An expansion of New York's seat belt law that goes into effect Nov. 1 requires back seat passengers to buckle up, something many supporters say is needed, citing studies showing a higher risk of injury or deaths of unbelted back seat passengers.
The new law requires everyone 16 years of age or older to wear a safety belt, whether in the front or back seat. Children under 16 are already required to use safety belts in the rear seat. The law pertains to passengers not only in personal vehicles, but also those in taxis and ride-shares like Uber and Lyft. Violators face fines and three driver violation points.
"Some of the most significant injuries that we see in our emergency department are related to motor vehicle crashes," said Christine Nastasi, a registered nurse who is the pediatric trauma coordinator at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.
"A third of all motor vehicle deaths [involve riders who] are still not buckled. Teens are at the greatest risk of not buckling up," Nastasi said. "The unique thing about the New York law: it applies to ride shares and taxis. So it’s really great every one is required to buckle up no matter who they are driving with."
Nastasi noted that New York was the first state in the nation — in 1984 — to require front seat occupants to wear seat belts. With the expansion of the law, which was signed in August, she said, New York was "modernizing and reflecting the needs of our population."
Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA Northeast, said that New York was the 31st state to mandate wearing safety belts in the rear seat. He said statistics from numerous studies showed risks to unbelted back seat passengers.
"From 2010 to 2019 [about] 300 people were killed, age 16 and over, in the back seat without seat belts and more than 25,000 were injured" statewide, Sinclair said, citing statistics from the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research. In Nassau County, 1,675 unbelted back seat passengers ages 16 and up were killed or injured during the period, while in Suffolk County, 1,099 were killed or injured. He said the statistics included a total of 21 deaths in each county for that period.
According to the national Governors Highway Safety Association's 2015 report "Unbuckled in Back: An Overlooked Issue in Occupant Protection": "In 2013, 883 unbelted rear seat passenger vehicle occupants age 8 and older died in traffic crashes in the United States. More than 400 of these occupants would have survived if they had worn their seat belts."
Sinclair said, "We found that if you're not wearing a seat belt in the back seat, you're twice as likely to be killed and twice as likely to kill the person in the front seat," citing the "back seat bullet effect." He added that an unbelted rear seat passenger was also eight times as likely to be seriously injured.
"There’s this wrong idea that if you’re in the back seat you're safe," Sinclair said. "The safest rear seat is the center seat, that’s if you’re wearing a seat belt. All bets are off if you do not have that seat belt on."
Noting technological advances, such as air bags, for front seat passengers and the fact that front seat occupants "are more compliant" about wearing seat belts, Nastasi said, "It is now significantly more dangerous to be in the back seat."
The GHSA said in its 2015 report: "Rear seats are safer than front seats in most crashes. The public knows this, perhaps because of the many messages that children should sit in rear seats. But front seats have become safer for adults in recent model year cars, due to improved air bags and front seat belt systems, while rear seats have not." The report added: "In any seat, adults are considerably safer when belted."