Role of rear seat belts in accident safety


Snapshot: Since wearing rear seat belts in India is not mandatory, thousands of people lose their lives every year. Including possibly former BJP Minister Gopinath Munde

It was indeed a tragic incident, when Gopinath Munde of BJP lost his life in what seemed to be a totally avoidable accident in the early hours of June 3rd, 2014. Faulty design of an intersection, poor visibility from opposing sides, lax traffic supervision, indiscipline on the road and perhaps most importantly, lack of awareness about seat belt functioning led to a tragic accident which resulted in the loss of the life of a promising leader, tipped to be the future Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

While vehicles on our roads have been growing at an alarming pace, unfortunately infrastructure and our antiquated traffic laws haven’t. Worse, with so many cars on the roads (and we are concentrating on 4-wheelers) safety considerations have (mostly) been thrown out of the window. So while we may have many international models adorning our roads, it is a pitiable fact that most cars and SUVs, especially in the lower segment are not crash test certified.

There is something known as a New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) globally which has been adapted by different countries to suit their own peculiar requirements. The United States pioneered a crash-testing program under the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which went on to become the EuroNCAP. Of course, Australia and New Zealand have their own version called the ANCAP, Latin American countries the LatinNCAP, the Asean NCAP in ASEAN member countries (India is a part of ASEAN but not in this area) and China the C-NCAP. India has a green banana.

Not to say that the Government of India is not aware of this. Work has earnestly started under the National Automotive Testing, Infrastructure and R&D Project (NATRiP), which are setting up crash testing centers. In fact the one coming up in Sriperumbudur, on the outskirts of Chennai is a 36 degree crash testing centre, amongst the very few in the world. Once all the NATRiP centers are up and functional, the Government, which is now working on BharatNCAP, wants to implement these crash worthiness norms.

Car manufacturers themselves do not want to put in passive safety measures like airbags, anti-lock braking etc. on their vehicles citing ‘cost’ as a major factor. Although they happily increase prices every couple of months blaming the depreciating rupee and rising cost of raw materials, yet nobody thinks of adding safety and then increasing cost. Airbags are still few and far between on domestic cars and side airbags are virtually unheard of. One high-ranking official from a car manufacturer once told me “In India speeds are too low for the airbag to be of any use.” Perhaps he was not aware that airbags can save lives at even a lowly 25 kmph, as data from several international research bodies’ show. The will is simply not there.

Part of the blame also lies with our car buying public. Most people do not view safety features as important enough for consideration. They would rather have a fancier stereo then an airbag, which could potentially save lives. One of the most important things here is education and the Government in our country should focus on the effectiveness of people wearing seatbelts. Yes, even in the rear seats. According to the post-mortem done on Gopinath Munde, death occurred due to shock and the C1-C2 vertebrae breaking and cutting off oxygen supply to the brain. This is a typical whiplash injury and could have easily been prevented if he was wearing a seatbelt. Point to be noted is that both his driver and personal secretary (PS) were fine because they were wearing one.  Many of us would also recall that in September 2012, famous satirist Jaspal Bhatti also lost his life in a car accident. Incidentally, he was also sitting in the rear seat and had not fastened his seat belt. At that time, Dr. M. C. Misra, chief of AIIMS trauma centre in Delhi, said there have been cases where the rear seat occupants who fastened their seat belts were saved. "But a child seated between them went flying out of the front of the car. Without seat belts in the rear seats, in an accident, the heads of the passengers may collide, leading to grievous injuries," he said.

The moral of the story is very clear: Seatbelts save lives. If one sees the SX4 that Gopinath Munde was travelling in, then there is hardly a dent on the car. I have personally never seen any politician in our country strap up – whether in the front or the rear. But everyone should do it – it saves lives. Unfortunately, in India, it is not even required by law to wear a seatbelt at the back, which is in variance to all developed countries in the world, where it is mandated by law.

What we immediately require is a law mandating the wearing of rear seat belts. We also need immediate laws on airbags and sidebags. And here is our take: please belt up, no matter what position you are sitting in – front or rear, side or middle. It could save your life.