What's the deadliest seat in a car crash? The rear seat, according to statistics compiled by the National Police Agency. The numbers show that the fatality rate (see below) for rear-seat passengers was higher than that of occupants of other seats in traffic accidents that occurred across Japan in 2016.
The agency's analysis found the difference was caused by the low rate of safety belt use in rear seats. Fastening seat belts became mandatory for rear seats in 2008. However, low safety belt use persists amid a widespread but incorrect belief that rear seats are safe. Also, there is little risk of suffering an administrative penalty, such as a fine, for not buckling up in rear seats.
According to the NPA, among a nationwide total of 3,904 fatalities in traffic accidents last year, 1,338 were car occupants at the time of the accident. Of them, 1,004 died in driver's seats while 158 died in rear seats and 155 died in front passenger seats.
The fatality rate for people in rear seats was 0.36 per cent, followed by 0.32 per cent for driver's seats and 0.27 per cent for front passenger seats.
Starting from 2005, the fatality rate for driver's seats and front passenger seats declined as airbags were installed in almost all newly manufactured cars. Since 2009, the fatality rate has been the highest for rear seats, where airbags are rarely installed.
Among rear seat passengers, the fatality rate for those who did not buckle up was as high as 0.64 per cent whereas the rate for those who did was 0.17 per cent, or only about a quarter of those who did not.
In May 2016, a 14-year-old boy died after being ejected from a car during a collision accident at an intersection of a prefectural road in Akoyacho in Yamagata. He was sitting in a rear seat.
It is believed that he had been wearing a safety belt up until shortly before the accident, but was not wearing it at the time of the accident.
"Had he worn a safety belt, his life might have been saved," said a Yamagata prefectural police official.
Enforced in 2008, the revised Road and Traffic Law requires rear seat passengers to wear safety belts. However, administrative penalties are imposed only on expressways. Violators on ordinary roads are subject to no more than police instructions.
According to a survey by the NPA and the Japan Automobile Federation, the safety belt use rate on ordinary roads in 2016 was 98.5 per cent for driver's seats and 94.9 per cent for front passenger seats while the rate for rear seats was 36 per cent.
"A mistaken belief that rear seats are safe is widely accepted, and that could be one of the reasons [for the low safety belt use]," said an official of the Institute for Traffic Accident Research and Data Analysis, a public interest incorporated foundation.
The rate of safety belt use in rear seats is high in the United States and many European countries since even on ordinary roads, failing to buckle up is subject to fines. According to the International Road Traffic and Accident Database, the rate was over 70 per cent in 19 countries - mainly Western ones - among a total of 33 countries surveyed. Japan ranked 24th in the survey.
"The biggest cause for the high fatality rate in rear seats is the low rate of safety belt use. If the rate stagnates as it is, sweeping measures will be necessary, such as imposing administrative penalties against violators even on ordinary roads," said Prof. Kazunori Shidoji of Kyushu University, an expert on transportation issues.
This figure is a percentage of fatalities among all casualties, including those injured, in traffic accidents. The bigger the rate, the higher the probability of death when one is injured in an accident under the relevant circumstances. When tied to seat location, it becomes an index of danger for each seat. Figures for rear seats are calculated without distinguishing between the left and right sides.