to compel the federal agency to comply with the law.

NHTSA issued a proposal seeking public comment last September. In response, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group, wrote in November that it supports rear seat belt reminders, which would provide “significant safety benefits.” The governors safety group and the insurance institute were also among those urging the agency to complete its rulemaking and require a rear seat belt warning system.

An NHTSA spokeswoman said it does not comment on pending litigation.

Highway safety advocates say regardless of what happens at the federal level, states and for-hire vehicle companies need to put more emphasis on buckling up in back.

Uber and Lyft have policies that urge, but do not require, their drivers to encourage every passenger to wear a seat belt.

“There are states where it’s not required by law,” said Kayla Whaling, an Uber spokeswoman. “That’s why we encourage people, regardless of the law.”