Medindia's survey of 620 cars at important traffic intersections in Chennai, a major South Indian metro, found only 2 cars had people in the front seat wearing seat belts. The occupants of the first car were not Indians. No questions asked. The occupants of the other car that pulled aside at our request were a very young couple who grinned sheepishly and said, "Oh no, we know it looks ridiculous to wear seat belts here.... We just wanted to try out every thing this new car offers."
Car crashes are life and death
Princess Diana's tragic death in a high-speed car crash brought into focus the importance of seat belt use. The driver and the rear seat passengers who were not wearing seat belts were killed in the crash. The only person who survived the crash was properly restrained in the front seat and had an air bag.
Car crashes can be fatal and even if those involved in a crash survive, they usually suffer serious injuries like fractures and broken bones, head injuries or brain injury, or injuries to the spine and neck.
A recent US survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that 13 percent of the people killed in road accidents were not wearing seat belts. It has been documented that fastening seat belts properly prevented 12,000 fatalities and over 325,000 cases of serious injuries each year.
A 2008 Australian study that analyzed serious injuries associated with seat belt misuse in children below 12 years revealed that the use of age-appropriate child restraints and booster seats could have prevented three quarters of child deaths in car accidents.
In a parallel study, Dr Yvonne Zurynski analyzed 48 children who were hospitalized after car accidents recorded by the Australian Pediatric Surveillance Unit (APSU) and found 77 % of the children sustained abdominal injuries, 35 % head and neck injuries, and 46% required surgery. One in three children had spinal injuries and four died in the crash. In New Zealand, the European Union, Canada and the United States, the use of a child restraint or booster seat is mandatory for children aged more than 12 months.
'The more the merrier'—Not always
It is a common sight in India to witness jam-packed cars with toddlers huddled on adults' laps. Squeezing in to accommodate as many passengers might seem like getting the best out of a car, but it is a disaster waiting to strike. Clearly, in such cases, passengers outnumber the available seat belts in the car. Most of the fatal road accidents have happened in overcrowded cars travelling on highways, studies reveal.
Mandatory seat belt use
Many countries have made seat belt use mandatory. A study by researchers at the University of North Carolina indicates the immense benefit of enforcement of seat belt laws that has cut fatalities and serious injuries to a great extent.
China Seat Belt Intervention, a project launched by the Chinese government and the World Health Organization (WHO) to increase seat belt use among drivers and front seat passengers was implemented over a 12-month period (August 2005-August 2006) by the Guangzhou Traffic Command and Control Centre of Guangzhou Municipal Bureau of Public Security. The risk of death was reduced by up to 60% when drivers used seat belts.
Dr Zhang Li from the China Ministry of Health said, "Raising the use of seat belts will significantly reduce road traffic deaths and injuries. We are extremely pleased with the outcome of this study which involved strong collaborations of government, scientists, and industry."
Seat belt law in India
Due to the lack of scientific collision investigation and research in India, clear data regarding the number and percentage of deaths and serious injuries to vehicle occupants not wearing seat belts, is yet unavailable. Rule 125 of the Central Motor Vehicle Rules prescribes mandatory fitment and use of the seat belts, but in day-to-day life the law is not strictly or consistently enforced by the police.
Since two-wheelers constitute nearly 70 per cent of the motorized vehicles on Indian roads there is a greater emphasis on enforcing the use of protective helmets than on wearing seat belts. The slow speed at which traffic moves in the country is yet another reason cited for the negligence in wearing seat belts.
The FIA Foundation in the United Kingdom, along with the Transport Research Laboratory, UK and the Global Road Safety Partnership, has developed a 'Seat Belt Campaign Tool Kit'. The tool kit highlights the case for seat belt use and prescribes the proper fitting and wearing of seat belts. It also gives tips on increasing car seat belt usage by different techniques including enforcement, publicity, education and incentive schemes. A workshop, held on 8th January, 2005, organized by the Institute of Road Traffic Education (IRTE) in partnership with the Ministry of Shipping, Road Transport, and Highways, Government of India, the FIA Foundation UK, along with the Delhi Police, Haryana Highway Patrol, and World Road Safety Network (WRSN) prescribed the following recommendations to enable promotion of proper use of car seat belts in India:
• Scientific accident investigation must be taken up for all serious and fatal accidents to generate data that will help understand the serious consequences of not buckling up.
• Political will must be rallied for strict implementation of seat belt laws.
• Awareness on seat belt use must be raised through publicity on FM radio and TV channels.
• Seat belt use must be enforced across the country as prescribed by Indian Traffic Legislation and politicians should avoid indulging in relaxation of the same.
• Insurance companies should be roped in to play a practical role in promoting road safety measures.
• Non-government agencies' participation is to be actively sought to promote usage of safety belts and helmets.
With newer cars arriving in India from global manufacturers, passenger protection is being constantly upgraded with new technology in the form of safety restraint systems (SRS) like seat belts, crumple zones, impact protection beams and air bags. It is up to car owners in India to actively participate in ensuring safety while driving—for themselves and for others.
Buckle up and live
According to the NHSTA, of the 42,642 people who died in America's highways in 2006, fifty five percent were not wearing seatbelts. In 2007 NHTSA reported 82 percent seat belt use in the US and a reduction in death rate for a front seat car occupant by about 50 percent.
Soon Nano cars will hit Indian roads and four-wheel traffic could rise dramatically in the near future. So could India's traffic woes with more crazy drivers zipping past, flouting road safety rules. Developing countries would do better to take a leaf out of the West experience in observing road safety rules and seat belt use, for it is always better to be safe than sorry.