Munde’s accident highlights the need to make seat belts mandatory for rear passengers

Would rural development minister Gopinath Munde be still with us if he had strapped on his seat belt on Tuesday morning?

It is a question that has not attracted much attention but deserves some introspection. My personal observation suggests Munde was not an exception when it comes to rear passengers not wearing seat belts. Since it is not mandated by law, a vast majority of us consider rear seat belts as decorative items that compromises our comfort. And even among the more educated among us the threat perception is much lower when you are seated at the rear vis a vis in front.

Past examples however point to the other direction. Instances where public figures who are mostly driven in state vehicles and hence sit at the back, have died on the road proves how ignorant we have been. Not that the rear seat is necessarily unsafe, but in accidents, it is also vulnerable.

* Former Delhi chief minister Saheb Singh Verma was killed in a tragic road accident in Rajasthan in 2007.

* Former union minister Rajesh Pilot died in a road mishap near his constituency Dausa in Rajasthan in June 2000.

* Former president Gyani Zail Singh died in a vehicle accident in Ropar district of Punjab in November 1994.

A more appalling instance was that of comedian turned politician Jaspal Bhatti who died in a car accident in October 2012. Bhatti was at the rear seat and suffered fatal head injuries even as the front two passengers that included his son who was behind the wheel were saved by the seat belt.

There are not many studies that have analysed data to understand the efficacy of seat belts in India even though the country records the highest fatalities on the road. According to a recent World Health Organisation report, India leads the list of countries with the number of deaths on the road at 105,725 in 400,000 accidents, followed by China (96,611), the US (42,642) and Russia (35,972). Of these deaths, around 25% could have been avoided by wearing seat belts–front and rear.

The history of seat belts in India is not very old. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways prescribed that front seats of all motor vehicles must be equipped with lap and shoulder belts with effect from April 1994. All vehicles sold in India after this date have been equipped with belts in front seats. Use of belts by front seat occupants was made mandatory nationally five years later on 18th March 1999. Installation of seat belts on all seats in cars was mandated in September 2000 but the use of seat belts by rear seat occupants is not yet governed by any national law.

According to a report by Professor Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, seat belt use by
front seat passengers averaged 72% for the four years 2002-2005 (drivers 79%, passengers 58%). Belt use by front seat by passengers was about 25% lower than that by drivers in all the years. Since car occupants comprise only 2%-3% of the fatalities in Delhi, the belt law may have resulted in an overall fatality reduction of around 1%, an estimated 11-15 lives per year.

Use of front seat belts however is mandatory in only a few big cities including Delhi and Mumbai. In the country at large outside of these cities, a very small minority makes use of them. As far as rear seat belts is concerned, the less said the better.

In times like these when a personality of the profile of Gopinath Munde becomes a victim of such ignorance, perhaps we should take a lesson from it. It does not matter if you are travelling within the city or on the highway for a ride of 5 minutes or 5 hours, an accident can happen anytime. And it always comes unannounced. But it takes just 5 seconds to fasten your seat belt. And it does save lives. Lets not wait for the authorities to levy penalties on not wearing seat belts at the back before it becomes a habit. After all, it is your own life that is at stake.

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