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A fatal car crash which led to the tragic death of former Tata Group chairman Cyrus Mistry has jolted many Indians. A celebrated corporate leader meeting with an accident of a kind all too common on Indian roads serves as a reminder of India's poor road safety record.

The fact that the deaths could possibly have been prevented if only Mistry, and his co-passenger in the rear seat Jehangir Pandole, were wearing the seat belts has brought to light poor compliance with a rule that has been around for long but never enforced—the use of rear seat belts.

The Central Motor Vehicles Rules under the Motor Vehicles Act 1988 mandate manufacturers to produce vehicles which are equipped with seat belts for the driver, front passenger seat and front-facing rear seats. Under Section 138 (3), Central Motor Vehicles Rules also mandate the use of rear seat belts, according to a report by road safety advocacy group SaveLife Foundation.

Crash investigation reports by the police and photographic evidence from the accident site in Charoti near Palghar in Maharashtra suggest that Mistry and Pandole, who sat in the rear seats, were not wearing the seat belts. As a result, the rear passenger air bags (which are only side-impact airbags) in the Mercedes Benz GLC 200d that they were in did not deploy. Dr Anahita Pandole, who was driving the car at a speed of over 130kmph, and her co-passenger Darius Pandole, sustained injuries but survived the accident as the seat belts triggered the curtain air bags as well as those for driver and passenger to pop open.

Business leader Anand Mahindra and many others have shared a public pledge to always remember to wear a seat belt when travelling as a passenger in the rear of the car. The fact that rear seat belts are so critical for passenger safety is hardly in the news for the first time. According to a 2007 report which studied the association of death in road crashes with the use of a rear seat belt, passengers involved in a car crash has an up to 75% higher chance of survival if they are wearing the rear seat belts. This was found to be especially true for younger occupants. While this was a study conducted in New York, its conclusions are just as true for Indian roads, which are in fact notorious for being fatal. The World Health Organization earlier this year also emphasized how wearing a seat belt eliminates 75% of the risk of injury to the rear passenger.

Yet, only 7% of the car users surveyed by SaveLife Foundation in 2019 said they wore rear passenger seat belts. In a more recent survey of nearly 10,000 respondents conducted by LocalCircles, 70% of the people said they never wore the rear seat belt.

Most Indian passenger car users assume rear seats to be safer for travel than those in the front. While seat belt reminders and the fear of being challaned by the traffic police have made it instinctive for most front seat passengers to wear belts, passengers sitting at the back of the car almost never use seat belts.

Reasons include not being aware that it is mandatory; not knowing their cars have rear belts; feeling uncomfortable wearing the belt; and even the thinking that wearing a seat belt in the rear does not make a road journey safer. In many vehicles, especially commercial taxis, the rear seat belt and buckle are either hidden under the seat or simply not usable.

In 2019, introduction of more stringent safety standards in vehicles meant that seat belt reminders for the front passengers will be offered as a standard, mandatory feature in all new cars. However, that doesn't solve the problem with the millions of cars already on the roads.

As the government pushes for a mandatory six-airbag regulation for all automobiles, it would be useful also to mandate seat belt reminders for passengers in the rear of a car. In most automobiles, airbags don't deploy unless the seat belt is engaged. The airbags are also expected to serve only as a secondary layer of safety—the first being the seat belt.

It helps to understand what causes death in frontal-collision crashes like the one Mistry's car had. An overspeeding driver ends up hitting a stationary or moving object which causes a high-impact crash causing unbelted passengers in the rear seats to end up hitting either the front seats or become unrestrained and hit the inside structure of the car at various points. The WHO characterizes three kinds of collisions if a passenger is not wearing seat belt: when a vehicle hits another object such as a tree or another vehicle; when an unrestrained occupant hits the interiors of a car; and when the passenger's internal organs hit the skeletal structure or chest wall. The WHO says the second type of collision is most easily preventable with the use of the seat belt.

As Indian car customers become increasingly tech savvy and demand higher safety equipment in their cars, with almost a disproportionate focus on the number of air bags in the car, it may also serve us well to remember that safety does really start with the basics—the use of seat belts, in the front as well as the rear seats.

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