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Are seatbelts failing Tennessee's most vulnerable passengers?

Tennessee law says that your kids need to sit in your vehicle's rear seat until they're at least nine years old. This is because the rear seat has long been the safest place during crashes. But it's possible that the rear seat may no longer be the safest place for all passengers.

According to The New York Times, recent advances in seatbelt technology have made the front seats safer than the rear seat for some passengers. Young children are still safer in the rear, but people over the age of 55 should sit in the front of vehicles with newer seatbelts.

The front seats are catching up

As the Times reports, the issue is not that the rear seat has become any more dangerous. Instead, the front seats have simply become safer--thanks to new seatbelts that get ready for crashes and loosen up as needed to prevent injuries. These newer seatbelts use load limiters to reduce the strain they put on passengers. In turn, passengers suffer fewer serious chest, abdominal or spinal injuries.

Rear seatbelts are falling behind

If the newer seatbelts with load limiters are so much safer than front seats belt systems used to be, why aren't the newer seatbelts also used in the rear seat? The Times says there are two main reasons:

  • They cost more: Automakers may struggle to convince buyers to pay extra for the technology when the rear seats often go unoccupied.
  • The rear seat is still safer: Usually the rear seat is still safer than the front, even when the rear seat has the older seatbelts, and seatbelts that loosen (i.e., the new technology seatbelts) may allow passengers' heads to travel too far forward (keeping in mind the rear seats don't have airbags).

But this means rear-seat passengers may still have to deal with seatbelt injuries that automakers know how to prevent.

Rear-seat crash tests are coming

As people learn about the differences between standard seatbelts and seatbelts with load limiters, automakers will likely face extra pressure to upgrade the seatbelts in their rear seats. The Times reports that several models already use pretensioners and load limiters. And some people in the insurance industry hope to standardize rear-seat crash tests by 2022. These tests could lead to safety ratings that would put car makers under even more pressure to upgrade.

When should you sit in the front?

As we discussed in an earlier post on seatbelts for kids, Tennessee law says that children need to stay in the rear seat until they're eight years old. The Highway Safety Office also recommends that children stay in the back seat until they're at least 12 years old and 4 feet 9 inches or taller. However, after your child is old and tall enough to ride in the front seat, newer seatbelts could reduce the risk of certain injuries. The Times says that anyone over the age of 55 should ride in the front seats of vehicles with newer seatbelts.

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