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Use of seat belts in cars helped save nearly 64,000 lives in the US in the last five years. What can India learn?

Over 5600 people lost their lives across India last year for failing to wear a seat belt, according to Union Ministry of Transport and Highways based on data provided by state governments. This is a call for action for governments, enforcement agencies and car users.  It could not have come at a better time.

Starting October, all new cars launched in India have to meet advanced safety norms, at par with Europe. They come equipped with airbags, anti-lock braking systems and design innovations, as automobile companies seek to make cars safer without allowing them to become heavier or less efficient.  While regulations allow existing car models time till October 2019, companies have already upgraded some of the existing models and are on course to complete their entire line-up ahead of the deadline.

 This is a laudable development, brought about by the Government’s vision to take vehicle safety in India to world class standards. While working to minimize injuries to car occupants, these regulations also cover safety of pedestrians hit by an automobile. This move to advanced vehicle safety is an integral part of the national action plan to reduce road fatalities to half by 2020, and the industry is investing in R & D, testing and evaluation to make this vision a reality.

But this mega effort is threatened by a small loose end: the widespread aversion to use of seat belt among car occupants in India. As a country, we have failed to appreciate the capabilities of the humble seat belt.  The seat belt saves lives and minimizes injury in a crash by restraining passengers to their seats, and preventing a collision with either the steering wheel or a window. In more severe crash situations, an occupant could be ejected from the vehicle and suffer serious injuries if not wearing a seat belt.

Maruti Suzuki’s nationwide study to understand why car occupants in India are averse to seat belts revealed astonishing results. The survey, across 17 cities, found that as many as 75% of car occupants do not wear a seat belt. Only 4% occupants said they wore the seat belt in the rear seat.

The reasons for not wearing the seat belt are shocking: in many cases, poor enforcement was cited as a reason. More disturbing was a sizeable section saying that wearing a seat belt somehow showed them as amateur drivers, while another set said it spoilt the crease of their clothes!

While airbags and other equipment are important, it is the seat belt that is the primary restraint system in a vehicle. Seat belts are 50% more effective in preventing fatalities in crashes compared to airbags which are supplementary restraint systems meant to provide additional protection.

The good news is that wearing the seat belt leads to a 45% reduction in the risk of fatality among drivers, according to WHO’s Global Status Report in Road Safety (2015). For front seat passengers, the risk of fatality in a crash comes down 50% if they are wearing a seat belt. Even the risk of serious injury comes down 45% for front seat passengers.  Among rear seat passengers, wearing the seat belt can bring down fatal and serious injuries by 25%, according to the WHO report.

In the US, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regularly estimates the number of lives saved due to use of seat belts (as also airbags, minimum drinking age laws and so on). The number of lives saved there by use of seat belts has been steadily growing, and touched 13,941 in a single year (2015).

Given all these facts, it is unfortunate that India is among the worst performers on seat belt usage in the world. It is imperative that enforcement agencies across India ensure full seat belt usage by car occupants. But even before that, car users themselves should commit to the simple task of wearing their seat belt every single time they are travelling on the road.

What happens now when airbags enter the scene? Nearly all Indian cars will start to sport airbags in the next couple of years. Here again, there is some cause for concern. While airbags are an important part of the vehicle restraint system meant to protect passengers, their effect could actually be negative in cases where the occupants are not wearing a seat belt.  An airbag could end up doing more damage in cases where passengers are not wearing the seat belt at the time of a crash.

Each year, the NHTSA also estimates the “additional number of lives that could have been saved at 100-per cent use of seat belts”. That comes to 15,000 lives in five years, lost because the victims were not wearing the seat belt.  In India, we do not have any such analysis. But clearly, the opportunity to save lives through seat belt usage is so much more. Making at an estimate of lives lost due to non-usage of seat belt is, to that extent, a positive step by the Ministry of Transport and Highways. 

Safety consciousness as an important part of everyday life is somehow missing in the Indian psyche. Continuous education, combined with enforcement, has helped many countries increase seat belt usage. I look forward to the day when all drivers will crank up their car only when all the passengers are belted.

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