Some seven years ago, I was gently chided for a question on seat belts. "Why did you book a cab without a seat belt in the back?" asked an American news editor I was assisting for a story in Uttarakhand. I was amused and appalled in equal measure. Haven't you worked here long enough to know that people hardly use seat belts in the backseat? I had wanted to retort as a comeback. But I swallowed my pride and dismissed the episode as yet another instance of "white privilege".
Seeing the renewed focus on rear seal belts as national news in the wake of former Tata Sons chairman Cyrus Mistry's death in a car accident, I can only remember the backseat belt incident with a touch of embarrassment. Mistry's fatal accident took place on a precarious stretch of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway route in the afternoon of September 4 when his speeding Mercedes-Benz crashed into a road divider in Palghar district. A 54-year-old Mistry and his friend Jahangir Pandole were seated in the back and they both died on the spot. The other two occupants in the front, with seat belts on—Anahita Pandole who was driving and her husband Darius Pandole—sustained injuries and are undergoing treatment in a private hospital. The luxury car Mercedes-Benz, properly equipped with advanced safety features, had seven airbags overall, including in the back.
"There's one mind-blowing thing I did not know. The seat belt actually activates the airbag. I always thought that the airbag automatically opened in the event of an accident. It is Mr. Mistry's car accident which has pointed that out for me," says K. Manmohan, an active car enthusiast in Delhi. At 75, he says he has driven every single model of car launched in the last 15 years. Even so, he did not know that it was already mandatory for all occupants in a car to wear the rear seat belt in India (138 of the Motor Vehicles Act), forget about knowing that airbags get deployed only when seat belts are worn. Manmohan worked in sales and marketing for an MNC before he retired and he often helped the top management in his workplace buy high-end cars. Back then he was always impressed with their safety features. "My fundamental point is that if it can happen in a Mercedes, what happens to middle-class families with cars in the lower end of the price spectrum?,'' asks Manmohan who floated a Change.org petition on the same day that he heard the news of the accident. Titled "National Awareness Campaign and Heavy Fines to Ensure Seat belts are worn in the backseat too", it has garnered over 5,000 signatures.
A day after the accident, the central government decided to impose a penalty on those who don't wear a belt in the rear seat. "There will be a siren (or beeper that will go off in the vehicle) if the people at the rear seat don’t wear belts like in the front seats. And if they don’t wear belts, there will be a fine,” said Nitin Gadkari, union minister for road transport and highways in an interview to NDTV. Traffic fines already actively exist if a driver and co-passenger are caught not wearing a belt. Early this year, the Centre had already made the three-point seat belts system mandatory for all cars with front-facing passenger seats.
In 2017, Indian automobile manufacturer Maruti Suzuki India Limited had conducted a survey called "Seatbelt Use in India", covering 17 cities and some 2,500 drivers and passengers. According to the results, cities in the south fared the worst when it came to wearing seat belts. Mumbai had the highest level of adherence, followed by Jaipur and Chandigarh. But while these results applied to front seat passengers, the usage of rear seat belts was as low as 4 per cent. The death of union minister Gopinath Munde in 2014 had also ignited debate on wearing the rear seat belt when his car was hit from the side by a motorist. The health ministry had decided to kick off a campaign on road safety measures. "Most people think that the rear seat belts serve only a decorative purpose. In fact, wearing them is as necessary as wearing the seat belt in the front seat. They can save lives in the event of an impact. The damage to the human body is often greater when the victim is not ejected from the vehicle. Scientific tests have proven that wearing seat belts gives them a hope of survival,” then union health minister Harsh Vardhan had said in 2014.
Akshay Kumar in a latest advertisement, tweeted by Gadkari, is shown pulling up a father for sending away his just married daughter in a car with only two airbags. The ad has been universally panned for promoting dowry. While the practice of giving dowry continues even though it is a punishable offence in India, one wonders if attempts at creating awareness on wearing backseat belts and imposing fines for non-compliance is likely to yield rule-abiding behaviour anytime soon by car passengers who find rear seat belts a source of much discomfort.
Not wearing a rear seat belt is a punishable fine almost all across the developed world, says auto expert Meraj Shah. In some Japanese brands like Lexus, the siren for not wearing the backseat belt becomes a continual drone, rising in intensity unless the call is heeded. Some of the Volvos won't even drive and will keep switching off or throw fits if the rear seat belt is ignored. "Culturally in India, we started wearing seat belts in the front much later than others. But now it has become a habit. It's time the rear seat belt was taken seriously by bringing in the penalties. Because people sitting in the back hardly anticipate danger like the ones in the front do and hence get less time to react in advance. The shock is greater," says Shah. "Even the front seat belts, when it came out, people complained it was claustrophobic and uncomfortable. But it is only a matter of time before people get used to it."