For decades it was a given that the back seat of a car is the safest place in a crash. But that’s no longer certain, as advances in seatbelt technology up front have been slow to jump to the back seat.

Safety researchers now have new recommendations about what to buy and where to sit, highlighting vehicles whose rear seats have the kind of sophisticated seatbelts that have protected front-seat riders for roughly a decade.

Those belts tighten up when sensors detect a crash is imminent. They also can loosen a bit if the occupant is pressing against the belt so hard that the belt itself might cause an injury.

If belts with this better technology aren’t available in the back seat, people 55 and older should sit in the front of newer vehicles with those more sophisticated belts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Researchers say seatbelts in most rear seats lack these so-called load limiters, which means they can’t loosen up. So, in a frontal crash, the belt itself can cause chest, abdominal or spinal injuries, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Researchers investigated frontal crashes that killed or seriously injured 117 rear-seat occupants between 6 and 92 years old.

“There was evidence of significant seatbelt forces on the chest of occupants of all ages,” said Jessica Jermakian, a researcher at the institute, which is funded by the insurance industry.

Nevertheless, those rear seatbelts — without load limiters or the “pre-tensioners” that tighten for a crash — meet federal safety standards, which are considered a minimum level of protection.

Researchers say improvements are needed because the back is likely to be occupied more often, with people such as older adults who have given up driving or passengers using ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. The safety of the back seat could become a bigger focus with autonomous vehicles.

And within a few years it may be possible for consumers to learn which models best protect back-seat occupants. By 2022, the insurance institute hopes to have a back-seat crash test, allowing buyers to compare new models.

Read article: The New York Times

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