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Peril of rear-seat passengers

2013-04-11 13:20

WAY IT SHOULD BE: These seats, in a Land Rover product, have adjustable head restraints and three three-point seat belts. Image: LAND ROVER

MUNICH, Germany - Wearing a seat belt in the UK has been compulsory for 30 years yet South Africans still don’t 'belt up' - especially in the back seat. Now experts are hawking the lack of safety in modern cars.

Consumer watchdogs and the auto industry are agreed: today's cars offer an unprecedented level of safety but it's all useless if seat belts are not used.

Up front, there are air bags head to toe, seat belts tighten automatically before impact and head restraints are designed to prevent whiplash. By comparison, rear seat passengers live dangerously.


Germany's Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil Club (ADAC) - SA's version of the Automobile Association - experts said second and third-row passengers in a typical car have a much lower level of protection. The club's spokesperson said: "Some cars have little or no provision for such occupants and depending on the car model and price range, potentially life-saving safety features cost extra."

In many cases, the seat belt geometry is incorrect. Those occupying the middle position on the rear seat often have only a pelvic belt. On top of that many vehicles lack adjustment for rear seatbelt height, a belt force limiter and a belt tensioner.

All of these measures are designed to ensure that passengers are restrained firmly during a crash.

According to the ADAC, a frontal collision at about 60km/h exerts a kinetic force on passengers equivalent to a ton. Needless to say the injuries this can produce are serious.

ADAC engineers complain that the head resttraints on rear seats are often spaced further away from an occupant's head compared to the front seats. This increases the risk of whiplash.


The most alarming aspect is that most manufacturers do not even offer any front-seat style air bags for rear passengers - even though figures show that they are highly effective in preventing death or serious injury. No automaker's spec sheet features knee or foot-level bags for the rear, either.

German Road Safety Council (DVR) spokesperson Sven Rademacher said: "Whether in the front or back the seat belt is the main lifesaver."

He points out that 20% of the 3648 car occupants killed on German roads in 2010 were not wearing a seat belt. The figures underscore the importance of "belting-up" even for the shortest of car journeys.

In Germany most car passengers seem to have grasped the importance of being restrained during a car trip. According to the Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt), the average compliance stands at 98% for front and 97% for rear passengers.

It is ironic that passengers in the back generally seem to feel safer. Rademacher puts this down to the erroneous assumption that the back of the front seats would cushion any impact and offer a high level of protection to those behind if a head-on collision occurs.

The DVR spokesman also pointed out that only a few automakerr has installed an audible warning signal to remind rear passengers to belt up.


Chief development officer at component supplier TRW, Dirk Schultz, said: "In recent years the safety of drivers and front passengers has been considerably enhanced. This is mainly due to the European car safety performance assessment programme (Euro NCAP)."

The safety bugbears for rear occupants will probably start receiving more attention when Euro NCAP crash tests turn their attention to the risk of those sitting behind the driver, using their familiar test dummies to assess the effects on real people.

One promising development was announced by TRW in 2012 - a prototype roof-mounted air bag for rear passengers.

Despite the obvious shortcomings, those sitting in the back seats can still enhance their safety by ensuring that there are no loose objects left lying on the rear window shelf, the ADAC expert said.

Heavy items in the boot should always be placed low down and secured. It is also a good idea to adjust head restraints to be as close as possible to the occupant's skull.

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