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Washington — Cars are safer than they've ever been, but with improvements focused largely on front-seat passengers, safety groups in Washington say those in the backseat are being left behind.  

Air bags and devices like seat belts that automatically tighten in crashes have reduced the likelihood of serious injury or death. But the Arlington, Va.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which represents the insurance industry, says automakers need to add more of the life-saving technology to rear seats. 

Complicating matters further, the use of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft in major cities like Detroit is on the rise, and studies show back-seat passengers are less likely to buckle up in hired vehicles than they are in privately owned cars. 

Hoping to raise awareness about the problem, the Insurance Institute is developing new crash-testing to demonstrate safety concerns raised after analyzing data from 117 crashes in which belted rear-seat occupants age 6 or older were killed or seriously injured in front-end crashes.

The IIHS found a third of those passengers suffered chest injuries. The organization said nine of the injured passengers and 18 of those who were killed suffered head injuries.

Jessica Jermakian, senior research engineer for IIHS, said carmakers have focused so intently on improving front seat belts and air bags that rear-seat passenger safety has not kept pace. 

"Historically, it's always been the case that the rear seat has been safer," she said. "But as we make improvements to front seats, rear seats got less safe. It's not like something bad is happening there. It's just that front seats have gotten much safer." 

Among the improvements to front-seat safety in recent years are crash tensioners, which cause belts to tighten around occupants immediately after a crash occurs. Force limiters allow some of the seat belt's webbing to spool out to reduce force and prevent chest injuries. Front-seat belts have also been designed in recent years to work in coordination with air bags, which are less likely to be present in rear seats.

Jermakian noted that automakers face obstacles in protecting rear-seat passengers that do not exist in front seats. 

"The rear-seat environment is very different from the front seat from a design perspective," she said. "In the front seat, there always has to be a driver who is at least 16 years old who needs to focus on driving. In the back seat, you can have passengers of any age or any size. Some people put cargo or pets back there." 

Making matters worse, she said, passengers are less likely to buckle up in a hired vehicle like the ones that ordered through Uber and Lyft. 

"People who are unbuckled are 8% more likely to be injured than passengers who are buckled," she said. "Seat belt use has always lagged in rear seats... Buckling up is an important step in achieving any protection from your vehicle."  

According to a study of seat belt use conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this year, only three-quarters of rear-seat passengers buckled up, compared to 90% of front-seat occupants.

Rear seat-belt use was higher among female passengers (77%) than male passengers (74%), according to the study. It was highest among passengers age 8 to 15 (83%), compared to 72% for passengers age 16-24; 70% for ages 25-69; and 72% for ages 70 and older. White back-seat passengers were more likely 26% more likely to buckle up than African-American occupants. 

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based consumer advocacy nonprofit, said automakers should do more because passengers often assume rear seats are safer.

"In reality in a crash, rear-seat passengers are often at greater risk than front-seat passengers," he said. "Over the past few decades the front seat has seen significant safety improvements, including air bags and seat belt reminders. In an era with rideshare vehicles containing far more backseat passengers than ever before, the time to upgrade safety in the back of our cars is finally here." 

Levine said NHTSA has failed to comply with a 2012 law calling on the agency to develop a rule that required automakers to install rear seat-belt warning lights in new cars.

"Moreover, the standard for seat-back strength has not been updated in over 50 years, despite significant evidence that seat backs regularly collapse during rear-end crashes, injuring and killing passengers," he said.

Michigan's seat belt law requires all drivers and front-seat passengers to be buckled up, but only passengers up to age 15 years old are required to be belted in the backseat.

Automakers have been required to make front air bags standard in all passenger cars since 1998. The mandate was extended to include all SUVs, pickups and vans in 1999. There is no such mandate for side or curtain air bags, which are designed to protect passengers' torsos and heads from injuries, although they are sometimes offered as optional equipment on newer cars. 

The Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit representing highway safety offices, announced Monday it is reviving a public awareness campaign with Uber to promote increased rear seat belt use as the summer holiday travel season begins.

"People tend to think 'Oh, I'm just in an Uber' or 'It's just a short trip,'" said Madison Forker, communications manager for the Governors Highway Safety Association. "We need to reinforce that just because you're in Uber, you're not safe. You need to be buckling up every time." 

Jermakian, the IIHS senior research engineer, said it ultimately will be up to automakers to make improvements.

"We're not automakers," she said. "We're not vehicle designers. It's not our job to tell them how to fix the problem, but rather to provide a demonstration that illustrates the problems and have automakers come back to us with fixes." 

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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